Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: April 2018

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Director/screenwriter/producer Lynne Ramsay, actor Joaquin Phoenix and crew members on the set of You Were Never Really Here, 2016. (Photo: Now Toronto)

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

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APRIL 6: Blockers (dir. Kay Cannon)The Atlantic review by David Sims: “Let us consider, for a moment, the plight of the middle-class suburban American parent, as told through some of the recent comedies centered on them. I’m referring to films like 2017’s The House, or the two Neighbors movies, nearly anything directed by Judd Apatow, and now Blockers, the directorial debut of Kay Cannon (the writer of the Pitch Perfect series). These moms and dads have homes that are roomy, but lacking in personality. Their children are usually competent and savvy, more than ready to head off to college armed with their smartphones and a fairly evolved sense of how the world really works.

“What will these aimless parents do once their kids are gone? That’s the empty-nest nightmare facing the trio at the center of Blockers, played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz. But this nightmare is related to an idea driving so many similar R-rated comedies—that there’s an entire cadre of adults who never wanted to grow up, and who seem generally horrified at the idea of a world beyond their kid-focused bubbles. In Blockers, that concept is taken to a logical (and, on paper, frightening-sounding) extreme: These three parents discover that their daughters are plotting to lose their virginities on prom night, and resolve to stop them.

“But Blockers is more self-aware than its premise might suggest, even acknowledging that this scheme isn’t exactly au courant with the sex-positive youth of 2018. So the film gives the parents’ a more measured rationale: Lisa (Mann) and Mitchell (Cena) are afraid of their kids having sex, not because they want to protect the girls’ virtue, but because sex signifies a passage into adulthood and independence. Blockers offers a surprisingly apt framing for a generational clash as old as time—the parents who think of themselves as progressive and cool, versus their mortified children who view them as anything but.

“Lisa is a single mother who is intensely close with, and protective of, her daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton of Big Little Lies and Halt and Catch Fire). Though Lisa initially thinks Julie is off to college nearby in Chicago, she learns that Julie’s instead planning to go to UCLA along with her boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips). Mitchell is a hulking, cargo short–wearing creature of the suburbs who seems like the polar opposite of his loosely wound kid Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan). Hunter (Barinholtz) is a divorced screw-up who’s despised by both his fellow parents and his daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon)—but he recognizes the foolishness of the ‘blocking’ crusade, and only tags along with Lisa and Mitchell to try and stop the pair.

Blockers works because of the time it invests in its teenaged characters. Each is a delight, particularly the supremely chilled-out Kayla (who decides to lose her virginity largely on a whim) and the more introverted Sam (who knows she’s gay but hasn’t quite figured out how to tell her friends and family). Despite Blockers’ title, the script (by Brian and Jim Kehoe) is much more invested in the girls’ parallel mission to have sex—a plan hatched in a group text that the parents accidentally see.

“The discovery of this pact is one of the film’s many clever nods to the most confusing elements of our connected world. Hunter’s limited, Dan Brown–inspired cryptographic understanding of emoji-speak (‘Have you seen Inferno?’ he excitedly asks Lisa and Mitchell) is enough to crack the baffling code of the kids’ text chain. But by and large, 2018 is a time that truly confuses these grown-ups, who seemingly can’t comprehend that their kids might feel comfortable with their own bodies or be ready to embark on new levels of emotional intimacy. Haven’t these teens even seen a John Hughes film?, the parents might be wondering. Don’t they know they’re supposed to feel awkward and isolated all the time?

“As these parents’ Sisyphean chastity quest continues (almost the entire film is set during and right after the prom), Blockers quickly shifts into life-lesson mode: Lisa must learn to be less clingy, Mitchell has to toughen up and accept his daughter’s ability to make decisions by herself (his wife, played by Sarayu Blue, is the more pragmatic of the family), and Hunter needs to make strides toward maturity. Blockers ends up being a mirror-image coming-of-age film, where the kids have to help the adults make some grand realizations.

“Mann, who’s played high-strung moms in many of Apatow’s movies, gives a deft and witty performance that smartly morphs from self-delusion to self-acceptance. Cena, whose massive frame has mostly been deployed as a sight gag in films like Daddy’s Home and Trainwreck, is finally used to his fuller potential here as a gentle giant. His character is a fundamentally decent fella who still has trouble letting go of his more old-fashioned notions about his daughter’s ‘innocence.’ And Barinholtz, often too impish for his own good, tamps down his worst impulses to make Hunter more than an anarchic purveyor of one-liners.

“The silly set pieces of Blockers—including a car chase, an extended frat party sequence that includes the use of a ‘butt funnel,’ and a neighboring couple’s blindfolded sex game—feel rote alongside all the emotional development. These more spectacular scenes are there to gin up big laughs, but none of them feels remotely original. It’s the smaller things that stick out—the banter between the teenage girls, the shifting dynamics of awareness among the parents, the loving, Julia Child–like descriptions that Kayla’s boyfriend, Connor (Miles Robbins), delivers about his strains of marijuana. It’s enough to make Blockers a cut above the comedy standard—and a worthy watch.”

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APRIL 6: Chappaquiddick (dir. John Curran) (DP: Maryse Alberti) – Time Magazine review by Stephanie Zacharek: “Now that so many men are being brought to account for past misbehavior, we’re all asking questions we never thought to ask before. One that comes up a lot is: What was he thinking? It’s early yet, but Chappaquiddick, director John Curran’s suspenseful, disturbing account of Senator Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the 1969 drowning death of 28-year-old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, may be the most What was he thinking? movie of 2018. The fact that Harvey Weinstein had a long list of enablers was bad enough. But in 1969, it wasn’t an anomaly for a group of powerful men to close ranks around one of their own, making his behavior seem acceptable to the public. It was business as usual.

“Curran, working from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, pieces together what may very well have happened on Chappaquiddick. Jason Clarke plays the Senator from Massachusetts, who, as the movie opens, is checking on the details for a Friday-night party he’s hosting on the Martha’s Vineyard island. His cousin and chief fixer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) makes the arrangements. The guests are a group of young women who had worked on the 1968 campaign of the Senator’s late brother Bobby, who had been assassinated the previous year. Ted was fond of these ambitious, politically astute women and wanted to show his appreciation. Their campaign nickname had been ‘the boiler-room girls,’ and one of them was Kopechne (played here by a thoughtful, precise Kate Mara).

“In the movie’s vision, there’s a mild possible flirtation between Kopechne and the married Kennedy, though there’s no evidence of inappropriate behavior. Impulsively, the two leave the party to drive to the beach–Kopechne leaves her basket-shaped handbag on the table, a small, wrenching detail. Kennedy, clearly driving while drunk, veers off a bridge into a shallow pond, flipping and submerging the car. In a horrifying, split-second shard of a shot, Kopechne’s hand reaches out toward Kennedy as the vehicle flies out of his control. There’s terror in her eyes.

“Within seconds, Kennedy surfaces, distraught, calling Kopechne’s name. And then, inexplicably, he trundles off the scene and heads back to the house–not to get help for his friend, but to alert the long-suffering Gargan so he can sort things out. Kennedy doesn’t report the incident until late the following morning. In between, he has brunch with some friends.

“The rest of the movie shows how the devious machine established by family patriarch Joe Kennedy – by that point a gnarled, bedridden root vegetable with angry eyes, played here with alarming authenticity by Bruce Dern – pulled off, with Ted’s participation, a highly implausible semi-cover-up of the incident, thus saving the Senator’s congressional career. (The presidency, of course, remained elusive.)

“With Chappaquiddick, Curran (The Painted VeilTracks) walks a tricky line, deftly: Should we feel revulsion for Kennedy, the spoiled overgrown kid whose family cleaned up his messes, or sympathy for the man who was left to carry the staggering legacies of his brothers John and Bobby? Clarke makes us feel plenty of things we’d rather not. His eyes are shadowed with profound decency one minute, and hollowed out in desperate calculation the next.

“There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009, was both haunted and motivated by his dead brothers’ achievements. His congressional record shows a man who fought hard for things he considered just, like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But what if, even more than any supposed family curse, he was haunted by the memory of a woman’s face, of what she looked like just before she drowned in a submerged car that he had somehow managed to escape? Although Chappaquiddick doesn’t address Kennedy’s subsequent legislative record, it’s the silver-lining storm cloud that hangs over the movie. Human beings can end up doing good things for terrible reasons. How much more convenient it would be if we could just write them off altogether.”

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APRIL 6: A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski) (DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen) – Washington Post review by Ann Hornaday: “A creeping, increasingly queasy sense of dread pervades A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s nervy thriller that marks a notable addition to the recent spate of smart, timely genre pictures. Like Get Out, which was on its way to becoming a pop culture juggernaut around this time last year, A Quiet Place deploys the most classic conventions of similar films that have gone before it, including jump scares, creepy-looking creatures, frightening camera angles and a terrifying sound design.

“In this case, though, even the most familiar gestures look — and, more pointedly, sound — brand new. A Quiet Place opens in a leafy small town in Upstate New York on Day 89 of a mysterious invasion by voracious otherworldly beings. Unable to see but endowed with supernatural hearing, these clicking, hissing aliens hide out for most of the day, quickly swooping in to dispatch their victims only when attracted by a loud noise.

“Bearing that in mind, the Abbotts — played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt, who are married in real life — lead a mostly silent life, communicating with their three children in sign language, tiptoeing around their Victorian farmhouse, creating trails of sand on which to walk barefoot to and from town, and playing the odd game of Monopoly with felt-coated pips. Like a half-mad survivalist, Krasiniski’s paterfamilias labors in the basement workshop, trying to summon help with his shortwave radio and inventing a hearing aid for his daughter, who is deaf. As the personification of maternal nurturing and strength, Blunt’s character does her best to maintain a safe and welcoming home, even while staying attuned to the threats that lurk just a stray whisper away.

“Like the best movies, A Quiet Place teaches the audience how to watch it within the first 10 minutes, during which characters are introduced, the stage is set, and the stakes are established and heightened in a sequence that plays out entirely without words. But not without sound: The movie’s ingenious sound design includes the gentle cadences of nature at its most quietly reassuring. But when the point of view changes to the Abbotts’ adolescent daughter — played in an exceptionally sensitive performance by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds — ambient noise is completely absent.

“The upshot is that Simmonds’s character can’t hear what she can’t hear; she isn’t able to discern the noises that might bring sure death to the people she loves the most. Her little brother, played in a similarly accomplished turn by Noah Jupe, intuiting a strain between his sister and her father, reluctantly allows himself to be tutored in the hunting and gathering that the family depends on to live.

“At an efficient hour and a half, A Quiet Place exemplifies cinematic storytelling at its most simple and inventive, using the pure grammar of sound and image to create a credible atmosphere of lived-in domesticity and looming terror. Krasinski, working from a script he co-wrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, creates a rich, imaginative world in which neighbors communicate by firelight and an impromptu dance with a shared pair of ear buds playing Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ possesses the sensory relief of a cool, clear spring in a desert. (Krasinski has assembled an excellent production team to help craft A Quiet Place’s homespun universe, including production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who together create an unlikely mood of warmth and coziness within the encroaching tension.)

“The action ratchets up considerably in the final 45 minutes, when the monsters that Krasinski has wisely framed in brief, allusive blurs of movement come into more frightening focus. He stages some unforgettable set pieces here, including a moment of peril in a silo that gives new meaning to children of the corn, and Blunt’s character evading a giant auris dentata with spiderlike legs while her husband is occupied elsewhere.

“There are even more details that make that sequence particularly unsettling, but the best way to appreciate A Quiet Place is with as few preconceptions as possible. Suffice it to say that Blunt emerges as the real star of a film whose themes of female silence, resilience and grit feel uncannily of the moment — up to and including her character’s facial expression in the final shot. As a celebration of the physical expressiveness and visual storytelling of silent cinema, A Quiet Place speaks volumes without a word being uttered.”

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APRIL 6 (streaming on Netflix): 6 Balloons (dir. Marja-Lewis Ryan) (DP: Polly Morgan) – RogerEbert.com’s SXSW review by Brian Tallerico: “It is incredibly difficult to love an addict. Not only does their addiction continuously define the dynamic of your relationship, but they are like a drowning man, able to take you down with them as they flail their arms and fight for air. Rarely has a film captured this better than Marja-Lewis Ryan’s 6 Balloons, premiering next month on Netflix after its world premiere at SXSW. It features a pair of young actors who are mostly known for comedy in a heartfelt, scary drama about what addiction does to the people around the addict. We’ve seen countless stories of junkies trying to get clean, but how does someone sever the tie to someone who just keeps pulling them under again and again?

“We meet Katie (Abbi Jacobson of ‘Broad City’) as she prepares for a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend. She goes to buy balloons with her mother (Jane Kaczmarek) and her father (Tim Matheson) and friends show up early to set things up. But her brother Seth (Dave Franco) and Seth’s 4-year-old daughter appear to be missing. Seth isn’t answering his phone, and a look crosses Katie’s face that tells us she knows what that means. When she gets to his apartment to bring him and Ella to the party, she sees that he hasn’t been opening his mail. As she says, ‘that happened last time.’ Seth is a heroin addict. Seth has relapsed.

“He agrees to go to detox. Katie will drive him to the clinic and he’ll get clean … again. Katie can go pick up the cake she told her friends and family she was getting, and bring her niece to the party too. Of course, this doesn’t go as planned. The first clinic won’t take his health insurance, and a 10-day detox costs $5,000. And then Seth’s body/addiction starts revolting against him. Franco lost 20 pounds for the role, and he looks like he’s studied what withdrawal does to a body. 6 Balloons is downright frightening at times, enhanced by a 4-year-old girl being in a car seat and witness to all of this, although I was concerned Ryan would use that child character manipulatively and she never does. Ella’s presence enhances the tension of 6 Balloons but also reminds us how addiction often doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it happens near children and siblings, and they are forced to watch the downfall.

“As the party that Katie planned goes on without her, Ryan plays self-help audio over the arc of Katie and Seth, almost like chapter breaks. The self-help audio uses the analogy of a sinking boat, and it feels manipulative and on-the-nose at first, but really works in the final act of her film. The closing scenes of 6 Balloons had my heart in my throat and tears in my eyes in ways that I wasn’t expecting. It’s incredibly powerful stuff.

“That’s because of Ryan’s confidence as a writer/director, but also because of how much Jacobson and Franco bring to these roles. Franco has proven himself to be a talented comic actor and scene-stealer in supporting roles, but this is his first truly memorable dramatic turn and he nails it. There’s also a remarkable trust between Ryan and Jacobson in that while the self-help audio may be a little blunt, most of what Katie’s experiencing emotionally is internalized. She doesn’t get many big monologues and doesn’t have as much dialogue as a lesser writer would have given her to explain her emotional turmoil. It’s in her eyes. It’s in her body language as she’s clearly uncertain how to help Seth and stop hurting herself in the process. It’s a great performance.

“I do wish slightly that 6 Balloons felt weightier in terms of narrative—it runs only 74 minutes—and, as silly as it may sound, I could have spent more real time in the car with Seth and Katie, just watching these two actors do what they here. They’re so fully-realized that I wanted a bit more to their story, but I also admire Ryan’s no-nonsense approach to a tight narrative. Katie is planning a surprise party in 6 Balloons and this is one of the most unexpected, moving surprises of the year so far.”

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APRIL 6 (in theaters & on VOD): Spinning Man (dir. Simon Kaijser) (DP: Polly Morgan) – Los Angeles Times review by Gary Goldstein: “The absorbing, if forgettably titled, mystery Spinning Man does a good job keeping us guessing not so much about who may have killed a high school cheerleader, but how it happened — and why.

“The always watchable Guy Pearce proves a compelling combination of sympathetic and suspicious as Evan, a small-town college philosophy professor and the prime suspect in the disappearance of attractive teenager Joyce (Odeya Rush), with whom he may have been romantically involved. Meanwhile, cagey local detective Malloy (Pierce Brosnan) is hot on Evan’s trail as Evan’s conflicted wife (Minnie Driver, quite good), young children (Eliza Pryor, Noah Salsbury Lipson), co-workers (Jamie Kennedy, Carlo Rota) and lawyer (Clark Gregg) must navigate Evan’s increasingly thorny place in this potential murder case.

“Matthew Aldrich’s workmanlike script, based on the novel by George Harrar, features plenty of handy red herrings and misdirection, particularly concerning Evan’s dubious past and adulterous leanings, while also offering an intriguing philosophical outlook involving proof and certainty. On the downside, director-editor Simon Kaijser takes an often choppy approach to the narrative, the catch-a-mouse symbolism is a bit heavy-handed and the ending could use more oomph. Still, of the many interchangeable, name-lead thrillers and action pictures concurrently premiering these days in theatres and on VOD, this one’s definitely a cut above.”

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APRIL 6 (streaming on Netflix): Sun Dogs (dir. Jennifer Morrison) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Los Angeles Film Festival review by Sheri Linden: “Jennifer Morrison, the recently departed star of the ABC series Once Upon a Time, segues confidently to the director’s chair with Sun Dogs, a comic drama that deftly navigates a tricky line. The story of a mentally challenged young man and his quixotic mission to serve his country could easily have turned cringe-inducing or merely ridiculous. But Michael Angarano, leading an excellent cast, inhabits the role of a single-minded misfit without the slightest hint of mawkishness, embracing his exasperating qualities no less than his endearing ones. Morrison balances her affection for all the characters with droll naturalism and an assured visual style.

“Working from a screenplay by Anthony Tambakis (whose credits include the Morrison starrer Warrior, and who uses the nom de film Raoul McFarland for the new movie), Morrison has cited Hal Ashby’s Being There as a key inspiration. The idea of a sheltered, innocent soul being mistaken for — and becoming — a heroic figure, à la the 1979 film’s Chauncey Gardiner, is an essential aspect of Sun Dogs‘ story, and there’s a strong ’70s sensibility to the character-driven film. But it also recalls the more recent Lars and the Real Girl with its unforced emphasis on communal support for an oddball. The well-crafted feature, a world-premiere selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival, could parlay its name cast and engaging warmth into art-house exposure.

“Like many Americans, Angarano’s Ned Chipley, who lives with his parents in rural California and does menial work at a casino, was galvanized by the 2001 attacks on the United States. But given his limited intellectual capacities — explained with just a few words, late in the proceedings — his goal of becoming a Marine is a delusion, albeit one that charms more people than it offends. Ned’s mother, Rose (Allison Janney), a nurse who once dreamed of a life in New York City, gently encourages his sense of purpose, to the frustration of his cranky stepfather, Bob (Ed O’Neill), a trucker who feels adrift as he awaits a hoped-for insurance payout for a road accident.

“On his birthday in 2004, Ned takes the bus through picturesque mountains to San Diego for his annual attempt to enlist in the Marines. His anti-terrorist fervor is a familiar source of fond amusement at the recruitment center (where Morrison cameos winningly as the Marine at the front desk). But the new master sergeant, Jenkins (Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner, pitch-perfect), is unprepared for Ned’s talking points, manually typed out on index cards, and his gung-ho announcement that, ‘I have field readiness.’ Wanting to let the kid down easy, Jenkins convinces him to focus his attentions on the home front as a ‘special operative,’ not understanding the obsessive investigations this diversion will prompt.

“In no time Ned is accosting strangers to assure them that he’s on the case, the case being saving lives and protecting the country, and thrusting his fresh-from-Kinko’s business cards in their hands. His take-charge attitude intrigues Tally (Melissa Benoist), a runaway at loose ends. Impressed that his preferred reading material is the 9/11 Commission Report, she becomes his civilian partner in undercover detective work, eager to help Ned prove his questionable thesis that his turban-wearing boss (Nicholas Massouh) is an enemy of the state.

“Though their adventures in idealism might be misguided, the two outsiders forge a bond of true friendship, their mutual attraction and drastic differences in experience played just right. Benoist (Lowriders, TV’s Supergirl) eloquently conveys the brokenness in Tally without overdoing it, making clear why she would spark to Ned as a man of mystery and action, his goofy awkwardness only deepening the image of someone hell-bent on saving the world. Her eventual discovery of the truth about Ned is the movie’s most formulaic plot point, but Morrison’s sensitive direction lends it nuance.

“Angarano’s self-serious Ned manages to feel both immature and old beyond his years, the character’s quirky mannerisms subtly complicated by his unexpressed yearnings. Ned’s determination to be helpful proves unexpectedly profound and powerful as the drama crescendos, along with Mark Isham’s ace score, in an extraordinary moment that ties together key narrative threads.

“These include Ned’s love of war movies, specifically The Deer Hunter. He imagines himself in jungle combat — sequences that cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd drenches in thick shadow, a striking contrast to the rich, golden palette that aptly bathes most of the film.

“At its essence, Sun Dogs is a story about compassion. That’s the subject of Ned’s every meaningful interaction, whether tender or comically deadpan, and whether he’s offering advice or receiving it. Rather than reaching for irony, Morrison lets the story’s sincerity shine, not just in Ned and Tally’s openhearted exchanges but in the unexpectedly paternal benevolence of Xzibit’s military man and in the exquisitely lived-in performances of Janney and O’Neill as Ned’s parents. Though their words may be tinged with regret, Rose and Bob are, in different ways, inspired by the indefatigable Ned, and still trying. There’s no question, in Angarano’s portrayal and the film as a whole, that this eccentric do-gooder would have such an effect.”

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APRIL 6: This Is Home: A Refugee Story (dir. Alexandra Shiva) (DP: Laela Kilbourn) – The Playlist’s Sundance Film Festival review by Gary Garrison: “In the year since the cultural shift ignited by the 2016 election, there have already been a handful of films that have taken on the ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has sparked. (Two of them — City of Ghosts and Last Men in Aleppo — made our list of the best docs of 2017.) These films, which are often painful to watch, let alone to capture on film, paint a shocking picture of pain and suffering while simultaneously indicting the global community for its failure to act (or even sustain interest). Taken together as a body of work they draw a portrait that spans from the origins of the devastating war, to the ruins of once-great cities, to the harrowing journeys that hundreds of thousands of families have made across seas and mountains and borders all in the name of safety. But what happens when a family finds itself, after years in a refugee camp, finally on its way to America? To the land of freedom and opportunity? What’s it like to finally make it? Alexandra Shiva tackles these questions in her new documentary This Is Home, but the answers she offers are anything but comforting.

“What’s so intriguing about This Is Home is that it begins where so many other stories end: the moment a family lands in America. The film follows four newly arrived families in Baltimore as they attempt to settle in and become self-sufficient — a complicated challenge that is far more difficult than most would imagine. Not only are there linguistic and cultural barriers, but so too is there a clock: each family is given just eight months to work with a resettlement agency to find well-paying jobs, get their children comfortable in school and generally adapt to an entirely new life. On top of all of it, though, is the trauma. Khaldoun, who arrives with his wife and children, can’t work many of the best jobs because part of his leg was removed when he was tortured as a prisoner in Syria. In another family, a teenage boy struggles to fit in at school — and to sleep at night — because of his PTSD.

“The list of challenges that each of the families face goes on — translators are too few and far between, strangers are cruel and suspicious, and everybody dreams of someday returning home — but they are not without hope. Which is one place in particular where Shiva’s film succeeds: It would be so easy to paint a bleak picture of these families who are almost chronically let down by the system and the grotesque failings of the great country that is America, but instead This Is Home offers up a nuanced and tonally balanced take, embodying misfortune and hope in even measure. And Shiva’s film is better for it. Because it’s hard not to view This Is Home as a piece of advocacy, a rallying cry for compassion and empathy. But to succeed as such, Shiva must walk a fine line between hurt and optimism: without hurt there is room for apathy, and without hope, despair.

“More importantly, though, This Is Home takes the time to humanize each of the families at its core, giving each person the space they need to be full, rounded people. Juxtaposed with the lean structure of the film, this humanity speaks to Shiva’s ability to find telling moments that are characteristic of the struggles of each family and the larger context of their place in a damningly bureaucratic system. This Is Home mostly manages to pack eight months worth of stories into 91 minutes without short-shifting any of the many narratives it juggles.

“Still, despite taking the time to cast a light on the missteps that some refugees make, it’s easy to argue that This Is Home offers too rosy a perspective. For all the goodwill it builds, it’s hard to imagine someone who is staunchly opposed to immigration would be willing to take heed of Shiva’s film’s message. Which is not necessarily a fault of This Is Home, but may, in fact, be a fault of the deeply partisan time into which the film was born. Still, This Is Home is no City of Ghosts or Last Men In Aleppo, it is unlikely to cause the seismic quake required to shake the apathy from the masses — as neither of those films did either — but it is a much-needed reminder that a journey never quite ends when you think it does.”

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APRIL 6: You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay) – The Globe and Mail review by Barry Hertz: “We do not deserve Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish filmmaker has proven this fact several times over the course of her career – though not nearly as often as she should have been afforded the chance. Over the past two decades, Ramsay has made just four feature-length films – four films of immense power and darkness and soul-withering devastation. But only four.

“Thanks to the various and spurious justifications of industry gatekeepers, the director has been shoved into the box of being a ‘difficult’ artist – or, as she accurately describes it, of being a woman. ‘You’ve got to stick up for what you believe in. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience, because you’re making something really diluted,’ she told The Guardian recently, describing how she left the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun on the first day of filming. ‘And if you do that when you’re a guy, you’re seen as artistic – “difficult” is seen as a sign of genius. But it’s not the same for women.’ And so Ramsay has been able to produce only four films – but, again, what four films those are.

“Ramsay startled the international film scene with 1999′s poetically bleak Ratcatcher, which plumbed the muckier depths of kitchen sink realism as it chronicled the lives of those stuck in a Glasgow housing project. She followed that hypnotizing misery with the increasingly confident and brazen works Morvern CallarWe Need to Talk About Kevin and now her ultimate masterpiece, You Were Never Really Here.

“On its surface, the new film’s source material doesn’t seem like typical Ramsay fodder. Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name is certainly a bleak story, but more so in that it’s a gritty mash of disposable pulp – a crime tale that is more focused on executing acts of tremendous violence than the violence that lurks in the mind.

“A thriller complete with a this-goes-all-the-way-to-the-top conspiracy, You Were Never Really Here centres on Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a military veteran and former FBI agent who now specializes in rescuing trafficked girls – and ensuring their captors are disposed with in the most brutal fashion possible. After being tasked with finding the missing daughter of a New York state senator, Joe is thrust into a twisted underworld filled with shifty middlemen, on-the-take cops, and a Gothic sex-mansion ripped from the most obvious parts of Eyes Wide Shut.

“It is lurid and frequently gross material, and handled by any other filmmaker it would have reeked of exploitative seediness – a big-screen facsimile of True Detective Season 2. Yet in writing her own adaptation and finding bold collaborators in Phoenix, cinematographer Thomas Townend and composer Jonny Greenwood, Ramsay has delivered a down-to-the-marrow character study more concerned with the act of killing than the killing itself.

“As she follows Joe through his myriad grim tasks – from staking out targets to cleaning his weapon of choice, a ball-peen hammer – it is clear Ramsay takes no delight in delivering cheap thrills, in splattering blood to the wall just for the sticky shock of it. One standout example that has already made waves since an unfinished version of You Were Never Really Here screened in Cannes last year is Joe’s mid-film invasion of a Manhattan brothel. Instead of filming Joe’s assault with, say, an all-the-rage-these-days single-take tracking shot, Ramsay depicts the entire sequence through the perspective of the building’s surveillance cameras. It is a silent and unnerving bit of filmmaking that – like its most immediate forebearer Taxi Driver did upon its arrival in 1976 – upends modern expectations of cinematic violence.

“And just like Scorsese’s work, a mere body count – which is high here, but not counted with any of the garish glee of, say, a modern pain guru like Nicolas Winding Refn – holds no interest for Ramsay. It is Joe’s diseased state of mind that fascinates and intrigues. In 90 intense, claustrophobic minutes she offers audiences a glimpse of it that remains unshakable.

“Phoenix is as integral to the the film’s shadowy art as Ramsay. His mercenary antihero is barely afforded an index card’s worth of dialogue, but that doesn’t prevent the actor from conjuring a fully lived-in soul who makes the audience intimately aware of his every tick and shiver. Forget the fact that Phoenix put on considerable weight and grew a mountain-man beard to illustrate Joe’s post-traumatic societal isolation – the actor’s eyes and pained expressions do most of the heavy lifting, and Ramsay captures it all beautifully, if such an experience could be even dubbed beautiful.

“Set against the high-tension strings and jarringly funky synthesizers of Greenwood’s score, the film is transformative and transfixing.

“Although it is not her title, You Were Never Really Here neatly summarizes the film industry’s dismissive attitude toward Ramsay thus far. May this shattering, necessary work change that line of thinking forever.”

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APRIL 13 (NYC), APRIL 20 (LA): Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (dir. Sophie Fiennes) – New York Times review by Wesley Morris: “Nudity has never seemed to bother Grace Jones. Her art has thrived, in part, on a physical candor that both shocked people and redrew the boundaries of taste, beauty and eroticism around her masculinity, ebony skin and unrelenting intensity. She’s an iconoclast, basically. And I imagine a downside of iconoclasm is that you never get to be a human being. This is someone whose long career as a model, actress and undervalued musician has veered, sometimes uncomfortably, into both the sub- and superhuman. So the relief of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is that it seeks to square the person with the provocateuse.

“The documentary is a feat of portraiture and a restoration of humanity. It’s got the uncanny, the sublime, and, in many spots, a combination of both. Take the alarming sight of Ms. Jones, on the phone, pleading for two of her longtime collaborators, Sly & Robbie, to join her in the studio, as they apparently promised they would. She jokes — I think — about resorting to ’emotional blackmail,’ quoting herself covering Chrissie Hynde’s song ‘Private Life.’

“‘Robbie? Robbie? Robbie,’ she begs, with a polka dotted sweatshirt unwrapped on her head, her glorious, mysterious continental baritone on the brink of despair. Here we have the woman who played the formidable henchman May Day in the Bond film A View to a Kill and the freaky-deaky supermodel Strangé from the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang — here we have Grace Jones! — trapped in a Lionel Richie song.

“In a movie about someone who has shown you everything, what you’re looking for is something you never expected to see. Bloodlight and Bami delivers. Ms. Jones shucks her own oysters — stressfully. She does her own make up and performs her own vexed yet amusing contract negotiations. She counsels, watches, listens and sort of kids around (‘Heads are gonna roll,’ she sings after one sour phone call).

“This isn’t a career retrospective or a treatise on the importance and wide influence of Grace Jones. (Someone should feel free to make either or both of those.) Bloodlight and Bami is all vérité. The director Sophie Fiennes began filming Ms. Jones in the mid-2000s and simply observes her on stage and off. She follows her home to Jamaica, where the diva mellows, almost unconsciously, into a daughter, sister and parishioner. She watches her record her 2008 album Hurricane and become a grandmother.

“There’s a trip to church where Ms. Jones’s brother, Noel, preaches and her mother sings ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’ There’s a night spent clubbing. Ms. Jones was in her mid-50s when the movie finds her and turns 70 next month. So for someone whose hits include the 1981 masterpiece of metaphor, ‘Pull Up to the Bumper,’ and who was a fixture at New York’s Studio 54, her partying seems less like a splurge and more like a form of exercise.

“Ms. Fiennes makes the same investment in Ms. Jones that she’s made in the artist Anselm Kiefer and twice with the cultural philosopher Slavoj Zizek. This new movie isn’t as handsome or haunting as those. A lot of it feels caught on the fly. But Ms. Fiennes’ rigor operates in a different, more intimately transparent way. She enjoys Ms. Jones and her big, complicated family but is careful not to insert herself — or too much technique, for that matter — into family meals and various reminiscences between, say, Grace and a niece. Ms. Fiennes deploys her effects strategically, like for that night life sequence, which unfolds in slow-motion and without natural sound. Ms. Jones is at her most vampiric but also her most free.

“We’re not given any kind of chronology. We’re left to guess about what year it is or what city the shows are in. But concepts of time, space and location might actually be besides the point when your movie stars a Grace Jones who’s determined to look inward the way she does on Hurricane, the most obviously personal and autobiographical of her albums. There’s a long, lovely passage built around the conjuring, recording and live performance of the song ‘This Is.’ And we watch Ms. Jones ruminate about the source of all that scariness and intimidation in her stage persona. It’s her abusive stepfather, and he’s got a hold on her still. This particular return to Jamaica appears to have stirred up a lot for her.

“Ms. Fiennes shrewdly juxtaposes all of that inner work with its outward expression, moving from conversations to concerts. At the shows, the camera is positioned from a distance that lets you take in all of Ms. Jones, whether she’s hula-hooping or stalking around the stage, in headdresses, helmets and masks. That low voice only seems to have gained power, weight and complexity. And the high point of experiencing the full of psychological effect might be during a performance of ‘Warm Leatherette,’ a crashing, revved up rock song with a dance undergirding. Ms. Jones does it wearing a velvety bathing suit and a glittering mask while wielding a pair of giant cymbals that look a lot like shields.

“She’s filmed from the front and then from behind, at a low angle, so you can see the muscles in her back and the eternity of her legs. You can also see the concert hall and how it suddenly seems like a coliseum. Ms. Fiennes knows what she has in these shots — for one thing, a rebuke of some of the exploitative imagery created of Ms. Jones by her ex and former collaborator Jean-Paul Goude, who makes a short, memorable appearance. But Ms. Fiennes must also know that Ms. Jones embodies, here, a heightened version of what she always has been, a symbol of sex and strength, the pinup gladiator newly ready to reveal and defend herself.”

APRIL 13: The Judge (dir. Erika Cohn) – Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Thom Powers: “When she was a young lawyer, Kholoud Al-Faqih walked into the office of Palestine’s Chief Justice and announced that she wanted to join the bench. He laughed. But just a few years later, in a land where women rarely ascend to the ranks of governance, Al-Faqih became the first woman judge appointed to any of the Middle East’s Shari’a courts. The Shari’a courts of Islam and the Rabbinical courts of Judaism adjudicate domestic and family matters within their respective religious communities in the Middle East; these courts have traditionally banned women from decision-making roles.

“A true verité courtroom drama, the film allows us to witness the resistance that Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih and her male counterpart, a progressive sheik, face daily. Revealing the kinds of misinterpretations of Shari’a law that Judge Al-Faqih now has the power to correct, the film highlights the obstacles many women face trying to achieve justice within the courts of the West Bank.

“Erika Cohn met Kholoud Al-Faqih when the director was studying Islamic feminism and teaching film in Israel and Palestine. The judge’s story provides welcome insight into the contrasting interpretations of and inaccurate assumptions about Shari’a law and challenges tired notions of gender exclusion and segregation in the Middle East.”

APRIL 13: Nana (dir. Serena Dykman) (DPs: Julia Elaine Mills and Nick Walker) – Village Voice review by Tatiana Craine: “Serena Dykman’s feature debut, Nana, hinges on a simple concept: the difference between knowing and understanding. This touching documentary chronicles the life of Dykman’s maternal grandmother, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, and her mission to spread awareness about the Holocaust. After years in concentration camps and time as translator for Josef Mengele, Michalowski-Dyamant emerged as her family’s sole survivor and dedicated her life to teaching people about the atrocities she experienced. Decades later, Dykman and her mother follow in their matriarch’s footsteps, sometimes literally, during the making of Nana.

“Dykman intersperses archival footage of her grandmother, a prolific public speaker, alongside contemporary scenes of the two women traversing Auschwitz, reading from Michalowski-Dyamant’s memoir, and talking to the people who knew her best. Dykman does well to let her grandmother anchor the film: Michalowski-Dyamant’s charisma and pathos shine through countless cuts of archival footage. More often than not, Michalowski-Dyamant is refreshingly blunt, whether speaking about the last time she saw her mother or cracking one-liners. ‘How do you like my apartment?’ she jokes to a group of students touring the camp barracks, her gallows humor tempering the bleakness.

Nana’s most stirring moment comes when Dykman and her mother reveal the moment when they went from merely knowing about the Holocaust to truly understanding it. With Nana, Dykman aims to carry the torch for her grandmother and other survivors by making the horror of millions profoundly personal.”

APRIL 13 (in theaters & on VOD and other digital platforms): An Ordinary Man (dir. Brad Silberling) (DP: Magdalena Górka) – Variety review by Peter Debruge: “Ben Kingsley is not a tall man, but he looms awesomely large in writer-director Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man, whose slyly misleading title refers to what becomes of a notorious Bosnian Serb general living in what used to be Yugoslavia — a monster guilty of torture, murder, and other unforgivable crimes who has spent the subsequent years attempting to blend in. The versatile actor, whose performances have run the gamut of good and evil from Gandhi to Sexy Beast maniac Don Logan, settles somewhere in the middle here, which isn’t at all what one might expect when playing the country’s most wanted war criminal. Still, it’s the right answer in a goulash-heavy character study that’s ultimately more interested in human psychology than unresolved world politics.

“Kingsley’s domineering lead performance is worth the price of admission alone, although An Ordinary Man is actually a two-hander, divided between the Oscar winner and relative newcomer Hera Hilmar, an English-speaking Icelandic actress whose career was launched by Life in a Fishbowl, and whose girlish appearance and submissive demeanor contrast sharply with her imposing co-star. In an almost theatrical flourish, Kingsley and Hilmar’s characters are identified only as ‘The General’ and ‘The Maid,’ which suggests the level of abstraction in the way Silberling views their dynamic (though driven by dialogue and relatively self-contained, the film is plenty cinematic, as Polish DP Magdalena Górka elegantly creates atmosphere within a limited number of locations).

“At first, showing up at the dangerous general’s door unannounced, the maid seems almost laughably powerless by comparison, a disposable plaything for this petty old tyrant to boss around as he pleases. But things are not as they seem. Silberling is clever enough to anticipate where savvy audiences’ imaginations will take them — rushing to assume that the maid is in fact some kind of elite assassin, or else the keeper of some nefarious hidden agenda.

“If Silberling had written that movie, there’s a good chance he could have gotten it made at one of the major Hollywood studios. But video store aisles are already heavy with Odessa Files and Marathon Men. Instead, Silberling aims to peer inside the mind of such a monster, without letting the people of modern Serbia scapegoat him quite so easily. In the film’s most incendiary exchange, the general describes the bloody ethnic cleansing policy he helped carry out as ‘a deposit on your future’ to the young maid, and indeed, her role here serves partly to examine the disturbing phenomenon by which members of the younger generation (most notably neo-Nazis) naïvely endorse their elders’ most unconscionable policies.

“Compared to the sneering, one-dimensionally evil warmonger Gary Oldman played in last year’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Kingsley’s more nuanced despot might indeed be considered an ordinary man, his humanity visible despite the tough exterior. Hiding in plain sight, shuttled by supporters from one rat hole to the next (as a longtime loyalist, Peter Serafinowicz plays his link to the outside world), this fugitive general has wrestled with his sins in virtual isolation all these years. He may have avoided arrest, trial, and likely execution, but he is still a prisoner of his own making — a great white shark confined to an suffocatingly small tank.

“And so, the maid’s arrival offers him something he has clearly lacked all these years: company, an audience, and potentially, a chance to revisit the one place on earth where he is most vulnerable, the rural countryside hometown where he would almost certainly be shot on the spot if recognized. Despite the implied atrocities in the general’s past, the film isn’t designed as a mechanism for violence or shootouts — although there are guns in the opening scene, the last one, and at several points in between.

“Both characters possess a capacity to kill one another, neatly illustrated in a pair of scenes: he defuses a convenience-store robbery at the outset, she holds his life in her hands while shaving him with a straight razor at home. And yet, they’re more dangerous simply exchanging ideas. That thoughtfulness explains why An Ordinary Man exists as an independent film, not a more generic piece of studio entertainment (which is just as well, since a couple of suspense sequences fail to generate any palpable tension). This movie actually has something on its mind.

“When not directing kid pics and television (which constitute most of his credits), Silberling clearly aspires to emotional, artistic filmmaking (Moonlight Mile and City of Angels were earnest, if flawed attempts at such). Here, he could be accused of displaying a bit too much empathy for an imaginary war criminal — that misstep would be more obvious if Silberling were attempting to humanize a Nazi officer at large — and yet, he’s saved by his star. An incredibly precise actor who understands exactly how to play to the camera, conveying volumes via even the slightest microexpressions, Kingsley navigates the tricky mix of humor, horror, and deep-seated regret that make this man, if not exactly ordinary, then relatable, at least.”

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APRIL 13: The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao) – Vanity Fair review by K. Austin Collins:The Rider, the tender second feature from Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao, opens with a dream: an abstract collision of thunder, dirt, and mane, stomping hooves clashing with the defiant snorts of a wild, free animal. It’s the vision of a young man named Brady Blackburn, a horse trainer and celebrated bronco rider living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Really, though, it might be better described as a nightmare.

“When The Rider begins, Brady, played by real-life rodeo Brady Jandreau, has just escaped from the hospital. He’s still reeling from a recent accident, a hoof to the skull that caused his brain cavity to swell up with blood. Seizures, a coma, and surgery followed. Still recovering, he doesn’t really know what to do with himself. He’s got a neat row of staples lining the back of his head and an awkward partial mullet, his scalp half-overgrown, half-shaved raw where the doctors had to cut his head open. He’s got spells of nausea and vomiting, too, and a medicine cabinet full of pills (to say nothing of his dad’s steady supply of weed) that for all their power cannot quell the seizures he’s been having, which make his right hand spontaneously harden to the point that he has to use his left to pry his fingers free of their death grip. Nor can any medicine fix the fear deepening in Brady’s heart: that the life he’s known to this point—as a man who spends his days staring up over the crest and down between the ears of a powerful, liberated animal, sharing in its mythic freedom—is now over.

“Despite its pure beauty, in other words, there’s no mistaking The Rider for a simple, crowd-pleasing pick-me-up. The movie is soulful, elegant, filmed as often as not at the magic hour, when the sky is as broad as it is orange-yellow, and every nook of the world seems alight with possibility. It is hardly, on its surface, an outright downer. But it’s unmistakably a movie about loss. The movie begins as a dream, but it ends as a sobering glimpse of this new reality.

The Rider is set in the present day, when a rodeo rider can relive past glories by watching clips of himself on YouTube, and when the overall image of the American cowboy is fading. Seemingly all that’s left for Brady to do after his accident, given his lack of G.E.D. or any work skills beyond horse training, is to work at the local grocery store, where he’s frequently confronted by people confused to see a capable bronco rider shelving frozen fish sticks. This is a pointed subject for American movies, so much of which still owe their style, content, and even politics to the myth of the American frontier and the virtuous, deified cowboys sought to protect it. The image has outlasted the reality, it seems. And the perceptive, intelligent Zhao, who filled this movie almost entirely with Jandreau’s real-life family and cowboy friends, whittles those myths down to the unflattering contemporary particulars: rent money that gets gambled away, broncos that kick open skulls, and scarred, forgotten cowboys working aisle six.

“Zhao, who was born in Beijing and attended high school in London, college at Mount Holyoke, and graduate school at New York University, has a pedigree that couldn’t seem further from the world of the American West or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. You might expect some inadvertent condescension here. But this is Zhao’s second film set there, the result of more than two years of immersion in and collaboration with the Pine Ridge community. Zhao met Jandreau on the reservation while making her first film, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which is just as much the product of a sensitive collaboration between Zhao and the lives of her non-professional local actors.

“Brady’s accident is based on a real skull fracture Jandreau suffered while competing in April 2016. The Rider, making art of that fresh wound, was filmed later that year, in September and October, when the incident and its implications were still fresh on his mind. Jandreau’s father, Tim, plays his ball-busting but loving father in the movie. His sister, Lilly, who has Asperger’s syndrome, plays herself, too; Zhao confidently folds Lilly’s condition into the movie as if it were as familiar to viewers as it is to her family. Lane Scott—Jandreau’s best friend in real life—plays the former rodeo Lane, injured, like Brady, during a fateful last ride. (This is fiction; in real life, Scott was injured in a car accident in 2013.)

“Scenes of Brady and his friends sitting around a campfire reminiscing about their injuries like a clan of spit-chewing old men, or of Brady visiting Lane in the hospital to watch and re-watch the greatest hits of their respective rodeo days, feel as contrived as they are spontaneous and naturalistic. Zhao pulls off a remarkable thing, that curious mix of fiction and non- that’s become the holy grail of American indie cinema, for which relying on real landscapes and ‘real’ people, rather than professional actors, has by now become an indie affectation—even despite its use in best-case scenarios of movies like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project or Zhao‘s debut feature. The Rider in so many ways embodies every pitfall of whatever we mean by the dismissive phrase ‘Sundance movie.’ (Indeed, Zhao’s first movie was born of the Sundance Institute.) It’s got emotional beats that’d knock a Richter scale out of whack and a deep focus on the interior lives of minor, everyday people that may as well be the log line of every American indie movie given serious festival or awards attention. It’s handheld as all get-out, too, which doesn’t help its case, and it employs, at least on the surface, that strain of minimalism lesser directors always seem to dredge up whenever they’ve got no ideas of their own.

“And yet The Rider rises above the limitations of its kind, largely because the movie’s also got Jandreau, whose sloping, sensitive face is the image Zhao returns us to more than any other. The only recurring images that come close are those of Brady’s horses, which, like him, are shot in profile, just so, always from crisp, attentive angles, and always with the timing just right, so that you mysteriously wind up feeling you understand the animals’ inner lives—and Brady’s, by association. I would almost argue Zhao overuses this technique, if not for the fact that, both times I watched the movie, I was a complete sucker for it. Zhao has fashioned this movie from inside out, treating the broad arcs of this familiar-seeming story less like an endgame than like a framework for Brady to reimagine himself as the hero, if not of the bronco-riding community, as he once was, then of a movie about one.

The Rider is a finely hewn work of fiction, rife with deliberate, if unobtrusive, movie magic, including the occasional interjection of lofty, sentimental music. But never is it better than when those lines between movie and reality blur, as when we see Brady training ornery bucks with the care and focus of someone ignoring the camera in part because his life might be at stake. Or during his exhilarating final rides on the horses he loves, when the movie’s scope seems to widen, the plains seem to broaden, and Zhao lets her camera simply run alongside him, as free as Brady and his horses seem to be. Moments like these make the pulse quicken and the heart soar—not only because they’re beautiful, but because their beauty feels true. And because of the skill with which the woman behind it all made them so.”

APRIL 13 (in theaters & on VOD): 10×10 (dir. Suzi Ewing) – Film Threat review by Matthew Passantino: “In the opening of 10×10, Lewis (Luke Evans) is sitting in a diner, watching intently across the street. He is fixated on an unknown redhead and glaring at her like a predator stalking his prey. His motive isn’t entirely clear in the film’s opening beats. Is he investigating her or is he up to something more nefarious?

“He follows her to the parking lot of her gym, where we quickly find out the answer to the question is the latter. He sneaks up on her, puts a plastic bag over her head and brings her to the ground. He tapes her mouth shut and arms and legs together, then leaves quickly to bring his car over to load her in. For those who have seen their share of abduction movies, this might seem ridiculous. How can nobody have noticed this was happening?

“Lewis brings the woman, who identifies herself as Cathy (Kelly Reilly), back to his house. She is being held captive in a soundproof room that Lewis has built behind one of his walls. It is a meticulously crafted dungeon, which suggests a bit more thought went into this kidnapping then Lewis showed in the gym parking lot. His house is spacious but cold – a chilly, modern complex without much character. But why has Cathy been taken here?

“On the surface, 10×10 is a relatively basic abduction thriller but tightly wound at a scant 88 minutes. Director Suzi Ewing’s feature debut has fun with genre trappings and adds a bit of flavor and mystery to the outing. Though clues are given throughout, she keeps us in the dark for the majority of the runtime, which adds suspense to an otherwise familiar outing. As tension builds between Lewis and Cathy, it translates to our experience watching the film. Evans and Reilly serve the film well, playing their respective types in the machine of the story. Evans is gruff and threatening, while Reilly is confused and scared as his victim. Without going too deep, because you really should check out this fun little film, they are given a little room to flex within third act revelations. Nothing in 10×10 necessarily reinvents the wheel but offers a variation on it. For a debut, 10×10 deserves to serve as an audition for Ewing’s future bigger scale projects.”

APRIL 13 (in theaters & on VOD): 20 Weeks (dir. Leena Pendharkar)Synopsis from the film’s official website:20 Weeks is a romantic drama about love, science and how prenatal and genetic testing impacts everyday people. Against the backdrop of modern-day Los Angeles, the story follows Maya (Anna Margaret Hollyman) and Ronan’s (Amir Arison) journey – interweaving their past and present – after learning that their baby has a serious health issue at their 20 week scan. Inspired, in part, by writer/director Leena’s Pendharkar’s real life experiences with her second daughter, the film seeks to explore an intimate issue that isn’t often talked about.”

APRIL 13: Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel) – Rolling Stone review by David Fear: “A man in a uniform is standing on the beach, staring at the sea. Natives trudge along the shore behind him. His profile makes him look like a statue, the sort of noble ‘Hail the conquering hero!’ sculpture you’d see in national galleries. His name is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The place is the edge of Argentina. The century is the 18th. He’s been sent to claim and tame this land for Spain, a good old-fashioned magistrate of the crown in full colonialist bloom. Hearing the sound of laughter behind some rocks, he spies a group of women, naked and coating themselves in mud. After a few minutes, Don Diego is caught: ‘Voyeur! Voyeur!’ they yell at him (or maybe they’re yelling at us). Red-faced, he scurries away up the cliffside. It’s not the last time this invader will be chased off.

“Located in the dead center of a Venn diagram encompassing sumptuous costume drama, social commentary and pure cinema, Lucrecia Martel’s extraordinary new film Zama establishes a pattern from the get-go. Her eponymous ‘hero,’ a symbol of European manifest destiny, wants to get somewhere, preferably away from his post in South America, and he will be repeatedly shuffled around. He will also try to establish the authority that has been decreed his birthright and get the indigenous equivalent of the Heisman move, as well as the high hat from his peers, superiors and subordinates. Even animals get in on the action – after he’s read the riot act by the governor of the province he’s overseeing, a llama starts giving him grief (and steals the scene). The man is Job with a cutlass and a tri-cornered hat.

“But if all Martel wanted out of adapting Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel was to take the piss out of imperialism, this intoxicating, spellbinding vision of the past would not have been half the masterpiece that it is. A cockeyed fable on her country’s history and a sideswipe at an empire crumbling under the weight of hubris and madness, Zama is more than a portrait of the loneliness of the long-distance foreigner. It’s the sort of immersive cultural transmission that reminds you just how powerful and transportive this medium can be – one of those rarities that can momentarily jolt you out of your ways of seeing things. Poetic is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, but it fits perfectly here. So does woozy. It feels less like a film than a high fever, burning slow but hot in order to incinerate a virus.

“And frankly, Don Diego doesn’t need a written invitation to leave his adopted homeland. Written permission, yes – his requests for transfer have yet to receive a royal response. (They’d have to be sent first; the Governor has told him that it usually takes a few tries before Her Majesty grants such bureaucratic favors, so really, why should the bored politician bother submitting them?) But Zama is ready to return to life outside of the occupied sticks, to see a family he hasn’t heard from in eons and to move to a place where he feels less claustrophobic. In the meantime, Don Diego passes the time listening to a minister’s wife (Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas) complain and flirt and order her servants around, and bearing witness to a fellow white-wigged middle manager (Juan Minujín) using enhanced-interrogation techniques on the locales. A brawl gets our man exiled to the edge of the territories, sentenced to a life waiting in a sort of halfway-house hut populated less by guests than ghosts.

“By the time Zama sends its bearded, disillusioned hero into the jungle in search of a famed outlaw and a purpose, the movie has already given us gorgeous imagery galore – Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças has a knack for combining beauty and rot, giving you the feeling that you’re looking at museum pieces through a patina of mildew – and the sense that the terrain itself is expelling the ‘civilized’ world one conquistador at a time. The third act then proceeds to go into full surreality-bites mode, staking its own claim at the corner of Herzog St. and Buñuel Ave.

“But anyone who’s dipped into this Argentinian writer-director’s pitifully small back catalog (if you haven’t, go straight to The Headless Woman) will tell you that this is the work of a singular artist – someone who knows how to correctly crowd a frame for maximum impact, when to drop in a Polynesian-sounding score and how to get her actors to channel existential malaise. She’s already made the case for being a world-class filmmaker, but this movie suggests a grander perspective at work, which connects the dots between her previous class-conscious, character-based explorations of moral slipperiness to a narrative about centuries of exploitation. History just repeats, it cautiously hints. Only the hats change.

“So we leave Don Diego wounded and floating on a river to nowhere, heading miles downstream to meet Aguirre on his raft of monkeys or Fitzcarraldo on his boat or Kurtz in his compound or wherever it is that madmen who took on Mother Nature and lost go to grouse. He came, he saw, he was conquered and cast away. As for viewers, they’ll be left high on the fumes of a master. Zama helps to remind you that man’s inability to realize that he can’t impose his corrupt will on everything is an endlessly looped folly. That, and the fact that there are few buzzes more potent than recognizing a great work of art when you see it.”

APRIL 20 (streaming on Netflix): Dude (dir. Olivia Milch) (DP: Hillary Spera) – IndieWire review by Kate Erbland: “The first time we see Lily (Lucy Hale) and her tight-knit pack of pals hotboxing her car, it’s played for laughs, a giddy act of rap-infused rebellion before the foursome (including Kathryn Prescott, Alexandra Shipp, and rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina) make their way into yet another raucous party. The second time, it’s a year later, and all that joy is gone, replaced with four sad-eyed seniors sparking up in the hopes of getting through another grinding day at their crunchy high school. The tragedy that scars the girls — which first-time filmmaker Olivia Milch doesn’t try to hide or sugarcoat — looms large over the rest of the film, an otherwise raunchy stoner comedy about misbehaving teenage girls that could make a banger of a double feature alongside Kay Cannon’s similarly R-rated girl-powered feature, Blockers.

“But while Blockers reveled in the bond between its central friends, Dude is more occupied with pulling apart those friendships, stretching them until they snap, and seeing what’s left over. Milch and co-writer Kendall McKinnon don’t actively buck humorous situations — the film is a comedy at its heart, deep, deep down — but there’s a dark underpinning to everything that happens in Dude, even when it’s overlaid with bawdy jokes and filthy situations. The hotboxing is the first indication that something is about to go off the rails, the sudden death of a peripheral character is another, and that’s just the start of more trouble to come.

“Milch’s film puts an unexpected twist on a played out formula, the teen comedy about those last great days of high school before everyone goes their separate ways. Individually heartbroken over a tragedy that played out at the end of their junior year, Lily and her beloved ‘dudes’ — including her best pal Chloe (Prescott), the hilarious Amelia (Shipp) and Rebecca (Awkwafina), seem bent on keeping up appearances even as they’re struggling to take the next step. Chloe is harboring desires to stay close to home, while Lily is obsessed with the notion that they head off to college together in NYC. Amelia is boy crazy and impossible to rely on, while Rebecca is consumed with a crush on a teacher (meant to be funny and sweet, it’s a subplot that really misses the mark).

“They’ve been friends forever, but is that enough to keep them together for the long haul? (In the real world, the answer is of course ‘no,’ but Dude amiably grapples with it for the film’s slim 90-minute running time.)

“Despite assembling a stellar cast of known and rising stars (Awkwafina will next be seen in Ocean’s 8, which Milch, herself a talent on the rise, wrote alongside director Gary Ross), Dude too often opts to keep them apart, even before the foursome begins to show uncomfortable cracks. Brief scenes that see the gals hanging out, often fueled by weed and a healthy teenage disdain for the world, are way too short-lived, spinning them off into their own orbits and just begging the audience to care about their crumbling bond. You should care, they’re great together, but even Dude seems to forget that far too often.

“At least the bulk of the film’s attention is aimed at Lily, played by Hale as an over-the-top Type A personality who struggles to cede control to anyone around her and happy sputters lines like ‘prom is my prom date!’ with ease. Lily is hiding her pain — okay, yes, for a comedy, there’s a lot of pain here — through her rigorous student council activities, increasingly dead-eyed appearances at still more parties, and even a dalliance with a younger (and just as dedicated!) member of the prom planning committee. The only thing that really matters to Lily is her dudes, especially Chloe. As she holds them closer (it’s very Of Mice and Men), they only slip further away.

“Hale is already engaging enough in the role before Dude plunges headlong into darker territory (yes, it’s still a comedy!) that further threatens to split the central foursome apart. The film might revel in its raunchy bits, from out-of-control parties to an eye-popping approach to sexual freedom, but as it digs deeper into the emotional aspects of their bond, it adopts a much stronger sensibility. Early in the film, one character comments that ‘life stops,’ but the message of Dude is just the opposite: life never stops, even when you’re having fun, and especially when you’re not.”

APRIL 20: I Feel Pretty (dirs. Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “In I Feel Pretty, a woman (Amy Schumer) who struggles with feelings of deep insecurity and low self-esteem, that hold her back everyday, wakes from a brutal fall in an exercise class believing she is suddenly a supermodel. With this newfound confidence she is empowered to live her life fearlessly and flawlessly, but what will happen when she realizes her appearance never changed?”

APRIL 20: Little Pink House (dir. Courtney Balaker) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival review by Stephen Farber: “Following in the tradition of issue-oriented films like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, the world premiere of Little Pink House at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has unmistakable timeliness. This story of little people against Big Pharma certainly resonates today. The presence of two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener and an excellent supporting cast should help to give the movie more visibility. It has some structural problems, but with canny marketing, it could find a distributor and even a sympathetic audience.

“The film is based on the true story of a Connecticut woman, Susette Kelo (Keener), who fought an eviction notice all the way to the Supreme Court. Kelo lived in a working-class neighborhood near New London. Local bigwigs wanted to sell land along the waterfront to Pfizer for a huge new plant. The company had just begun marketing Viagra and was riding high, but the residents decided to resist. Kelo, a paramedic who had put tremendous effort into remodeling her little pink house on the water, had no interest in selling. Under the Constitution, the government has the right to seize private property for public use, but in this case, the fact that the beneficiary of the land grab was a private corporation made the issues a lot murkier.

“When the Supreme Court finally reached its 5-4 decision in 2005, it was the more liberal justices who sided with the corporation, while the conservatives dissented. However, as director Coutney Moorehead Balaker stated in the Q&A after the pic’s premiere, Donald Trump has extolled the ruling. Most states have reached the opposite conclusion, so the issues remain unsettled.

“A polemic about eminent domain would have little audience appeal, so it was wise of the filmmakers to focus on the people rather than abstract issues. Nevertheless, the film probably spends a little too much time sketching the background of Kelo and her neighbors. The film doesn’t quite leap from the starting gate; it’s too leisurely and a bit too convoluted at the beginning.

“Keener definitely helps to build audience sympathy for the unprepossessing but determined Kelo, and there are excellent performances by Callum Keith Rennie and Colin Cunningham as two of the men in her life. The movie broadens its scope by giving a lot of attention to her antagonists, including the governor of Connecticut (who is never named) and a real estate lobbyist played with force and complexity by Jeanne Tripplehorn. Later in the film, Giacomo Baessato contributes a heartfelt performance as the idealistic lawyer who takes up Kelo’s cause.

“Although the pic doesn’t have the rousing ending that some earlier social protest dramas have had, it effectively puts the audience on the side of the outsiders. Balaker’s direction is solid, and after a sluggish opening, Soojin Chung’s editing provides a good deal of drive. One of the best earlier films about the subject was Elia Kazan’s 1960 drama Wild River, which was set in the 1930s but gave a good deal of humanity to its antagonists in an epic battle over eminent domain. The subject has been treated only rarely since then, but Little Pink House brings urgency to a fascinating, underexplored theme. In a darkly ironic footnote, we learn that the Pfizer plant was never built, but this offered little consolation to the displaced homeowners.”

APRIL 20: Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Audacity to Be Free (dir. Cordula Kablitz-Post) – The Film Stage review by Jared Mobarak: “There’s a great line spoken by an aged Lou Andreas-Salomé (Nicole Heesters) to new friend and potential biographer Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier) upon his praise-fueled declaration that the way she lived her life — her freedom — was a touchstone for modern feminism. Her reply is, ‘Nonsense. What’s changed for us women since then?’ It’s not presented as a jaded reaction or one specifically attached to the era in which she spoke it (the 1930s), though, because you could say the same today and not be wrong. Yes, women do have it better, but the world has still not found its way towards true equality. See #GamerGate, the Wahlberg/Williams pay disparity on All the Money in the World, and the struggles endured by the women in your life.

“I kept returning to this line as Cordula Kablitz-Post’s film Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free advanced because it continuously provided a mirror onto the present despite unfolding via flashback to Salomé’s adventures during the late 1800s. Here’s one of our foremost philosophical thinkers who inspired Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Rée, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud and yet you more than likely have never heard her name before. I know I never had. The answer probably stems from something as common, lazy, and gendered as history being written by men. If those luminaries were the ones the history books wanted to highlight as geniuses, they would surely relegate Lou to ‘muse.’ But as Kablitz-Post and cowriter Susanne Hertel explain, nothing could have been further from the truth.

“There was a revealing tweet from Candice Frederick earlier this month asking women to retweet if they’ve been called ‘intimidating’ or any such equivalent by men at least twice. It of course took off (41,000 retweets as of writing this) because that sort of dismissal is common even today. Now think about what it would have been like a century ago to strive for independence and intellectual excellence as a woman under that same sort of biased vitriol. This is what Lou Andreas-Salomé faced head-on, never wavering from her personal philosophy or identity whether or not both inevitably evolved with the passing of time and new experiences. She had to escape tradition, birthright, reputation, and the law to even attempt being what any man could on a whim.

“And that’s what makes her story so inspiring for men and women alike. Here’s a self-made woman who had a dream and pursued it without compromise to reach her goals. There’s a commendable spirit to her pragmatism in doing so, setting ground rules with those she kept close in order to ensure no one got the wrong idea. But just like catcalling and victim-blaming rape culture persists in the present, ‘the wrong idea’ seems to be the default for a lot of men. It’s therefore unsurprising when every male she meets offers a proposal. They admire her for her mind yet refuse to separate that admiration from their lust to possess what they believe they’re owed. The result delivers as much biography as scathing exposé on male insecurity.

“This is why having a woman director is so important to the message of who Lou Andreas-Salomé was. She sets the action from the vantage point of an ambitious soul living for herself. Lou isn’t a tease giving men she believes when telling her she’s their equal (Alexander Scheer’s Nietzsche, Philipp Hauß’ Rée, Julius Feldmeier’s Rilke, and Merab Ninidze’s Friedrich Carl Andreas) false hope. She’s also not the muse within their respective stories either. I’m not certain a male director could have found the delicate balance in complexity necessary to fully portray the struggle of love for a woman during an era when matrimony very distinctly dealt with subservience and ownership. I’m not because too many contemporary films still pretend as though marriage means the same today.

“In a male’s hands, Lou saying she believed she always made the men closest to her unhappy would play much differently than it does. In context with everything that came before, we treat her comment as one warped by a debilitating sense of patriarchal control rather than an honest means with which to condemn her. We see how her sadness towards those relationships is a product of their selfishness alone. Those men betrayed her and themselves and in the process projected their pain upon her as though she was at fault. Despite all she did for them, their egos forgot her importance. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if many call Kablitz-Post’s film a lie to preserve whatever image they have cemented in their minds for their heroes.

“Let them. Because while they hold onto a prejudiced past of incomplete history, the majority will have found a new hero in Lou Andreas-Salomé. What makes this even greater is that the film leaves room within itself to be questioned as incomplete too. It does so to admit that every work of art or account of truth arrives through the filter of its creator. Pfeiffer jokes that the biography he is writing (the film plays as stories the 72-year old Lou tells him under the looming cloud of Nazism risking to destroy her work and that of those she loved) is one of half-truths and she laughs because she admits she’s keeping some things for herself. That doesn’t make it fiction. It merely bolsters its inherent honesty.

“Beyond what the film says and represents, it’s also well made. It uses illustrative, two-dimensional postcards as chapter headers for adult Lou (Katharina Lorenz) to glide through. There are mysteries to solve (Who is Katharina Schüttler’s Mariechen?), emotional landscapes to mine, and historical icons to humanize with failures proving they weren’t as enlightened as they should have been. And at the center of everything is a woman who gave herself the power to reject convention and live in a way that rendered her beholden to nobody but herself. Maybe things are looking up for those who wish to follow in her footsteps now that hers and Hedy Lamarr’s stories (see Bombshell) are coming to light. But as Frederick’s tweet revealed, we still have a long way to go.”

APRIL 20: Mercury 13 (dirs. David Sington and Heather Walsh) – Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “In 1963, Valentine Tereshkova became the first woman to go into space. It’s hard today to take in quite what that meant. Differences between men and women were then perceived to be much bigger. Supposed experts spoke openly about how the delicate female constitution could not endure the G-force involved in getting into orbit. One small step for a woman became a rallying cry for womankind, helping to change attitudes in many different industries all around the world. But two years before Tereshkova had her moment, the US had its own programme for training female spacefarers. This documentary explores the story behind it, meets some of its participants, details how their ambitions were thwarted and looks at the impact they made in spite of that.

“This is the kind of documentary that’s perfectly suited to the Netflix way of making movies. Though modest in its artistic aims, it’s a polished piece of work which has evidently benefited from the luxury of time in both the research stage and the editing suite. The first thing we notice about its stars is how good they look, elderly as they now are, with the legacy of intensive physical training written into their flesh. Muscles remain taught; posture has that military quality, also reflecting the careers in military aviation that some went on to pursue. They also have a habit of looking people directly in the eye, something women of their generation were brought up not to do, but something essential to making progress in a male-dominated field.

“The tension between presenting as masculine enough for skills to be taken seriously yet feminine enough to be liked – also vital in a context where a great deal depended on making allies – is evident in what the women have to say about their experiences, and in the archive footage that carries us back to that time. Jane Hart was challenged over her pursuit of a spaceflight career because she had children, though no-one seemed to care about the prospect of a kid losing daddy. ‘With eight children, you’d want to go to the moon, too,’ she said defiantly.

“Some of the women had already been through the wringer with the press over their decision to become pilots, a necessary prerequisite for the space programme but also very difficult at the time. Polished smiles and flirtatious poses softened the notion for the general public, turning it into a tale of plucky girls rather than strong willed women who might actually demand equality. Yet when one woman recalls her mother’s worries we are reminded that this was an era in which parents knew that their sons could, at any time, be snatched away on the orders of the government and sent to fight in some foreign land. Girls were insurance, the children it was safe to love – the thought that they too might be at risk must have been terrifying.

“If the film has a noticeable flaw, it’s that little effort is made to point out these differences in historical perspective for viewers unfamiliar with them. What we see is very plain and straightforward, and often ridiculous in light of today’s awareness. It’s also notably tough. Grueling training remains part of every astronaut’s groundwork but in that era, before scientists had much understanding of what may or may not factor into survival in the face of heavy G and subsequent zero gravity conditions, there was a much longer list of invasive tests required. One gets the impression that this was worse for the women because they were seen as a new and exotic phenomenon, as if they’d just been invented.

“That the women are all white probably goes without saying – black women remained behind the scenes doing underpaid scientific and technical work, as featured in 2016’s Hidden Figures. What else do they have in common? They’re articulate, sharply intelligent, and highly individualistic – they probably wouldn’t have fitted in in any age, but in these circumstances they were able to use that to their advantage. They didn’t let disappointment stop them. Stuck on Earth, they went on to break barriers in aviation. One of them co-founded the National Organization for Women. They paved the way for the women who would, ultimately, fly space shuttles. Unable to reach the stars, they became them.”

APRIL 27: Ava (dir. Sadaf Foroughi)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “In Tehran, upper-middle-class teen Ava (Mahour Jabbari) abides by a strict routine of school, violin lessons, and curfew. When Ava’s mistrustful and overprotective mother (Bahar Noohian) questions her relationship with a boy (Houman Hoursan) — going so far as to consult a gynecologist — Ava is stunned by this violation of privacy. Her tightly controlled environment exacerbates feelings of suffocation and isolation, and further diminishes her trust in the adults who attempt to regulate her life. That her parents, including her sympathetic but powerless father (Vahid Aghapoor), seem more concerned with social optics than their daughter’s welfare only escalates Ava’s rebellious behaviour, to life-altering effect. Sadaf Foroughi vividly renders her heroine’s internal turmoil while exposing the pervasive impact of her family’s shaming. Each frame is stunningly composed, with scenes that offer a searing social critique while presenting a strong, richly developed female character. With Ava, Foroughi establishes herself as a cinematic force.”

APRIL 27 (NYC/LA), MAY 1 (on digital platforms): Duck Butter (dir. Miguel Arteta) (DP: Hillary Spera)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Cara Cusumano: “When Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa) meet at a club, they hit it off instantly, connecting over their disdain for the dishonesty they have experienced in their respective romantic relationships. High on their fast chemistry, the two women concoct a romantic experiment: They plan to spend the next 24 hours together, having sex on the hour. Above all, they commit to perfect honesty with each other, a theoretical remedy to the deceit they believe to be an element of modern relationships. But their relationship in a vacuum doesn’t go as planned, and soon the weight of their commitment begins to close in, threatening the ideals of the daylong experiment and their chances for a romantic future tomorrow.

“The latest film from Miguel Arteta, the director behind Beatriz at Dinner and The Good GirlDuck Butter is a blistering look at intimacy in a pressure cooker. Co-written by Shawkat and executive produced by the Duplass Brothers, the film offers a searing interrogation of modern romance, with all its dizzying highs and heartbreaking betrayals, all packed into an intense 24 hours.”

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APRIL 27 (in theaters & on VOD): Kings (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set against a backdrop of rising tensions in Los Angeles during the Rodney King trial in 1992, writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings stars Oscar winner Halle Berry and Daniel Craig as citizens of the same South Central neighborhood.

“Millie (Halle Berry) is a hardworking, tough and protective single mother with an affection for homeless children. She already has eight children living in her house and will soon bring home another. Her neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig) is the local loose cannon, and the only white man in an area largely inhabited by African Americans, Latinos, and Koreans. With racial tensions running dangerously high, Millie and Obie would appear to be unlikely allies. Yet following the acquittal of four of the officers accused of beating Rodney King, these two must navigate the gathering chaos in the city to bring Millie’s kids home safely.

“Though Kings doesn’t focus on the LA riots overall, it does delve into the impact and the fragility of family units during these circumstances. As the current social and political climate begins to mirror the turmoil and tensions of the past, the events depicted in Kings are, sadly, only more resonant today.”

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APRIL 27: Let the Sunshine In (dir. Claire Denis) (DP: Agnès Godard) – Variety’s Cannes Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “‘Like in a tacky bedroom farce?’ a middle-aged lothario asks, bewildered, when an angry lover throws him out midway through Let the Sunshine In. He’s in the wrong, though he has reason to be incredulous: He’s in a Claire Denis movie, after all, and ‘tacky bedroom farce’ is about as far from her highly refined repertoire as it’s possible to get. Luckily, it remains so by the end of this exquisitely judged romantic comedy, which maps out the transient pleasures, pitfalls and emotional culs-de-sac of mid-life dating with all the close human scrutiny and hot-blooded sensual detail of her sterner dramatic work. Perfectly small rather than slight, and radiantly carried by Juliette Binoche — in a light-touch tour de force to be filed alongside her work in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy — this turns out to be a subtler departure than it outwardly appears for Denis, most evoking her other Parisienne drifting-hearts study, Friday Night, in its bittersweet tone.

“If the humor in Let the Sunshine In is slightly amped up by its maker’s usual standards, it hardly reaches for its chuckles: Denis, like the best artists, knows all human life is a comedy, albeit with an unhappy ending. That gentle wryness, coupled with an ensemble heavy on French A-listers, should make this one of her more commercially viable outings following its premiere as the opening film of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. (Four years after the equally rigorous, tonally opposite Bastards played in Un Certain Regard, Let the Sunshine In again invites the question of just what this modern master must do to get a Competition slot.)

“Denis’s film may conceivable be dismissed as a slender diversion in some quarters — notably, that quadrant of society (and, still, the film industry) that regards the inner lives of women of a certain age as a subject of secondary concern. Unhappily divorced artist Isabelle (Binoche) has certainly tangled with her fair share of men who think that way, yet persists in a repeatedly waylaid search for true love. What that might feel like, and with whom, she has no idea: The loose, airy narrative of Let the Sunshine In knits together a series of her dalliances with men of various shapes, types, ages and neuroses, with nothing in common save for the fact that they have nothing in common with Isabelle either.

“Collaborating with novelist and playwright Christine Angot, Denis initially approached the project as a potential adaptation of Roland Barthes’ volume A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. What has emerged remains very much a lover’s discourse, but Denis and Angot’s ultimately original screenplay takes a jointly personal, expressly feminist point of view, as Isabelle repeatedly muses aloud on the possibilities (and impossibilities) of love and sex for women like her — and, by extension, like the filmmakers.

“This isn’t uncharted territory on screen — one might even view Let the Sunshine In as a parallel-universe Nancy Meyers movie — but it’s rare for stories of older female singledom to turn the mirror inward quite so candidly. Denis and Angot mine ample, acid-laced comedy from the callousness or carelessness with which Isabelle is treated by men: ‘You are charming, but my wife is extraordinary,’ says one of her lovers, married banker Vincent (a superb Xavier Beauvois). But they are also unsparing on the cruelty with which she treats herself, whether by chasing obvious non-starter suitors on a masochistic fast track to heartbreak, or by excessive self-scolding when something lasting once again eludes her.

“Coldly dismissive of any long-term romantic future but brattishly insistent on sex (‘I just got in from Brazil and felt like banging you,’ he leers), Vincent is the least palatable of Isabelle’s wrong choices; on the flipside, a dreamy married actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is cagey when it comes to carnal knowledge but finds in Isabelle an emotional sounding-board. Denis reserves some compassion even for her worst-behaved characters, every one of which is presented as needy in one way or another; the trouble is that no one’s void, however, quite complements anyone else’s. A hand-picked ensemble makes sure no passing glance goes to waste. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi has mere seconds to etch a piercing mirror image to Isabelle’s internal agony, while Gerard Depardieu gamely helps shoulder the film’s most unexpectedly whimsical turn — his blithe tête-à-tête rapport with Binoche belying his publicly stated animosity toward the actress in years past.

“Still, this is the leading lady’s show. Binoche, like her compatriot Isabelle Huppert, is an actress so adept at serenely conducting inner turmoil that we risk taking their range of notes and tones for granted. Even by her standards, however, this is complex, quietly symphonic work, that extraordinary face as mesmerizing when in full, streaky-cheeked crying mode as when pensively staring at nothing in particular. Not many actors could find quite as many variations to play in Denis and Angot’s deliberately fractured dialogue: She’s often tongue-tied in love and hate alike, comic embarrassment and tragic insecurity written into every pause and stumble.

“Yet Let the Sunshine In is not a pessimistic film, or even an entirely unromantic one. Aided by the warmly shadowed intimacy of Agnes Godard’s camerawork, Denis identifies fleeting joys and hormonal highs in the dating chase: be it the tactile thrill of one lonely hand meeting another, or the tense pause that comes just after a conversation runs dry, and just before silent lips find something else to do. The film’s most sustained moment of bliss — not a long one, admittedly — comes in a spontaneous, slightly drunken barroom dance, as Isabelle’s solo swaying finds a gallant, unsolicited partner. The song is Etta James’s ‘At Last,’ chosen with Denis’s characteristically precise ear for the right musical cue: It’s the ideal song for its woozy moment, though the tender irony is that, if Isabelle’s love has come along, it’s probably only for the time being.”

APRIL 27 (NYC), APRIL/MAY (elsewhere in the US): Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story (dir. Ashley Bell)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Elephant rescues in Thailand are rare, unpredictable and often life threatening. After waiting 2.5 years, actor/director Ashley Bell and a team of elephant rescuers led by world renowned Asian elephant conservationist and TIME Magazine’s Hero of Asia, Lek Chailert, embark on a daring mission 480 miles across Thailand to rescue Noi Na, a 70-year old partially blind trekking elephant and bring her to freedom.

“African elephants are slaughtered for their ivory, but sadly the plight of the Asian Elephant has been completely overlooked even though they are the elephant we are most familiar with in zoos, circuses and elephant rides. L&B exposes the cruel secret that every Asian elephant has had to endure to become a service animal; a process knows as Pajan, aka the Crush Box. Love & Bananas aims to ignite a new way of thinking about this species and shows what can be done to prevent the extinction of Asian elephants.”

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William Holden (1918-1981): An Actor’s Centennial

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What makes an actor great? What divine alchemy allows a person, or a studio system, to create the kind of cinematic magic that turns a star into something more than just a passing fancy? I sometimes wonder about that when I consider why some of my former favorite actors fade from my memory while my admiration for others grows stronger. From childhood to adolescence to now, one actor stands out for performances that continue to surprise and inspire me: William Holden.

By my count, I have seen twenty-two of Holden’s films, almost a third of his entire filmography. As a star for more than forty years, he embodied so many different facets of American masculinity prevalent in the twentieth century: wide-eyed innocents and square-jawed Everymen in the first decade of his career, cynics and reluctant heroes throughout the 1950s and 60s, then a variety of complicated older men in the more liberated era of the late 60s, 70s and early 80s. Holden once said that “movie acting may not have a certain kind of glory as true art, but it is damn hard work”; from the perspective of this viewer, he elevated everything he did onscreen into art and, as a result, I am moved to say he might just be my all-time favorite actor. Here are eight clips to demonstrate the depth of those dramatic and comedic abilities that I treasure.

Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder). Simultaneously loving and cruel, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the eternal classics, a portrait of Tinseltown that reveals both the beauty and the ugliness of the motion picture business. Holden’s pessimistic hack of a scribe, Joe Gillis, constantly teeters on the edge between bitter resignation and hope for future success, even as his relationship with former silver-screen icon Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) rapidly destroys his life; it’s a character that only Holden could have played so expertly.

Stalag 17 (1953, dir. Billy Wilder). Holden won the Best Actor Academy Award for his work in Stalag 17, portraying a disillusioned American sergeant in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. His sarcastic character, Sefton, is a loner who antagonizes his fellow POWs in the barracks, leading them to suspect him of being the mole feeding information about the group to the camp’s commanding officer, Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger). In the scenes from 59:32 to 1:08:23, we see Sefton’s comrades grow increasingly resentful and angry, boiling over to the point that they viciously attack him in his bunk.

Sabrina (1954, dir. Billy Wilder). In Billy Wilder’s celebrated comedy, chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is transformed from mousy to chic after a soujourn in Paris, and when she returns home to Long Island, her plan is to ignite a romance with David Larrabee (Holden), the younger son of the family that employs Sabrina’s father and a guy who had never previously paid any attention to Sabrina.

Picnic (1955, dir. Joshua Logan). One of Holden’s most iconic film roles was as Hal Carter, the drifter whose sexual magnetism completely upends a small Midwestern town in Picnic. Hal woos a lovely young woman, Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who longs to escape the confines of her hometown, and their attraction subsequently drives a wedge between Madge and her family. Nowhere is the electricity between Hal and Madge more apparent than in the “Moonglow” scene, in which those two characters sway sensuously to that popular melody while members of Madge’s community look on.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, dir. David Lean). Another of Holden’s World War II masterpieces, The Bridge on the River Kwai was the first of the “epics” that defined the last three decades of director David Lean’s career. Arguably, it is Best Actor Oscar winner Alec Guinness, as a British colonel who stubbornly adheres to his moral code of military “ethics,” who dominates the narrative, but in one of the film’s most memorable moments, Holden’s Commander Shears has a great, short speech that he delivers to another superior officer about “how to live like a human being” in the theater of war.

Paris – When It Sizzles (1964, dir. Richard Quine). This is one of the weirder footnotes in the careers of William Holden and Audrey Hepburn, made a decade after Sabrina and curiously devised as a screwball comedy tribute to a particular subset of the film industry: screenwriters. (Think of Sizzles as a kooky successor to Sunset Boulevard.) Uneven as the film is, there is immense delight in watching Holden explain to Hepburn, who plays his beleaguered secretary, the how-to guide for telling a typical Hollywood story.

The Towering Inferno (1974, dir. John Guillermin). No 1970s disaster movie came close to the monumental masterwork known as The Towering Inferno, which stuffed just about every big-name actor from that period into a nearly three-hour-long drama filled with action, suspense and even a little romance. Holden plays the contractor who helped design the title structure, a man who realizes too late that cutting corners saved money on construction but will end up costing many people their lives. Post-9/11, the film’s images are more unsettling than ever, and Holden provides the necessary gravitas for his conflicted character.

Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet). Shock doesn’t begin to describe the feeling I had when I first saw Network at age fifteen. Even though reality television already existed ten years ago, the film’s vision of corporate-sponsored mayhem on bizarre talk shows was terrifying. Watching the film again last year, I found that the film was simultaneously less unnerving (since reality TV programming is weirder than ever now) and far more of a dark comedy, though I don’t know how much of that perception is based on my age or what screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky intended forty years ago. Nevertheless, William Holden’s final speech to Faye Dunaway – the aging network executive versus the ruthless up-and-comer who orchestrated much of their company’s small-screen revolution – remains a gut punch. Network wasn’t William Holden’s final film, but it was a magnificent late showcase for him. If only we’d had more films like it, and more actors like him.

Celebrate International Women’s Day with These 10 Films Directed by Women, Available on Netflix

In honor of International Women’s Day today, here are ten films directed by women and focused on women’s stories, all titles available to stream on Netflix now. To quote the director and UCLA professor Shirley Clarke in the article “Teaching Filmmaking Creatively” (Journal of the University Film Producers Association, 1965): “It’s important that filmmakers and film teachers don’t succumb to the judgement of The Establishment; that they don’t judge themselves by someone else’s standards. They must be helped to feel that they can afford to go against the tide of powerful opinion; that they have allies – at least each other… we must have courage to be different and daring or the trap will close firmly on one, (and all too rare) possible place for growth and change.”

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Ava DuVernay, Middle of Nowhere (2012). Ava DuVernay’s second narrative feature is a contemplative drama about a young wife, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who agrees to stay faithful to her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), during the minimum four years he must serve for a prison sentence. Life with(out) Derek isn’t easy; Ruby works night shifts as a registered nurse so that she can get phone calls from her husband in the daytime, and she chooses to stay away from any semblance of a social life. Outside of hanging out with her sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley Dickerson), or being nagged by their overbearing mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), Ruby’s waking hours consist solely of waiting for Derek. When a handsome bus driver, Brian (David Oyelowo), enters the picture, however, Ruby must decide whether a fresh start with a good and honest man is worth ending her marriage.

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Jennifer Kent, The Babadook (2014). No doubt you have heard of this Australian psychological horror film, if not when it was released in theaters then perhaps when the title demon accidentally became an LGBTQ+ icon due to a miscategorization on Netflix. (For my part, there was only one other person in the audience when I saw the film at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in late December 2014, a guy who sat in my row and was audibly frightened on a number of occasions.) Jennifer Kent’s debut gives star Essie Davis great opportunities to explore the dual terrors of being a widow and a mother, portraying a woman literally haunted by memories of the past. As William Friedkin commented on Twitter: “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.”

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Sharon Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). One of the biggest hits of actress Renée Zellweger’s career, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a comedy that offers its star in an Oscar-nominated performance as a romantically challenged Englishwoman constantly on the lookout for Mr. Right. A couple of candidates appear on the horizon: one, Bridget’s handsome, charming and undeniably sleazy boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), and two, lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), a family friend who cannot keep his sharp tongue in check whenever Bridget is around. Our protagonist encounters a never-ending series of challenges, including trying to lose weight and proving herself as a competent television journalist, but no matter what she tackles every problem with wit and aplomb.

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Reed Morano, Meadowland (2015). Keep several tissues on hand for Meadowland, the harrowing tale of a wife (Olivia Wilde) and husband (Luke Wilson) falling apart as they grieve the loss of their young son, who is a missing person. Directed and photographed by Reed Morano, a cinematographer whose credits include Frozen River, The Skeleton Twins and five episodes of “Vinyl” (she also won an Emmy this past fall for directing the pilot of “The Handmaid’s Tale”), Meadowland has a supporting cast that features numerous excellent actors: Giovanni Ribisi, Elisabeth Moss, Ty Simpkins, John Leguizamo, Kevin Corrigan, Juno Temple, Merritt Wever, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Mark Feuerstein, Skipp Sudduth, Yolonda Ross and Ned Eisenberg.

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Mira Nair, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996). With the same passion for storytelling that she brought to such films as Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001), Mira Nair navigates female sexuality, jealousy and heartache in Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. In 16th century India, friends Maya (Indira Varma) and Tara (Sarita Choudhury) are groomed to become marriage prospects, but although Tara weds Prince Raj Singh (Naveen Andrews), Maya catches his eye and eventually becomes his courtesan in the royal palace. Maya’s true love is Jai Kumar (Ramon Tikaram), a poor sculptor with a gentle heart, but of course these many relationships cannot coexist and lead to a happily ever after. Gorgeously scored by prolific composer Mychael Danna and photographed by Declan Quinn, Kama Sutra boldly addresses taboo subjects in Indian cinema with sensitivity and eroticism.

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Shira Piven, Welcome to Me (2014). Kristen Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, a mentally ill woman who wins an $86 million jackpot and uses a large portion of her money to buy time in a TV studio. Inspired by Oprah Winfrey, Alice hosts her own show, “Welcome to Me,” which is part self-portrait (she employs actors to reenact scenes from her past) and part self-help guide for the intrigued viewers, dispensing nuggets of wisdom while simultaneously confounding her best friend (Linda Cardellini), therapist (Tim Robbins), ex-husband (Alan Tudyk), a cadre of network bigwigs (Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine) and an inquisitive graduate student (Thomas Mann) with some of her odd statements. Whether riding onto set inside a swan-shaped boat, utilizing the talk show format to discuss her sexual history or sustaining second-degree burns during a cooking segment, Alice remains unapologetically herself.

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Céline Sciamma, Girlhood (2014). Only a few months after Richard Linklater’s Oscar-winning drama Boyhood hit theaters, a French film called Girlhood (the original title, Bande de filles, translates as “gang of girls”) played in limited release, including at the aforementioned Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, where I saw it. Sciamma’s film follows Marieme (Karidja Touré), a teenager who befriends a clique of black girls like herself. Renamed “Vic” by her new pals, Marieme turns away from her family and embraces a life of crime. Girlhood subverts our typical notions of coming-of-age stories through its unique perspectives on race, gender and societal expectations for girls and women.

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Kris Swanberg, Unexpected (2015). During the school year, a white, middle-class teacher in inner-city Chicago (Cobie Smulders) and a black, lower-class student in her 12th grade biology class (Gail Bean) each find themselves pregnant for the first time. Although they come from radically different backgrounds, they develop a bond that grows into a real friendship. The road to motherhood is paved with obstacles – like deciding on whether to become a stay-at-home mom or looking for a college with acceptable housing for a student with a newborn infant – but the main characters learn from these experiences and, despite the hurdles, discover their own capacities for empathy.

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Nanfu Wang, Hooligan Sparrow (2016). Filmmaker Nanfu Wang fought the government and angry citizens all over China when she traveled throughout the country, chronicling the tireless efforts of women’s rights activist and sex workers’ advocate Ye Haiyan (nicknamed “Hooligan Sparrow”), as well as other women and men who fight on behalf of equality and justice in their corrupt society. The documentary was originally intended to cover the group’s protests against a pair of school principals accused of raping six female students aged 11 to 14, but as Wang watched Ye Haiyan continually be evicted from homes in cities across the nation and arrested on several occasions, the director knew she had to record every moment – even if doing so meant risking her own safety.

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Leslie Zemeckis, Bound by Flesh (2012). Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (both 1908-1969) lived extraordinary lives, working as sideshow performers and actresses almost from birth until death, most famously in Tod Browning’s pre-Code drama Freaks (1932). Although they were financially exploited and emotionally abused repeatedly by various men and women, including their adoptive parents, the sisters survived thanks to their shared indomitable spirit and the constant belief that they would eventually find happiness and love.

2018 Oscar Predictions!

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Best Picture: The Shape of Water

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)

Best Actor: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)

Best Original Screenplay: Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Best Adapted Screenplay: James Ivory (Call Me by Your Name)

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049)

Best Film Editing: Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss (Baby Driver)

Best Production Design: Paul D. Austerberry (The Shape of Water)

Best Costume Design: Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread)

Best Hair & Makeup: Darkest Hour

Best Sound Editing: Dunkirk

Best Sound Mixing: Baby Driver

Best Visual Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes

Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water)

Best Original Song: “Remember Me” (Coco)

Best Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

Best Animated Feature: Coco

Best Documentary Feature: Faces Places

Best Documentary Short: Heroin(e)

Best Animated Short: Dear Basketball

Best Live-Action Short: DeKalb Elementary

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: March 2018

Director Ava DuVernay and actress Storm Reid on the set of A Wrinkle in Time, 2016/2017. (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima)

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

MARCH 1: Werewolf (dir. Ashley McKenzie)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Steve Gravestock: “The hardscrabble existence of two homeless addicts is portrayed with sensitivity and brutal honesty in acclaimed filmmaker Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature. Shot almost entirely in oblique close-ups to capture the disorientation and frustration of McKenzie’s characters, twentysomething junkies Blaise and Vanessa, Werewolf doggedly and courageously refuses to romanticize its characters lives. (The style suggests an affinity for Toronto minimalists such as Kazik Radwanski, and Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven.) Sleeping in tents, fighting with government bureaucrats, Blaise and Vanessa survive primarily through an underground economy. They harass people to let them cut their grass with a rusty old mower they haul over dirt roads and through rainstorms. Such scenes capture the futility, toil, and frustration in their lives with startling power, like some crack-addled version of the Stations of the Cross. It’s a testament to the skill of both McKenzie and the performers that they inspire empathy in us even as we find the characters’ actions perplexing and troubling. Werewolf confirms, boldly, the promise of McKenzie’s much-lauded earlier short films.”

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MARCH 2: Chasing Great (dirs. Justin Pemberton and Michelle Walshe)Transmission Films synopsis: “This intimate documentary follows Richie McCaw’s final 365 days leading the All Blacks, as the most capped rugby player of all time attempts to pull-off his most ambitious goal yet – to end his career by becoming the first person to captain back-to-back World Cup wins.

“With surprising openness, the film dives into the mind of this élite sportsman who has spent the later part of his career perfecting the mental strength needed to perform so expertly in the face of extraordinary pressure. We witness the world of high performance sport through the eyes of this legendary player, who still sees himself as an ‘ordinary guy’ from small town New Zealand.

“This is a rare window into the life of New Zealand’s most famous son, who until now has maintained a very private life in the public eye.”

MARCH 2: Oh Lucy! (dir. Atsuko Hirayanagi) (DP: Paula Huidobro)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Oh Lucy! follows Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima in an Independent Spirit Award-nominated performance), a single, emotionally unfulfilled woman, seemingly stuck with a drab, meaningless life in Tokyo. At least until she’s convinced by her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna, Deadpool 2), to enroll in an unorthodox English class that requires her to wear a blonde wig and take on an American alter ego named ‘Lucy.’ The new identity awakens something dormant in Setsuko, and she quickly develops romantic feelings for her American instructor, John (Josh Hartnett, Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’). When John suddenly disappears from class, Setsuko travels halfway around the world in search of him, and in the outskirts of Southern California, family ties and past lives are tested as she struggles to preserve the dream and promise of ‘Lucy.'”

MARCH 2 (NYC), MARCH 16 (LA): Souvenir (dir. Bavo Defurne) (DPs: Philippe Guilbert and Virginie Saint-Martin)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Piers Handling: “Isabelle Huppert can do no wrong these days. Her appetite for taking on a variety of different roles with a wide range of directors is exemplary. Well into her fifth decade as an actor, she has created a filmography second to none. With Souvenir she again shows how willing she is to challenge, explore, and expand her artistry.

“Here she plays Liliane, an apparently innocuous worker in a pâté factory. Quiet and unassuming, she is a model employee, happily putting in a day’s work with no fuss. Her job is mechanical and repetitive, but that suits her fine. At quitting time she returns home to sit on the couch and watch TV. Then, one day, a new worker joins the team. Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a young man who boxes in his spare time, is like a breath of fresh air and, intrigued by Liliane, is eager to become her friend. A platonic relationship forms and Liliane begins to enjoy the relief Jean offers from her previous homebody existence. But, as the two see more of each other, he grows convinced that she is not who she says she is: he thinks he saw her on television when he was young. Liliane denies it — until circumstances force her to confront his insistence about her past.

“This unusual relationship drama is handled exquisitely by director Bavo Defurne, who guides the film forward so subtly that its understatement becomes, alongside Huppert, its greatest strength.

“Plot never overwhelms character in Souvenir as it turns into a beautifully observed battle of perspectives between two friends at distinctly different points in their lives: the young optimist versus the jaded cynic who has stared disappointment in the face before.”

MARCH 2 (NYC), MARCH 9 (LA and other cities): Submission (dir. Richard Levine) (DP: Hillary Spera)LA Film Festival synopsis by Roya Rastegar: “Professor Ted Swenson is a celebrated novelist, admired colleague and loving husband. When an ambitious and talented student shares her provocative writing with him, boundaries begin to blur between teacher and student. Swenson’s unresolved personal conflicts manifest and he finds himself unexpectedly losing his sense of self, as he begins a self-destructive obsession with his student.

“Based on the best-selling book Blue Angel by Francine Prose, and adapted by highly acclaimed film and television writer/director Richard Levine, this suspenseful drama features strong performances from Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick and Janeane Garofalo. The resulting film deftly blends comedy and controversy in its risqué portrayal of academic scandal and the traps of political correctness.”

MARCH 9: The Homeless Chorus Speaks (dir. Susan Polis Schutz)Cinema Village synopsis:The Homeless Chorus Speaks is a compelling documentary that creatively depicts a critical and timely social issue: people living without support and shelter. Using a unique community choir (Voices of Our City Choir) as a vehicle to tell the stories of people suffering with homelessness, the film — like all of Susan Polis Schutz’s documentaries — effectively puts a human face on a crucial problem and makes it strikingly clear just how easily someone can end up living on the streets.”

MARCH 9 (NYC), MARCH 16 (LA): Itzhak (dir. Alison Chernick)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “From Schubert to Strauss, Bach to Brahms, Mozart to…Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman’s violin playing transcends mere performance to evoke the celebrations and struggles of real life; ‘praying with the violin,’ says renowned Tel Aviv violinmaker Amnon Weinstein. Alison Chernick’s enchanting documentary looks beyond the sublime musician, to see the polio survivor whose parents emigrated from Poland to Israel, the young man who struggled to be taken seriously as a music student when schools saw only his disability. As charming and entrancing as the famous violinist himself, Itzhak is a portrait of musical virtuosity seamlessly enclosed in warmth, humor, and above all, love.”

MARCH 9 (LA), MARCH 16 (NYC): Our Blood Is Wine (dir./DP: Emily Railsback)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “Filmmaker Emily Railsback and award-winning sommelier Jeremy Quinn provide intimate access to rural family life in the Republic of Georgia as they explore the rebirth of 8,000 year old winemaking traditions almost lost during the period of Soviet rule. By using unobtrusive iPhone technology, Railsback brings the voices and ancestral legacies of modern Georgians directly to the viewer, revealing an intricate and resilient society that has survived regular foreign invasion and repeated attempts to erase Georgian culture. The revival of traditional winemaking is the central force driving the powerful, independent and autonomous nation to find its 21st century identity.”

MARCH 9 (streaming on Netflix): The Outsider (dir. Martin Zandvliet) (DP: Camilla Hjelm)Bloom Media synopsis: “A lone wolf bathed in the neon lights of post-war Japan, U.S. Army deserter Nick Lowell (Jared Leto) is released from jail and unleashed on an unforgiving city. Standing before him: a nation in conflict where concrete streets are paved over old world traditions with the oil and blood of modern industry. Traditional Yakuza families – once heirs to the Samurai code – clash with their contemporary rivals, led by ruthless street thugs.

“Aimless and haunted by regret, Nick sets out to repay a debt to his prison cellmate Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) and the old Osaka family that bought his freedom. An unlikely student of the rituals and teachings of old Yakuza, Nick’s ruthless drive drags him deeper and deeper into the Japanese underworld, where a forbidden love affair threatens his brotherhood. When war breaks out with a rival crime family, it’s Nick’s unflinching loyalty and warrior instincts that protect his new family in the face of annihilation.”

MARCH 9: A Wrinkle in Time (dir. Ava DuVernay)Walt Disney Pictures synopsis, via Rotten Tomatoes: “Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a typical middle school student struggling with issues of self-worth who is desperate to fit in. As the daughter of two world-renowned physicists, she is intelligent and uniquely gifted, as is Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), but she has yet to realize it for herself. Making matters even worse is the baffling disappearance of Mr. Murry (Chris Pine), which torments Meg and has left her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) heartbroken. Charles Wallace introduces Meg and her fellow classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) to three celestial guides-Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling)-who have journeyed to Earth to help search for their father, and together they set off on their formidable quest. Traveling via a wrinkling of time and space known as tessering, they are soon transported to worlds beyond their imagination where they must confront a powerful evil. To make it back home to Earth, Meg must look deep within herself and embrace her flaws to harness the strength necessary to defeat the darkness closing in on them.”

MARCH 16 (in theaters & on demand): Allure (dirs. Carlos Sanchez and Jason Sanchez) (DP: Sara Mishara)Samuel Goldwyn Films synopsis: “Laura (Evan Rachel Wood) works as a house cleaner for her father’s company but her personal life is not so pristine. Rough around the edges, looking for love in all the wrong places, her heartbreaking behavior points to hardships of the past. One day on the job, in yet another house, Laura meets Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), a quiet teenager unhappy with her disciplined life. In Eva, Laura rediscovers an innocent tenderness. In Laura, Eva finds a thrilling rebel who can bring her into unknown territories. The mutual attraction soon morphs into obsession as Laura convinces Eva to run away and secretly come live with her, perilously raising the stakes for the young, impressionable girl as Laura’s emotional instability becomes increasingly clear. As their world closes in, they must unearth certain truths to find a way out.”

MARCH 16 (in theaters & on digital platforms), APRIL 24 (DVD): Dear Dictator (formerly titled Coup d’Etat) (dirs. Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse)The Hollywood Reporter’s Napa Valley Film Festival review by Justin Lowe: “Whether it’s crazed Communists threatening to rain nukes on half the planet or overgrown frat boys bullying the other half of the world into cowering submission, there’s not much humor to be found in contemporary world affairs. Clearly what’s needed is a pointed satire highlighting the inherent absurdity governing global politics today, and Coup d’Etat may just fit the bill.

“Equating a long-simmering political rebellion with the war zone that is the American public high school system, Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse’s feature creatively cribs from the Mean Girls and Election playbooks, humorously skewering international despots just as gleefully as teen queen bees.

“Recognizing that high school freshmen make for overly familiar targets, the filmmakers instead single out sophomore and sworn rebel Tatiana Mills (Odeya Rush). Tat has a problem, or more precisely, several of them: the three super-popular girls led by Sarvia (Fish Myrr) who call themselves the ‘slushies,’ a mashup of ‘sluts’ and ‘lushes.’ Inspired as this moniker may be, the real problem is that the trio doesn’t really live up to their chosen representation, neither hooking up nor drinking up with any regularity, so it’s no wonder Tat remains convinced that they’ve got no business ruling the school. However, their constant humiliations to ensure that Tatiana remains relegated to outsider status aren’t just totally annoying, they’re totally succeeding.

“Shunned by most of her classmates for her vaguely anarchist leanings and devotion to classic hardcore punk, Tat’s not about to attain prom queen status anytime soon. And while that’s totally okay with her, her single mother Darlene (Katie Holmes) would prefer if she’d try rounding off some of her rougher edges, but that would mean giving up her self-consciously alternative fashion choices and surly attitude. So in her continuing campaign to foment disruption, Tat begins a regular correspondence with reviled Caribbean dictator General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine) as a tactic to hijack a class assignment ineptly conceived by her social studies teacher (Jason Biggs). Surprisingly, Vincent responds to Tat’s handwritten missives enthusiastically, as they begin a frequent exchange of letters, vociferously sharing complaints about their perceived rivals and opponents.

“When one imagines Caine as an international villain (a highly entertaining undertaking even in itself), he’d likely be an erudite, Bond-worthy operator, not the scruffy communist strongman with a straggly gray Castro beard that General Vincent is made out to be. Caine of course plays the strongman as an entitled, misunderstood borderline psychopath badly in need of some real-world readjustment.

“So when Vincent’s violent and corrupt government collapses under assault by U.S.-backed rebels, he flees to the only safe haven he’s sure is totally under the radar: Tatiana’s suburban Georgia home. Shocked to find her pen pal skulking around outside her house, Tat secretly takes him in, right under her mother’s nose. They rapidly form an unexpected alliance after she agrees to help Vincent regain control of his country and in return, he promises to coach her on how she can single-handedly subjugate her classmates.

“Although dominating high school social circles may not compare with the widespread suppression of human rights in an island backwater, Tatiana and General Vincent have a good deal in common, from their disdain for posers to their appreciation for a good takedown. Rush, who’s been gradually gaining momentum with several indie releases this year (including a supporting role in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird), latches onto Tatiana’s rebellious antisocial campaign with enthusiasm. Although she mostly plays it straight, she’s not above taking a pratfall or two as Addario and Syracuse mix in some slapstick along with all of the political agitation.

“Admittedly, these scenes can’t touch shots of Caine attired in an ill-fitting tracksuit and wearing a ridiculously inadequate wig and moustache disguise, or furiously riding an adult three-wheeler in front of rear-projected street scenes. Caine, in fact, hasn’t had a chance to push a performance this far into the realm of absurdity in quite some time. So it’s a delight to watch him take on this caricature of an unhinged strongman with abundant brio and apparent conviction, even if events may lead General Vincent in unexpected directions. Holmes slips smoothly back into a substantial comedic role by rejecting the humiliations thrust upon her by her creepy boss (Seth Green) and finding the determination to stand up for her nonconformist daughter.

“Married writing-directing team Syracuse and Addario, who experienced a bit of a misfire with 2016’s Amateur Night, prove they can totally bring it with Coup d’Etat (even inserting a play on Tatiana’s nickname in the title). Playful, irreverent and unafraid to be politically incorrect, the pair script with assurance and direct with stylish understatement, pairing character and physical comedy to entertaining effect.”

MARCH 16: Flower (dir. Max Winkler) (DP: Carolina Costa)The Orchard synopsis: “Rebellious, quick-witted Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch) is a 17-year-old firecracker living with her single mom Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) and mom’s new boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker) in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. When Bob’s mentally unbalanced son Luke (Joey Morgan) arrives from rehab to live with the family, Erica finds her domestic and personal life overwhelmed. With Luke and her sidekicks Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) in tow, Erica acts out by exposing a dark secret of high-school teacher Will (Adam Scott), with perilous results; their teenage kicks become a catalyst for growing up in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Mixing dark comedy and teenage angst writer-director Max Winkler (Ceremony) and co-writer Matt Spicer (Ingrid Goes West) re-imagine an unproduced script by Alex McAulay, creating a star vehicle for blossoming talent Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall, Why Him?) and elevating the teen movie to new heights.”

MARCH 16: Furlough (dir. Laurie Collyer) (DP: Bérénice Eveno)IFC Center synopsis: “The latest comedy by Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby), taking a spin on the road movie. When a rowdy inmate (Melissa Leo) gets one weekend out of prison to visit her ailing mother, the rookie corrections officer (Tessa Thompson) assigned to keep an eye on her struggles to keep her in line during their emergency furlough. With Whoopi Goldberg, Anna Paquin, Edgar Ramirez, and La La Anthony.”

MARCH 16: Josie (dir. Eric England) (DP: Zoe White)Cinema Village synopsis: “Hank (Dylan McDermott), a solitary man living a dull existence in the sleepy, Southern town raises eyebrows when he develops a questionable relationship with Josie (Sophie Turner), a recently transplanted high school student.”

MARCH 16 (NYC), MARCH 23 (LA): Keep the Change (dir. Rachel Israel)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Free of cynicism and full of wit and warmth, this offbeat comedy charts the romance between tactless David (Brandon Polansky) and ultra-sunny Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who meet at a social program for adults with autism in New York. He has no interest in being there and she has a penchant for clichés that drive him crazy. But antagonism eventually gives way to attraction and writer/director Israel’s unfussy embrace of her characters’ quirks is as refreshing as it is subtly radical. With a perfectly cast Jessica Walter as David’s judgmental mother.”

MARCH 16: Maineland (dir. Miao Wang)SXSW synopsis: “Filmed over three years in China and the U.S., Maineland is a multi-layered coming-of-age tale that follows two teenagers of China’s wealthy elite as they settle into a boarding school in blue-collar rural Maine. Part of the enormous wave of “parachute students” enrolling in U.S. private schools, bubbly, fun-loving Stella and introspective Harry come seeking a Western-style education, escape from the dreaded Chinese college entrance exam, and the promise of a Hollywood-style U.S. high school experience. But as their fuzzy visions of the American dream slowly gain more clarity, worlds collide as their relationship to home and country takes on a surprisingly poignant new aspect.”

MARCH 16 (streaming on Netflix): Take Your Pills (dir. Alison Klayman) (DP: Julia Liu)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “The pressure to achieve more, do more, and be more is part of being human –  and in the age of Adderall and Ritalin, achieving that can be as close as the local pharmacy. No longer just ‘a cure for excitable kids,’ prescription stimulants are in college classrooms, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley…any place ‘the need to succeed’ slams into ‘not enough hours in the day.’ But there are costs. In the insightful Netflix documentary Take Your Pills, award-winning documentarian Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) focuses on the history, the facts, and the pervasiveness of cognitive-enhancement drugs in our amped-up era of late-stage-capitalism. Executive produced by Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger, Take Your Pills examines what some view as a brave new world of limitless possibilities, and others see as a sped-up ride down a synaptic slippery slope, as these pills have become the defining drug of a generation.”

MARCH 23 (NYC and LA), APRIL (other cities): Beauty and the Dogs (dirs. Khaled Walid Barsaoui and Kaouther Ben Hania)Oscilloscope Laboratories synopsis: “When Mariam, a young Tunisian woman, is raped by police officers after leaving a party, she is propelled into a harrowing night in which she must fight for her rights even though justice lies on the side of her tormentors. Employing impressive cinematic techniques and anchored by a tour-de-force performance from newcomer Mariam Al Ferjani, Kaouther Ben Hania’s Beauty and the Dogs tells an urgent, unapologetic, and important story head-on. A rare, startling film from a female Tunisian director, it’s a striking critique on a repressive society and a forcefully feminist rallying cry.”

MARCH 23: Ismael’s Ghosts (dir. Arnaud Desplechin) (DP: Irina Lubtchansky)Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “Phantoms swirl around Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a filmmaker in the throes of writing a spy thriller based on the unlikely escapades of his brother, Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). His only true source of stability, his relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is upended, as is the life of his Jewish documentarian mentor and father-in-law (László Szabó), when Ismael’s wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who disappeared twenty years earlier, returns, and, like one of Hitchcock’s fragile, delusional femmes fatales, expects that her husband and father are still in thrall to her. A brilliant shape-shifter—part farce, part melodrama—Ismael’s Ghosts is finally about the process of creating a work of art and all the madness that requires.”

MARCH 23 (in theaters & on VOD): Madame (dir. Amanda Sthers)Blue Fox Entertainment synopsis: “Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel), a well-to-do American couple, have just moved to a beautiful manor house in romantic Paris. To impress their sophisticated friends, they decide to host a lavish dinner party, but must disguise their maid (Rossy de Palma) as a noblewoman to even out the number of guests. When the maid runs off with a wealthy guest, Anne must chase her around Paris to thwart the joyous and unexpected love affair.”

MARCH 28: The Gardener (dir. Sébastien Chabot) (DPs: Sébastien Chabot and Geneviève Ringuet)The Landmark at 57 West synopsis: “The new documentary The Gardener reflects on the meaning of gardening and its impacts on our lives. Shortly before his passing at the age of 86, influential gardener and horticulturalist Frank Cabot recounts his personal quest for perfection at Les Quatre Vents, his twenty-acre English style garden and summer estate that was opened to a film crew for the first time ever in 2009. Nestled amongst the rolling hills of the Charlevoix County in Quebec, Les Quatre Vents has become one of the world’s foremost private gardens. Created over 75 years and three generations, it is an enchanted place of beauty and surprise, a horticultural masterpiece of the 21st century. Through the words of Cabot and his family, and with the participation of gardening experts and writers, the film looks back at this remarkable man’s personal story and the artistic philosophy that gave birth to one of the greatest gardens in the world.”

MARCH 30 (in theaters & on VOD): All I Wish (dir. Susan Walter)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “Senna Berges (Sharon Stone), a free-spirited designer, lives on the edge. Despite attempts by her strong-willed mother (Ellen Burstyn) to get her to settle down, Senna charts a chaotic path and seems destined for a life of disappointment. Then…at her 46th birthday Senna meets Adam (Tony Goldwyn), a charismatic lawyer who connects with her in the most powerful and profound way. True to form, Senna screws and happiness is not to be. But when Senna and Adam serendipitously reunite a year later at her 47th birthday party, Senna’s luck changes with the opportunity to find true love again.”

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MARCH 30 (in theaters & on VOD): Birthmarked (dir. Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais) (DP: Josée Deshaies)Vertical Entertainment synopsis: “Two respected scientists (Toni Collette, Matthew Goode) decide to quit their jobs for their biggest experiment to date – parenthood! Raising three very different children, they seek to prove that everyone has the same potential to become anything they choose.”

MARCH 30 (in theaters), APRIL 3 (digital platforms): Outside In (dir. Lynn Shelton)IndieWire’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “Lynn Shelton is the rare American filmmaker to oscillate between contemplative dramas (We Go Way Back, Touchy Feely) and playful situational comedies (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister). As such, her filmmaking voice — discounting the prolific TV direction of the last few years — extends across multiple genres and doesn’t really fit into any of them.

“Her latest, Outside In, is another somber, low-key drama, but its premise could just as easily work as cringe comedy. Both modes operate in service of minimalist character studies about people desperate for companionship, who hover on the verge of bad decisions in their attempts to set things right. Shelton’s work is understated, but elevates seemingly forgettable scenarios with a wise, humane approach that makes even a lesser work like Outside In a cut above the market standard.

“Jay Duplass and Edie Falco anchor the movie with some of the very best performances in both of their careers. As the story begins, Chris (Duplass) has been released from prison in Washington, where he’s been incarcerated for 20 years on vague charges. He’s 40 years old and alienated from the only community he’s ever known, but finds one bright light in the quiet small town: Carol (Falco), his old high-school teacher, with whom he has stayed in touch over the years.

“The pair developed a bond as Chris grew up behind bars that suggests a forbidden romance has started to take shape before the movie begins; once back in town, it’s only a matter of time before their romantic chemistry starts to evolve. Carol’s trapped in a loveless marriage, while butting heads with her rebellious daughter Hildy (Kaitlin Dever), and Chris represents an escape from the mundanity of her life. But he’s also a threat to that very same stability.

“This conundrum unfolds under pretty routine circumstances, but that only allows its actors to enrich the material with a profound degree of credibility. Falco, so often a loud and combative screen presence, gives her most fragile, heartfelt performance, with her somber eyes and frozen half-smile defining the tone of the movie as whole. Duplass, meanwhile, maintains a spacey detachment throughout that exudes the sense of disconnection his character experiences from the world around him. It’s a quietly tragic performance in a movie that relishes that mood.

“Shelton follows these characters through a series of whispered conversations and confrontations about whether or not they stand a chance together. In the process, Outside In works through the morality of their bond, and even as it builds its momentum around a fundamental question — will they or won’t they? — it doesn’t arrive at any firm answers, carrying the narrative along with a contemplative air. Nothing shocking or groundbreaking happens over the course of its somewhat overlong 109 minutes. But it maintains a remarkable consistency to the way in which it explores the dynamic of Carol’s uneven family life and Chris’ potential to screw things up on the path to rebuilding his life.

“Shelton finds a subtle poetry in small moments, from a prolonged shot of Chris speeding through the neighborhood on his bike, enjoying his newfound freedom, to Carol gazing out at a rainy landscape. These scenes enrich the mounting desires at the root of the movie, and deepen its themes, but they also help root the movie in a precise space. The Pacific Northwest, which serves as the backdrop for all of Shelton’s work, serves as an ideal setting for this subdued portrait of suburban discontent.

Outside In was produced by Netflix, and it seems to have been conceived with the platform in mind. It’s the paragon of Netflix filmmaking done right: Despite its lush visuals, the movie could work just as well on the small screen, and its plot hardly demands anything more than the feature-length treatment. You wouldn’t want to binge on multiple episodes of this story, but as a snapshot of genuine emotion, it goes on just long enough.”

Desire and Destruction: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Todd Haynes’ rock n’ roll drama Velvet Goldmine is not just a queer cult classic; it is a magnificently queer cult classic, draped in luxurious fabrics and tarted up in glittery eyeshadow and lipstick for all the world to gaze at adoringly. Quite a few viewers over the years have misunderstood the film as a David Bowie biopic, but in actuality it’s more of a tribute to the experience of loving the glam rock music movement itself. Excessive indulgence was the name of the game for Bowie, Iggy Pop (The Stooges), Marc Bolan (T. Rex), Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music), Brian Eno, Lou Reed and everyone in the New York Dolls, so of course that’s also the case for the characters in this film. The mystery at the heart of Velvet – the rise, fall and subsequent disappearance of Venus in Furs frontman Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) – borrows details from the lives of many of the aforementioned musicians, plus a little Jobriath thrown in for good measure.

Brian is the object of lust at the center of Velvet’s universe, but the story is primarily seen through the eyes of a fan, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), whose repressed gay adolescence was given release when glam rock revolutionized the look and sound of the music scene’s young idols. Arthur was fortunate to be present at a few vitally important concerts in Brian’s heyday, most notably the one that involved a shocking assassination-by-gunshot attempt. The incident was quickly revealed to have been a hoax cooked up by his management, a stunt that put an end to Brian’s career. (This is one of the character’s main similarities with Jobriath, who, like Brian Slade, was an openly gay rock star. Jobriath was touted as America’s answer to Bowie, but lost public favor following a huge buildup of hype and a ridiculously extravagant set of tour plans that never materialized. The other similarity is in their album covers.) On the ten-year anniversary of the “shooting,” in 1984, Arthur is working as a journalist in New York and he is tasked with finding out whatever became of the former star. Thus begins an odyssey into his and Brian’s pasts, like Citizen Kane with feather boas.

Like a proverbial phoenix, Brian Slade ascends from hippie singer-songwriter with flowing locks to a spiky-haired glam god singing about spaceships from the POV of his Ziggy Stardust-style alter ego, Maxwell Demon. Brian’s manager, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), raises his meal ticket’s popularity with young Brits to a fever pitch; of more significant importance to Brian, however, is that he meets American glam-punk rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Modeled on Iggy Pop yet bearing a disconcerting physical resemblance to Kurt Cobain, Curt Wild is a raucous American rebel who inspires Brian’s professional imagination as well as his infatuation. The pair embark on a passionate affair, which drives a wedge between Brian and his party-girl wife, Mandy (Toni Collette, deftly utilizing a mixture of American and phony-English accents à la Angela Bowie). Unlike the real Bowie’s negation of his bisexuality (as a “closet heterosexual”) years after the glam rock era had ended, Brian’s sexual fluidity is never portrayed as a stage act.

As Arthur gets closer to the truth of what happened to Brian in the wake of the murder hoax – naturally, this Icarus’s burnout includes a downward spiral into heroin addiction – the film asks us to consider the malleability of identity and image, particularly with regard to celebrity and artists’ neverending battle between authenticity and artifice. Glam rock was a genre of reinvention for singers in the 1970s, seen most famously in David Bowie’s multiple personae during that decade; over the course of Velvet Goldmine, Brian Slade and Arthur Stuart undergo major changes, both cosmetically (Brian’s ever-evolving hair and makeup, Arthur’s growing ease with dressing in a glammed-up fashion) and sexually. Emotionally, the two men are each other’s foils, with the depth of Arthur’s personal journey contrasting sharply with Brian, about whom we never learn quite enough to get a true sense of his inner self. But in the end, maybe that’s for the best. In our current age of TMI, the idea of a glam rock supernova who rarely discloses his most private thoughts is tantalizing. For all we know, there’s not much going on underneath the androgynously pretty façade, which wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, this is a film fixated on The Picture of Dorian Gray’s symbolism, the mythology of Oscar Wilde himself and the concept that Wilde might have been an alien sent to Earth to share his literally stellar witticisms.

From shot to shot, the aesthetics of the film keep the viewer’s eye roving constantly. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography brings out the dazzling colors in Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costume design, the makeup/hair design by Peter King, the production design by Christopher Hobbs and the art direction by Andrew Munro. The whole shebang is held together with the editing by James Lyons, who also co-wrote the film’s story with Todd Haynes; Lyons excels in the film’s exuberant opening credits sequence, set to Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” and a later montage in which Brian and Arthur performing Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” onstage is interwoven with scenes of Arthur masturbating to a newspaper photo of both men kissing in front of paparazzi.

It should also go without saying that the soundtrack is wall-to-wall brilliance. Even though David Bowie refused to give Todd Haynes the rights to use the song “Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes succeeds gloriously with tracks by Brian Eno, Slade (a nice joke on the director’s part), Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Grant Lee Buffalo, T. Rex, Lou Reed and Steve Harley; covers interpreted by Thom Yorke (who does a spot-on Bryan Ferry impression on Roxy’s “2HB”) and Placebo (Brian Molko has a small role as a flashy entertainer at a couple of gigs); and original tunes performed by Shudder to Think and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the latter showcasing a charmingly nasal, un-singer-like quality to his vocals. Arguably it’s a bit distracting that so many artists with noticeably different voices perform in the guise of Brian Slade, but the recordings are great enough that it doesn’t end up mattering. Additionally, Ewan McGregor does all of his own vocals as Curt Wild, which works especially well when he covers Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger.” McGregor’s erotically charged presence is undeniable. It’s a shame that we never learn anything about Curt Wild’s background or the direction his career took post-Brian Slade, but maybe Todd Haynes felt that there was already plenty going on in the plot.

Velvet Goldmine is a film that may take more than one viewing for its meanings to sink again. Certainly it’s more fun the second time around, making it easier to recognize the various moments of foreshadowing and other amusing details that pop up throughout the narrative. It’s a tale founded on a dangerously symbiotic relationship between desire and destruction, but there is also immense pleasure in appreciating the technical craft that makes Haynes’ work electric, reveling in every joyously gaudy frock and screeching guitar riff.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: February 2018

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Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (right) with director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler on the set of Black Panther, 2017. (Photo: Lisa Satriano)

Here are twelve new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this February, 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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FEBRUARY 2: Before We Vanish (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) (DP: Akiko Ashizawa)RogerEbert.com review by Simon Abrams: “There’s a lot of dead air in the endearingly eccentric Japanese science-fiction thriller Before We Vanish. That’s bound to be a deal-breaker for many viewers given that this film clocks in at 130 minutes, and feels like it could easily be half as long. Then again, you shouldn’t really expect much story or character development from this Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like alien invasion drama. Think of Before We Vanish as a very laid back hang-out movie that often coasts on off-kilter charm, and is frequently buoyed by basic, but stirring ideas that co-writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Tokyo Sonata) executes with characteristic flair. It’s an unsettling, and sometimes high-concept doodle, but it’s awfully hard to resist a film that marries Atomic Age paranoia and optimism with Kurosawa’s signature post-modern, atmosphere-intensive style.

“The plot, co-adapted with Sachiko Tanaka from Tomohiro Maekwa’s source play, is simple enough. Three aliens crash-land on Earth shortly before a planned planet-wide invasion. We are told this by the three disoriented Pod People in question: Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), and Amano (Mahiro Takasugi). But that’s almost all we know for sure about these extra-terrestrials for a while since getting straight answers from Shinji’s group is rather difficult. Shinji and his fellow E.T.s latch on to human by-standers, like Shinji’s perplexed wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and cynical reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), because they don’t understand complex concepts, and are therefore easily confused, and sidetracked. Then again, dispelling that confusion seems to be these aliens’s true purpose. They spend much of their time trying to understand complex concepts like ‘ownership’ and ‘family.’ The aliens learn by a bizarre psychic process that allows them to mentally absorb big ideas from reluctant humans’ brains. But once the transfer is complete, the human victim instantly forget whatever abstract theories were taken from them.

“Kurosawa and Tanaka run a fair distance with that tantalizing concept: what happens to people when they’re no longer sure of their character-defining obligations? The first couple of brain-washed humans are all happy, but useless in a society that they no longer mindlessly, but pragmatically devote themselves to. For example: Narumi’s boss has a childish tantrum after he forgets about his inhumane profit-driven concept of ‘work.’ But that reaction is too close to the experience of the man who prowls the streets with a crazed, child-like grin after he’s liberated of the concept of ‘ownership.’ And that response is too close to the one had by an unhinged middle-aged woman who now no longer remembers what ‘family’ is. We get it, we are prisoners of our beliefs. What now?

“Soon, the aliens and their warily sympathetic human guides start to bond, though sometimes for unclear reasons. In one of the film’s biggest highlights, Sakurai tries to warn his fellow humans of the impending invasion. He tells a crowd of dazed on-lookers exactly what’s happening: aliens are coming, and they’re taking the values that we hold most dear. Everybody stares blankly at him, as if to suggest that we are, in fact, the real pod people. This is the kind of scene that’s either ultimately childish or inspiring, depending on how well-executed it is. Thankfully, Kurosawa intuitively emphasizes Tsunematsu’s stiff body language, and the blank expressions on the people that Sakurai addresses. I was reminded of the iconic scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart collapses right after he’s practically buried alive in a mountain of constituents’ letters. Kurosawa’s scene is crucial in a similar way: this is the moment where despair finally gives way to a transporting optimism that carries the film to its corny, but well-executed finale.

“Some viewers might not like the way that the tone of Before We Vanish often drifts between emotional extremes. Some might not enjoy the arch tone of the film’s more unabashedly hopeful scenes. Some will want more naturalistic dialogue, or a more well-rounded narrative. I can’t blame them, or tell them they’re wrong for wanting what they want. But I will recommend Before We Vanish anyway, just because its naive hopefulness is infectious, and its big ideas are captivating. This is the kind of movie that’s destined to inspire a hardcore cult of fans, and will maybe even lead the next generation of genre filmmakers to tinker with their own big ideas. A little dead air is a small price to pay for that kind of lingering happiness.”

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FEBRUARY 2 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): On Body and Soul (dir. Ildikó Enyedi)Decider review by Joe Reid: “At times, On Body and Soul plays like a parody of the kind of foreign-language film you expect to see nominated at the Oscars. There’s a sparse, wintry eastern European locale, full of hard, grim-faced individuals who work inside the cold concrete environs of, in this case, a slaughterhouse. Juxtaposed with this kind of institutional Hungarian drudgery, though, are dream scenes where two deer meet in the middle of a wonderfully picturesque woods. These dreams, we soon discover, are the shared experiences of two employees: Endre (Géza Morcsányi), an older man who’s the manager of the slaughterhouse, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), an aloof, newly-hired young quality-control supervisor. There is no conventional way that you’d expect these two characters to end up in a love story, which is where the shared dreams of being deer come in.

On Body and Soul is going to be a leap for anyone looking for a typical love story. Calling it a ‘love story’ at all pretty much misses the point. It’s more a story about alienation and the randomness that comes with making a connection with someone. What director Ildiko Enyedi does rather beautifully is take the mundane day-to-day that these characters are living and depict it so precisely that the imprecise nature of dream connections and love feel all the more ephemeral.

“With the story of Endre and Mária so ephemeral, Enyedi’s most indelible sequences involve everything around them. One particularly scene lingers in gory detail on the slaughtering and dismembering of a cow. It’s very much not easy to watch, but it’s tough to say it doesn’t do the job when it comes to showing the casual brutality of a world where we all rather hilariously attempt to find something as elevating as love.

“The great thing about the foreign-language category at the Oscars is that it pushes American moviegoers, even those who imagine themselves to be particularly dedicated, adventurous cinephiles, to step outside of the American filmmaking mores and dip into filmmaking styles they’re unfamiliar with. This year, there are offerings from Chile, Lebanon, Russia, and Sweden, and the cross-section of styles (and filmmakers). On Body and Soul might be the most singular and strange film of the bunch, and it’s not the easiest to cozy up to. Loveless, the Russian entry, is remote and chilly, too, but there’s something purposefully impenetrable about the relationship at the center of On Body and Soul. Particularly for a film that wants so much to be about this unlikely connection between them. But I keep going back to those scenes of the deer in the woods and how much more breathtaking and magical they are. They’re an escape in the most wonderful way. They’re what will make you sit up and take notice.”

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FEBRUARY 9 (in theaters and on VOD): Becks (dirs. Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh) (DP: Kat Westergaard)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “Inspired by the real life of singer/songwriter Alyssa Robbins, Becks follows a musician (Lena Hall) who moves back to her childhood home in St. Louis after a crushing breakup with her longtime girlfriend. While performing for tips at a local tavern and struggling to reconnect with her ultra-Catholic mother, she strikes up a unique friendship with the wife of an old nemesis. Becks begins to discover her musical voice as she performs deeply personal songs about her ex and the loss of their relationship. Driven by an original score, the film’s musical numbers bring a unique new voice to the American musical movie.”

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FEBRUARY 9: The Female Brain (dir. Whitney Cummings)IFC Center synopsis: “What makes a woman swipe right for Mr. Wrong and left for Mr. Right? This simultaneously entertaining and enlightening comedy is a fresh, witty, and all-too-relatable look at the real-life science behind our (often regrettable) romantic impulses. Writer-director Whitney Cummings (‘2 Broke Girls’) stars as no-nonsense neuroscientist Julia, whose research into the biochemistry of the female brain is illustrated by three couples: newlyweds Zoe (Cecily Strong) and Greg (Blake Griffin), whose career troubles seep into their relationship; Lisa (Sofía Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole), who are looking to spice up their stuck-in-a-rut marriage; and Lexi (Lucy Punch) who can’t help trying to change her boyfriend Adam (James Marsden). Meanwhile, the straight-laced Julia’s own synapses start to fire when a handsome new subject (Toby Kebbell) joins her study…”

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FEBRUARY 9: The Peacemaker (dir. James Demo) (DPs: Beth Balaban, Kevin Belli, James Demo, Mike Hechanova and Sarah Levy)New York Times review by Glenn Kenny: “Padraig O’Malley is a scholar and what one might call an amateur diplomat. He is the peacemaker of this film’s title. The documentary, directed by James Demo, is not a portrait of an idealist. The Irish-born Mr. O’Malley is an often dour man, and when he speaks of his work, there are no stars in his eyes. One of his recent books, about Israel and Palestine, is called The Two State Delusion. In negotiation, as the movie shows, he is pragmatic, focused and often steely.

“His story is an unusual one, which the director unspools by showing Mr. O’Malley first in a war-torn Iraq, then in the streets of Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches. (He travels so frequently he calls no place ‘home’). He enters a church, and we soon understand he’s in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Filming an A.A. meeting isn’t exactly kosher, but Mr. Demo doesn’t show the faces of the other attendees. (It’s not quite clear that this session hasn’t been staged specifically for the movie.)

“A good part of the picture relies on Mr. O’Malley’s account of his life with and without the bottle — members call it a ‘qualification’ — during this A.A. gathering. He tells how he started in conflict mediation when, in the early ’70s, he bought a Cambridge bar and funneled its revenue into hosting a negotiation between warring factions of Northern Ireland — a first for these groups.

“‘I don’t love anybody,’ the lanky, white-haired Mr. O’Malley admits during one interview segment. It’s his peculiar detachment, perhaps, that makes him good at what he does, even when the summits he hosts — he spent years in Iraq and in South Africa — yield nothing more than agreements on bilingual street signs. The movie is a fascinating portrait that is if anything too brief.”

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FEBRUARY 9 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Seeing Allred (dirs. Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain)The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by Daniel Fienberg: “Utterly and passionately hagiographic, the documentary Seeing Allred presents 96 minutes of reasons to stand and cheer for celebrated feminist lawyer Gloria Allred.

“That means, of course, that for ultra-conservative lovers of Netflix documentaries, it’s doubtful that Seeing Allred is going to dramatically change any opinions about her.

“For people with more tempered views on the notorious attorney, Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman’s documentary leaves a lot of questions unasked and tiptoes around plenty of other relevant conversations, but in its presentation of a career-in-full, it advocates persuasively for this advocate.

Seeing Allred, premiering as part of the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance, feels like the film Allred would want a documentary about her to be.

“‘I think I’m very well understood by many people,’ she says before the film’s title card appears. And what of those who go out of their way not to understand her? ‘I don’t really care,’ she says, believably.

“Sartain and Grossman’s access to Allred began as the criminal accusations against Bill Cosby were starting to reach critical mass. It’s a perfect storm case for both Allred supporters and detractors, because she orchestrated a steady stream of press conferences relating to charges that were outside of the statute of limitations — the sort of thing that has always led to sniveling criticisms of opportunism and self-aggrandizement.

“The directors’ goal isn’t to debunk those slurs or to get Allred herself to debunk them. At the most, we get a couple variations on, ‘If she were a man, nobody would look at these qualities as negatives.’

“When Allred says she doesn’t care what people who don’t like her think, either that was a mantra she continued in interviews or it scared the directors off. Or maybe it didn’t interest the directors to know what she thinks about being lampooned by The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live or right-wing pundits. And they very much weren’t interested in asking her to defend herself, which is entirely fair. It’s left for one of the myriad admiring talking heads — even occasionally adversarial colleagues/pundits like Greta Van Susteren and Alan Dershowitz offer only respect here — to mention that for all of the perception of Allred working in a constantly publicized realm, most of her employment cases we hear nothing about. That’s a point Allred could make or the directors could want to show, but they don’t find it necessary.

“The documentary loosely puts Allred’s feminist awakening in a personal context, but that isn’t really the way the subject wants to frame it. She’s open but terse in discussing her own rape and subsequent illegal abortion, framing both in terms of the empathy she has for her clients. She’s entirely unwilling to discuss the end of her second marriage. She’s admiring, but not effusive in talking about daughter Lisa Bloom. Talking heads speak to Allred’s kindness and compassion; she doesn’t need to tell the camera that she’s kind or compassionate. A friend who does Gloria Allred-drag speaks to her sense of humor and her ability to laugh at herself; she doesn’t need to be funny or self-effacing for the camera (her amusement at frequent confusion with Sen. Barbara Boxer is one of the rare exceptions).

“Where Allred is comfortable is tracing a professional awakening in which she was fast to recognize that in press conferences or just televised announcements, she was being given (or grabbing) a platform and a voice that wasn’t being heard and that in being confrontational and steering into conflict, she was speaking the only language that the establishment was able to understand. It’s one thing to wonder if she has devalued that platform with some of the ways she’s used it, but it’s impossible to dispute that when she’s used the platform consistently on behalf of causes, she’s gotten results. So when she’s sitting behind a microphone next to Cosby accusers knowing that they can’t take Cosby to court, she’s in the business of giving voice, and if cynics ask, ‘Where’s the money or publicity for her in this?,’ the documentary draws the line directly to the Justice for Victims Act and then into her support for accusers of Donald Trump. When you draw enough lines and point to enough voices that she’s supported, you can actually believe Don Lemon when he says that without Allred he might not have his job, even if he’s not making a direct connection. The tentacles of her decades of campaigning are very visible.

“Because Allred isn’t into talking about mistakes or losses, one of the documentary’s most revelatory moments is the Hillary Clinton booster’s growing horror as the directors film what was supposed to be a celebratory 2016 Election Night. It’s unguarded and doesn’t feel camera-ready. There isn’t a follow-up interview where Allred theorizes on the election and what it meant. Instead, we just see her continue to amplify Trump accusers and take her place at the Women’s March and other protests.

Seeing Allred makes Allred’s work the only worthwhile manifestation of her character, and when she says that her only fear is not living long enough to do all the work she wants to do, that’s the case the film has argued, too. It’s not a case for Gloria Allred that’s going to change any minds but, again, she probably really doesn’t care.”

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FEBRUARY 16: Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler) (DP: Rachel Morrison)Los Angeles Times review by Kenneth Turan: “We didn’t know we’d been yearning for it until it arrived, but now that it’s here it’s unmistakable that the wait for a film like Black Panther has been way longer than it should have been. On one level this is the next-in-line Marvel Universe story of the ruler of the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda who moonlights as a superhero and has to contend with threats and problems both internal and external.

“But Black Panther, as co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler and starring a deep bench of actors of color, is an against-the-grain $100-million-plus epic so intensely personal that when the usual Marvel touchstones (Stan Lee, anyone) appear, they feel out of place. A superhero movie whose characters have integrity and dramatic heft, filled with engaging exploits and credible crises all grounded in a vibrant but convincing reality, laced with socially conscious commentary as well as wicked laughs that don’t depend on snark, this is the model of what an involving popular entertainment should be. And even something more.

“Energized to a thrilling extent by a myriad of Afrocentric influences, Black Panther showcases a vivid inventiveness that underscores the obvious point that we want all cultures and colors represented on screen because that makes for a richness of cinematic experience that everyone enjoys being exposed to. Like Christopher Nolan, who was 35 when he reanimated the Batman franchise, the 31-year-old Coogler has a gift for putting his own spin on genre, for making popular culture worlds his own. He did it with Creed, making the Rocky franchise and Sylvester Stallone uncannily relevant. That was only his second feature following a Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning debut, Fruitvale Station, but five years ago.

“A key to Coogler’s achievement with Black Panther is that he’s taken key production people along with him on all three of his films, including production designer Hannah Beachler, editor Michael P. Shawver and composer Ludwig Görannson. Director of photography Rachel Morrison, recently the first woman ever nominated for a cinematography Oscar, returns as well, as does expressive actor Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler’s first two films. Here Jordan shares the screen with an impressive array of actors, from veterans like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker (an early Coogler supporter) to energized performers including Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke and, of course, Chadwick Boseman.

“An impeccable actor, Boseman brings the quality of belief he’s brought to playing real people like Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall to the role of King T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther. This character made his first Marvel appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which saw T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, killed in an explosion, putting his son in line for assuming the Wakandan throne.

“One of the great things about Black Panther is the specificity of this mythical place, masquerading as one of the world’s poorest countries but actually — thanks to a huge deposit of miracle metal vibranium — a hotbed of futuristic technology. Not only have production designer Beachler and her team created marvelous locations like the Challenge Pool at Warrior Falls, but veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter was instrumental as well. Both referenced everything including Ghanaian textiles, a 5th century Nigerian script and the dress of tribes like the Maasai, Tuareg, Dogon and Zulu.

“‘Never before in Hollywood have we had the chance to show the continent intellectually — it had all been Africa, dirt floors,’ Carter told California Sunday magazine. ‘We were trying to understand ancient African culture in a way that didn’t look “savage” but looked glorious, kingly, warrior-like.’ Carter’s most memorable creation, complete with neck rings borrowed from the Ndebele, is the Dora Milaje, the eight-member all-female royal bodyguard led by Okoye (‘The Walking Dead’s’ Gurira) who move with dazzling precision to strike terror into all who dare to cross them.

“As crisply scripted by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (‘American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson’), Black Panther begins with a challenge to T’Challa’s rule that must be played out according to strict ancient protocols followed by a fence-mending expedition to old friend W’Kabi (Get Out’s Kaluuya). Then the new king has to deal with both Nakia (Nyong’o), his former significant other now fully involved in her life as a spy, and his precocious younger sister Shuri (a very amusing Wright), who functions as a kind of Q to Black Panther’s James Bond. T’Challa is also intent on confronting the evil South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who was responsible for T’Chaka’s death. Working with Klaue is the mysterious Erik Killmonger, beautifully played by Jordan, a bad guy with a background and an agenda that will make heads spin all across Wakanda.

“With dialogue that deftly explores serious questions, such as how much if anything do wealthy countries owe the poor and oppressed of the world, Black Panther draws energy from Coogler’s sense of excitement at all he’s attempting. The result is a superhero movie that’s worth seeing twice, and that is a rare sighting indeed.”

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FEBRUARY 16: The Boy Downstairs (dir. Sophie Brooks)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Liza Domnitz: “From first-time writer-director Sophie Brooks, this original romantic comedy is the coming-of-age tale of a young writer looking to find her way back in New York City after a two-year stint in London. Zosia Mamet exhibits winsome charm as Diana, navigating the rite of passage of every single New Yorker: the search for the perfect apartment. She seemingly finds such a jewel of a home, until realizing her downstairs neighbor is actually her ex whose heart she broke when she left town. Like a true New Yorker, she keeps the apartment.

“Making the oft-told girl-meets-boy story new again, The Boy Downstairs asks real questions about love, chemistry and growing up, as Diana declares her intentions for cordial cohabitation, only to find their initially farcical arrangement giving way to more complicated feelings. Featuring a stellar cast, led by Mamet and supported by indie stalwarts Matthew Shear, Deirdre O’Connell, and newcomers Sarah Ramos and Diana Irvine.”

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FEBRUARY 16 (streaming on Netflix): Irreplaceable You (dir. Stephanie Laing) (DP: Magdalena Górka)IndieWire article by Jenna Marotta: “The upcoming Netflix film Irreplaceable You boasts a female director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and star, a combination that worked well for the streaming service’s three-time Oscar nominee, Mudbound. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) plays Abbie, a woman thrilled to finally be marrying her elementary school sweetheart, Sam (Michiel Huisman from ‘Game of Thrones’), with whom she is expecting a child. At a doctor’s appointment, the couple is devastated to learn that Abbie actually isn’t pregnant: she’s given a terminal cancer diagnosis instead.

“Bucking the film’s title, Abbie then resigns to auditioning stand-ins to share a life with Sam. She also attends patient group therapy alongside the alter-egos of Christopher Walken, Kate McKinnon, Steve Coogan, and Tami Sagher (Don’t Think Twice). Irreplaceable You features sympathetic turns from Brian Tyree Henry (‘Atlanta’), Timothy Simons (‘Veep’) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook).

“It is the first produced screenplay from Bess Wohl, an actress who has appeared in guest parts on shows such as ‘Bones’ and ‘CSI: NY.’ Director Stephanie Laing has also been given her first opportunity to helm a feature; her resume includes producing credits on ‘Veep’ and ‘Vice Principals.’ Jonathan Tropper — who adapted his bestselling novel This Is Where I Leave You into another death-tinged film — is among the producers.

“Soon after Irreplaceable You debuts on Friday, February 16, Mbatha-Raw will play the mother to Storm Reid’s heroine, Meg, in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.

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FEBRUARY 16: The Party (dir. Sally Potter)Variety’s Berlin International Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “It may have its uses in describing butter cookies and cat videos, but it’s fair to say that ‘short and sweet’ is an over-applied compliment: Sometimes it’s better to be short and severely, cheek-shrivelingly sour. So it proves in The Party, a deliciously heightened, caviar-black comedy that sets up its brittle, bourgeois characters like bowling pins and gleefully knocks them down in 71 minutes flat. Slight and self-contained, it won’t go down in cinema history as anything but, perhaps, the most purely fun film ever made by peculiar British experimentalist Sally Potter. Still, this sketch of an ambitious Westminster politician and dinner-party hostess (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose life comes spectacularly apart before the canapés are even served, is a consummate drawing-room divertissement, played with relish by a dream ensemble. Notwithstanding a somewhat strained twist, it’s as slender, sharp and snappish as a wishbone; chic arthouse distributors should RSVP to this Party without delay.

“Premiering in competition at Berlin, Potter’s film plays as a kind of antidote to Oren Moverman’s The Dinner in the same section. Both films chart the disastrous fallout as assorted secrets are uncovered at a dinner event organized by a political bigwig, but where Moverman’s film, with its grandiose Gettysburg allusions, reveals a pained social conscience, Potter’s is quite content to ridicule its middle-class subjects without taking a defined moral position on their foibles and failings. Think of it as a quinoa-classes update of Mike Leigh’s evergreen Abigail’s Party: Its gaze is fixed a few notches higher up the social ladder, but the characters are just as plagued by petty aspirationalism.

“After opening with one of those all-too-ubiquitous flash-forward shots, with a harried-looking Janet (Scott Thomas) aiming a gun at an unseen target, the film jauntily works its way to that climax. It’s early evening, and guests are beginning to arrive at Janet’s elegant Victorian home in a leafy part of London — raising a toast to her recent appointment as Health Minister. First up is her acidly cynical best friend April (a never-more-waspish Patricia Clarkson), a former idealist who congratulates Janet in the same breath as declaring democracy ‘finished.’

“April regards her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an anti-political humanist life coach, with eye-rolling contempt, though that counts as affection relative to her scorching dismissal of another pair of guests: dour academic Martha (Cherry Jones), a specialist in ‘gender differentiation on American utopianism,’ and her newly pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who squabble over the correct degree of radical feminism to assume these days. An illiberal outlier among the guests is Prada-suited, cocaine-dusted finance shark Tom (a fine, antic Cillian Murphy), whose wife is mysteriously delayed; still, she’s practically more present at the party than Janet’s husband Bill (played in deliberately, comically checked-out fashion by Timothy Spall), who eventually rouses himself from a glazed fug of ennui to deliver the first of several sequential bombshells.

“It’d poop ‘The Party,’ so to speak, to reveal anything further — though this is less a plot-based exercise than a tipsily conversational one. Potter’s eminently quotable screenplay works up just enough narrative momentum to sustain a barrage of killer one-liners: With the hors d’oeuvres increasingly unlikely to be served, decorum is swiftly shed and these privileged vultures instead feed ravenously on each other’s ideals. ‘Tickle an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist,’ April drily observes as even the most genteel guests begin to show their colors, and multiple relationships go into instant shock therapy.

“It’s never specified to which political party Janet belongs — though she’s an ardent defender of the National Health Service, so she’s probably no Theresa May sympathizer — but she appears here so airily removed from the outside world that it hardly matters. Whichever side she’s on, it’s one opposed by April, brilliantly played by Clarkson as the kind of self-styled truth-teller who actually conceals a lot of herself in her blanket nihilism. (‘Pretending hasn’t worked for your party for a while,’ she tells Janet — and she could be talking about either her political party or this particular botched occasion.) The Party flatters neither woman’s position, nor the other guests’ ideological perches in between. Everyone at this woebegone soiree comes off as slightly absurd in what could be read as a blasé, from-within satire of the ‘metropolitan elite’ so savaged by U.K. conservatives of late.

“One shouldn’t pull a muscle, however, in reaching for the subtext of Potter’s witty shaggy-dog story: Its giddy in-the-moment pleasures are enough, even if a final kicker of a reveal doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in retrospect. While this kind of chamber material risks seeming plucked from the stage — it isn’t, incidentally — Alexey Rodionov’s nimble monochrome lensing and Anders Refn and Emilie Orsini’s antsy editing lend Potter’s script a propulsively cinematic, bouncing-off-the-walls quality, smartly drawing to a close just as the joke threatens to wear thin. (Refn has collaborated with Lars von Trier in the past, and The Party sometimes does exude the splintery air of a glossier Dogme 95 exercise.)

“Potter’s cast, meanwhile, is perceptibly having a blast with her savory invective and insults: There’s nothing to dislike about a film that gives Patricia Clarkson the chance to tell Cherry Jones that she’s ‘a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker.’ Months after the U.S. election campaign turned an intended jibe into a rallying cry, Sally Potter’s latest further proves that there’s pleasure, pride or both to be taken in being a nasty woman.”

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FEBRUARY 16: Western (dir. Valeska Grisebach)Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “German director Valeska Grisebach uses the Western as a template with which to draw out eternal human conflicts in this supremely intelligent genre update, her first feature in a decade. In remote rural Bulgaria, a group of German workers are building a water facility. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), the reserved newbie in this all-male company, immediately draws the ire of the boorish team leader, not least for his willingness to mingle with the wary locals. Cast with utterly convincing nonprofessional actors, Western is a gripping culture-clash drama, attuned both to old codes of masculinity and new forms of colonialism.”

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FEBRUARY 23 (in theaters and on VOD): Half Magic (dir. Heather Graham)IndieWire article by Kate Erbland: “For her directorial debut, long-time actress and Hollywood star Heather Graham tackled an R-rated mainstay — the sex comedy — with a decidedly feminine-focused twist and a strong message of self-love. Graham also stars in the film, which is apparently ‘pulled from personal experiences.’

Half Magic follows a trio of very different women who share the same problem: their love lives just aren’t up to snuff. The ladies, including Angela Kinsey and Stephanie Beatriz, decide to take it upon themselves to pursue only good relationships with worthy men.

“In an official statement from Graham herself, the newly-minted filmmaker shares, ‘On the surface, Half Magic is a comedy about bad dating decisions. Why do we choose the people we choose? What draws us in? Why do we always “know better” but do it anyway? I have made some bad choices and put my self-worth into needing to be with “that” guy. So I made this film because I wanted to share the journey of how I got over the programming of my religious upbringing and terrible dating experiences to come to love myself and my sexuality.’

“Graham added, ‘I want to empower women to feel good about themselves and make better choices. I want to celebrate women enjoying their sexuality and finding their pleasure. I want to celebrate how strong we are and how we can create anything we want. …Over the last few months, a new sexual revolution has begun, with more women than ever coming forward to share their stories of sexual harassment. Gone are the days when women felt powerless, with their abusers facing no repercussions.'”