Actress Sheila Munyiva and director/screenwriter Wanuri Kahiu on the set of Rafiki, 2017. (Photo: AwardsWatch)
Here are thirty-two 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.
APRIL 5 (NYC), APRIL 19 (LA): Blowin’ Up (dir. Stephanie Wang-Breal) – The Village Voice’s Tribeca Film Festival review by Jason Bailey: “‘It’s called blowin’ up when you leave a pimp,’ explains former sex worker Kandie, and it’s easier said than done: ‘You can’t just walk away. There is no walking away.’ This insightful and informative documentary from director Stephanie Wang-Breal intertwines two strands: women like Kandie, telling their simple yet devastating stories, intercut with fly-on-the-wall footage of the human trafficking intervention court in Queens, where sex workers are brought — not to be charged and sentenced, but to receive help and forgiveness. Wang-Breal exhibits a Wiseman-esque institutional curiosity, fascinated by the process of this court and the people who spend their days there. She’s also interested in the exploitation of these young women (all of them Asian American or African American) and in the question of why police so often opt for quick arrests of workers, rather than an actual investigation of their exploiters. The characters are riveting and the photography is casually stylish, but the real highlight is the urgency of the work Wang-Breal captures.”
APRIL 5: Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise (dir. Jennifer Townsend) – Cinema Village synopsis: “Powerful, bold, and authentic, Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise captures the truth of women’s experience in the world. It revisits the journey of Thelma & Louise through the lens of viewers who saw that iconic film in 1991 and shared intimate, personal, stories at that time.
“The same women and men were tracked down 25 years later. What has changed in their responses to the film over time? What has changed in the way women are treated by the world?”
APRIL 5 (in theaters & on VOD): Division 19 (dir. S.A. Halewood) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Division 19 is set in a future where the burgeoning need for social control has led to mass-criminalization. With jails overflowing, Head of Central Control Lyndon (Linus Roache) has brought in a data-warehousing specialist Neilsen (Alison Doody) who has turned the jails into online portals allowing citizens to monitor felons, voting on what they eat, wear, read, watch and when they fight.
“By far the most popular and downloaded felon is Hardin Jones unknowingly utilized 24/7 to sell everything from jeans to beans. When Jones escapes, he wants just one thing: His anonymity. But a group of crypto-anarchists who have taken on the State need his influence to help their cause. Hardin isn’t interested. He just wants off the radar. Until he finds out Nelsen is planning on rolling Panopticon TV out to a whole new town. And the first resident of this new experiment town, will be Hardin’s brother, Nash (Will Rothhaar). Hardin knows his only option is to enter Division 19 and risk recapture in order to save his brother from the kind of scrutinized existence he barely survived himself.”
APRIL 5 (on digital & on VOD): My Days of Mercy (dir. Tali Shalom-Ezer) – Variety’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Dennis Harvey: “A lesbian romance stretching across bitterly divided death-penalty political lines might sound like a recipe for case-pleading dramatic contrivance, but it’s handled with plausible restraint and delicacy in My Days of Mercy, Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer’s first U.S. feature.
“Her acclaimed prior 2015 Princess was a disturbingly intimate portrait of unconventional domesticity edging toward quasi-incestuous abuse. It showed high promise, but there’s still a sense of surprise in how well Shalom-Ezer navigates the very different focus and milieu of Joe Barton’s astute screenplay here. Produced as a vehicle for co-starring friends Ellen Page and Kate Mara, Mercy serves them both well, with critical support likely to help the film find an audience despite its challenging themes.
“The Moro family are first glimpsed on what appears to be a vacation, but in fact is something very different: driving their ancient RV to yet another vigil amongst death-penalty foes (and advocates) outside a prison where another convict is about to be executed. Maternal eldest sibling Martha (Amy Seimetz) is the literal and figurative driving force behind these road trips, with 22-year-old Lucy (Ellen Page) a more ambivalent participant, while grade-school-aged brother Ben (Charlie Shotwell) is too young to have much opinion one way or the other. It takes a while for us to suss out their mutual dynamics, not to mention what got them here — the longtime Death Row residency of their father Simon (Elias Koteas), who was found guilty of murdering their mother eight years ago but maintains his innocence.
“There’s an uneasy co-existence at such events between the ‘enemy’ camps, with little interaction if little overt hostility. So it seems like an invisible line-crossing when nonconformist Lucy finds herself making friends with cheerleader-ish Mercy (Mara), who’s on the other side: Her father has agitated for the execution of a mentally disabled man who killed his off-duty longtime police partner. The two young women’s fledgling relationship continues later via online contact between their respective Ohio and Illinois homes, then jumps from flirtation to romance when Lucy commandeers the RV to rendezvous at another gathering.
“But there remains something furtive and dangerous about their connection. Shalom-Ezer limns several fairly explicit sex scenes with the tension of possibly getting ‘caught.’ it’s not just that the protagonists are semi-defying their families by seeing one another. Their liaison also reveals how needy small-town outcast Lucy is, while Mercy reveals suspiciously little about her own circumstances. Moreover, the latter is in a position to offer legal advice that might finally exonerate the Moro’s incarcerated dad — or, conversely, might cement his guilt. All these factors, plus the presence of Brian Geraghty as a lawyer who’s become involved with Martha over the long course of Simon’s appeals, exacerbate imbalances in a fragile household that’s been in a kind of suspended animation since one parent died and another ‘went away.’
“Barton finds drama not just in individual characters, but in the variably grieving and/or angry cultures that grow around a hot-button political issue like the death penalty. Wisely, his script defers from stacking the deck in one direction or another, thought the sharply observed dialogue does make room for arguments on both sides. More central, however, are the non-polemical rhythms of Midwestern life, which are captured with assured detail by Shalom-Ezer and her major below-the-line collaborators, notably production designer Maya Sigel.
“Page, in the middle of a very busy year (beyond this premiere and The Cured, TIFF venues are wallpapered with posters for the imminent Flatliners remake), gives one of her best performances in a tailor-made role. Mara is fine as a character whose elusiveness ultimately transcends plot device. Seimetz excels as a woman who’s held it together under duress for so long she may no longer know how to live in a state of non-crisis. Supporting roles are very well cast.”
APRIL 5: PM Narendra Modi (dir. Omung Kumar) (DP: Sunita Radia) – AMC Theatres synopsis: “The film showcases Modi’s remarkable courage, wisdom, patience, dedication to his people, his acumen as a political strategist, his leadership that inspired a thousand social changes in Gujarat and later India. It traces his childhood in the 1950s to his meteoric rise in the corridors of politics, as a four-time serving Chief Minister. The film culminates in Modi’s overcoming all the obstacles to create and lead one of the most fascinating and successful election campaigns in world politics in 2013-14.”
APRIL 5: Reinventing Rosalee (dir. Lillian Glass) – Cinema Village synopsis: “Rosalee Glass, a former Holocaust survivor taken prisoner to a Siberian gulag during WWII transforms her destiny. In her 80s she begins an acting career, in her 90s wins a Senior beauty pageant and dares to ride Alaskan Sled dogs at 100.”
APRIL 5 (streaming on Netflix): Unicorn Store (dir. Brie Larson) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Sheri Linden: “Fearlessly treading into potential snowflake territory and the perennial American indie theme of Being True to Yourself No Matter How Out of Step With the Mainstream You Are, Brie Larson embraces her inner sparkly child as the star and helmer of Unicorn Store. Beginning with its straight-dealing, truth-in-advertising title, this is a film that takes candy-colored metaphors seriously. But it’s also a deadpan comedy whose droll glance at conformity is heightened by the masterfully off-center contributions of Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Hamish Linklater and Mamoudou Athie.
“Though the screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, whose TV credits include Married and People of Earth, ultimately conforms quite plainly to formula and grows less interesting as it proceeds, there’s a gutsiness to Larson’s headlong leap into material that walks a fine line between risky fantasy and feel-good reassurance. For the most part, she navigates the tonal shifts effectively, but while some pieces of the comic puzzle hit the mark, others — like the titular shop, overseen by a tinsel-adorned Samuel L. Jackson — strain for whimsy. Through it all, though, in Larson’s forthright performance as well as in the movie itself, there’s a percolating intelligence beneath the naïve surface.
“Larson plays Kit, a socially awkward, arts-and-craftsy innocent whose exuberant creations get her tossed out of art school, where minimalism is the inviolable creed. With ace work from production designer Matthew Luem and costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier, Larson uses visual schemes to terrific comic effect: Against Kit’s rainbow explosions, there’s the all-black dress code of her disdainful instructors, and then the forlorn earth tones of the parental home where she retreats in disgrace.
“Her parents, nerdy do-gooders who run a program for teens called Emotion Quest, are played by Cusack and Whitford with spot-on fretful cheer. Their gingerly yet intrusive attempts to shake Kit out of her funk are fruitless, but a TV ad does the trick with its promise of Temporary Success — existential joke and the name of the temp agency that lands Kit an office-drone gig at a PR agency.
“The movie puts a mildly distinctive spin on the endlessly fertile subject of the idiocy of office life. Kit’s co-workers include the requisite meanie (Annaleigh Ashford) and, less predictably, a sweetly supportive assistant (Martha Macisaac). Linklater’s leering oddball of a VP, taking an intense interest in Kit and her career advancement, ups the unreality quotient with his bizarre intensity and the lightning speed with which he promotes Kit; in no time at all she’s got her own office and has been tapped to make a presentation for the Mystic Vacuum account (sometimes this PR company seems more like an ad agency).
“Kit may give that presentation her multicolored, glitterific all, but none of this corporate creativity makes her heart sing — especially not after she’s summoned by a mysterious invitation to a place called The Store, and offered the chance to realize a childhood dream by becoming the proud owner of a single-horned mythical beast.
“Marked by a pink neon sign, devoid of merchandise and manned by Jackson’s cartoonish huckster, The Store is a warehouse space with a low-rent Lynchian vibe, occupying a zone somewhere between the id and the ego. If the execution doesn’t quite live up to the concept, that’s probably because the bewigged Salesman, with his unmistakable SLJ-ness, appears liable at any moment to veer into a Capital One spiel. But Kit’s visits there set in motion the suspense factor, such as it is, over the reality of the promised pet.
“To claim her unicorn — a creature who will ‘love you forever’ — Kit has to prove herself worthy by building a proper stable for it, and enlists the help of a seemingly random hardware store employee, Virgil. Played by Athie, who lent a note of gentle mystery to Patti Cake$ and portrayed Grandmaster Flash on the recently canceled series The Get Down, Virgil is a character so offhandedly real that he makes many of the plot’s more canned twists and reversals work. Through Kit’s friendship with him, the story’s concerns with trust, leaps of faith and the importance of creative connection find their most persuasive expression.
“Larson, who first encountered McIntyre’s screenplay as an auditioning actor (she didn’t get the part; the production never got off the ground), effectively draws out the story’s comic oddities and poignant undercurrents. Brett Pawlak’s fuss-free camerawork and Alex Greenwald’s score, with its touches of melancholy carnival jangle, are in sync with the director’s straightforward approach. But as the movie proceeds, a lot of the observational satire, wonderfully precise in the early going, gets stuck in neutral, the jabs not landing. As punchlines, the kale and quinoa of Kit’s health-conscious parents are as stale as last year’s groceries.
“In Mom and Dad’s therapy-speak, though, and their expectation that a group of Emotion Quest campers will ‘sit in your truth,’ McIntyre and Larson tap into territory that’s not only zingier but also more complex and rewarding: fiction as a way into the heart of things. As flat or unwieldy as Unicorn Store can be at times, Larson invests Kit’s love of all things bright, pastel and shiny with an affecting urgency, and ensures that her spirit animal is no gimmick.”
APRIL 5 (in theaters & on VOD): The Wind (dir. Emma Tammi) – Nitehawk Cinema synopsis: “A devastating scene sets the stage for a haunting account of demonic terror on the American frontier in the 1800’s. Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) and Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) welcome a couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) from Illinois, who take up residence in a nearby abandoned cabin. Not long after, Emma fears she is being hunted down by an evil spirit who wants her unborn baby and violently succumbs to her mania. This event reawakens Lizzy’s buried memories of her encounters with the demons on the land and when Isaac leaves to accompany Gideon back to Illinois, Lizzy is left alone to wage battle against the evil on the land.
“Emma Tammi’s narrative feature debut makes astoundingly effective use of the American Western frontier. The wide open, barren and desolate wastelands combined with the atmospheric sounds of the elements and unrelenting gusts of wind (or are they whispers from the dead?) create a sense of helplessness unmatched by the claustrophobia of a haunted house and makes a strong case that we need more western horror films in our lives.”
APRIL 7: Mistresses (dir. Elena Hazanov) – AMC Theatres synopsis: “One day three girls – a nurse, a student and an actress – accidentally met in a bar. They found out that all of them just broke up with their boyfriends, who happened to be married. At first they decided to take revenge. But when they reach their goal, the girls have an idea: they would use their wit and skills to help other women and punish their husbands who cheated on them. Because there are thousands of girls just like them.”
APRIL 9 (on digital & on VOD): Savage Youth (dir. Michael Curtis Johnson) (DP: Magela Crosignani) – Slamdance Film Festival synopsis by Craig Parish: “The lives of six troubled teens in a racially-divided small town take a violent turn over drugs and broken hearts. Based on true events.
“Michael Curtis Johnson’s explosive follow-up feature to 2016’s Hunky Dory is a brutal examination of doomed youth exiled to society’s edge. Laced with expressive tirades turned performance art and tortured moments of intimate despair, this painfully truthful portrait of scorched America devours itself fully, without looking back.”
APRIL 12: After (dir. Jenny Gage) – Voltage Pictures synopsis: “Based on the internationally best-selling novel by Anna Todd and read over 1.6 billion times, After is the newest YA phenomenon in the vein of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
“A dedicated student, dutiful daughter, and loyal girlfriend to her high school sweetheart, Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) enters her first year of college with grand ambitions for her future. She lives a controlled life with a strong sense of who she is, and who she ought to be.
“Her guarded world opens up when she meets the dark and mysterious Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). With his tousled brown hair, cocky British accent, and plentiful tattoos, Hardin is the wild, brooding rebel that Tessa would typically shun. And she does – until she finds herself alone with him late one night at the lake, drawn by his magnetic energy…
“As Tessa experiences her first taste of freedom, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening that will change her forever. Finding her voice and an inner passion she never knew she had, Tessa realizes there will always be the life she had before Hardin, and then everything…AFTER.”
APRIL 12: Girls of the Sun (dir. Eva Husson) – Landmark Theatres synopsis: “Somewhere in Kurdistan, Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani, Paterson, About Elly), commander of the ‘Girls of the Sun’ battalion, is preparing to liberate her hometown from the hands of extremists, hoping to find her son who is held hostage. A French journalist, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot, My King, Polisse), comes to cover the attack and bear witness to the story of these exceptional warriors. Since their lives have been turned upside down, the Girls of the Sun find themselves fighting for women, life and liberty. Inspired by a true story, this suspenseful drama is written and directed by Eva Husson.”
APRIL 12: High Life (dir. Claire Denis) – The Guardian’s Toronto International Film Festival review by Charles Bramesco: “In 2001, the French film-maker Claire Denis performed a full vivisection of the vampire film with Trouble Every Day, a philosophical, ambiguous take on the usual tropes of horror. She rendered the building blocks of an often schematic genre frightening and alien through novel formal techniques. Instead of lurking monsters jumping out to spook the audience, the camera often sneaked up on its subjects, while her narrative resisted convention at every turn in pursuit of loftier ideas about existence and transformation. The average Dracula fan might have thought they had wandered into a parallel dimension.
“Seventeen years and six features later, and everything old is new again. Denis has turned her sights on sci-fi, reconfiguring its familiar components to create a startlingly fresh engagement with the question of what it means to be human. It’s the genre’s most done-to-death topic, yet she brings something truly original to the conversation. Her answer, as the spectacular High Life tells it, has a lot to do with achieving orgasm.
“Bodily functions abound in this captivating journey through the void of space. Lactation, ejaculation and gestation clue the viewer in on what Denis might be getting at through an elliptical story, in which an eclectic cast play a collection of death-row inmates forced to cohabitate on a self-sustaining station in orbit. Their assignment – to explore black holes in the hopes of harvesting their rotational energy for the citizens of Earth – is sold to them as an opportunity for heroism. However, it’s not long before they realise that they’re all but guaranteed to perish in the process. Mission drift sets in, and the on-board doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche in a French braid of Rapunzelian proportions), starts conducting experiments of her own with captives Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Boyse (Mia Goth).
“This film’s fleet 110 minutes contain too many shocks and amazements to be spelled out here. Suffice it to say that Denis proposes the erotic drive as the fuel to use when there’s nothing left to live for. In the negative zone beyond the stratosphere, depicted as a physical glitch humankind was never meant to explore, severe isolation returns the brain to its basest biological capacity. Every day is a battle to stay sane (less apparent among Denis’ feats here is that she has casually constructed a remorselessly honest look into the psychological ramifications of incarceration), so extreme, bizarre measures must sometimes be called on. With an achievement of this calibre it’s hard to resist hyperbole: High Life contains the single greatest one-person sex scene in the history of cinema.
“The brilliance of Denis’ films, with their arresting imagery, tends to creep up on viewers hours or even days later – the film critic Manny Farber dubbed this class of work ‘termite art.’ But her astral epic also offers a more immediate appeal – situated, as it is, in the iconic corridors of Alien and the like. Using faintly retro technological interfaces and sleek production design she smuggles in her musings on memory and being. If Tarkovsky got away with it in Stalker, then why not her? She courts the comparison early on, reproducing a noted shot of a dog in a river, and then amply earns it by establishing a fluid slipstream between Monte’s past, present, and future. Where does Denis get off, making a film so densely theoretical and superficially satisfying? Though, on second thought, High Life is a thesis on exactly where (and how) Denis gets off.
“It’s always risky when an overseas master tries their hand in English language with Hollywood actors. Denis surmounts the challenge with exemplary finesse, holding on to her intelligence and the skill with which she executes it, while playing to the flashier pleasures of big-budget American product. No matter where she goes – to the furthest reaches of the known universe, or the fringe boundaries of semi-reputable genres – a Claire Denis film is a Claire Denis film. Accept no substitutes.”
APRIL 12: Little (dir. Tina Gordon Chism) – Universal Pictures synopsis: “Girls Trip’s Regina Hall and ‘Black-ish’s’ Marsai Martin both star as Jordan Sanders — Hall as the take-no-prisoners tech mogul adult version of Jordan and Martin as the 13-year-old version of her who wakes up in her adult self’s penthouse just before a do-or-die presentation.
“‘Insecure’s’ Issa Rae plays Jordan’s long-suffering assistant April, the only one in on the secret that her daily tormentor is now trapped in an awkward tween body just as everything is on the line. Little is an irreverent new comedy about the price of success, the power of sisterhood and having a second chance to grow up — and glow up — right.
“Will Packer, blockbuster producer of Girls Trip, the Ride Along franchise, and ten movies that have opened No. 1 at the U.S. box office, including Night School, No Good Deed and Think Like a Man, brings an all-new perspective to the body-swap comedy.
“Little is directed by Tina Gordon (writer, Drumline) with a story by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) and a screenplay by Oliver and Gordon, based on an idea by teen actress Martin. The film is produced by Packer and his producing partner James Lopez and by Kenya Barris (Girls Trip, ‘Black-ish’), and is executive produced by Preston Holmes (Night School), Hall, Marsai Martin and Josh Martin.”
APRIL 12: The Most Dangerous Year (dir. Vlada Knowlton) (DP: Lulu Gargiulo) – City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “As a dark wave of anti-transgender ‘bathroom bills’ began sweeping across the nation, The Human Rights Campaign called 2016 the most dangerous year ever for transgender Americans. Filmmaker Vlada Knowlton captured the ensuing civil rights battle from the perspective of a group of embattled parents – including herself and her husband, parents of a young trans girl — fighting to protect their children from discriminatory laws in their home state. While Knowlton passionately follows the story of anti-transgender legislation, the heart of the film lies in the stories of the families who accept and support their kids for exactly who they are.”
APRIL 12: Teen Spirit (dir. Max Minghella) (DP: Autumn Durald) – Bleecker Street Media synopsis: “Violet (Elle Fanning) is a shy teenager who dreams of escaping her small town and pursuing her passion to sing. With the help of an unlikely mentor, she enters a local singing competition that will test her integrity, talent and ambition. Driven by a pop-fueled soundtrack, Teen Spirit is a visceral and stylish spin on the Cinderella story. The film also stars Rebecca Hall, Zlatko Buric, and Agnieszka Grochowska.”
APRIL 12 – APRIL 18 (U.S. premiere engagement of a 50th anniversary 2K restoration, screening in the retrospective “Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan” at NYC’s Quad Cinema): A Very Curious Girl (dir. Nelly Kaplan) – Quad Cinema synopsis: “Also retitled Dirty Mary, Kaplan’s breakthrough film engages in dark and surreal humor and showcases Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore et al.) as Marie, a suddenly orphaned young woman who learns to use her village’s hypocrisy to her own advantage—sexually and otherwise. As Kaplan notes, the movie is ‘the story of a modern-day witch who is not burned by inquisitors; it is she who burns them.’ With Michel Constantin (The Inglorious Bastards).”
APRIL 12: Wild Nights with Emily (dir. Madeleine Olnek) (DP: Anna Stypko) – IndieWire’s SXSW review by Jude Dry: “Madeleine Olnek’s movies may be an acquired taste, but the woman knows how to write a catchy premise. Her three feature films — all madcap comedies with absurdist leanings — include lesbian aliens looking for love, lesbian hustlers picking up women outside Talbot’s — and now, lesbian Emily Dickinson traipsing across her Amherst lawn after a tryst with her sister-in-law, her petticoats flung about her head. That’s the premise of Wild Nights with Emily, and to say that they just don’t make movies like this anymore would be grossly inaccurate: It’s hard to imagine anyone making this movie other than Olnek.
“Using Dickinson’s letters and poems (with permission from Harvard University Press), Wild Nights with Emily paints a much sunnier portrait of the poet than that of the reclusive spinster terrified of publication. Instead, the film imagines a lively woman forced to hide a lifelong love affair whose work was mostly rejected by a literary establishment that would embrace it after her death.
“Continuing a fruitful post-‘Saturday Night Live’ indie film career (she won an Indie Spirit Award last year for Other People), Molly Shannon is brilliant and warm as the literary icon. The movie begins with a lecture given by Dickinson’s first publisher, Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz, in a rare comedic turn), who spins the yarn of the reclusive Dickinson with a syrupy grin and pink flat-top hat. Mabel’s narration is a necessary reminder of the Dickinson that the world knows, and its inaccuracy is hilarious when juxtaposed against this vivacious and joyful version, known here simply as Emily.
“Though it is certainly a comedy, Wild Nights with Emily is anchored by a surprisingly touching love story between Emily and her friend from childhood, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler). Their teenage romance develops during 19th century sleepovers that would make 21st century parents blush. (Young Emily and Young Susan are played by Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova.) Soon, Emily is heartbroken to learn about Susan’s secret engagement to her brother, but softens when Susan explains her plan for them to be together. Sure enough, Susan and Austin (Kevin Seal) build their house right next door to Emily’s, and a lifetime of early morning scurrying across the lawn ensues.
“Olnek takes every opportunity to showcase Emily’s poetry, sprinkled into the film in voiceover and graphic text. We see Emily scribbling lines on the back of a cake recipe that she stows away in her hair, and sending missives across the lawn to her constant champion and reader. The notion that she never sought publication is challenged by a meeting with the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the bombastic blowhard T.W. Higginson (a note-perfect Brett Gelman), who dashes her hopes by suggesting she title her poems and use more rhyme. Meanwhile, it appears that ‘reclusive’ Emily was really only reclusive around Mabel, and that was because she was having sex with Austin in Emily’s drawing room.
“Olnek’s films are feminist statements on several levels, most significantly in the way that she casts so many compelling women, from romantic leads to character bits. The young actresses Melanie and Frolova are both excellent, and Olnek secured memorable turns for Jackie Monahan and Lisa Haas, stars of the only true lesbian hustler comedy, The Foxy Merkins.
“Shannon keeps her natural zaniness just below the surface as Emily, but brings ever so much mirth to Olnek’s humorously formal 19th century dialogue. An accomplished theater actress and repeat player in Olnek’s films, Ziegler is the perfect match for Shannon, and their chemistry elevates the comedic premise into an undeniably compelling romance. It’s a joy to watch them fall sideways into bed together, tumbling on guests’ coats while hiding from the party downstairs. Their devotion drives home the film’s ultimately political message, and elevates the poignant final image to poetic heights.
“Wild Nights with Emily may be Olnek’s most political film to date, one that could forever change the narrative of the world’s most famous woman poet. In her director’s statement, Olnek writes: ‘The idea that she wrote without wanting to be published exonerates the world that prevented her voice from being heard and also plants the idea that for women, it is wrong to desire recognition.’ With that in mind, here’s hoping for many more movies like Wild Nights with Emily—though Olnek is definitely one of a kind.”
APRIL 17: Breakthrough (dir. Roxann Dawson) – 20th Century Fox synopsis: “Breakthrough is based on the inspirational true story of one mother’s unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s (Chrissy Metz) adopted son John (Marcel Ruiz) falls through an icy Missouri lake, all hope seems lost. But as John lies lifeless, Joyce refuses to give up. Her steadfast belief inspires those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction. From producer DeVon Franklin (Miracles from Heaven) and adapted for the screen by Grant Nieporte (Seven Pounds) from Joyce Smith’s own book, Breakthrough is an enthralling reminder that faith and love can create a mountain of hope, and sometimes even a miracle.”
APRIL 17: Hail Satan? (dir. Penny Lane) (DP: Naiti Gámez) – IFC Center synopsis: “What is The Satanic Temple? Is it a religion? A cult? Performance? Acclaimed filmmaker Penny Lane (Our Nixon) gains unprecedented access to this enigmatic movement, which has grown to over 100,000 members around the world in just five years. Hail Satan? explores the Temple’s fight for equality, its focus on community, and its devilish sense of humor. In an era when founding principles and institutions can’t be trusted to work on behalf of all people, these progressive Satanic crusaders advocate to save the soul of a nation.”
APRIL 19 (LA), APRIL 26 (NYC): Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (dir. Pamela B. Green) – Zeitgeist Films synopsis: “Alice Guy-Blaché was a true pioneer who got into the movie business at the very beginning—in 1894, at the age of 21. Two years later, she was made head of production at Gaumont and started directing films. She and her husband moved to the United States, and she founded her own company, Solax, in 1910—they started in Flushing and moved to a bigger facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey. But by 1919, Guy-Blaché’s career came to an abrupt end, and she and the 1000 films that bore her name were largely forgotten. Pamela B. Green’s energetic film is both a tribute and a detective story, tracing the circumstances by which this extraordinary artist faded from memory and the path toward her reclamation. Narration by Jodie Foster.”
APRIL 19: Daddy Issues (dir. Amara Cash) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Maya (Madison Lawlor), a 19-year-old queer pixie, spends her days working on her art and cyberstalkng her insta-crush, the sexually fluid fashion designer, Jasmine (Montana Manning). One night Maya boldly meets Jasmine IRL, there’s an insta-spark and the two begin an inspiring romantic relationship that gives Maya her first taste of true love and Jasmine the inspiration she needs to jump start her career. It’s all gumdrops and fairytales until Maya discovers Jasmine’s in a co-dependent relationship with a neurotic sugar daddy (Andrew Pifko). What started as a dream come true turns into a beautiful nightmare.”
APRIL 19: Family (dir. Laura Steinel) – The Hollywood Reporter’s SXSW review by John DeFore: “A self-improvement-through-childcare comedy exposing the hitherto unknown potential of the Insane Clown Posse to enable young girls’ emotional growth, Laura Steinel’s Family introduces an 11-year-old girl ready to run off and join the Juggalos. Playing the career-minded jerk stuck temporarily with caring for the kid, Taylor Schilling colors within the lines of the Bad Fill-in-the-Blank misbehavior genre, with a performance that is less debauched than self-centered to the point of criminal negligence. Enjoyable despite its familiarity, the pic has commercial appeal well beyond the Faygo-guzzling demographic.
“Schilling’s Kate is her workplace’s requisite pariah — the one who says what she thinks without checking to see who might be standing behind her. Her tactlessness is so extreme she isn’t even welcome at office celebrations (though the call of cake is too strong for her to ignore). She’s the kind of career striver who has not only rejected the notion of starting her own family but has practically deleted siblings from her memory banks as well. When she gets an emergency call from her nearby brother (Eric Edelstein), she has to be reminded where he lives, and she certainly doesn’t remember the name of his pre-teen Maddie (Bryn Vale). But Maddie’s grandmother is dying, and her parents need one day to go move her into hospice; though Kate puts up a fight, she agrees to watch Maddie for the night while they’re away.
“Even the briefest stay away from her tidy apartment life requires suburban compromises Kate is unwilling to make: She can’t bring herself to shut the garage door at the request of the family’s next-door neighbor Jill, the kind of capital-M Mom who has the neighborhood association’s bylaws memorized. (A high-strung Kate McKinnon is ideal here, over-friendly with an undercurrent of I will rip your eyes out.)
“Kate is late to pick Maddie up from ballet, of course, and catches the stout child, in her ballerina garb, practicing kicks in the dojo next door. Sensei Pete (Brian Tyree Henry) has been happy to have her as an unofficial karate student for weeks; over dinner, Maddie explains that her parents are pushing her to be more feminine and fit in at school, where she is bullied.
“This is a topic on which Kate can commiserate without feeling she has made an emotional investment. Asking to see pictures of the girls who torment her, Kate has fun eviscerating them: This one has boobs but will be fat before long; that one has a lazy eye — who the hell are they to mock a chubby nonconformist?! Cautiously questioned by the girl, who admires this confidence but feels nothing of the sort herself, Kate reveals a baseline truth: ‘I hate myself, but I still feel like I’m better than everybody else.’
“When this overnight babysitting gig stretches out to a week, Kate has to juggle watching the kid with her work responsibilities, seeing for the first time what life is like for the colleagues she disdains. Steinel succinctly justifies some of Kate’s antisocial behaviors with scenes at the office: When she invents a ‘family emergency’ to excuse being late for a meeting, the men in the room look sideways at her, as if she might be about to go baby-crazy on them; and an enthusiastic young hire who wants Kate to mentor her (Jessie Ennis) is all too ready to go drinking with clients if Kate needs to meet with Maddie’s teacher at school.
“One of Kate’s neglectful moments leaves Maddie in the company of a kid (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido) who calls himself Baby Joker and loves the Insane Clown Posse. As he tells her about the Juggalos, who have formed an entire society-rejecting lifestyle around the band, Maddie decides she has found her people. Soon she’s putting on scary facepaint and doing tricks with spit.
“Vale has a plainspoken stubbornness that highlights the unreasonableness of the rules Maddie’s expected to live by, making it easy for Schilling to connect the kid’s plight to Kate’s. Their quick but incomplete bond is easier to buy than the adult/kid pairings in some similar films, and Steinel doesn’t push it until a climax set at the infamous Gathering of the Juggalos. There, the film has fun with the subculture’s notoriety in funny if credibility-stretching ways, concluding that, whatever their outward signs of mayhem, ‘once you get past all that, they’re really kind of sweet.’ Mini-interviews with real-life Juggalos over the closing credits cements the film’s obvious message: When the world treats you poorly, Family is wherever you find it.”
APRIL 19: Fast Color (dir. Julia Hart) – RogerEbert.com’s SXSW review by Brian Tallerico: “One of the big stories on the first Saturday of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival was that the biggest theater at the event featured four films in a row that were introduced by their female directors. Uncoincidentally, I was there for all four—having already covered the fourth, Blockers, in a separate review—and it was a rollercoaster of a day in terms of quality, but there was a definite buzz in the spacious, historic Paramount Theater. Most refreshingly, all of the films—even Blockers—felt like the product of confident, empowered voices that had something to say that you might not have heard before. One film in particular reworks arguably the most glutted genre of the modern era into something new, empowering, and original. It’s a remarkable, important piece of work.
“That film is Julia Hart’s stunning Fast Color, a tightwire-act of a film that’s ostensibly a superhero origin story while also feeling like it’s about us mere mortals at the same time. Fast Color isn’t quite post-apocalyptic but it’s near-apocalyptic. Hart’s script (co-written with Jordan Horowitz) imagines a world in which it hasn’t rained in years. We finally did it. We broke the planet. Crops have died. Water is more expensive than lodging. Everything looks broken. In this world, we meet Ruth (the radiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman on the run. She has bloody marks on her wrists as if she’s been restrained, and she hides from human contact. She checks into a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere and has a terrifying seizure. As she does so, a part of the world that never has earthquakes feels the plates shift.
“It turns out that Ruth comes from a legacy of women who have what could be called superpowers. On the run from people who want to exploit her powers—the authorities/chase aspect of the film reminded me of Midnight Special at times, another emotional sci-fi movie that I love—Ruth makes her way to a home she fled years ago, where we meet her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and Ruth’s daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). We learn that Ruth left when her powers became too dangerous for her stay, keeping the seizures at bay with drugs and booze. And we learn that Bo and Lila have powers too.
“As a parent of three, I can attest that children create a stunning mix of empowerment and abject fear, often in the same moment. As cheesy as it sounds, you can look into your child’s eyes and feel like you can do anything. They will give you the strength to do anything. You can also be stricken with fear that you will do something wrong. That you will misuse this power you have been granted. In a nutshell, this is Ruth’s story—that of the power given her by motherhood and how she runs from it, only to realize how important it is in the end. As Hart pointed out in her Q&A, and the film makes crystal clear, Fast Color is a superhero film about creation and not destruction. Nearly every MCU movie ends with a massive battle that takes hundreds of lives and destroys cities—destruction for arguable salvation. Fast Color imagines a world in which power heals and creates instead, and it’s beautiful to behold.
“Fast Color comes from a lineage of masterful films that uses sci-fi to tell relatable, emotional stories, but it also feels remarkably fresh. Much has been written recently about how films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther have redefined the superhero genre and forever changed the landscape. My hope is that enough people see Fast Color to include it in the conversation in the same way.”
APRIL 19 (NYC/LA), APRIL 23 (on VOD): Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (dir. Lukas Feigelfeld) (DP: Mariel Baqueiro) – BFI London Film Festival synopsis by Michael Blyth: “A haunting meditation on witchcraft and insanity, set in 15th century Austria, which offers a visceral and truly unique horror experience. Young Albrun lives with her mother in an isolated mountain hut. Life is hard enough, but when her mother falls gravely ill, Albrun is left traumatised and alone. 15 years later, Albrun has a child of her own, but with no husband in sight she is ostracised from her small community. As she forms a tentative friendship with a local woman, dark memories and psychotic delusions infiltrate Albrun’s thoughts and the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur. Although reminiscent of acclaimed period chiller The Witch in its heady fusion of mounting paranoia against a pagan backdrop, this hypnotic debut is quite a different beast. More abstract in its storytelling and lyrical in its approach, it owes as much to the cinema of Tarkovsky as it does the horror genre.”
APRIL 19: Little Woods (dir. Nia DaCosta) – Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Cara Cusumano: “Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is just getting by in economically depressed Little Woods, a fracking boomtown in North Dakota. She has left her days of illegally running prescription pills over the Canadian border behind her, eyeing a potential new job that would finally break her out of the small town. But when her mother dies, she is thrust back into the life of her estranged sister Deb (Lily James), who is facing her own crisis with an unplanned pregnancy and a deadbeat ex (James Badge Dale). On top of everything, the two find they have only one week to settle the mortgage on their mother’s house or face foreclosure. As both bills and pressure mount, Ollie faces a choice: whether to return to a way of life she thought she’d left behind for just one more score. Writer-director Nia DaCosta’s debut is an emotionally-charged small-town thriller that weaves timely themes of economic downturn and the opioid crisis into its intimate story of two sisters just trying to get by. A lived-in film anchored by an authentically drawn sibling bond, Little Woods speaks to both the big and the small of the working class struggle in rural America.”
APRIL 19 (NYC), MAY 3 (LA): Rafiki (dir. Wanuri Kahiu) – Film Movement synopsis: “Bursting with the colorful street style & music of Nairobi’s vibrant youth culture, Rafiki is a tender love story between two young women in a country that still criminalizes homosexuality. Kena and Ziki have long been told that ‘good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives’ – but they yearn for something more. Despite the political rivalry between their families, the girls encourage each other to pursue their dreams in a conservative society. When love blossoms between them, Kena and Ziki must choose between happiness and safety.”
“Initially banned in Kenya for its positive portrayal of queer romance, Rafiki won a landmark supreme court case chipping away at Kenyan anti-LGBT legislation. Featuring remarkable performances by newcomers Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, Rafiki is a hip tale of first love ‘reminiscent of the early work of Spike Lee’ (Screen Daily) that’s ‘impossible not to celebrate’ (Variety)!”
APRIL 19 (streaming on Netflix): Someone Great (dir. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) (DP: Autumn Eakin) – From a Refinery29 article by Kaitlin Reilly: “Written and directed by Sweet/Vicious creator Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, Someone Great stars Gina Rodriguez and Lakeith Stanfield as a couple dealing with the end of their nine-year relationship. As Rodriguez’s Jenny looks back on the end of an era, and prepares to move for a new job in San Francisco, she recruits her best friends Blair (Brittany Snow) and Erin (DeWanda Wise) for a wild night out in New York City.
“For those who know the LCD Soundsystem track ‘Someone Great’ (about a breakup with, well, someone great) you may think you know where this movie is going. While most romantic comedies (including Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up, and The Kissing Booth) are about the couple finding their way back to one another, Someone Great is about Jenny finding herself.”
APRIL 24: Carmine Street Guitars (dir. Ron Mann) (DPs: Becky Parsons and John M. Tran) – Film Forum synopsis: “The mystique of the Greenwich Village as a haven for bohemians, artists, and musicians lives on (just steps from Film Forum) at Carmine Street Guitars: Rick Kelly and apprentice Cindy Hulej build handcrafted, one-of-a-kind instruments from wood salvaged from the city’s defunct buildings. (Unfazed 93-year-old mom Dorothy keeps the books and answers the phone.) Nothing looks or sounds like Rick Kelly’s guitars, which is why they’re embraced by Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, among others. A week in the life of the shop features visits from its devoted clientele: Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Band), Kirk Douglas (The Roots), Eleanor Friedberger, Nels Cline (shopping for Wilco bandmate Jeff Tweedy), jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, and filmmaker/composer Jim Jarmusch.”
APRIL 26 (in theaters & on VOD): Body at Brighton Rock (dir. Roxanne Benjamin) (DP: Hannah Getz) – Magnolia Pictures synopsis: “Wendy (Karina Fontes), a part-time summer employee at a mountainous state park, takes on a rough trail assignment at the end of the season, trying to prove to her friends that she’s capable enough to do the job. When she takes a wrong turn and ends up deep in the backcountry, she stumbles upon what might be a potential crime scene. Stuck with no communication after losing her radio and with orders to guard the site, Wendy must fight the urge to run and do the harder job of staying put — spending the night deep in the wilderness, facing down her worst fears and proving to everyone – including herself – that she’s made of stronger stuff than they think she is.”
APRIL 26: Chasing Portraits (dir. Elizabeth Rynecki) (DPs: C. Peter Dutton Jr., Catherine Greenblatt, Slawomir Grunberg, Dave Hynek, Tony Kaplan, Alex Maroney and Don Moran) – New York Jewish Film Festival synopsis: “After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, artist Moshe Rynecki left his collection of more than 800 paintings and sculptures notable for portraying the everyday life of Polish Jews with friends around Warsaw for safekeeping. But after he was killed in Majdanek, the Rynecki family lost track of the vast majority of them, and they were dispersed among collections around the world. Decades later, his great-granddaughter Elizabeth enlists the help of historians, curators, and private collectors to uncover the extraordinary path of Moshe’s collection. Chasing Portraits is a rich and compelling documentary about one woman coming to terms with her family’s legacy and her place within it.”
APRIL 26: If the Dancer Dances (dir. Maia Wechsler) (DPs: Eric Phillips-Horst, Alex Rappoport, Victoria Sendra and Scott Sinkler) – Quad Cinema synopsis: “Choreographer Merce Cunningham profoundly influenced dance through his boldly experimental productions. On the eve of his centennial, several of his former collaborators continue his legacy by producing a new staging of his dramatic 1968 piece RainForest with members of the Stephen Petronio Company, imbuing it with a contemporary freshness. This documentary reveals the intricacies of staging Cunningham’s work and his enduring influence amid the personal stories of those who give their lives to the dance.”