2017: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2017: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Mitchum (1917-1997): A Look Back

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The only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail. – Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum, one of the greatest movie stars of the twentieth century, was born on this date in 1917. Described by a film critic in 1948 as “an oversized young man… with a corrugated nose, swamp-green eyes, a tight mouth and an elliptical face which sometimes gives him the appearance of Bing Crosby,” Mitchum was nevertheless one of Tinseltown’s most magnetic sex symbols and an unquestionably talented actor, playing heroes and villains with aplomb. He worked in probably every genre under the sun, starting with his uncredited debut in The Human Comedy (1943) and ending with his portrayal of director George Stevens in James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young (1997). To celebrate the centennial of one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, let’s take a look at a dozen of Robert Mitchum’s most intriguing performances from a fifty-year career in film and television.

Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur). The defining performance of Robert Mitchum’s career was also the one that made him a star: as private eye Jeff Bailey, one of the quintessential detective protagonists of the 1940s in the film noir classic Out of the Past. This is the film in which Mitchum spoke the line that would follow him for the rest of his life: “Baby, I don’t care.”

Rachel and the Stranger (1948, dir. Norman Foster). Please revel in the delight of this love triangle: frontiersman William Holden, his wife Loretta Young and Mitchum as an old friend of Holden’s. Hearing Mitchum sing two simple but pretty ditties, “Just Like Me” and “Summer Song,” is a treat.

The Lusty Men (1952, dir. Nicholas Ray). One of Nicholas Ray’s most underrated films is the Western The Lusty Men, in which a rodeo veteran (Mitchum) comes between a cowhand (Arthur Kennedy) and his dissatisfied wife (Susan Hayward). It’s wonderful to watch these fine actors interact, especially since Nick Ray was an expert in the fields of melodrama and complicated romance.

River of No Return (1954, dir. Otto Preminger). River of No Return is one of the first Robert Mitchum movies that I recall seeing. The thrill of seeing him travel treacherous rapids on a raft with Marilyn Monroe and Tommy Rettig seemed really exciting to me when I was a kid; now, of course, I pay closer critical attention to the stock Native American baddies who were “normal” sights in mainstream American cinema from that era, but when focusing primarily on Robert Mitchum’s performance, one has to admit that he did well in the role of a tough and weary (but intrinsically well-meaning) widower and father.

The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). Mitchum took on a career-defining role when he played preacher Harry Powell, who spends part of his time proselytizing and the rest of it victimizing gullible women like widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), as well as her two young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Charles Laughton’s adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel is a nightmarish vision of Americana, a story with Southern Gothic roots that was made with a decidedly un-Hollywood approach to cinematic narratives.

Foreign Intrigue (1956, dir. Sheldon Reynolds). There is a special place in my heart for the espionage thriller Foreign Intrigue, which borrows most of its continental flair from the earlier spy masterpiece The Third Man (1949). Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the plot, but the film is worth seeing for the always-reliable Robert Mitchum as a journalist-turned-secret agent, beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography by Bertil Palmgren and for the casting of the film’s two leading ladies: Geneviève Page, whom I know best as the elegant madam in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), and Ingrid Thulin, who found her fame in her native Sweden when she took both lead and supporting roles in a number of films directed by Ingmar Bergman, including Wild Strawberries (1957), The Magician (1958), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963) and Cries & Whispers (1972).

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, dir. John Huston). Aside from various American and Japanese extras, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a two-person movie set in 1944, in which a corporal in the U.S. Marines (Mitchum) and an Irish nun who has not yet taken her final vows (Deborah Kerr) are stranded on an island in the South Pacific. The chemistry between the film’s stars is palpable as the characters try to avoid temptation in the midst of wartime peril.

Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson). One of Mitchum’s most iconic roles was as Max Cady, an unrepentant criminal who makes parole and subsequently targets lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) – the lawyer whom he considers responsible for his conviction/imprisonment – and the rest of the Bowden family. Mitchum’s Cady is a truly terrifying character, one whose limitless menace will sear itself onto your brain for the rest of time.

Maria’s Lovers (1984, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky). I recall thinking that the casting of Robert Mitchum in Maria’s Lovers, a romantic drama set in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s, was surprising; in this scene, he flirts with Maria (Nastassja Kinski), who is about to marry his son Ivan (John Savage), and although the age difference between the actors (44 years) is off-putting, Mitchum imbues the moment with so much melancholy tenderness.

“A Family for Joe” (1990). Were you aware that Robert Mitchum starred as the patriarch on an NBC family sitcom in the early 90s? No, I wasn’t either. Interesting, though, right? A few episodes appear to be available on YouTube, so you can bet that I’m going to investigate further.

IMDb tells us: “The premise was that four cute upper-middle-class kids had been suddenly orphaned. About to be split up and sent to foster homes, they located a cranky old homeless man and offered him food, a home, and a decent life-style if he would live in their nice house and pose as their grandfather (this could only happen in a sitcom!). Of course he took his new responsibilities more seriously than they expected, and amid the quips, little lessons in life were learned by all around the sunny kitchen table. Roger was the helpful next-door neighbor, an air traffic controller turned homemaker.” The show only lasted for nine episodes, but the fact that Mitchum – the premier bedroom-eyed bad boy of the 1940s and 50s – would eventually also portray the septuagenarian father on a laugh-tracked TV comedy speaks volumes to his abilities as a performer.

Cape Fear (1991, dir. Martin Scorsese). Scorsese’s remake of the Mitchum-starring thriller from three decades earlier offers us two delightful role reversals: Gregory Peck plays a zealously religious attorney (he screams scripture in court as though he were presiding over a sermon), while Robert Mitchum plays a by-the-book detective. One of my favorite moments in the film is when an irritated Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) snaps at one of Lieutenant Elgart’s (Mitchum) comments, and Elgart replies with raised-eyebrow amusement, “Well, pardon me all over the place.”

Dead Man (1995, dir. Jim Jarmusch). I didn’t know until just a few years ago that Robert Mitchum worked with Jim Jarmusch. The pairing makes more sense than you might initially think. Yes, Jarmusch is a quirky filmmaker with tendencies toward the off-kilter and absurd, but he also loves stories that observe the rich and strange natures of American life. Robert Mitchum was, above all, an undeniably American breed of actor. Who better to deliver lines of mournful rumination to a stuffed bear, if not this man?

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

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Writer/producer/director Janicza Bravo with actors Brett Gelman and Megan Mullally on the set of Lemon, 2016.

Here are thirteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this August, 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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JULY 28 (limited release), AUGUST 4 (wider release): Detroit (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)From the Washington Post review by Ann Hornaday: “In Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow concentrates and refracts the 1967 riots in that eponymous city through the lens of one of its most notorious yet largely forgotten incidents, when a group of white police officers tortured and murdered a group of teenagers at the Algiers Motel, then covered it up. Of a piece with Bigelow’s Oscar-winning 2008 Iraq drama The Hurt Locker and 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, the tense, harrowingly intimate Detroit rounds out a trilogy of fact-based, fog-of-war interpretive histories. Even though it’s based on an episode that occurred half a century ago, it feels like her timeliest movie yet.

“As titles go, The Battle of Algiers was already taken, and probably too on the nose. But comparisons to Gillo Pontecorvo’s seminal 1966 political thriller are inevitable as Detroit’s tightly coiled situational drama takes shape. After a prologue describing the mass migration of Southern blacks to Northern urban centers — written by Henry Louis Gates and illustrated by animated images taken from painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” cycle — the film takes viewers into the after-hours club at 12th and Clairmount where, in the early hours of Sunday, July 23, the Detroit police raided a party being thrown for a soldier returning from Vietnam.

“As the police were leading their charges out of the building, a crowd gathered and a disturbance ensued that would lead to five days of fires, looting, mass arrests, savage police brutality and more than 40 deaths, including that of a 4-year-old girl who was mistaken for a sniper by an officer who shot her through a window. That moment is captured with sudden, heart-seizing clarity in Detroit, which plunges the audience into the chaos, paranoia and pent-up rage that engulfs the city’s African American community, even as a young congressman named John Conyers Jr. (Laz Alonso) assures his constituents that ‘change is coming.’

“But just when the viewer thinks that Detroit will be a ‘tick-tock’ narrative of the mayhem and sociopolitical upheaval that defined the nearly week-long rebellion, Bigelow makes a radical shift, following a singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith) as he and his group the Dramatics prepare for a career-making set at Detroit’s legendary Fox Theater. When the show is canceled because of security issues outside, Larry and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge at the Algiers, where the vibe promises to be far mellower, more welcoming and safe.

“It’s at this point that Detroit, which was written by Bigelow’s frequent collaborator Mark Boal, goes from being a bluntly effective you-are-there exercise to something far more daring, sophisticated and unforgettably disturbing. Rather than treat the Algiers as yet one more data point within a timeline that eventually included the arrival of the National Guard and, finally, the U.S. Army, Bigelow drills down into one of American history’s most egregious cases of abuse of police power, bringing it to life with visceral detail and slowed-down meticulousness. The broad, historical contours are these: In an act of teenage bravado, a young man named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) fired a starter pistol out the window of the motel; police arrived on the scene, almost certainly killed Cooper (although accounts varied) and, in an effort to find the gun, proceeded to physically and verbally terrorize a group of young black men and two white girls, an ordeal that resulted in two more deaths.

“…When the film’s third act turns to the story’s appalling legal aftermath, the questions that have long dogged the 1967 riots — Why did black people burn down their own houses? Why did they loot their own shops? — seem unforgivably naive. Detroit flips the usual questions to get at the corrupt heart of white obliviousness: Why has this history been erased for so long? And why does it ring so grievously true today?

“Alternately stretching out and compressing the narrative, Bigelow and her creative team, including editor William Goldenberg, have combined the most immersive aspects of The Hurt Locker with the linear procedural aspects of Zero Dark Thirty to create a new cinematic language: a form of deconstructed, almost hallucinatory realism whose unpredictable shape and rhythms are altogether appropriate for the almost incomprehensible moment it seeks to capture. (Documentary footage from the era is seamlessly knitted into the dramatizations, which were mostly filmed in Boston.)

Detroit is an audacious, nervy work of art, but it also commemorates history, memorializes the dead and invites reflection on the part of the living. In scale, scope and the space it offers for a long-awaited moral reckoning, it’s nothing less than monumental.”

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AUGUST 4: 4 Days in France (dir. Jérôme Reybaud) (DP: Sabine Lancelin)Quad Cinema synopsis: “Without warning, thirtysomething Parisian Pierre (Pascal Cervo) leaves his sleeping boyfriend Paul (Arthur Igual) in the middle of the night and hits the road. Guided only by his phone’s Grindr app, Pierre travels along the French countryside, moving from one curious encounter to another. But then Paul begins to track his lover’s rendezvous… This mysterious and slyly funny look at 21st century gay love is also immensely promising fiction feature debut, marking Reybaud as a major new voice in international cinema.”

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AUGUST 4: Fun Mom Dinner (dir. Alethea Jones)Voltage Pictures synopsis: “Four moms — whose only common ground is their kids’ preschool class — arrange a ‘fun mom dinner’ to drink wine, gossip, and bond without worrying about their kids and husbands for the night.

“The dinner guests include the newly-divorced Jamie (Molly Shannon), ‘Super Mom’ Melanie (Bridget Everett), the stressed-out Emily (Katie Aselton), and Emily’s best friend and social outcast Kate (Toni Collette), who can’t believe she let Emily talk her into a mom dinner.

“The night begins as a disaster, but the combination of alcohol, karaoke, and a cute bartender (Adam Levine), leads to an unforgettable night where these seemingly different women realize they have more in common than motherhood and men.”

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AUGUST 4 (streaming on Netflix): Message from the King (dir. Fabrice du Welz) (DP: Monika Lenczewska)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Colin Geddes: “Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz makes a magnificent return to the Festival with this atmospheric revenge thriller. Featuring perfectly pitched performances from Chadwick Boseman, Teresa Palmer, and Luke Evans (fresh from last year’s Festival highlight High-Rise), Message from the King deposits a mysterious traveller from South Africa into the simmering creepiness of 21st-century Los Angeles.

“Jacob King (Boseman) is a stranger in a strange land. Rather than basking in the fabled radiance of the City of Angels he drifts, Dante-like, through a sprawling, infernal cityscape of fiercely territorial tribalism and dog-eat-dog savagery. His sister has been killed. He wants answers. And he wants blood.

“Scripted by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (who also collaborated on Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown), Message from the King smartly infuses Jacob’s intensely personal quest with a wider sense of the seething racial tension and imminent violence coursing through the United States.

“But it’s Du Welz’s elegant imagery, staging, and mastery of mood that sets the film apart (note, for only one instance, the chilling scene of Jacob’s visit to the morgue), and the director also shrewdly draws upon his own sense of displacement as a European in America to cast an observant outsider’s gaze on this endlessly filmed city.

“Following in the footsteps of Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Outside Man, Terence Stamp in The Limey, and Takeshi Kitano in Brother, Boseman’s anti-hero arrives in LA as if visiting another planet, alienated, disoriented, but grimly and single-mindedly fixated on his dark purpose — a mission from which he will not be deterred.”

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AUGUST 4: Step (dir. Amanda Lipitz)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Baltimore is a city that is fighting to save its youth. The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is attempting to rectify the struggle that young girls endure to be successful in school despite their home life and the influence of their Baltimore community. This documentary chronicles the trials and triumphs of the Senior girls on the high school’s Step Team as they prepare to be the first in their families to go to college – and the first graduating class of The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Step is more than just a hobby for these girls, it is the outlet that keeps them united and fighting for their goals.”

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AUGUST 11: The Farthest (dir. Emer Reynolds) (DP: Kate McCullough)Cinema Village synopsis: “Twelve billion miles from Earth, a tiny spaceship is leaving our solar system and entering the void of interstellar space. It is the first human-made object to do so. Slowly dying within its heart is a plutonium generator that may beat for another 10 years before the lights on Voyager 1 finally go out.

“But this little craft and its twin, Voyager 2, will likely travel on for millions of years, each carrying a golden record bearing sounds and images of life on our planet—in case an alien might find them one day and wonder. If the Voyagers were bottles in the cosmic ocean, the record was the message inside.

“An adventure with heart and humor, the story of Voyager is told firsthand by the indelible characters who made the mission happen. They are a small band of resourceful, ambitious, and passionate men and women who reached for the stars … and succeeded. As they reckon with their astonishing accomplishments, they take the viewer on a journey both epic and intimate that will stand alongside the achievements of Magellan, Columbus, Gagarin and Armstrong.

“Launched 16 days apart in the summer of 1977, the twin Voyager space probes have defied the odds and survived harrowing near-misses. Forty years later, they continue to beam fundamental discoveries across unimaginable distances. With less computing power than that of a modern hearing aid, they have revealed undreamt-of secrets of our solar system including the first images of an erupting volcano on another world and an ocean larger than any on Earth. After the final planetary encounter, Carl Sagan insisted that Voyager’s cameras turn back toward Earth. The resulting ‘pale blue dot’ image of our home, no bigger than a dust mote, stirred conflicting emotions of humility and pride.

“Launched from a fractious planet, these pioneers sail on serenely in the darkness—an enduring testament to the ingenuity of humankind and the boundless powers of the human imagination.

“A powerful cinematic documentary, The Farthest celebrates these magnificent machines, the men and women who built them, and the vision that propelled them farther than anyone could ever have hoped.”

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AUGUST 11: Planetarium (dir. Rebecca Zlotowski)San Francisco Jewish Film Festival synopsis by Zoe Pollak: “At the beginning of Planetarium, one actress catches another’s eye in a darkened theater. Based on the startled, earnest way they embrace, it is clear they have not seen each other for years. They start to reminisce in hushed tones. ‘When was it?’ the younger actress asks of a fateful day they spent together. ‘Before the war,’ the older one answers. But, ‘The thing is,’ she adds, ‘you never know you’re living before a war.’ That may be so, but director Rebecca Zlotowski knows that for her 21st-century viewers, it would be impossible to watch this 1930s Parisian period piece without anticipating the specter of the atrocities that will soon haunt its characters. Two sisters from America, played by the luminously melancholic Natalie Portman (A Tale of Love and Darkness, JFI WinterFest 2016) and the porcelain-faced Lily-Rose Depp believe they can communicate with the dead. The silver-haired French film producer André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) vows to capture their séances on his own cinematographic medium. Korben’s character is based on the illustrious foreign-born French film pioneer who was executed at Auschwitz, Bernard Natan (the subject of Natan, SFJFF 2014). This handsomely reptilian producer may be enchanted by his beautiful young subjects, but as he propels the sisters to stardom he ends up casting a darker, stronger spell on them.”

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AUGUST 11: Whose Streets? (dir. Sabaah Folayan and co-dir. Damon Davis)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “The activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice bring you Whose Streets? – a documentary about the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and then left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis county. Grief, long-standing tension, and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy. In the days that follow, artists, musicians, teachers and parents turn into freedom fighters, standing on the front lines to demand justice. As the National Guard descends on Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis, with military grade weaponry, these young community members become the torchbearers of a new wave of resistance.

“For this generation, the battle is not for civil rights, but for the right to live.”

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AUGUST 18 (VOD), AUGUST 25 (limited release): Lemon (dir. Janicza Bravo)From RogerEbert.com’s Sundance Film Festival review by Nick Allen: “Janicza Bravo’s Lemon breathes new life into an ancient concept—a man who is dumb and also white. Comedian Brett Gelman plays said man in what’s easily his best role in a promising career of excellent side characters from ‘Tim & Eric’ projects to Amazon’s ‘Fleabag.’ In this movie (which he co-wrote with Bravo) he plays Isaac, a ridiculously pompous acting coach whose life falls apart. His girlfriend (Judy Greer, hilarious and cruel) leaves him after being together for ten years, and his own career as an actor trying to get modeling work isn’t panning out. Meanwhile, his hopes of impressing a young actor who has connections (Michael Cera, weirder than he was in Person to Person and even funnier) backfire. Isaac finds some type of comfort when he starts a relationship with a woman named Cleo (Nia Long, who deserves Sundance special kudos for doing both this and Roxanne Roxanne).

“This is one of those rare comedies that directly engages said dumb white male’s place in the world. It’s a constant part of his interactions, whether it’s with a woman in his acting class that he constantly undermines (which makes for a hilarious running gag) or Cleo, who provides a type of culture shock with her family (it is worth noting that Gelman and Bravo are an interracial couple in real life, here making an exceptional comedy in part about an interracial couple). Lemon doesn’t play any of its irreverent humor cheaply, incorporating it into very specific filmmaking choices (abrupt edits, extended sequences); nor does it become heavy-handed. Gelman’s performance is sincere to the dark comedy of Isaac while playing the ultimate clown of privilege. The whole movie is an excellent balance of meaningful comedy and Lemon’s natural, invigorating impulse to be so, so strange.

Lemon has the same air of the best anti-comedies of late, (particularly those by Rick Alverson), where everything seems far more calculated than its free-flowing story suggests. Bravo gets an excellent texture to many of her scenes by incorporating a droning clarinet score, which warbles through Gelman’s various comedic passages and makes unpredictability a constant force in the atmosphere. The cinematography too, which the opening credits claim was filmed entirely in Los Angeles, indicates a precision with light and framing. It’s a film that could only come from a thorough filmmaking vision, which is even applied to its extended toilet gag.

“If there’s justice in the film world, Lemon is just the start for Bravo, who I imagine could do some spectacular things to the comedy genre with even more support. For now, her debut is an instant classic that specifically feels like a product of 2017, the kind of bizarre culture treatise that could only come from fresh talent.”

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AUGUST 25: Beach Rats (dir. Eliza Hittman) (DP: Hélène Louvart)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “On the outskirts of Brooklyn, Frankie (Harris Dickinson), an aimless teenager, suffocates under the oppressive glare cast by his family and a toxic group of delinquent friends. Struggling with his own identity, Frankie begins to scour hookup sites for older men. When his chatting and webcamming intensify, he begins meeting men at a nearby cruising beach while simultaneously entering into a cautious relationship with a young woman. As Frankie struggles to reconcile his competing desires, his decisions leave him hurtling toward irreparable consequences. Eliza Hittman’s award-winning Sundance hit is a powerful character study that is as visually stunning as it is evocative.”

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AUGUST 25: Leap! (aka Ballerina) (dirs. Eric Summer and Éric Warin) (DP for virtual cinematography: Jericca Cleland)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Felicie has one dream, to become a ballerina at the world’s best ballet school. She also has one big problem; she’s stuck in an orphanage with her best friend Victor hundreds of miles away.

“After a hair-raising escape and a gruelling journey the partners in crime arrive in the city determined to follow their dreams; Felicie’s to dance and Victor’s to become a famous inventor. She is taken in by Odette to work with her as a house maid but Odette has a secret; a talented dancer herself until her dreams were shattered, she sees the potential in Felicie and agrees to train her.

“Driven by her passion for dancing Felicie goes to extraordinary lengths in order to audition for the role of a lifetime, but now the hard work will begin. With her mentor Odette and Victor by her side, will Felicie master the grace, skill and discipline it takes to become a professional dancer? One thing is for sure, she’ll have to strive harder than ever before to achieve her dreams…”

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AUGUST 25: Polina (dirs. Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljoçaj)South China Morning Post review by Edmund Lee: “A dancer’s obsessive pursuit of just the right kind of creative expression is beautifully dramatised in this debut feature by eminent French modern-dance choreographer Angelin Preljoçaj, who co-directed the film with his wife and screenwriter, Valérie Müller. Shunning the crowd-pleasing, life-affirming tendencies of mainstream dance movies, Polina instead offers a lyrical and introspective look at the intricate process of finding one’s true artistic calling.

“Polina (Anastasia Shevtsova) is a young Russian dancer who, following years of intense training under a formidable ballet teacher (Aleksey Guskov), is admitted to the Bolshoi Ballet as a classical ballerina. However, after being moved to tears by the performance of a modern dance work, she drops out of the prestigious Moscow company, much to the despair of her debt-ridden, working-class parents.

“She travels to Aix-en-Provence in southern France to audition for modern-dance choreographer Liria (Juliette Binoche), earning a spot in her company in the process. But her overwhelming drive for success leads to a fallout with both her dancer boyfriend (Niels Schneider) and the troupe.

“A third act set in Antwerp, Belgium, sees Polina further exploring the art form, with Jérémie Bélingard – of the Paris Opera Ballet – playing her perfect partner.

“In the role of Polina, newcomer Shevtsova is admittedly not the most expressive of film leads. Her opaque emotional display, though, does fit nicely with this character, who seems ready to sacrifice anything – from her relationship with her boyfriend to her parents’ livelihood – amid her quest for greatness.

“Her story should resonate most with artists who have ever felt lost, while dance lovers will also find much to savour in the film’s gorgeously choreographed sequences.”

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AUGUST 25: Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman (dirs. Susan Froemke and John Hoffman and co-dir. Beth Aala)Cinema Village synopsis: “The story of a huge, largely hidden, and entirely unexpected conservation movement in America.

“Unfolding as a journey down the Mississippi River, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five representatives of this stewardship movement: a Montana rancher, a Kansas farmer, a Mississippi riverman, a Louisiana shrimper and a Gulf fisherman. In exploring their work, family histories and the essential geographies they protect, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman challenges pervasive and powerful myths about American and environmental values.”

Indelible Film Images: Cat People (1982)

Cat People (1982) – dir. Paul Schrader

Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Lynn Lowry, Tessa Richarde, Berry Berenson, Emery Hollier

Cinematography: John Bailey

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2014: Part 9

Diplomacy. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Notes from December 3, 2016: Diplomacy is the first film I have seen by world-renowned German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, and I am deeply impressed. Compressing the tense, suspenseful events of a single night in August 1944 (in Nazi-occupied Paris) into the span of 84 minutes, Schlöndorff explores the cat-and-mouse-game played by Swedish-French diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) as he tries to convince General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) to abort the Nazi plan to destroy Paris by dynamiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, other landmarks and the banks of the Seine, which would not only signal the annihilation of Paris’s extraordinary culture/history but also cause catastrophic flooding, the collapse of the city’s entire infrastructure and the deaths of over a million people.

Dussollier and Arestrup display masterful acting in what is essentially a two-person show with most of the film’s scenes confined to the general’s hotel room/office headquarters. The two men engage in a deadly dance as they argue for and against saving one of the world’s greatest metropolises, as well as its entire civilian population; we witness a complex and emotional debate as to which side “must” prevail. Perhaps the single-room setting that we are trapped in for the majority of the film betrays Diplomacy’s theatrical origins (Schlöndorff and Cyril Gely wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of Gely’s 2011 play of the same name), but Schlöndorff and his talented cast and crew created a compelling drama that should prove riveting even if you are not familiar with this particular World War II incident. You already know the outcome of the film, but Schlöndorff’s production is as tense and anxiety-ridden as if the ending were a surprise.

Lucy. Directed by Luc Besson. Notes from May 20, 2016: (SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Between 2013 and 2014, Scarlett Johansson made three films that have been described as the posthuman trilogy: in Under the Skin she plays an alien trying to become human, in Her she plays a computer trying to become human and in Lucy she plays a human who eventually becomes a computer. Johansson is our most beautiful blank slate: she’s great at being able to wipe her face of emotion – or, if not totally, then close to it – and she allows us, the viewers, to project meaning onto that blankness. (The same goes for Johansson’s voice-only work in Her, but in terms of what she could stimulate in Joaquin Phoenix’s character, as well as in us, through speech.) These performances were described in 2014 by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis as “expressive of elusive, tantalizing, otherworldly stardom itself.” That being said, I loved Under the Skin and for the most part couldn’t stand Her.

Lucy, the story of a young American woman in Taipei who is coerced into becoming a drug mule, falls somewhere in the middle. Given that the illegal substance pushes our protagonist’s brain and body toward 100% of their capabilities, transforming her from a normal woman into a telepathic super-assassin, the film is abundantly entertaining and moves by at a rather fast clip. It is also a film that gets by on a paltry bit of logic, forcing the audience to swallow every plot turn with the world’s largest grains of salt. Every narrative decision can be shrugged off because the story is a sci-fi fantasy dreamed up by Luc Besson. That doesn’t make everything OK, but Besson demands total attention from the word go, so there is no room for us to hesitate. You just have to stick with Johansson and see what she will do as she hunts all over Taiwan for a cure.

The film’s flaws stick out painfully – Besson’s characterizations of the white American heroine versus stereotyped Asian male villains, for one – and it’s disappointing to see Morgan Freeman in yet another of his trademark kindly/all-knowing father-figure roles, but Lucy is worth seeing for its concept, if not the incomplete end result. (It should be noted that Amr Waked’s performance as Johansson’s police-captain accomplice is also quite good and film editor Julien Rey does a great job of holding the film together.) And Damon Albarn’s song “Sister Rust,” which plays over the end credits, is certain to unnerve you, which is exactly as it should be at the conclusion of such a creepy tale.

October Gale. Directed by Ruba Nadda. Notes from October 7, 2016: My recent dive into director Ruba Nadda’s filmography has come to an end now that I have seen her fourth, most recent film, October Gale. It is a step up from her third film, the tepid thriller Inescapable, but for some reason Nadda insists on sticking to this particular genre that she has not yet come close to mastering. I’m not sure why Ruba Nadda has not tried making more films like Sabah (2005) and Cairo Time (2009), both of which are lovely romances; perhaps that’s why October Gale tries to merge both thriller and romance elements in an attempt to do a hybrid form which unfortunately doesn’t work.

If the film had simply been a Nicholas Sparks-style drama about an older woman (Patricia Clarkson) getting over the death of her husband (Callum Keith Rennie in tedious flashbacks) by finding love with a younger man (Scott Speedman), Nadda might have found some interesting territory to explore. Instead, Speedman appears on Clarkson’s doorstep (it’s a cottage on an isolated island, naturally) as a bullet-ridden victim of a nasty foe (played by Tim Roth, who puts in a small but entertaining appearance as a total psycho), so the film goes from a slowly-paced one-woman show to an erratic suspenser, a zero-to-sixty shift that doesn’t feel remotely plausible. It’s to Clarkson’s and Speedman’s joint credit that they have a decent amount of chemistry, but that’s definitely no thanks to Ruba Nadda’s script. If she is so intent on directing thrillers, she ought to work with a screenwriter other than herself; if not, Nadda should stick to crafting films based on character development and interpersonal connection rather than on shoot-’em-up action.

Pride. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Notes from January 4, 2017: Pride is the kind of movie that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and more than a little teary, telling the story of the L.G.S.M. (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) coalition that raised money and fought alongside striking coal miners in Wales in the 1980s. Ben Schnetzer does an excellent job as Mark Ashton, the real-life figure who headed the movement to help the Welsh communities; so realistic is his accent that if you didn’t already know that Schnetzer is a native New Yorker, you would absolutely believe that the actor, like his character, hails from Northern Ireland.

George Mackay, another impressive young actor, also does fine work as Joe, a quiet young man who starts the film being afraid and almost ashamed to be gay and by the story concludes, he has found his voice and proudly embraces his sexuality. Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Joseph Gilgun and Faye Marsay play some of the other major figures in L.G.S.M., while character actors Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine (one of the UK’s most underrated actors), Jessica Gunning, Menna Trussler, Lisa Palfrey and Rhodri Meilir do wonderfully as the most prominent members of the small Welsh town that struggles to accept the LGBTQ group’s assistance. Pride hits all the obvious notes about underdogs triumphing against an unjust system, and you may roll your eyes at the cheesiness of a few scenes, but the numerous strong performances and the film’s copious amounts of warmth and humor make the end result immensely likeable by the time the story concludes.

X-Men: Days of Future Past. Directed by Bryan Singer. Notes from May 14, 2016: I’ve been thinking about wanting to see X-Men: Apocalypse when it comes out two weeks from now, and by coincidence I noticed that Days of Future Past was going to be on TV late last night/early this morning, so I tuned in. Full disclosure: I don’t remember its predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011), particularly well, nor have I seen the original X-Men trilogy released between 2000 and 2006. I don’t really have much to say about Days of Future Past other than that it was passable entertainment. I gave up trying to understand what was going on after about ten minutes; the plot probably shouldn’t even matter since, like all Marvel superhero movies, you know that the story will end with the heroes saving the day. The end. (Note: X-Men: Apocalypse, the sequel which came out last year, is an improvement.)