Director/screenwriter/producer Lynne Ramsay, actor Joaquin Phoenix and crew members on the set of You Were Never Really Here, 2016. (Photo: Now Toronto)
Here are twenty-six new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this April, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.
APRIL 6: Blockers (dir. Kay Cannon) – The Atlantic review by David Sims: “Let us consider, for a moment, the plight of the middle-class suburban American parent, as told through some of the recent comedies centered on them. I’m referring to films like 2017’s The House, or the two Neighbors movies, nearly anything directed by Judd Apatow, and now Blockers, the directorial debut of Kay Cannon (the writer of the Pitch Perfect series). These moms and dads have homes that are roomy, but lacking in personality. Their children are usually competent and savvy, more than ready to head off to college armed with their smartphones and a fairly evolved sense of how the world really works.
“What will these aimless parents do once their kids are gone? That’s the empty-nest nightmare facing the trio at the center of Blockers, played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz. But this nightmare is related to an idea driving so many similar R-rated comedies—that there’s an entire cadre of adults who never wanted to grow up, and who seem generally horrified at the idea of a world beyond their kid-focused bubbles. In Blockers, that concept is taken to a logical (and, on paper, frightening-sounding) extreme: These three parents discover that their daughters are plotting to lose their virginities on prom night, and resolve to stop them.
“But Blockers is more self-aware than its premise might suggest, even acknowledging that this scheme isn’t exactly au courant with the sex-positive youth of 2018. So the film gives the parents’ a more measured rationale: Lisa (Mann) and Mitchell (Cena) are afraid of their kids having sex, not because they want to protect the girls’ virtue, but because sex signifies a passage into adulthood and independence. Blockers offers a surprisingly apt framing for a generational clash as old as time—the parents who think of themselves as progressive and cool, versus their mortified children who view them as anything but.
“Lisa is a single mother who is intensely close with, and protective of, her daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton of Big Little Lies and Halt and Catch Fire). Though Lisa initially thinks Julie is off to college nearby in Chicago, she learns that Julie’s instead planning to go to UCLA along with her boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips). Mitchell is a hulking, cargo short–wearing creature of the suburbs who seems like the polar opposite of his loosely wound kid Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan). Hunter (Barinholtz) is a divorced screw-up who’s despised by both his fellow parents and his daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon)—but he recognizes the foolishness of the ‘blocking’ crusade, and only tags along with Lisa and Mitchell to try and stop the pair.
“Blockers works because of the time it invests in its teenaged characters. Each is a delight, particularly the supremely chilled-out Kayla (who decides to lose her virginity largely on a whim) and the more introverted Sam (who knows she’s gay but hasn’t quite figured out how to tell her friends and family). Despite Blockers’ title, the script (by Brian and Jim Kehoe) is much more invested in the girls’ parallel mission to have sex—a plan hatched in a group text that the parents accidentally see.
“The discovery of this pact is one of the film’s many clever nods to the most confusing elements of our connected world. Hunter’s limited, Dan Brown–inspired cryptographic understanding of emoji-speak (‘Have you seen Inferno?’ he excitedly asks Lisa and Mitchell) is enough to crack the baffling code of the kids’ text chain. But by and large, 2018 is a time that truly confuses these grown-ups, who seemingly can’t comprehend that their kids might feel comfortable with their own bodies or be ready to embark on new levels of emotional intimacy. Haven’t these teens even seen a John Hughes film?, the parents might be wondering. Don’t they know they’re supposed to feel awkward and isolated all the time?
“As these parents’ Sisyphean chastity quest continues (almost the entire film is set during and right after the prom), Blockers quickly shifts into life-lesson mode: Lisa must learn to be less clingy, Mitchell has to toughen up and accept his daughter’s ability to make decisions by herself (his wife, played by Sarayu Blue, is the more pragmatic of the family), and Hunter needs to make strides toward maturity. Blockers ends up being a mirror-image coming-of-age film, where the kids have to help the adults make some grand realizations.
“Mann, who’s played high-strung moms in many of Apatow’s movies, gives a deft and witty performance that smartly morphs from self-delusion to self-acceptance. Cena, whose massive frame has mostly been deployed as a sight gag in films like Daddy’s Home and Trainwreck, is finally used to his fuller potential here as a gentle giant. His character is a fundamentally decent fella who still has trouble letting go of his more old-fashioned notions about his daughter’s ‘innocence.’ And Barinholtz, often too impish for his own good, tamps down his worst impulses to make Hunter more than an anarchic purveyor of one-liners.
“The silly set pieces of Blockers—including a car chase, an extended frat party sequence that includes the use of a ‘butt funnel,’ and a neighboring couple’s blindfolded sex game—feel rote alongside all the emotional development. These more spectacular scenes are there to gin up big laughs, but none of them feels remotely original. It’s the smaller things that stick out—the banter between the teenage girls, the shifting dynamics of awareness among the parents, the loving, Julia Child–like descriptions that Kayla’s boyfriend, Connor (Miles Robbins), delivers about his strains of marijuana. It’s enough to make Blockers a cut above the comedy standard—and a worthy watch.”
APRIL 6: Chappaquiddick (dir. John Curran) (DP: Maryse Alberti) – Time Magazine review by Stephanie Zacharek: “Now that so many men are being brought to account for past misbehavior, we’re all asking questions we never thought to ask before. One that comes up a lot is: What was he thinking? It’s early yet, but Chappaquiddick, director John Curran’s suspenseful, disturbing account of Senator Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the 1969 drowning death of 28-year-old campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, may be the most What was he thinking? movie of 2018. The fact that Harvey Weinstein had a long list of enablers was bad enough. But in 1969, it wasn’t an anomaly for a group of powerful men to close ranks around one of their own, making his behavior seem acceptable to the public. It was business as usual.
“Curran, working from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, pieces together what may very well have happened on Chappaquiddick. Jason Clarke plays the Senator from Massachusetts, who, as the movie opens, is checking on the details for a Friday-night party he’s hosting on the Martha’s Vineyard island. His cousin and chief fixer Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) makes the arrangements. The guests are a group of young women who had worked on the 1968 campaign of the Senator’s late brother Bobby, who had been assassinated the previous year. Ted was fond of these ambitious, politically astute women and wanted to show his appreciation. Their campaign nickname had been ‘the boiler-room girls,’ and one of them was Kopechne (played here by a thoughtful, precise Kate Mara).
“In the movie’s vision, there’s a mild possible flirtation between Kopechne and the married Kennedy, though there’s no evidence of inappropriate behavior. Impulsively, the two leave the party to drive to the beach–Kopechne leaves her basket-shaped handbag on the table, a small, wrenching detail. Kennedy, clearly driving while drunk, veers off a bridge into a shallow pond, flipping and submerging the car. In a horrifying, split-second shard of a shot, Kopechne’s hand reaches out toward Kennedy as the vehicle flies out of his control. There’s terror in her eyes.
“Within seconds, Kennedy surfaces, distraught, calling Kopechne’s name. And then, inexplicably, he trundles off the scene and heads back to the house–not to get help for his friend, but to alert the long-suffering Gargan so he can sort things out. Kennedy doesn’t report the incident until late the following morning. In between, he has brunch with some friends.
“The rest of the movie shows how the devious machine established by family patriarch Joe Kennedy – by that point a gnarled, bedridden root vegetable with angry eyes, played here with alarming authenticity by Bruce Dern – pulled off, with Ted’s participation, a highly implausible semi-cover-up of the incident, thus saving the Senator’s congressional career. (The presidency, of course, remained elusive.)
“With Chappaquiddick, Curran (The Painted Veil, Tracks) walks a tricky line, deftly: Should we feel revulsion for Kennedy, the spoiled overgrown kid whose family cleaned up his messes, or sympathy for the man who was left to carry the staggering legacies of his brothers John and Bobby? Clarke makes us feel plenty of things we’d rather not. His eyes are shadowed with profound decency one minute, and hollowed out in desperate calculation the next.
“There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009, was both haunted and motivated by his dead brothers’ achievements. His congressional record shows a man who fought hard for things he considered just, like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But what if, even more than any supposed family curse, he was haunted by the memory of a woman’s face, of what she looked like just before she drowned in a submerged car that he had somehow managed to escape? Although Chappaquiddick doesn’t address Kennedy’s subsequent legislative record, it’s the silver-lining storm cloud that hangs over the movie. Human beings can end up doing good things for terrible reasons. How much more convenient it would be if we could just write them off altogether.”
APRIL 6: A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski) (DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen) – Washington Post review by Ann Hornaday: “A creeping, increasingly queasy sense of dread pervades A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s nervy thriller that marks a notable addition to the recent spate of smart, timely genre pictures. Like Get Out, which was on its way to becoming a pop culture juggernaut around this time last year, A Quiet Place deploys the most classic conventions of similar films that have gone before it, including jump scares, creepy-looking creatures, frightening camera angles and a terrifying sound design.
“In this case, though, even the most familiar gestures look — and, more pointedly, sound — brand new. A Quiet Place opens in a leafy small town in Upstate New York on Day 89 of a mysterious invasion by voracious otherworldly beings. Unable to see but endowed with supernatural hearing, these clicking, hissing aliens hide out for most of the day, quickly swooping in to dispatch their victims only when attracted by a loud noise.
“Bearing that in mind, the Abbotts — played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt, who are married in real life — lead a mostly silent life, communicating with their three children in sign language, tiptoeing around their Victorian farmhouse, creating trails of sand on which to walk barefoot to and from town, and playing the odd game of Monopoly with felt-coated pips. Like a half-mad survivalist, Krasiniski’s paterfamilias labors in the basement workshop, trying to summon help with his shortwave radio and inventing a hearing aid for his daughter, who is deaf. As the personification of maternal nurturing and strength, Blunt’s character does her best to maintain a safe and welcoming home, even while staying attuned to the threats that lurk just a stray whisper away.
“Like the best movies, A Quiet Place teaches the audience how to watch it within the first 10 minutes, during which characters are introduced, the stage is set, and the stakes are established and heightened in a sequence that plays out entirely without words. But not without sound: The movie’s ingenious sound design includes the gentle cadences of nature at its most quietly reassuring. But when the point of view changes to the Abbotts’ adolescent daughter — played in an exceptionally sensitive performance by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds — ambient noise is completely absent.
“The upshot is that Simmonds’s character can’t hear what she can’t hear; she isn’t able to discern the noises that might bring sure death to the people she loves the most. Her little brother, played in a similarly accomplished turn by Noah Jupe, intuiting a strain between his sister and her father, reluctantly allows himself to be tutored in the hunting and gathering that the family depends on to live.
“At an efficient hour and a half, A Quiet Place exemplifies cinematic storytelling at its most simple and inventive, using the pure grammar of sound and image to create a credible atmosphere of lived-in domesticity and looming terror. Krasinski, working from a script he co-wrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, creates a rich, imaginative world in which neighbors communicate by firelight and an impromptu dance with a shared pair of ear buds playing Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ possesses the sensory relief of a cool, clear spring in a desert. (Krasinski has assembled an excellent production team to help craft A Quiet Place’s homespun universe, including production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who together create an unlikely mood of warmth and coziness within the encroaching tension.)
“The action ratchets up considerably in the final 45 minutes, when the monsters that Krasinski has wisely framed in brief, allusive blurs of movement come into more frightening focus. He stages some unforgettable set pieces here, including a moment of peril in a silo that gives new meaning to children of the corn, and Blunt’s character evading a giant auris dentata with spiderlike legs while her husband is occupied elsewhere.
“There are even more details that make that sequence particularly unsettling, but the best way to appreciate A Quiet Place is with as few preconceptions as possible. Suffice it to say that Blunt emerges as the real star of a film whose themes of female silence, resilience and grit feel uncannily of the moment — up to and including her character’s facial expression in the final shot. As a celebration of the physical expressiveness and visual storytelling of silent cinema, A Quiet Place speaks volumes without a word being uttered.”
APRIL 6 (streaming on Netflix): 6 Balloons (dir. Marja-Lewis Ryan) (DP: Polly Morgan) – RogerEbert.com’s SXSW review by Brian Tallerico: “It is incredibly difficult to love an addict. Not only does their addiction continuously define the dynamic of your relationship, but they are like a drowning man, able to take you down with them as they flail their arms and fight for air. Rarely has a film captured this better than Marja-Lewis Ryan’s 6 Balloons, premiering next month on Netflix after its world premiere at SXSW. It features a pair of young actors who are mostly known for comedy in a heartfelt, scary drama about what addiction does to the people around the addict. We’ve seen countless stories of junkies trying to get clean, but how does someone sever the tie to someone who just keeps pulling them under again and again?
“We meet Katie (Abbi Jacobson of ‘Broad City’) as she prepares for a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend. She goes to buy balloons with her mother (Jane Kaczmarek) and her father (Tim Matheson) and friends show up early to set things up. But her brother Seth (Dave Franco) and Seth’s 4-year-old daughter appear to be missing. Seth isn’t answering his phone, and a look crosses Katie’s face that tells us she knows what that means. When she gets to his apartment to bring him and Ella to the party, she sees that he hasn’t been opening his mail. As she says, ‘that happened last time.’ Seth is a heroin addict. Seth has relapsed.
“He agrees to go to detox. Katie will drive him to the clinic and he’ll get clean … again. Katie can go pick up the cake she told her friends and family she was getting, and bring her niece to the party too. Of course, this doesn’t go as planned. The first clinic won’t take his health insurance, and a 10-day detox costs $5,000. And then Seth’s body/addiction starts revolting against him. Franco lost 20 pounds for the role, and he looks like he’s studied what withdrawal does to a body. 6 Balloons is downright frightening at times, enhanced by a 4-year-old girl being in a car seat and witness to all of this, although I was concerned Ryan would use that child character manipulatively and she never does. Ella’s presence enhances the tension of 6 Balloons but also reminds us how addiction often doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it happens near children and siblings, and they are forced to watch the downfall.
“As the party that Katie planned goes on without her, Ryan plays self-help audio over the arc of Katie and Seth, almost like chapter breaks. The self-help audio uses the analogy of a sinking boat, and it feels manipulative and on-the-nose at first, but really works in the final act of her film. The closing scenes of 6 Balloons had my heart in my throat and tears in my eyes in ways that I wasn’t expecting. It’s incredibly powerful stuff.
“That’s because of Ryan’s confidence as a writer/director, but also because of how much Jacobson and Franco bring to these roles. Franco has proven himself to be a talented comic actor and scene-stealer in supporting roles, but this is his first truly memorable dramatic turn and he nails it. There’s also a remarkable trust between Ryan and Jacobson in that while the self-help audio may be a little blunt, most of what Katie’s experiencing emotionally is internalized. She doesn’t get many big monologues and doesn’t have as much dialogue as a lesser writer would have given her to explain her emotional turmoil. It’s in her eyes. It’s in her body language as she’s clearly uncertain how to help Seth and stop hurting herself in the process. It’s a great performance.
“I do wish slightly that 6 Balloons felt weightier in terms of narrative—it runs only 74 minutes—and, as silly as it may sound, I could have spent more real time in the car with Seth and Katie, just watching these two actors do what they here. They’re so fully-realized that I wanted a bit more to their story, but I also admire Ryan’s no-nonsense approach to a tight narrative. Katie is planning a surprise party in 6 Balloons and this is one of the most unexpected, moving surprises of the year so far.”
APRIL 6 (in theaters & on VOD): Spinning Man (dir. Simon Kaijser) (DP: Polly Morgan) – Los Angeles Times review by Gary Goldstein: “The absorbing, if forgettably titled, mystery Spinning Man does a good job keeping us guessing not so much about who may have killed a high school cheerleader, but how it happened — and why.
“The always watchable Guy Pearce proves a compelling combination of sympathetic and suspicious as Evan, a small-town college philosophy professor and the prime suspect in the disappearance of attractive teenager Joyce (Odeya Rush), with whom he may have been romantically involved. Meanwhile, cagey local detective Malloy (Pierce Brosnan) is hot on Evan’s trail as Evan’s conflicted wife (Minnie Driver, quite good), young children (Eliza Pryor, Noah Salsbury Lipson), co-workers (Jamie Kennedy, Carlo Rota) and lawyer (Clark Gregg) must navigate Evan’s increasingly thorny place in this potential murder case.
“Matthew Aldrich’s workmanlike script, based on the novel by George Harrar, features plenty of handy red herrings and misdirection, particularly concerning Evan’s dubious past and adulterous leanings, while also offering an intriguing philosophical outlook involving proof and certainty. On the downside, director-editor Simon Kaijser takes an often choppy approach to the narrative, the catch-a-mouse symbolism is a bit heavy-handed and the ending could use more oomph. Still, of the many interchangeable, name-lead thrillers and action pictures concurrently premiering these days in theatres and on VOD, this one’s definitely a cut above.”
APRIL 6 (streaming on Netflix): Sun Dogs (dir. Jennifer Morrison) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Los Angeles Film Festival review by Sheri Linden: “Jennifer Morrison, the recently departed star of the ABC series Once Upon a Time, segues confidently to the director’s chair with Sun Dogs, a comic drama that deftly navigates a tricky line. The story of a mentally challenged young man and his quixotic mission to serve his country could easily have turned cringe-inducing or merely ridiculous. But Michael Angarano, leading an excellent cast, inhabits the role of a single-minded misfit without the slightest hint of mawkishness, embracing his exasperating qualities no less than his endearing ones. Morrison balances her affection for all the characters with droll naturalism and an assured visual style.
“Working from a screenplay by Anthony Tambakis (whose credits include the Morrison starrer Warrior, and who uses the nom de film Raoul McFarland for the new movie), Morrison has cited Hal Ashby’s Being There as a key inspiration. The idea of a sheltered, innocent soul being mistaken for — and becoming — a heroic figure, à la the 1979 film’s Chauncey Gardiner, is an essential aspect of Sun Dogs‘ story, and there’s a strong ’70s sensibility to the character-driven film. But it also recalls the more recent Lars and the Real Girl with its unforced emphasis on communal support for an oddball. The well-crafted feature, a world-premiere selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival, could parlay its name cast and engaging warmth into art-house exposure.
“Like many Americans, Angarano’s Ned Chipley, who lives with his parents in rural California and does menial work at a casino, was galvanized by the 2001 attacks on the United States. But given his limited intellectual capacities — explained with just a few words, late in the proceedings — his goal of becoming a Marine is a delusion, albeit one that charms more people than it offends. Ned’s mother, Rose (Allison Janney), a nurse who once dreamed of a life in New York City, gently encourages his sense of purpose, to the frustration of his cranky stepfather, Bob (Ed O’Neill), a trucker who feels adrift as he awaits a hoped-for insurance payout for a road accident.
“On his birthday in 2004, Ned takes the bus through picturesque mountains to San Diego for his annual attempt to enlist in the Marines. His anti-terrorist fervor is a familiar source of fond amusement at the recruitment center (where Morrison cameos winningly as the Marine at the front desk). But the new master sergeant, Jenkins (Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner, pitch-perfect), is unprepared for Ned’s talking points, manually typed out on index cards, and his gung-ho announcement that, ‘I have field readiness.’ Wanting to let the kid down easy, Jenkins convinces him to focus his attentions on the home front as a ‘special operative,’ not understanding the obsessive investigations this diversion will prompt.
“In no time Ned is accosting strangers to assure them that he’s on the case, the case being saving lives and protecting the country, and thrusting his fresh-from-Kinko’s business cards in their hands. His take-charge attitude intrigues Tally (Melissa Benoist), a runaway at loose ends. Impressed that his preferred reading material is the 9/11 Commission Report, she becomes his civilian partner in undercover detective work, eager to help Ned prove his questionable thesis that his turban-wearing boss (Nicholas Massouh) is an enemy of the state.
“Though their adventures in idealism might be misguided, the two outsiders forge a bond of true friendship, their mutual attraction and drastic differences in experience played just right. Benoist (Lowriders, TV’s Supergirl) eloquently conveys the brokenness in Tally without overdoing it, making clear why she would spark to Ned as a man of mystery and action, his goofy awkwardness only deepening the image of someone hell-bent on saving the world. Her eventual discovery of the truth about Ned is the movie’s most formulaic plot point, but Morrison’s sensitive direction lends it nuance.
“Angarano’s self-serious Ned manages to feel both immature and old beyond his years, the character’s quirky mannerisms subtly complicated by his unexpressed yearnings. Ned’s determination to be helpful proves unexpectedly profound and powerful as the drama crescendos, along with Mark Isham’s ace score, in an extraordinary moment that ties together key narrative threads.
“These include Ned’s love of war movies, specifically The Deer Hunter. He imagines himself in jungle combat — sequences that cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd drenches in thick shadow, a striking contrast to the rich, golden palette that aptly bathes most of the film.
“At its essence, Sun Dogs is a story about compassion. That’s the subject of Ned’s every meaningful interaction, whether tender or comically deadpan, and whether he’s offering advice or receiving it. Rather than reaching for irony, Morrison lets the story’s sincerity shine, not just in Ned and Tally’s openhearted exchanges but in the unexpectedly paternal benevolence of Xzibit’s military man and in the exquisitely lived-in performances of Janney and O’Neill as Ned’s parents. Though their words may be tinged with regret, Rose and Bob are, in different ways, inspired by the indefatigable Ned, and still trying. There’s no question, in Angarano’s portrayal and the film as a whole, that this eccentric do-gooder would have such an effect.”
APRIL 6: This Is Home: A Refugee Story (dir. Alexandra Shiva) (DP: Laela Kilbourn) – The Playlist’s Sundance Film Festival review by Gary Garrison: “In the year since the cultural shift ignited by the 2016 election, there have already been a handful of films that have taken on the ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has sparked. (Two of them — City of Ghosts and Last Men in Aleppo — made our list of the best docs of 2017.) These films, which are often painful to watch, let alone to capture on film, paint a shocking picture of pain and suffering while simultaneously indicting the global community for its failure to act (or even sustain interest). Taken together as a body of work they draw a portrait that spans from the origins of the devastating war, to the ruins of once-great cities, to the harrowing journeys that hundreds of thousands of families have made across seas and mountains and borders all in the name of safety. But what happens when a family finds itself, after years in a refugee camp, finally on its way to America? To the land of freedom and opportunity? What’s it like to finally make it? Alexandra Shiva tackles these questions in her new documentary This Is Home, but the answers she offers are anything but comforting.
“What’s so intriguing about This Is Home is that it begins where so many other stories end: the moment a family lands in America. The film follows four newly arrived families in Baltimore as they attempt to settle in and become self-sufficient — a complicated challenge that is far more difficult than most would imagine. Not only are there linguistic and cultural barriers, but so too is there a clock: each family is given just eight months to work with a resettlement agency to find well-paying jobs, get their children comfortable in school and generally adapt to an entirely new life. On top of all of it, though, is the trauma. Khaldoun, who arrives with his wife and children, can’t work many of the best jobs because part of his leg was removed when he was tortured as a prisoner in Syria. In another family, a teenage boy struggles to fit in at school — and to sleep at night — because of his PTSD.
“The list of challenges that each of the families face goes on — translators are too few and far between, strangers are cruel and suspicious, and everybody dreams of someday returning home — but they are not without hope. Which is one place in particular where Shiva’s film succeeds: It would be so easy to paint a bleak picture of these families who are almost chronically let down by the system and the grotesque failings of the great country that is America, but instead This Is Home offers up a nuanced and tonally balanced take, embodying misfortune and hope in even measure. And Shiva’s film is better for it. Because it’s hard not to view This Is Home as a piece of advocacy, a rallying cry for compassion and empathy. But to succeed as such, Shiva must walk a fine line between hurt and optimism: without hurt there is room for apathy, and without hope, despair.
“More importantly, though, This Is Home takes the time to humanize each of the families at its core, giving each person the space they need to be full, rounded people. Juxtaposed with the lean structure of the film, this humanity speaks to Shiva’s ability to find telling moments that are characteristic of the struggles of each family and the larger context of their place in a damningly bureaucratic system. This Is Home mostly manages to pack eight months worth of stories into 91 minutes without short-shifting any of the many narratives it juggles.
“Still, despite taking the time to cast a light on the missteps that some refugees make, it’s easy to argue that This Is Home offers too rosy a perspective. For all the goodwill it builds, it’s hard to imagine someone who is staunchly opposed to immigration would be willing to take heed of Shiva’s film’s message. Which is not necessarily a fault of This Is Home, but may, in fact, be a fault of the deeply partisan time into which the film was born. Still, This Is Home is no City of Ghosts or Last Men In Aleppo, it is unlikely to cause the seismic quake required to shake the apathy from the masses — as neither of those films did either — but it is a much-needed reminder that a journey never quite ends when you think it does.”
APRIL 6: You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay) – The Globe and Mail review by Barry Hertz: “We do not deserve Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish filmmaker has proven this fact several times over the course of her career – though not nearly as often as she should have been afforded the chance. Over the past two decades, Ramsay has made just four feature-length films – four films of immense power and darkness and soul-withering devastation. But only four.
“Thanks to the various and spurious justifications of industry gatekeepers, the director has been shoved into the box of being a ‘difficult’ artist – or, as she accurately describes it, of being a woman. ‘You’ve got to stick up for what you believe in. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience, because you’re making something really diluted,’ she told The Guardian recently, describing how she left the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun on the first day of filming. ‘And if you do that when you’re a guy, you’re seen as artistic – “difficult” is seen as a sign of genius. But it’s not the same for women.’ And so Ramsay has been able to produce only four films – but, again, what four films those are.
“Ramsay startled the international film scene with 1999′s poetically bleak Ratcatcher, which plumbed the muckier depths of kitchen sink realism as it chronicled the lives of those stuck in a Glasgow housing project. She followed that hypnotizing misery with the increasingly confident and brazen works Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin and now her ultimate masterpiece, You Were Never Really Here.
“On its surface, the new film’s source material doesn’t seem like typical Ramsay fodder. Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name is certainly a bleak story, but more so in that it’s a gritty mash of disposable pulp – a crime tale that is more focused on executing acts of tremendous violence than the violence that lurks in the mind.
“A thriller complete with a this-goes-all-the-way-to-the-top conspiracy, You Were Never Really Here centres on Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a military veteran and former FBI agent who now specializes in rescuing trafficked girls – and ensuring their captors are disposed with in the most brutal fashion possible. After being tasked with finding the missing daughter of a New York state senator, Joe is thrust into a twisted underworld filled with shifty middlemen, on-the-take cops, and a Gothic sex-mansion ripped from the most obvious parts of Eyes Wide Shut.
“It is lurid and frequently gross material, and handled by any other filmmaker it would have reeked of exploitative seediness – a big-screen facsimile of True Detective Season 2. Yet in writing her own adaptation and finding bold collaborators in Phoenix, cinematographer Thomas Townend and composer Jonny Greenwood, Ramsay has delivered a down-to-the-marrow character study more concerned with the act of killing than the killing itself.
“As she follows Joe through his myriad grim tasks – from staking out targets to cleaning his weapon of choice, a ball-peen hammer – it is clear Ramsay takes no delight in delivering cheap thrills, in splattering blood to the wall just for the sticky shock of it. One standout example that has already made waves since an unfinished version of You Were Never Really Here screened in Cannes last year is Joe’s mid-film invasion of a Manhattan brothel. Instead of filming Joe’s assault with, say, an all-the-rage-these-days single-take tracking shot, Ramsay depicts the entire sequence through the perspective of the building’s surveillance cameras. It is a silent and unnerving bit of filmmaking that – like its most immediate forebearer Taxi Driver did upon its arrival in 1976 – upends modern expectations of cinematic violence.
“And just like Scorsese’s work, a mere body count – which is high here, but not counted with any of the garish glee of, say, a modern pain guru like Nicolas Winding Refn – holds no interest for Ramsay. It is Joe’s diseased state of mind that fascinates and intrigues. In 90 intense, claustrophobic minutes she offers audiences a glimpse of it that remains unshakable.
“Phoenix is as integral to the the film’s shadowy art as Ramsay. His mercenary antihero is barely afforded an index card’s worth of dialogue, but that doesn’t prevent the actor from conjuring a fully lived-in soul who makes the audience intimately aware of his every tick and shiver. Forget the fact that Phoenix put on considerable weight and grew a mountain-man beard to illustrate Joe’s post-traumatic societal isolation – the actor’s eyes and pained expressions do most of the heavy lifting, and Ramsay captures it all beautifully, if such an experience could be even dubbed beautiful.
“Set against the high-tension strings and jarringly funky synthesizers of Greenwood’s score, the film is transformative and transfixing.
“Although it is not her title, You Were Never Really Here neatly summarizes the film industry’s dismissive attitude toward Ramsay thus far. May this shattering, necessary work change that line of thinking forever.”
APRIL 13 (NYC), APRIL 20 (LA): Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (dir. Sophie Fiennes) – New York Times review by Wesley Morris: “Nudity has never seemed to bother Grace Jones. Her art has thrived, in part, on a physical candor that both shocked people and redrew the boundaries of taste, beauty and eroticism around her masculinity, ebony skin and unrelenting intensity. She’s an iconoclast, basically. And I imagine a downside of iconoclasm is that you never get to be a human being. This is someone whose long career as a model, actress and undervalued musician has veered, sometimes uncomfortably, into both the sub- and superhuman. So the relief of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is that it seeks to square the person with the provocateuse.
“The documentary is a feat of portraiture and a restoration of humanity. It’s got the uncanny, the sublime, and, in many spots, a combination of both. Take the alarming sight of Ms. Jones, on the phone, pleading for two of her longtime collaborators, Sly & Robbie, to join her in the studio, as they apparently promised they would. She jokes — I think — about resorting to ’emotional blackmail,’ quoting herself covering Chrissie Hynde’s song ‘Private Life.’
“‘Robbie? Robbie? Robbie,’ she begs, with a polka dotted sweatshirt unwrapped on her head, her glorious, mysterious continental baritone on the brink of despair. Here we have the woman who played the formidable henchman May Day in the Bond film A View to a Kill and the freaky-deaky supermodel Strangé from the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang — here we have Grace Jones! — trapped in a Lionel Richie song.
“In a movie about someone who has shown you everything, what you’re looking for is something you never expected to see. Bloodlight and Bami delivers. Ms. Jones shucks her own oysters — stressfully. She does her own make up and performs her own vexed yet amusing contract negotiations. She counsels, watches, listens and sort of kids around (‘Heads are gonna roll,’ she sings after one sour phone call).
“This isn’t a career retrospective or a treatise on the importance and wide influence of Grace Jones. (Someone should feel free to make either or both of those.) Bloodlight and Bami is all vérité. The director Sophie Fiennes began filming Ms. Jones in the mid-2000s and simply observes her on stage and off. She follows her home to Jamaica, where the diva mellows, almost unconsciously, into a daughter, sister and parishioner. She watches her record her 2008 album Hurricane and become a grandmother.
“There’s a trip to church where Ms. Jones’s brother, Noel, preaches and her mother sings ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’ There’s a night spent clubbing. Ms. Jones was in her mid-50s when the movie finds her and turns 70 next month. So for someone whose hits include the 1981 masterpiece of metaphor, ‘Pull Up to the Bumper,’ and who was a fixture at New York’s Studio 54, her partying seems less like a splurge and more like a form of exercise.
“Ms. Fiennes makes the same investment in Ms. Jones that she’s made in the artist Anselm Kiefer and twice with the cultural philosopher Slavoj Zizek. This new movie isn’t as handsome or haunting as those. A lot of it feels caught on the fly. But Ms. Fiennes’ rigor operates in a different, more intimately transparent way. She enjoys Ms. Jones and her big, complicated family but is careful not to insert herself — or too much technique, for that matter — into family meals and various reminiscences between, say, Grace and a niece. Ms. Fiennes deploys her effects strategically, like for that night life sequence, which unfolds in slow-motion and without natural sound. Ms. Jones is at her most vampiric but also her most free.
“We’re not given any kind of chronology. We’re left to guess about what year it is or what city the shows are in. But concepts of time, space and location might actually be besides the point when your movie stars a Grace Jones who’s determined to look inward the way she does on Hurricane, the most obviously personal and autobiographical of her albums. There’s a long, lovely passage built around the conjuring, recording and live performance of the song ‘This Is.’ And we watch Ms. Jones ruminate about the source of all that scariness and intimidation in her stage persona. It’s her abusive stepfather, and he’s got a hold on her still. This particular return to Jamaica appears to have stirred up a lot for her.
“Ms. Fiennes shrewdly juxtaposes all of that inner work with its outward expression, moving from conversations to concerts. At the shows, the camera is positioned from a distance that lets you take in all of Ms. Jones, whether she’s hula-hooping or stalking around the stage, in headdresses, helmets and masks. That low voice only seems to have gained power, weight and complexity. And the high point of experiencing the full of psychological effect might be during a performance of ‘Warm Leatherette,’ a crashing, revved up rock song with a dance undergirding. Ms. Jones does it wearing a velvety bathing suit and a glittering mask while wielding a pair of giant cymbals that look a lot like shields.
“She’s filmed from the front and then from behind, at a low angle, so you can see the muscles in her back and the eternity of her legs. You can also see the concert hall and how it suddenly seems like a coliseum. Ms. Fiennes knows what she has in these shots — for one thing, a rebuke of some of the exploitative imagery created of Ms. Jones by her ex and former collaborator Jean-Paul Goude, who makes a short, memorable appearance. But Ms. Fiennes must also know that Ms. Jones embodies, here, a heightened version of what she always has been, a symbol of sex and strength, the pinup gladiator newly ready to reveal and defend herself.”
APRIL 13: The Judge (dir. Erika Cohn) – Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Thom Powers: “When she was a young lawyer, Kholoud Al-Faqih walked into the office of Palestine’s Chief Justice and announced that she wanted to join the bench. He laughed. But just a few years later, in a land where women rarely ascend to the ranks of governance, Al-Faqih became the first woman judge appointed to any of the Middle East’s Shari’a courts. The Shari’a courts of Islam and the Rabbinical courts of Judaism adjudicate domestic and family matters within their respective religious communities in the Middle East; these courts have traditionally banned women from decision-making roles.
“A true verité courtroom drama, the film allows us to witness the resistance that Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih and her male counterpart, a progressive sheik, face daily. Revealing the kinds of misinterpretations of Shari’a law that Judge Al-Faqih now has the power to correct, the film highlights the obstacles many women face trying to achieve justice within the courts of the West Bank.
“Erika Cohn met Kholoud Al-Faqih when the director was studying Islamic feminism and teaching film in Israel and Palestine. The judge’s story provides welcome insight into the contrasting interpretations of and inaccurate assumptions about Shari’a law and challenges tired notions of gender exclusion and segregation in the Middle East.”
APRIL 13: Nana (dir. Serena Dykman) (DPs: Julia Elaine Mills and Nick Walker) – Village Voice review by Tatiana Craine: “Serena Dykman’s feature debut, Nana, hinges on a simple concept: the difference between knowing and understanding. This touching documentary chronicles the life of Dykman’s maternal grandmother, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, and her mission to spread awareness about the Holocaust. After years in concentration camps and time as translator for Josef Mengele, Michalowski-Dyamant emerged as her family’s sole survivor and dedicated her life to teaching people about the atrocities she experienced. Decades later, Dykman and her mother follow in their matriarch’s footsteps, sometimes literally, during the making of Nana.
“Dykman intersperses archival footage of her grandmother, a prolific public speaker, alongside contemporary scenes of the two women traversing Auschwitz, reading from Michalowski-Dyamant’s memoir, and talking to the people who knew her best. Dykman does well to let her grandmother anchor the film: Michalowski-Dyamant’s charisma and pathos shine through countless cuts of archival footage. More often than not, Michalowski-Dyamant is refreshingly blunt, whether speaking about the last time she saw her mother or cracking one-liners. ‘How do you like my apartment?’ she jokes to a group of students touring the camp barracks, her gallows humor tempering the bleakness.
“Nana’s most stirring moment comes when Dykman and her mother reveal the moment when they went from merely knowing about the Holocaust to truly understanding it. With Nana, Dykman aims to carry the torch for her grandmother and other survivors by making the horror of millions profoundly personal.”
APRIL 13 (in theaters & on VOD and other digital platforms): An Ordinary Man (dir. Brad Silberling) (DP: Magdalena Górka) – Variety review by Peter Debruge: “Ben Kingsley is not a tall man, but he looms awesomely large in writer-director Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man, whose slyly misleading title refers to what becomes of a notorious Bosnian Serb general living in what used to be Yugoslavia — a monster guilty of torture, murder, and other unforgivable crimes who has spent the subsequent years attempting to blend in. The versatile actor, whose performances have run the gamut of good and evil from Gandhi to Sexy Beast maniac Don Logan, settles somewhere in the middle here, which isn’t at all what one might expect when playing the country’s most wanted war criminal. Still, it’s the right answer in a goulash-heavy character study that’s ultimately more interested in human psychology than unresolved world politics.
“Kingsley’s domineering lead performance is worth the price of admission alone, although An Ordinary Man is actually a two-hander, divided between the Oscar winner and relative newcomer Hera Hilmar, an English-speaking Icelandic actress whose career was launched by Life in a Fishbowl, and whose girlish appearance and submissive demeanor contrast sharply with her imposing co-star. In an almost theatrical flourish, Kingsley and Hilmar’s characters are identified only as ‘The General’ and ‘The Maid,’ which suggests the level of abstraction in the way Silberling views their dynamic (though driven by dialogue and relatively self-contained, the film is plenty cinematic, as Polish DP Magdalena Górka elegantly creates atmosphere within a limited number of locations).
“At first, showing up at the dangerous general’s door unannounced, the maid seems almost laughably powerless by comparison, a disposable plaything for this petty old tyrant to boss around as he pleases. But things are not as they seem. Silberling is clever enough to anticipate where savvy audiences’ imaginations will take them — rushing to assume that the maid is in fact some kind of elite assassin, or else the keeper of some nefarious hidden agenda.
“If Silberling had written that movie, there’s a good chance he could have gotten it made at one of the major Hollywood studios. But video store aisles are already heavy with Odessa Files and Marathon Men. Instead, Silberling aims to peer inside the mind of such a monster, without letting the people of modern Serbia scapegoat him quite so easily. In the film’s most incendiary exchange, the general describes the bloody ethnic cleansing policy he helped carry out as ‘a deposit on your future’ to the young maid, and indeed, her role here serves partly to examine the disturbing phenomenon by which members of the younger generation (most notably neo-Nazis) naïvely endorse their elders’ most unconscionable policies.
“Compared to the sneering, one-dimensionally evil warmonger Gary Oldman played in last year’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Kingsley’s more nuanced despot might indeed be considered an ordinary man, his humanity visible despite the tough exterior. Hiding in plain sight, shuttled by supporters from one rat hole to the next (as a longtime loyalist, Peter Serafinowicz plays his link to the outside world), this fugitive general has wrestled with his sins in virtual isolation all these years. He may have avoided arrest, trial, and likely execution, but he is still a prisoner of his own making — a great white shark confined to an suffocatingly small tank.
“And so, the maid’s arrival offers him something he has clearly lacked all these years: company, an audience, and potentially, a chance to revisit the one place on earth where he is most vulnerable, the rural countryside hometown where he would almost certainly be shot on the spot if recognized. Despite the implied atrocities in the general’s past, the film isn’t designed as a mechanism for violence or shootouts — although there are guns in the opening scene, the last one, and at several points in between.
“Both characters possess a capacity to kill one another, neatly illustrated in a pair of scenes: he defuses a convenience-store robbery at the outset, she holds his life in her hands while shaving him with a straight razor at home. And yet, they’re more dangerous simply exchanging ideas. That thoughtfulness explains why An Ordinary Man exists as an independent film, not a more generic piece of studio entertainment (which is just as well, since a couple of suspense sequences fail to generate any palpable tension). This movie actually has something on its mind.
“When not directing kid pics and television (which constitute most of his credits), Silberling clearly aspires to emotional, artistic filmmaking (Moonlight Mile and City of Angels were earnest, if flawed attempts at such). Here, he could be accused of displaying a bit too much empathy for an imaginary war criminal — that misstep would be more obvious if Silberling were attempting to humanize a Nazi officer at large — and yet, he’s saved by his star. An incredibly precise actor who understands exactly how to play to the camera, conveying volumes via even the slightest microexpressions, Kingsley navigates the tricky mix of humor, horror, and deep-seated regret that make this man, if not exactly ordinary, then relatable, at least.”
APRIL 13: The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao) – Vanity Fair review by K. Austin Collins: “The Rider, the tender second feature from Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao, opens with a dream: an abstract collision of thunder, dirt, and mane, stomping hooves clashing with the defiant snorts of a wild, free animal. It’s the vision of a young man named Brady Blackburn, a horse trainer and celebrated bronco rider living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Really, though, it might be better described as a nightmare.
“When The Rider begins, Brady, played by real-life rodeo Brady Jandreau, has just escaped from the hospital. He’s still reeling from a recent accident, a hoof to the skull that caused his brain cavity to swell up with blood. Seizures, a coma, and surgery followed. Still recovering, he doesn’t really know what to do with himself. He’s got a neat row of staples lining the back of his head and an awkward partial mullet, his scalp half-overgrown, half-shaved raw where the doctors had to cut his head open. He’s got spells of nausea and vomiting, too, and a medicine cabinet full of pills (to say nothing of his dad’s steady supply of weed) that for all their power cannot quell the seizures he’s been having, which make his right hand spontaneously harden to the point that he has to use his left to pry his fingers free of their death grip. Nor can any medicine fix the fear deepening in Brady’s heart: that the life he’s known to this point—as a man who spends his days staring up over the crest and down between the ears of a powerful, liberated animal, sharing in its mythic freedom—is now over.
“Despite its pure beauty, in other words, there’s no mistaking The Rider for a simple, crowd-pleasing pick-me-up. The movie is soulful, elegant, filmed as often as not at the magic hour, when the sky is as broad as it is orange-yellow, and every nook of the world seems alight with possibility. It is hardly, on its surface, an outright downer. But it’s unmistakably a movie about loss. The movie begins as a dream, but it ends as a sobering glimpse of this new reality.
“The Rider is set in the present day, when a rodeo rider can relive past glories by watching clips of himself on YouTube, and when the overall image of the American cowboy is fading. Seemingly all that’s left for Brady to do after his accident, given his lack of G.E.D. or any work skills beyond horse training, is to work at the local grocery store, where he’s frequently confronted by people confused to see a capable bronco rider shelving frozen fish sticks. This is a pointed subject for American movies, so much of which still owe their style, content, and even politics to the myth of the American frontier and the virtuous, deified cowboys sought to protect it. The image has outlasted the reality, it seems. And the perceptive, intelligent Zhao, who filled this movie almost entirely with Jandreau’s real-life family and cowboy friends, whittles those myths down to the unflattering contemporary particulars: rent money that gets gambled away, broncos that kick open skulls, and scarred, forgotten cowboys working aisle six.
“Zhao, who was born in Beijing and attended high school in London, college at Mount Holyoke, and graduate school at New York University, has a pedigree that couldn’t seem further from the world of the American West or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. You might expect some inadvertent condescension here. But this is Zhao’s second film set there, the result of more than two years of immersion in and collaboration with the Pine Ridge community. Zhao met Jandreau on the reservation while making her first film, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which is just as much the product of a sensitive collaboration between Zhao and the lives of her non-professional local actors.
“Brady’s accident is based on a real skull fracture Jandreau suffered while competing in April 2016. The Rider, making art of that fresh wound, was filmed later that year, in September and October, when the incident and its implications were still fresh on his mind. Jandreau’s father, Tim, plays his ball-busting but loving father in the movie. His sister, Lilly, who has Asperger’s syndrome, plays herself, too; Zhao confidently folds Lilly’s condition into the movie as if it were as familiar to viewers as it is to her family. Lane Scott—Jandreau’s best friend in real life—plays the former rodeo Lane, injured, like Brady, during a fateful last ride. (This is fiction; in real life, Scott was injured in a car accident in 2013.)
“Scenes of Brady and his friends sitting around a campfire reminiscing about their injuries like a clan of spit-chewing old men, or of Brady visiting Lane in the hospital to watch and re-watch the greatest hits of their respective rodeo days, feel as contrived as they are spontaneous and naturalistic. Zhao pulls off a remarkable thing, that curious mix of fiction and non- that’s become the holy grail of American indie cinema, for which relying on real landscapes and ‘real’ people, rather than professional actors, has by now become an indie affectation—even despite its use in best-case scenarios of movies like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project or Zhao‘s debut feature. The Rider in so many ways embodies every pitfall of whatever we mean by the dismissive phrase ‘Sundance movie.’ (Indeed, Zhao’s first movie was born of the Sundance Institute.) It’s got emotional beats that’d knock a Richter scale out of whack and a deep focus on the interior lives of minor, everyday people that may as well be the log line of every American indie movie given serious festival or awards attention. It’s handheld as all get-out, too, which doesn’t help its case, and it employs, at least on the surface, that strain of minimalism lesser directors always seem to dredge up whenever they’ve got no ideas of their own.
“And yet The Rider rises above the limitations of its kind, largely because the movie’s also got Jandreau, whose sloping, sensitive face is the image Zhao returns us to more than any other. The only recurring images that come close are those of Brady’s horses, which, like him, are shot in profile, just so, always from crisp, attentive angles, and always with the timing just right, so that you mysteriously wind up feeling you understand the animals’ inner lives—and Brady’s, by association. I would almost argue Zhao overuses this technique, if not for the fact that, both times I watched the movie, I was a complete sucker for it. Zhao has fashioned this movie from inside out, treating the broad arcs of this familiar-seeming story less like an endgame than like a framework for Brady to reimagine himself as the hero, if not of the bronco-riding community, as he once was, then of a movie about one.
“The Rider is a finely hewn work of fiction, rife with deliberate, if unobtrusive, movie magic, including the occasional interjection of lofty, sentimental music. But never is it better than when those lines between movie and reality blur, as when we see Brady training ornery bucks with the care and focus of someone ignoring the camera in part because his life might be at stake. Or during his exhilarating final rides on the horses he loves, when the movie’s scope seems to widen, the plains seem to broaden, and Zhao lets her camera simply run alongside him, as free as Brady and his horses seem to be. Moments like these make the pulse quicken and the heart soar—not only because they’re beautiful, but because their beauty feels true. And because of the skill with which the woman behind it all made them so.”
APRIL 13 (in theaters & on VOD): 10×10 (dir. Suzi Ewing) – Film Threat review by Matthew Passantino: “In the opening of 10×10, Lewis (Luke Evans) is sitting in a diner, watching intently across the street. He is fixated on an unknown redhead and glaring at her like a predator stalking his prey. His motive isn’t entirely clear in the film’s opening beats. Is he investigating her or is he up to something more nefarious?
“He follows her to the parking lot of her gym, where we quickly find out the answer to the question is the latter. He sneaks up on her, puts a plastic bag over her head and brings her to the ground. He tapes her mouth shut and arms and legs together, then leaves quickly to bring his car over to load her in. For those who have seen their share of abduction movies, this might seem ridiculous. How can nobody have noticed this was happening?
“Lewis brings the woman, who identifies herself as Cathy (Kelly Reilly), back to his house. She is being held captive in a soundproof room that Lewis has built behind one of his walls. It is a meticulously crafted dungeon, which suggests a bit more thought went into this kidnapping then Lewis showed in the gym parking lot. His house is spacious but cold – a chilly, modern complex without much character. But why has Cathy been taken here?
“On the surface, 10×10 is a relatively basic abduction thriller but tightly wound at a scant 88 minutes. Director Suzi Ewing’s feature debut has fun with genre trappings and adds a bit of flavor and mystery to the outing. Though clues are given throughout, she keeps us in the dark for the majority of the runtime, which adds suspense to an otherwise familiar outing. As tension builds between Lewis and Cathy, it translates to our experience watching the film. Evans and Reilly serve the film well, playing their respective types in the machine of the story. Evans is gruff and threatening, while Reilly is confused and scared as his victim. Without going too deep, because you really should check out this fun little film, they are given a little room to flex within third act revelations. Nothing in 10×10 necessarily reinvents the wheel but offers a variation on it. For a debut, 10×10 deserves to serve as an audition for Ewing’s future bigger scale projects.”
APRIL 13 (in theaters & on VOD): 20 Weeks (dir. Leena Pendharkar) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “20 Weeks is a romantic drama about love, science and how prenatal and genetic testing impacts everyday people. Against the backdrop of modern-day Los Angeles, the story follows Maya (Anna Margaret Hollyman) and Ronan’s (Amir Arison) journey – interweaving their past and present – after learning that their baby has a serious health issue at their 20 week scan. Inspired, in part, by writer/director Leena’s Pendharkar’s real life experiences with her second daughter, the film seeks to explore an intimate issue that isn’t often talked about.”
APRIL 13: Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel) – Rolling Stone review by David Fear: “A man in a uniform is standing on the beach, staring at the sea. Natives trudge along the shore behind him. His profile makes him look like a statue, the sort of noble ‘Hail the conquering hero!’ sculpture you’d see in national galleries. His name is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The place is the edge of Argentina. The century is the 18th. He’s been sent to claim and tame this land for Spain, a good old-fashioned magistrate of the crown in full colonialist bloom. Hearing the sound of laughter behind some rocks, he spies a group of women, naked and coating themselves in mud. After a few minutes, Don Diego is caught: ‘Voyeur! Voyeur!’ they yell at him (or maybe they’re yelling at us). Red-faced, he scurries away up the cliffside. It’s not the last time this invader will be chased off.
“Located in the dead center of a Venn diagram encompassing sumptuous costume drama, social commentary and pure cinema, Lucrecia Martel’s extraordinary new film Zama establishes a pattern from the get-go. Her eponymous ‘hero,’ a symbol of European manifest destiny, wants to get somewhere, preferably away from his post in South America, and he will be repeatedly shuffled around. He will also try to establish the authority that has been decreed his birthright and get the indigenous equivalent of the Heisman move, as well as the high hat from his peers, superiors and subordinates. Even animals get in on the action – after he’s read the riot act by the governor of the province he’s overseeing, a llama starts giving him grief (and steals the scene). The man is Job with a cutlass and a tri-cornered hat.
“But if all Martel wanted out of adapting Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel was to take the piss out of imperialism, this intoxicating, spellbinding vision of the past would not have been half the masterpiece that it is. A cockeyed fable on her country’s history and a sideswipe at an empire crumbling under the weight of hubris and madness, Zama is more than a portrait of the loneliness of the long-distance foreigner. It’s the sort of immersive cultural transmission that reminds you just how powerful and transportive this medium can be – one of those rarities that can momentarily jolt you out of your ways of seeing things. Poetic is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, but it fits perfectly here. So does woozy. It feels less like a film than a high fever, burning slow but hot in order to incinerate a virus.
“And frankly, Don Diego doesn’t need a written invitation to leave his adopted homeland. Written permission, yes – his requests for transfer have yet to receive a royal response. (They’d have to be sent first; the Governor has told him that it usually takes a few tries before Her Majesty grants such bureaucratic favors, so really, why should the bored politician bother submitting them?) But Zama is ready to return to life outside of the occupied sticks, to see a family he hasn’t heard from in eons and to move to a place where he feels less claustrophobic. In the meantime, Don Diego passes the time listening to a minister’s wife (Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas) complain and flirt and order her servants around, and bearing witness to a fellow white-wigged middle manager (Juan Minujín) using enhanced-interrogation techniques on the locales. A brawl gets our man exiled to the edge of the territories, sentenced to a life waiting in a sort of halfway-house hut populated less by guests than ghosts.
“By the time Zama sends its bearded, disillusioned hero into the jungle in search of a famed outlaw and a purpose, the movie has already given us gorgeous imagery galore – Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças has a knack for combining beauty and rot, giving you the feeling that you’re looking at museum pieces through a patina of mildew – and the sense that the terrain itself is expelling the ‘civilized’ world one conquistador at a time. The third act then proceeds to go into full surreality-bites mode, staking its own claim at the corner of Herzog St. and Buñuel Ave.
“But anyone who’s dipped into this Argentinian writer-director’s pitifully small back catalog (if you haven’t, go straight to The Headless Woman) will tell you that this is the work of a singular artist – someone who knows how to correctly crowd a frame for maximum impact, when to drop in a Polynesian-sounding score and how to get her actors to channel existential malaise. She’s already made the case for being a world-class filmmaker, but this movie suggests a grander perspective at work, which connects the dots between her previous class-conscious, character-based explorations of moral slipperiness to a narrative about centuries of exploitation. History just repeats, it cautiously hints. Only the hats change.
“So we leave Don Diego wounded and floating on a river to nowhere, heading miles downstream to meet Aguirre on his raft of monkeys or Fitzcarraldo on his boat or Kurtz in his compound or wherever it is that madmen who took on Mother Nature and lost go to grouse. He came, he saw, he was conquered and cast away. As for viewers, they’ll be left high on the fumes of a master. Zama helps to remind you that man’s inability to realize that he can’t impose his corrupt will on everything is an endlessly looped folly. That, and the fact that there are few buzzes more potent than recognizing a great work of art when you see it.”
APRIL 20 (streaming on Netflix): Dude (dir. Olivia Milch) (DP: Hillary Spera) – IndieWire review by Kate Erbland: “The first time we see Lily (Lucy Hale) and her tight-knit pack of pals hotboxing her car, it’s played for laughs, a giddy act of rap-infused rebellion before the foursome (including Kathryn Prescott, Alexandra Shipp, and rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina) make their way into yet another raucous party. The second time, it’s a year later, and all that joy is gone, replaced with four sad-eyed seniors sparking up in the hopes of getting through another grinding day at their crunchy high school. The tragedy that scars the girls — which first-time filmmaker Olivia Milch doesn’t try to hide or sugarcoat — looms large over the rest of the film, an otherwise raunchy stoner comedy about misbehaving teenage girls that could make a banger of a double feature alongside Kay Cannon’s similarly R-rated girl-powered feature, Blockers.
“But while Blockers reveled in the bond between its central friends, Dude is more occupied with pulling apart those friendships, stretching them until they snap, and seeing what’s left over. Milch and co-writer Kendall McKinnon don’t actively buck humorous situations — the film is a comedy at its heart, deep, deep down — but there’s a dark underpinning to everything that happens in Dude, even when it’s overlaid with bawdy jokes and filthy situations. The hotboxing is the first indication that something is about to go off the rails, the sudden death of a peripheral character is another, and that’s just the start of more trouble to come.
“Milch’s film puts an unexpected twist on a played out formula, the teen comedy about those last great days of high school before everyone goes their separate ways. Individually heartbroken over a tragedy that played out at the end of their junior year, Lily and her beloved ‘dudes’ — including her best pal Chloe (Prescott), the hilarious Amelia (Shipp) and Rebecca (Awkwafina), seem bent on keeping up appearances even as they’re struggling to take the next step. Chloe is harboring desires to stay close to home, while Lily is obsessed with the notion that they head off to college together in NYC. Amelia is boy crazy and impossible to rely on, while Rebecca is consumed with a crush on a teacher (meant to be funny and sweet, it’s a subplot that really misses the mark).
“They’ve been friends forever, but is that enough to keep them together for the long haul? (In the real world, the answer is of course ‘no,’ but Dude amiably grapples with it for the film’s slim 90-minute running time.)
“Despite assembling a stellar cast of known and rising stars (Awkwafina will next be seen in Ocean’s 8, which Milch, herself a talent on the rise, wrote alongside director Gary Ross), Dude too often opts to keep them apart, even before the foursome begins to show uncomfortable cracks. Brief scenes that see the gals hanging out, often fueled by weed and a healthy teenage disdain for the world, are way too short-lived, spinning them off into their own orbits and just begging the audience to care about their crumbling bond. You should care, they’re great together, but even Dude seems to forget that far too often.
“At least the bulk of the film’s attention is aimed at Lily, played by Hale as an over-the-top Type A personality who struggles to cede control to anyone around her and happy sputters lines like ‘prom is my prom date!’ with ease. Lily is hiding her pain — okay, yes, for a comedy, there’s a lot of pain here — through her rigorous student council activities, increasingly dead-eyed appearances at still more parties, and even a dalliance with a younger (and just as dedicated!) member of the prom planning committee. The only thing that really matters to Lily is her dudes, especially Chloe. As she holds them closer (it’s very Of Mice and Men), they only slip further away.
“Hale is already engaging enough in the role before Dude plunges headlong into darker territory (yes, it’s still a comedy!) that further threatens to split the central foursome apart. The film might revel in its raunchy bits, from out-of-control parties to an eye-popping approach to sexual freedom, but as it digs deeper into the emotional aspects of their bond, it adopts a much stronger sensibility. Early in the film, one character comments that ‘life stops,’ but the message of Dude is just the opposite: life never stops, even when you’re having fun, and especially when you’re not.”
APRIL 20: I Feel Pretty (dirs. Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “In I Feel Pretty, a woman (Amy Schumer) who struggles with feelings of deep insecurity and low self-esteem, that hold her back everyday, wakes from a brutal fall in an exercise class believing she is suddenly a supermodel. With this newfound confidence she is empowered to live her life fearlessly and flawlessly, but what will happen when she realizes her appearance never changed?”
APRIL 20: Little Pink House (dir. Courtney Balaker) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival review by Stephen Farber: “Following in the tradition of issue-oriented films like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, the world premiere of Little Pink House at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has unmistakable timeliness. This story of little people against Big Pharma certainly resonates today. The presence of two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener and an excellent supporting cast should help to give the movie more visibility. It has some structural problems, but with canny marketing, it could find a distributor and even a sympathetic audience.
“The film is based on the true story of a Connecticut woman, Susette Kelo (Keener), who fought an eviction notice all the way to the Supreme Court. Kelo lived in a working-class neighborhood near New London. Local bigwigs wanted to sell land along the waterfront to Pfizer for a huge new plant. The company had just begun marketing Viagra and was riding high, but the residents decided to resist. Kelo, a paramedic who had put tremendous effort into remodeling her little pink house on the water, had no interest in selling. Under the Constitution, the government has the right to seize private property for public use, but in this case, the fact that the beneficiary of the land grab was a private corporation made the issues a lot murkier.
“When the Supreme Court finally reached its 5-4 decision in 2005, it was the more liberal justices who sided with the corporation, while the conservatives dissented. However, as director Coutney Moorehead Balaker stated in the Q&A after the pic’s premiere, Donald Trump has extolled the ruling. Most states have reached the opposite conclusion, so the issues remain unsettled.
“A polemic about eminent domain would have little audience appeal, so it was wise of the filmmakers to focus on the people rather than abstract issues. Nevertheless, the film probably spends a little too much time sketching the background of Kelo and her neighbors. The film doesn’t quite leap from the starting gate; it’s too leisurely and a bit too convoluted at the beginning.
“Keener definitely helps to build audience sympathy for the unprepossessing but determined Kelo, and there are excellent performances by Callum Keith Rennie and Colin Cunningham as two of the men in her life. The movie broadens its scope by giving a lot of attention to her antagonists, including the governor of Connecticut (who is never named) and a real estate lobbyist played with force and complexity by Jeanne Tripplehorn. Later in the film, Giacomo Baessato contributes a heartfelt performance as the idealistic lawyer who takes up Kelo’s cause.
“Although the pic doesn’t have the rousing ending that some earlier social protest dramas have had, it effectively puts the audience on the side of the outsiders. Balaker’s direction is solid, and after a sluggish opening, Soojin Chung’s editing provides a good deal of drive. One of the best earlier films about the subject was Elia Kazan’s 1960 drama Wild River, which was set in the 1930s but gave a good deal of humanity to its antagonists in an epic battle over eminent domain. The subject has been treated only rarely since then, but Little Pink House brings urgency to a fascinating, underexplored theme. In a darkly ironic footnote, we learn that the Pfizer plant was never built, but this offered little consolation to the displaced homeowners.”
APRIL 20: Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Audacity to Be Free (dir. Cordula Kablitz-Post) – The Film Stage review by Jared Mobarak: “There’s a great line spoken by an aged Lou Andreas-Salomé (Nicole Heesters) to new friend and potential biographer Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier) upon his praise-fueled declaration that the way she lived her life — her freedom — was a touchstone for modern feminism. Her reply is, ‘Nonsense. What’s changed for us women since then?’ It’s not presented as a jaded reaction or one specifically attached to the era in which she spoke it (the 1930s), though, because you could say the same today and not be wrong. Yes, women do have it better, but the world has still not found its way towards true equality. See #GamerGate, the Wahlberg/Williams pay disparity on All the Money in the World, and the struggles endured by the women in your life.
“I kept returning to this line as Cordula Kablitz-Post’s film Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free advanced because it continuously provided a mirror onto the present despite unfolding via flashback to Salomé’s adventures during the late 1800s. Here’s one of our foremost philosophical thinkers who inspired Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Rée, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud and yet you more than likely have never heard her name before. I know I never had. The answer probably stems from something as common, lazy, and gendered as history being written by men. If those luminaries were the ones the history books wanted to highlight as geniuses, they would surely relegate Lou to ‘muse.’ But as Kablitz-Post and cowriter Susanne Hertel explain, nothing could have been further from the truth.
“There was a revealing tweet from Candice Frederick earlier this month asking women to retweet if they’ve been called ‘intimidating’ or any such equivalent by men at least twice. It of course took off (41,000 retweets as of writing this) because that sort of dismissal is common even today. Now think about what it would have been like a century ago to strive for independence and intellectual excellence as a woman under that same sort of biased vitriol. This is what Lou Andreas-Salomé faced head-on, never wavering from her personal philosophy or identity whether or not both inevitably evolved with the passing of time and new experiences. She had to escape tradition, birthright, reputation, and the law to even attempt being what any man could on a whim.
“And that’s what makes her story so inspiring for men and women alike. Here’s a self-made woman who had a dream and pursued it without compromise to reach her goals. There’s a commendable spirit to her pragmatism in doing so, setting ground rules with those she kept close in order to ensure no one got the wrong idea. But just like catcalling and victim-blaming rape culture persists in the present, ‘the wrong idea’ seems to be the default for a lot of men. It’s therefore unsurprising when every male she meets offers a proposal. They admire her for her mind yet refuse to separate that admiration from their lust to possess what they believe they’re owed. The result delivers as much biography as scathing exposé on male insecurity.
“This is why having a woman director is so important to the message of who Lou Andreas-Salomé was. She sets the action from the vantage point of an ambitious soul living for herself. Lou isn’t a tease giving men she believes when telling her she’s their equal (Alexander Scheer’s Nietzsche, Philipp Hauß’ Rée, Julius Feldmeier’s Rilke, and Merab Ninidze’s Friedrich Carl Andreas) false hope. She’s also not the muse within their respective stories either. I’m not certain a male director could have found the delicate balance in complexity necessary to fully portray the struggle of love for a woman during an era when matrimony very distinctly dealt with subservience and ownership. I’m not because too many contemporary films still pretend as though marriage means the same today.
“In a male’s hands, Lou saying she believed she always made the men closest to her unhappy would play much differently than it does. In context with everything that came before, we treat her comment as one warped by a debilitating sense of patriarchal control rather than an honest means with which to condemn her. We see how her sadness towards those relationships is a product of their selfishness alone. Those men betrayed her and themselves and in the process projected their pain upon her as though she was at fault. Despite all she did for them, their egos forgot her importance. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if many call Kablitz-Post’s film a lie to preserve whatever image they have cemented in their minds for their heroes.
“Let them. Because while they hold onto a prejudiced past of incomplete history, the majority will have found a new hero in Lou Andreas-Salomé. What makes this even greater is that the film leaves room within itself to be questioned as incomplete too. It does so to admit that every work of art or account of truth arrives through the filter of its creator. Pfeiffer jokes that the biography he is writing (the film plays as stories the 72-year old Lou tells him under the looming cloud of Nazism risking to destroy her work and that of those she loved) is one of half-truths and she laughs because she admits she’s keeping some things for herself. That doesn’t make it fiction. It merely bolsters its inherent honesty.
“Beyond what the film says and represents, it’s also well made. It uses illustrative, two-dimensional postcards as chapter headers for adult Lou (Katharina Lorenz) to glide through. There are mysteries to solve (Who is Katharina Schüttler’s Mariechen?), emotional landscapes to mine, and historical icons to humanize with failures proving they weren’t as enlightened as they should have been. And at the center of everything is a woman who gave herself the power to reject convention and live in a way that rendered her beholden to nobody but herself. Maybe things are looking up for those who wish to follow in her footsteps now that hers and Hedy Lamarr’s stories (see Bombshell) are coming to light. But as Frederick’s tweet revealed, we still have a long way to go.”
APRIL 20: Mercury 13 (dirs. David Sington and Heather Walsh) – Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “In 1963, Valentine Tereshkova became the first woman to go into space. It’s hard today to take in quite what that meant. Differences between men and women were then perceived to be much bigger. Supposed experts spoke openly about how the delicate female constitution could not endure the G-force involved in getting into orbit. One small step for a woman became a rallying cry for womankind, helping to change attitudes in many different industries all around the world. But two years before Tereshkova had her moment, the US had its own programme for training female spacefarers. This documentary explores the story behind it, meets some of its participants, details how their ambitions were thwarted and looks at the impact they made in spite of that.
“This is the kind of documentary that’s perfectly suited to the Netflix way of making movies. Though modest in its artistic aims, it’s a polished piece of work which has evidently benefited from the luxury of time in both the research stage and the editing suite. The first thing we notice about its stars is how good they look, elderly as they now are, with the legacy of intensive physical training written into their flesh. Muscles remain taught; posture has that military quality, also reflecting the careers in military aviation that some went on to pursue. They also have a habit of looking people directly in the eye, something women of their generation were brought up not to do, but something essential to making progress in a male-dominated field.
“The tension between presenting as masculine enough for skills to be taken seriously yet feminine enough to be liked – also vital in a context where a great deal depended on making allies – is evident in what the women have to say about their experiences, and in the archive footage that carries us back to that time. Jane Hart was challenged over her pursuit of a spaceflight career because she had children, though no-one seemed to care about the prospect of a kid losing daddy. ‘With eight children, you’d want to go to the moon, too,’ she said defiantly.
“Some of the women had already been through the wringer with the press over their decision to become pilots, a necessary prerequisite for the space programme but also very difficult at the time. Polished smiles and flirtatious poses softened the notion for the general public, turning it into a tale of plucky girls rather than strong willed women who might actually demand equality. Yet when one woman recalls her mother’s worries we are reminded that this was an era in which parents knew that their sons could, at any time, be snatched away on the orders of the government and sent to fight in some foreign land. Girls were insurance, the children it was safe to love – the thought that they too might be at risk must have been terrifying.
“If the film has a noticeable flaw, it’s that little effort is made to point out these differences in historical perspective for viewers unfamiliar with them. What we see is very plain and straightforward, and often ridiculous in light of today’s awareness. It’s also notably tough. Grueling training remains part of every astronaut’s groundwork but in that era, before scientists had much understanding of what may or may not factor into survival in the face of heavy G and subsequent zero gravity conditions, there was a much longer list of invasive tests required. One gets the impression that this was worse for the women because they were seen as a new and exotic phenomenon, as if they’d just been invented.
“That the women are all white probably goes without saying – black women remained behind the scenes doing underpaid scientific and technical work, as featured in 2016’s Hidden Figures. What else do they have in common? They’re articulate, sharply intelligent, and highly individualistic – they probably wouldn’t have fitted in in any age, but in these circumstances they were able to use that to their advantage. They didn’t let disappointment stop them. Stuck on Earth, they went on to break barriers in aviation. One of them co-founded the National Organization for Women. They paved the way for the women who would, ultimately, fly space shuttles. Unable to reach the stars, they became them.”
APRIL 27: Ava (dir. Sadaf Foroughi) – Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “In Tehran, upper-middle-class teen Ava (Mahour Jabbari) abides by a strict routine of school, violin lessons, and curfew. When Ava’s mistrustful and overprotective mother (Bahar Noohian) questions her relationship with a boy (Houman Hoursan) — going so far as to consult a gynecologist — Ava is stunned by this violation of privacy. Her tightly controlled environment exacerbates feelings of suffocation and isolation, and further diminishes her trust in the adults who attempt to regulate her life. That her parents, including her sympathetic but powerless father (Vahid Aghapoor), seem more concerned with social optics than their daughter’s welfare only escalates Ava’s rebellious behaviour, to life-altering effect. Sadaf Foroughi vividly renders her heroine’s internal turmoil while exposing the pervasive impact of her family’s shaming. Each frame is stunningly composed, with scenes that offer a searing social critique while presenting a strong, richly developed female character. With Ava, Foroughi establishes herself as a cinematic force.”
APRIL 27 (NYC/LA), MAY 1 (on digital platforms): Duck Butter (dir. Miguel Arteta) (DP: Hillary Spera) – Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Cara Cusumano: “When Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa) meet at a club, they hit it off instantly, connecting over their disdain for the dishonesty they have experienced in their respective romantic relationships. High on their fast chemistry, the two women concoct a romantic experiment: They plan to spend the next 24 hours together, having sex on the hour. Above all, they commit to perfect honesty with each other, a theoretical remedy to the deceit they believe to be an element of modern relationships. But their relationship in a vacuum doesn’t go as planned, and soon the weight of their commitment begins to close in, threatening the ideals of the daylong experiment and their chances for a romantic future tomorrow.
“The latest film from Miguel Arteta, the director behind Beatriz at Dinner and The Good Girl, Duck Butter is a blistering look at intimacy in a pressure cooker. Co-written by Shawkat and executive produced by the Duplass Brothers, the film offers a searing interrogation of modern romance, with all its dizzying highs and heartbreaking betrayals, all packed into an intense 24 hours.”
APRIL 27 (in theaters & on VOD): Kings (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set against a backdrop of rising tensions in Los Angeles during the Rodney King trial in 1992, writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings stars Oscar winner Halle Berry and Daniel Craig as citizens of the same South Central neighborhood.
“Millie (Halle Berry) is a hardworking, tough and protective single mother with an affection for homeless children. She already has eight children living in her house and will soon bring home another. Her neighbor Obie (Daniel Craig) is the local loose cannon, and the only white man in an area largely inhabited by African Americans, Latinos, and Koreans. With racial tensions running dangerously high, Millie and Obie would appear to be unlikely allies. Yet following the acquittal of four of the officers accused of beating Rodney King, these two must navigate the gathering chaos in the city to bring Millie’s kids home safely.
“Though Kings doesn’t focus on the LA riots overall, it does delve into the impact and the fragility of family units during these circumstances. As the current social and political climate begins to mirror the turmoil and tensions of the past, the events depicted in Kings are, sadly, only more resonant today.”
APRIL 27: Let the Sunshine In (dir. Claire Denis) (DP: Agnès Godard) – Variety’s Cannes Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “‘Like in a tacky bedroom farce?’ a middle-aged lothario asks, bewildered, when an angry lover throws him out midway through Let the Sunshine In. He’s in the wrong, though he has reason to be incredulous: He’s in a Claire Denis movie, after all, and ‘tacky bedroom farce’ is about as far from her highly refined repertoire as it’s possible to get. Luckily, it remains so by the end of this exquisitely judged romantic comedy, which maps out the transient pleasures, pitfalls and emotional culs-de-sac of mid-life dating with all the close human scrutiny and hot-blooded sensual detail of her sterner dramatic work. Perfectly small rather than slight, and radiantly carried by Juliette Binoche — in a light-touch tour de force to be filed alongside her work in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy — this turns out to be a subtler departure than it outwardly appears for Denis, most evoking her other Parisienne drifting-hearts study, Friday Night, in its bittersweet tone.
“If the humor in Let the Sunshine In is slightly amped up by its maker’s usual standards, it hardly reaches for its chuckles: Denis, like the best artists, knows all human life is a comedy, albeit with an unhappy ending. That gentle wryness, coupled with an ensemble heavy on French A-listers, should make this one of her more commercially viable outings following its premiere as the opening film of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. (Four years after the equally rigorous, tonally opposite Bastards played in Un Certain Regard, Let the Sunshine In again invites the question of just what this modern master must do to get a Competition slot.)
“Denis’s film may conceivable be dismissed as a slender diversion in some quarters — notably, that quadrant of society (and, still, the film industry) that regards the inner lives of women of a certain age as a subject of secondary concern. Unhappily divorced artist Isabelle (Binoche) has certainly tangled with her fair share of men who think that way, yet persists in a repeatedly waylaid search for true love. What that might feel like, and with whom, she has no idea: The loose, airy narrative of Let the Sunshine In knits together a series of her dalliances with men of various shapes, types, ages and neuroses, with nothing in common save for the fact that they have nothing in common with Isabelle either.
“Collaborating with novelist and playwright Christine Angot, Denis initially approached the project as a potential adaptation of Roland Barthes’ volume A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. What has emerged remains very much a lover’s discourse, but Denis and Angot’s ultimately original screenplay takes a jointly personal, expressly feminist point of view, as Isabelle repeatedly muses aloud on the possibilities (and impossibilities) of love and sex for women like her — and, by extension, like the filmmakers.
“This isn’t uncharted territory on screen — one might even view Let the Sunshine In as a parallel-universe Nancy Meyers movie — but it’s rare for stories of older female singledom to turn the mirror inward quite so candidly. Denis and Angot mine ample, acid-laced comedy from the callousness or carelessness with which Isabelle is treated by men: ‘You are charming, but my wife is extraordinary,’ says one of her lovers, married banker Vincent (a superb Xavier Beauvois). But they are also unsparing on the cruelty with which she treats herself, whether by chasing obvious non-starter suitors on a masochistic fast track to heartbreak, or by excessive self-scolding when something lasting once again eludes her.
“Coldly dismissive of any long-term romantic future but brattishly insistent on sex (‘I just got in from Brazil and felt like banging you,’ he leers), Vincent is the least palatable of Isabelle’s wrong choices; on the flipside, a dreamy married actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is cagey when it comes to carnal knowledge but finds in Isabelle an emotional sounding-board. Denis reserves some compassion even for her worst-behaved characters, every one of which is presented as needy in one way or another; the trouble is that no one’s void, however, quite complements anyone else’s. A hand-picked ensemble makes sure no passing glance goes to waste. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi has mere seconds to etch a piercing mirror image to Isabelle’s internal agony, while Gerard Depardieu gamely helps shoulder the film’s most unexpectedly whimsical turn — his blithe tête-à-tête rapport with Binoche belying his publicly stated animosity toward the actress in years past.
“Still, this is the leading lady’s show. Binoche, like her compatriot Isabelle Huppert, is an actress so adept at serenely conducting inner turmoil that we risk taking their range of notes and tones for granted. Even by her standards, however, this is complex, quietly symphonic work, that extraordinary face as mesmerizing when in full, streaky-cheeked crying mode as when pensively staring at nothing in particular. Not many actors could find quite as many variations to play in Denis and Angot’s deliberately fractured dialogue: She’s often tongue-tied in love and hate alike, comic embarrassment and tragic insecurity written into every pause and stumble.
“Yet Let the Sunshine In is not a pessimistic film, or even an entirely unromantic one. Aided by the warmly shadowed intimacy of Agnes Godard’s camerawork, Denis identifies fleeting joys and hormonal highs in the dating chase: be it the tactile thrill of one lonely hand meeting another, or the tense pause that comes just after a conversation runs dry, and just before silent lips find something else to do. The film’s most sustained moment of bliss — not a long one, admittedly — comes in a spontaneous, slightly drunken barroom dance, as Isabelle’s solo swaying finds a gallant, unsolicited partner. The song is Etta James’s ‘At Last,’ chosen with Denis’s characteristically precise ear for the right musical cue: It’s the ideal song for its woozy moment, though the tender irony is that, if Isabelle’s love has come along, it’s probably only for the time being.”
APRIL 27 (NYC), APRIL/MAY (elsewhere in the US): Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story (dir. Ashley Bell) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Elephant rescues in Thailand are rare, unpredictable and often life threatening. After waiting 2.5 years, actor/director Ashley Bell and a team of elephant rescuers led by world renowned Asian elephant conservationist and TIME Magazine’s Hero of Asia, Lek Chailert, embark on a daring mission 480 miles across Thailand to rescue Noi Na, a 70-year old partially blind trekking elephant and bring her to freedom.
“African elephants are slaughtered for their ivory, but sadly the plight of the Asian Elephant has been completely overlooked even though they are the elephant we are most familiar with in zoos, circuses and elephant rides. L&B exposes the cruel secret that every Asian elephant has had to endure to become a service animal; a process knows as Pajan, aka the Crush Box. Love & Bananas aims to ignite a new way of thinking about this species and shows what can be done to prevent the extinction of Asian elephants.”