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

Director Amma Asante with cast and crew on the set of A United Kingdom, 2016.

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

FEBRUARY 1: The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)Consequence of Sound post by Dominick Suzanne-Mayer: “Last year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a wealth of quality films, but of those that left a lasting impression, few were as bold as The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s striking feature-length debut about a pair of bloodthirsty mermaids who find indulgence and tragedy in modern-day Poland. Oh, and it’s also a musical. More of a new wave rock opera, really.

“The premise alone should be enough to get your attention, but Smoczynska’s film offers far more than just a gimmick; rather, as we discovered at Sundance (one of a legion of festivals the film hit last year), ‘The Lure somehow manages to seamlessly assemble a film equal parts hilarious, affecting, and grisly while trading and warping aesthetics and tones by the scene.’ It’s a wild piece of filmmaking, and the perfect antidote for the jaded moviegoer who thinks they’ve seen it all. Trust us, you haven’t seen anything quite like this before, and the film’s first trailer gives a pretty good taste of what audiences can expect, while holding back on some of the best stuff.

The Lure will debut at New York’s IFC Center on February 1st, and will hopefully appear elsewhere as the year goes on. In the meantime, a bit more about the film: ‘In this bold, genre-defying horror-musical mashup — the playful and confident debut of Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska — a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters are drawn ashore in an alternate ’80s Poland to explore the wonders and temptations of life on land. Their tantalizing siren songs and otherworldly aura make them overnight sensations as nightclub singers in the half-glam, half-decrepit fantasy world of Smoczynska’s imagining. In a visceral twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid tale, one sister falls for a human, and as the bonds of sisterhood are tested, the lines between love and survival get blurred. A savage coming-of-age fairytale with a catchy new-wave soundtrack, lavishly grimy sets, and outrageous musical numbers, The Lure explores its themes of sexuality, exploitation, and the compromises of adulthood with energy and originality.'”

FEBRUARY 3: Dark Night (dir. Tim Sutton) (DP: Hélène Louvart)Excerpts from Collider review by Chris Cabin: “It’s understandable and yet slightly misleading that there has been a direct connection between the Aurora massacre of 2013 and Dark Night, Tim Sutton‘s new film about a Florida community where one resident is planning a similar attack. Footage of the trial of James Holmes, the young man who shot 10 people dead in Aurora while they watched The Dark Knight Rises, is seen within 10 minutes of the film’s opening and is discussed, fleetingly, by those watching it. Images of a young man coloring his buzzed hair the same tint of fiery orange and red as Holmes show up throughout the film, as the man skateboards and hangs out with friends. The final, devastating shot features a gunman sneaking into a theater through the back door, just as Holmes did.

“These fragmented nods and allusions toward what happened in Aurora are unmistakable for those who followed the case but Dark Night, smartly and thankfully, doesn’t attempt to recreate the events leading up to Holmes’ massacring of innocents. One would be hard-pressed to simply explain Dark Night‘s narrative progression as there isn’t an easy way to describe the narrative itself. Sutton, the director behind 2014’s exquisite Memphis, offers what amounts to an abstraction of everyday life in the unnamed Florida neighborhood, which could essentially double for any sunny place in the United States. A woman exercises and takes a selfie with her morning smoothie; a pair of teens stay glued to their glowing cellphones; a veteran watches his nurse wife walk out on him for good; a boy plays with his pet snake, alone in his bedroom. Elsewhere, one young man imagines walking into a fury of photographers and journalists asking for his motives, and another trudges through his neighborhood with an assault rifle.

Dark Night is not particularly interested in conveying the horror of Aurora or any similar event, though Sutton works up a consistent sense of dread that consistently infiltrates his images and the impressionistic flow of the editing. Rather, Sutton’s film at once questions and embraces the idea of symbolic acts and images. The young man who walks into a cadre of reporters and angry protestors could be imagining that encounter, but he could also be remembering it. Is one to assume the clearly frustrated and angry veteran may be a shooter because of his training? There’s at least one scene where we see his proficiency at taking apart and cleaning his gun but Sutton’s depiction of this exercise is more similar to a mechanic taking apart part of an engine than anything malevolent. This is less true of the man with the assault rifle.

“…The first image of the film is of a young woman’s eyes roaming around as sequenced colored light bounces off her face. It might take you a few seconds before you realize that she’s not watching a screen but cop cars, ambulances, and fire engines in the parking lot outside the theater. Other moments – kids swimming in pools, a college student getting an academic warning behind closed doors, etc. – similarly feel plain but Sutton’s sobriety doesn’t hull out the film’s powerful emotional core. His eye for detail and modernity, such as when he fills the screen with an online street-view app, is sober and exacting but he also finds potent moments of fury and caring. In fact, Sutton consistently returns to an interview he’s doing with the young man who imagined the reporters.

“In fact, Sutton consistently returns to an interview he’s doing with the young man who imagined the reporters and his mother, who has nothing but loving and supporting things to say about her son; he also has a best friend who he talks to nonstop while they play online video games. The director is asking us to look as much at what makes people get along in life as the visual indicators of a violent act, to see the elements that support this admittedly docile, boring, and often superficial existence and cultivate the more heartening and genuinely good moments in your life.

“Even as the filmmaker heads towards yet another terrifying assault, Dark Night is as much about gloom as it is astonishment, to see the power of an act or an image to either turn someone into a killer or to inspire them toward empathy. Aside from his interview with the young man and his mother, Sutton only comes out from behind the camera one more time, to speak with the gunman about his movie-star look. One is left wondering if he’s speaking about the fame that this movie might bring him or the all-too-familiar infamy that comes with national tragedies.”

FEBRUARY 3: This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (dir. Barbara Kopple)RogerEbert.com review by Matt Fagerholm: “They stare directly at you and invite you to be a part of their conversation. They reveal intimate details about their lives in order to normalize what certain parts of society still consider taboo. They tell us that we needn’t be anything other than ourselves, and how can we resist liking them for that? That is the power a person has when they post a video on YouTube. The bond that viewers forge with an Internet celebrity is stronger than has ever been achieved in any other medium. For people who have trouble relating to others, watching these video confessionals can serve as a half-step toward human connection. We’ve already entered the age of Fahrenheit 451, where “friends” primarily exist on screens that take up the majority of our attention. Yet the best YouTubers are the ones who encourage their viewers to turn their attention inward and engage with the world existing outside of their laptops. When Alexis G. Zall comes out by saying she “likes girls,” or when Brad Jones opens up about surviving a suicide attempt, they aren’t just providing a diversion, they are changing lives through the empowerment of truth.

This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, the latest work from master documentarian Barbara Kopple (available on YouTube Red starting February 8th), focuses on the truth of one particular YouTuber whose sense of self is only strengthened online. Born Gregory Lazzarato in 1994, he excelled at diving throughout his childhood, winning a national championship at age 15. Yet in home video footage of the young boy, his face has the sort of uneasy expression any viewer of TLC’s ‘I Am Jazz’ will immediately recognize. There’s no question he feels uncomfortable in his skin, and is much more interested in filming makeup tutorials than he is with stereotypical male activities. The videos he posts as ‘Gregory Gorgeous’ gain a greater following once he identifies himself as gay, and at 100,000 subscribers, his channel attracts the attention of manager Scott Fisher, who understands the profitability of vloggers. Fisher explains to Kopple how sites like YouTube have enabled talent to maintain unprecedented control over their content, while earning the lion’s share of the revenue, something that could’ve never happened a mere handful of years ago.

“In many ways, this film is a fitting follow-up to Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones!, a rousing portrait of the titular soul singer who passed away last year. Just as Jones triumphantly forged ahead in her life and career in the aftermath of her cancer diagnosis, earning a Grammy nomination in the process, Gregory comes to a pivotal realization after his loving mother succumbs to cancer in 2012. Faced with the fragility of life and the limited time afforded to each of us on Earth, the young man decides to finally act on his inner-most desire, and that is to live the rest of his life as a woman. The ‘he’ of her past is officially no more. Though her brothers are entirely in support of her transition, the news is more difficult for her father, David, to accept. In an emotional interview with Kopple, he affirms that it is a father’s duty to love his children even if he doesn’t understand them. Renaming herself as Gigi Lazzarato, she smuggles her camera into a visit with her dad, where she tells him of her plans to undergo facial feminization surgery, a procedure that will cost $14,000. When he asks her if she has that kind of money, Gigi informs him that she’s already paid for it. Though David still occasionally uses male pronouns while addressing Gigi, there is no doubt in his mind that his child knows exactly what she wants. He accompanies her to appointments with the physician, and later with the Beverly Hills doctor that will give her breast implants. In a lingering shot, the camera regards from a wide angle the tender image of David gently tucking his daughter into bed in their hotel room as she recovers from her latest surgery.

“It is in observant, delicately nuanced moments like these where Kopple’s genius shines the brightest. She has crafted so many unforgettable films about inspirational life forces, from the courageous wives of coal miners in Harlan County, U.S.A. to the politically outspoken Dixie Chicks in Shut Up & Sing, and this is one of her best. Gigi’s exuberant presence makes the picture a complete joy from beginning to end, as Kopple seamlessly weaves her own documentation of her subject’s journey with footage from Gigi’s videos, where she guides viewers along every step of her external transformation. There’s an especially intriguing video that depicts Gigi having a conversation with her male persona, and her macho posturing comes off as all the more artificial when directly contrasted with her feminine self. Fisher notes that whereas Gregory yearned to stand out from the crowd, Gigi’s goal is to blend in, finding acceptance from others on her own terms. Yet aside from the testosterone blockers and estrogen, Gigi believes that the transition undergone by a transgender person is more mental than anything else, and doesn’t necessarily require a change of genitalia. As Gigi sits in a car, calm and confident in her body, Kopple brilliantly juxtaposes her footage with the voice of Gregory, encouraging his viewers to be themselves. This one scene conveys the unchanging nature of identity regardless of one’s physical state with more clarity and impact than the entirety of Cloud Atlas. Though the film culminates with Gigi’s participation in New York Fashion Week, where she struts the runway looking like Lady Liberty, an even more satisfying highpoint occurs at David’s wedding to his second wife. It’s the first time much of Gigi’s extended family has seen her post-operation, and when she walks down the aisle, her elation radiates through the screen.

“One of the questions raised by Kopple’s film is whether Gigi will choose to take the advice of her new manager and alter her image in order to attract more sponsors. I doubt it. While actors in Hollywood often have to compromise their own identities in order to be more commercially viable, YouTubers like Gigi make a fortune by being true to themselves. She embodies the wisdom of a young generation infinitely more accepting of gender fluidity than their predecessors. There’s a chilling resonance to the moment where Gigi reflects on the legacy of German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, and the Nazis that attempted to silence his groundbreaking advocacy for gay and transgender rights. If current events have proven anything, it’s that the threat of such intolerance remains frighteningly real. Yet sometimes, all one has to do is look a person in the eye in order to change their heart. That is how a revolution begins.”

FEBRUARY 7: Almost Adults (dir. Sarah Rotella) [available on iTunes]Synopsis from the film’s official website: “This comedy feature follows two best friends in their final year of college while they transition into adulthood. One embraces her sexuality and tries to catch up on everything she has missed during her teenage years, while the other ends a long term relationship with her boyfriend and discovers her life isn’t going as planned. Both struggle to keep their friendship together as they begin growing apart.”

FEBRUARY 10 [delayed from previous January release date]: Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.

“Critics and internet cats agree — this cat documentary will charm its way into your heart and home as you fall in love with the cats in Istanbul.”

FEBRUARY 10: Land of Mine [Current Oscar Nominee: Best Foreign Language Film] (dir. Martin Zandvliet) (DP: Camilla Hjelm Knudsen)Excerpts from Screen Daily review by David D’Arcy: “Denmark’s mistreatment of German prisoners after World War II, a little-known chapter of post-war history, is a powerful j’accuse in Land of Mine, which may surprise all but specialised historians. The film revisits the Allies’ practice of using captured Germans to clear land mines on the Danish coast that would blow many of them to bits. There’s also humanity here in the bond that forms between a stern Danish sergeant (Roland Moller) and the adolescent POWs in his charge.

“…At war’s end, some 1.5 million mines placed by the Nazis remained on Denmark’s west coast. Defusing them was a national urgency. Rather than use Danes who had sacrificed so much during the Nazi occupation, British liberators proposed that the Danish government deploy thousands of Wehrmacht POWs on Danish territory for the job. At least half of them died at that task from May to October 1945.

Land of Mine isn’t the first account that suggests that the Danes committed a war crime. Nor is it the first examination of brutality against defeated Germans in 1945. What’s new is that those charges of Danish misdeeds are being brought to a wide audience in the language of epic cinema. Zandvliet (A Funny Man, 2011, Applause, 2009) picks up the story as a vengeful Danish officer assigns a stern sergeant (Moller) to manage a brigade of boy prisoners conscripted late in the war. Moller’s ox-like character makes that severity look a lot like sadism, until the cruelty of his British and Danish superiors and the deadliness of the job draw out his protective instincts.

“…The tension builds on the impressive composure of German and Swiss teenage actors (many of them already television veterans), including the endearing twins Emil and Oskar Belton – still not yet 16 – who play brothers who are captured in Germany’s dying days. With some adroit promotion, the young cast could be a strong selling point in German-speaking countries and beyond.

“The sand dunes of Denmark’s Skallingen peninsula (finally declared mine-free in 2012) are a huge canvas for cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, the director’s wife, who evokes a desert-like vastness reminiscent of a David Lean landscape for boys forced into a labour of futility. The motif of teenagers marching into those expanses drives home the grim truth that wars don’t end when the belligerent commanders declare the fighting to be over.”

FEBRUARY 10: One Night (dir. Minhal Baig)The Austin Chronicle’s Austin Film Fest review by Sarah Marloff: “Dabbling in magical realism, Minhal Baig’s One Night toys with the theme of traveling back in time. The idea that the past is simultaneously more simple and more magical is both questioned and contemplated throughout the film, which follows two couples over the course of prom night.

“Within the walls of a Los Angeles hotel, the debut feature from writer/director Baig weaves a compelling story and honest look at love and relationships – from falling in to falling apart. High school seniors Bea (Isabelle Fuhrman) and Andy (Kyle Allen) are accidentally thrown together when their prom ends and the afterparty begins. Elizabeth (Anna Camp of Pitch Perfect) and Drew (Justin Chatwin), on the other hand, are young adults who seem to have mistakenly chosen the hotel hosting that same prom to rehash (or repair?) their failing marriage.

“The juxtaposition of watching two people becoming a couple – the enchantment of being 17 and completely awed by another human – with the cold realities of a struggling long-term relationship offers viewers a glimpse at relationship reality. Hollywood is forever obsessed with the happily ever after ending, but life and love are far too complex to allow for a simple skipping off into the sunset – or sunrise – as the case may be. One Night doesn’t hold back from this. Relationships are hard work and sometimes love simply cannot overcome the mundane difficulties of life.

“Though very beautifully weaved, at times the film’s dialogue seems unsure of itself, specifically between Elizabeth and Drew. Are they actors acting like they’re acting or are they two adults trying to play make believe? At first it’s hard to tell, perhaps because Baig wasn’t entirely sure either. But as the story unravels, the actors and the script find their footing. Bea and Andy, however, never falter in convincing the audience of their 17-year-old, smart-ass naivete. Together they manage to steal the show and infuse the film with hope. In the warm light of day, One Night is an endearing look at what makes and what keeps a relationship alive.”

FEBRUARY 10: Sex Doll (dir. Sylvie Verheyde)IFC Films synopsis: “A high-priced call girl navigates the shadowy world of London’s sex trade underground in this provocative, erotic thriller. Virginie (César Award winner Hafsia Herzi) goes about her work as a prostitute with a cool detachment, trading sex with wealthy businessmen for money, but never getting emotionally involved. That all changes when she meets Rupert (Ash Stymest), an enigmatic stranger with unclear intentions. Risking everything, Virginie plunges into a dangerous affair that tears her between a ruthless madame who forbids romantic attachments and a dark, sexy man who could be her savior or her downfall.”

FEBRUARY 10: Speed Sisters (dir./DP: Amber Fares)Cinema Village synopsis: “The Speed Sisters are the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East. Grabbing headlines and turning heads at improvised tracks across the West Bank, these five women have sped their way into the heart of the gritty, male-dominated Palestinian street car-racing scene. Weaving together their lives on and off the track, Speed Sisters takes you on a surprising journey into the drive to go further and faster than anyone thought you could.”

FEBRUARY 10: A United Kingdom (dir. Amma Asante)Excerpts from The Guardian review by Mark Kermode: “…Eye in the Sky screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s screenplay (from Susan Williams’s 2006 book Colour Bar) revisits an often forgotten chapter of postwar history that might be filed under ‘stranger than fiction.’ Rosamund Pike is Ruth Williams, a clerk from Blackheath, south London, working in Lloyds of London in 1947, who is swept off her feet by handsome law student Seretse Khama (Oyelowo). Ruth doesn’t know that Seretse is an African king in waiting, leader-to-be of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), the British protectorate to which he is due to return on completion of his studies.

“When Seretse proposes, having duly explained his true identity, Ruth imagines a new life away from the misty drizzle of London, a life that, she assures her fiance, will be taken ‘moment by moment – together.’ But when the news of this high-profile black-and-white union reaches neighbouring South Africa, whose National party is busy enshrining apartheid in law, the cash-strapped British authorities move first to forbid and then to undermine the marriage, scared of alienating their supplier of cheap gold and uranium. Seretse’s regent uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), also refuses to countenance a white queen and a rift develops that threatens to tear apart more than just love.

“Handsomely shot on locations in the UK and Botswana by Sam McCurdy, A United Kingdom contrasts sweeping exteriors with fusty interiors, breathing rich visual life into the battle between an entrenched establishment and an emerging republic. Production designer Simon Bowles and composer Patrick Doyle clearly relish the broad canvas opportunities of the narrative, while Asante cites Richard Attenborough and David Lean as her guiding lights.

“For all the film’s vibrant grandeur, though, our attention is kept tightly focused on the central couple’s romance, even when they are separated by geography, economics and politics. Much is made of the world-turned-upside-down absurdity of Labour prime minister Clement Attlee’s obsequious loyalty to South Africa while the Conservative Churchill appears to be an ally of Khama’s progressive cause (although pragmatism soon overrides opposition promises), but it’s the wholly believable and tangible bond between Oyelowo’s Seretse and Pike’s Ruth that delivers the real emotional punch.

“…’I want to make pieces of entertainment and art that mean something,’ Asante recently told the BBC while musing upon her forthcoming film, Where Hands Touch, a longstanding passion project about a relationship between a bi-racial girl and a Hitler Youth boy in 1930s Berlin. ‘I want to make movies that leave some kind of mark on you.’ With A United Kingdom she has done just that.”

FEBRUARY 17: American Fable (dir. Anne Hamilton)Variety’s SXSW review by Andrew Barker: “If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then writer-director Anne Hamilton’s American Fable registers as an eloquently constructed valentine to Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth provides her film with its haunting backbone. Gorgeously shot, and helmed with a sense of daring and verve that belies Hamilton’s greenness to feature filmmaking, this is a debut of obvious promise, although its story never quite rises to the level of its craft. Premiering in the experimental Visions program at SXSW, this tale of farmland intrigue as seen through the eyes of a dreamy 11-year-old has just as much arthouse potential as many of the supposedly more commercial entries in the narrative competition, though it may ultimately function best as a passport to bigger things for its gifted young director.

“Hamilton’s introduction to filmmaking came via an internship with Terrence Malick on the set of The Tree of Life, and the director’s tendrils are visible from the very first shot, a dramatically swooning overhead view of a young girl chasing a chicken through monstrous expanses of corn stalks. The girl is Gitty (Peyton Kennedy, excellent), an imaginative, friendless grade schooler growing up in the farmlands of Wisconsin. The year is 1982, and overheard Ronald Reagan speeches place us right in at the beginning of the farm crisis, its gravity underscored by passing mentions of the rash of suicides in town.

“Gitty adores her father, the salty Abe (Kip Pardue), who does everything he can to distract her from the fact that they’re in dire danger of losing their farm. Her factory-worker mother (Marci Miller) is pregnant with a third child, and Gitty’s older brother, Martin (Gavin MacIntosh), is a study in unhinged, unmodulated malevolence.

“Wandering the farmlands on her bike, she makes a startling discovery: Locked inside her family’s unused silo is a dirty yet expensively dressed man calling himself Jonathan (Richard Schiff) who claims to have gone days without food. Though he’s short on details, Jonathan is a developer who’s been buying up farms in the area, and it doesn’t take long for Gilly to intuit that her own family has played some part in this kidnapping. As she begins bringing him food and books, the two develop a bond, with Gitty rappelling down through a small hole in the silo roof for chess lessons and reading sessions.

“Meanwhile, Gitty’s father conducts some mysterious business with a Mephistophelean woman named Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), and Gitty begins to experience visions of a black-clad, horned woman striding through the countryside on horseback. These hesitant forays into the mythological realm — reaching a feverish peak with a flashy dream sequence — feel oddly underdeveloped, alternating between inscrutable and needlessly obvious, with a long montage accompanying a recitation of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ a prime example of the latter.

“One of the strongest cues Hamilton takes from Pan’s Labyrinth, however, is the decision to allow Gitty’s own loyalties and misunderstandings to dictate the film’s p.o.v., and Kennedy ably carries the film on her back, radiating self-confidence while retaining an essential naivete and vulnerability; her many scenes of peering through doorways at conversations she doesn’t quite understand are beautifully played. Yet even accounting for this, the intrigue at the film’s center never makes total sense, and Gitty’s ultimate ethical dilemma — whether to leave Jonathan to his fate or put her own family at risk — never arrives with the right urgency. The shoehorned introduction of a few too many extraneous elements, especially a Marge Gunderson-esque retired police officer (Rusty Schwimmer), doesn’t help.

“Working with d.p. Wyatt Garfield, Hamilton shoots the rural landscape with a transformative eye. These farmlands aren’t dusty expanses but rather humid, almost primordial jungles; individual frames from nighttime scenes in the family barn could easily be oil paintings of the Nativity. More than just cataloguing pretty shots, Hamilton builds an arresting aura of wonder and terror, of which Gingger Shankar’s haunting, teasing score is very much a piece.”

FEBRUARY 17: Everybody Loves Somebody (dir. Catalina Aguilar Mastretta)The Hollywood Reporter’s Palm Springs International Film Festival review by Stephen Farber: “One of the crowd-pleasing world premiere films shown this year in Palm Springs is a bilingual romantic comedy, Everybody Loves Somebody, which doesn’t break any new ground thematically but still manages to make an appealing addition to the rom-com genre. Pantelion Films will release it in the U.S. and should find a sympathetic audience, especially if the picture is shrewdly marketed in parts of the country with sizable Latino populations.

“Clara (Karla Souza) is a successful doctor in Los Angeles but not so successful in her love life. All her dissatisfactions come to the surface when her parents, who live in Baja, decide to get married after 40 years of cohabiting without a license. Writer-director Catalina Aguilar Mastretta commented after the PSIFF screening that this part of the story was inspired by her own family background. The other details may be less autobiographical. Clara is something of a self-destructive mess, often trying to undermine the relationships of other people in her life, including her own patients. She is prone to one-night stands but seems to have an almost pathological fear of commitment.

“We find out why when she attends the family shindig in Mexico and reconnects with an old flame, Daniel (Jose Maria Yazpik), who apparently broke her heart years ago when he took off on a series of globe-trotting adventures. There is clearly still a spark between the two of them, but Clara is also tentatively exploring a relationship with a resident in her medical office, Asher (Ben O’Toole), an Aussie who seems far more grounded than either Clara or Daniel.

“Anyone expecting an incisive exploration of human psychology or cross-cultural conflicts will find the script pretty superficial and overly reliant on self-help bromides. Yet we get caught up in the movie all the same. Everybody may lack depth, but it often compensates with raucous humor. There’s also the novelty value of seeing a movie in which most of the characters flip easily and gracefully between conversing in Spanish and English. The inviting Baja seaside settings are another enticement.

“But the main reason for the movie’s success is its irresistible cast. Souza manages to make us care about Clara even when she’s behaving atrociously. Her sassy spirit has us rooting for her to escape her downward spiral, but there’s no sentimentality in her portrayal. All the other attractive castmembers bring charm and energy to their performances. Patricia Bernal as Clara’s wacky but loving mother and Tiare Scanda as her more conventional sister both make strong impressions. O’Toole is especially winning as the wise but wounded Aussie. He manages to make a convincing case for stability without ever seeming too good to be true.

“The true test of a winning romantic comedy is whether it makes the audience root for the clinch between the mismatched lovers. Despite its superficiality, the film succeeds in meeting that primary goal of the genre, so it leaves the audience in a cheerful mood.”

FEBRUARY 17: Lovesong (dir. So Yong Kim) (DPs: Guy Godfree and Kat Westergaard)Variety’s Sundance Film Festival review by Justin Chang: “Conceived in the same delicate minor key as her earlier films (In Between Days, Treeless Mountain and For Ellen), So Yong Kim’s fourth feature dances nervously but gracefully around a love that not only dares not speak its name, but can barely even figure itself out. Anchored by Riley Keough’s lovely, wistful performance as a mom in her 20s who gets back in touch with an old childhood bestie (a sharp Jena Malone), Lovesong makes a virtue of restraint as it traces a complex emotional history in two parts, and innumerable (and sometimes quite literal) shades of gray. The result may not significantly broaden the audience for Kim’s subdued, perceptive work but nevertheless stands as her most accessible feature to date, and deserves a listen from discerning arthouse distributors.

“…What’s left in the end, and it’s significant, is a sudden rush of tenderness that testifies to the depth of feeling that has transpired between Sarah and Mindy, even if they may lack the words or the inclination to define it. While some may dismiss Lovesong as retrograde for not adhering to the happy-ending expectations of a 21st-century queer romance (or a mid-1950s queer romance, on the evidence of Carol), the film is not, in the end, a narrative of the closet … there’s a remarkable truthfulness to the film’s acknowledgment that people often make enormous decisions rooted not in fear so much as uncertainty, even laziness, as well as a comfort with their lives as they’ve lived them until the present juncture.

“Malone, with her knack for playing strong-willed, hard-edged young women, is perfectly cast as the brash, impulsive, needy and inconsiderate friend who has come to rely deeply on Sarah. And Keough makes entirely clear why Sarah invites her friend’s trust: Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kristen Stewart at her most expressively withdrawn, the actress (soon to be seen on Starz’s ‘The Girlfriend Experience’) projects a soulful integrity that keeps the character from seeming too passive. She may not seem to be doing much at any given moment, but her every silent, darting glance makes clear that she’s both a natural caretaker — of her friend, of her daughter — and also someone with an eye on a potentially new horizon.

“Lensers Kat Westergaard and Guy Godfree keep their gently handheld cameras close to the primary actors but occasionally pull back to take in the cool, calming beauty of their natural surroundings. The soundscape balances occasional soft-rock tunes and a mistily subdued score by the multitalented composer Johann Johansson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything).”

FEBRUARY 17: XX (dirs. Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and Jovanka Vuckovic) (DPs: Ian Anderson, Tarin Anderson and Patrick Cady) (animated segments created by Sofia Carrillo)Excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by David Rooney: “Following on the heels of recent horror anthologies like Southbound and the V/H/S franchise, XX strings together four shorts written and directed by women, including Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic and Annie Clark, aka indie rock musician St. Vincent. Beyond the chromosomal title, the twisted take on motherhood shared by three installments, and the macabre wraparound and interstitial sequences by Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo, there’s no binding thread here. The package mixes existential creepiness with black comedy, demonic carnage and a Satan’s spawn scenario, and while it’s uneven — as these combos invariably are — genre enthusiasts looking for a female spin will want to check it out.

“Arguably the most startling breakout among women in horror lately has been Australian Jennifer Kent’s wickedly effective The Babadook. Echoes of that film’s terror of maternal failure resurface here, plus there’s a vague kinship between the darker visual flourishes of Kent’s fairy-tale nightmare and Carrillo’s playful segments — dollhouse interludes that suggest a Tim Burton Toy Story. In terms of style and tone, however, the four shorts have little in common.

“…The best thing about this project is that in the genre realm of the final girl, each story features a female protagonist facing unique fears beyond scream-and-die victimhood, in one case becoming the vessel of carnage herself.”

FEBRUARY 24 (LA), MARCH 1 (NYC): Kiki (dir. Sara Jordenö) (DP: Naiti Gámez)Synopsis from film’s official website: “In New York City, LGBTQ youth-of-color gather out on the Christopher Street Pier, practicing a performance-based artform, Ballroom, which was made famous in the early 1990s by Madonna’s music video ‘Vogue’ and the documentary Paris Is Burning. Twenty-five years after these cultural touchstones, a new and very different generation of LGBTQ youth have formed an artistic activist subculture, named the Kiki Scene.

Kiki follows seven characters from the Kiki community over the course of four years, using their preparations and spectacular performances at events known as Kiki balls as a framing device while delving into their battles with homelessness, illness and prejudice as well as their gains towards political influence and the conquering of affirming gender-expressions. In Kiki we meet Twiggy Pucci Garçon, the founder and gatekeeper for the Haus of Pucci, Chi Chi, Gia, Chris, Divo, Symba and Zariya. Each of these remarkable young people represents a unique and powerful personal story, illuminating the Kiki scene in particular, as well as queer life in the U.S. for LGBTQ youth-of-color as a whole.

“The spectacular Kiki balls, a consistent component of the Kiki subculture, offer performers a safe and empowered space to enact various modes of gender expression, including a stylized femininity that, if executed in the communities in which they grew up in, could provoke ridicule and violence. Kiki scene-members range in age from young teens to 20’s, and many have been thrown out of their homes by their families or otherwise find themselves on the streets. As LGBTQ people-of-color, they constitute a minority within a minority. An alarming 50% of these young people are HIV positive. The Kiki scene was created within the LGBTQ youth-of- color community as a peer-led group offering alternative family systems (‘houses’), HIV awareness teaching and testing, and performances geared towards self-agency. The scene has evolved into an important (and ever-growing) organization with governing rules, leaders and teams, now numbering hundreds of members in New York and across the U.S and Canada. Run by LGBTQ youth for LGBTQ youth, it draws strategies from the Civil Rights, Gay Rights and Black Power movements.

“In this film collaboration between Kiki gatekeeper, Twiggy Pucci Garçon, and Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordenö, viewers are granted exclusive access into this high-stakes world, where fierce Ballroom competitions serve as a gateway into conversations surrounding Black-and Trans-Lives Matter movements. This new generation of Ballroom youth use the motto, ‘Not About Us Without Us,’ and Kiki in kind has been made with extensive support and trust from the community, including an exhilarating score by renowned Ballroom and Voguing Producer Collective Qween Beat. Twiggy and Sara’s insider-outsider approach to their stories breathes fresh life into the representation of a marginalized community who demand visibility and real political power.”

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

Director Ceyda Torun with some of the stars of her new documentary, Kedi.

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

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JANUARY 6: Underworld: Blood Wars (dir. Anna Foerster)Sony Pictures synopsis: “The next installment in the blockbuster franchise, Underworld: Blood Wars follows Vampire death dealer, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as she fends off brutal attacks from both the Lycan clan and the Vampire faction that betrayed her. With her only allies, David (Theo James) and his father Thomas (Charles Dance), she must stop the eternal war between Lycans and Vampires, even if it means she has to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

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JANUARY 11: Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray (dir. Kristi Zea)Film Forum synopsis: “Kristi Zea brings to her debut, Everybody Knows… Elizabeth Murray, all the visual smarts she developed as a costume designer and award-winning production designer for Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, among others. A friend of Murray’s since the 1980s, the filmmaker captures the vivacious artist’s flair for color and shape. Murray’s zany, fractured canvases feature paeans to domesticity (crying children, coffee cups) as they fairly burst with the remarkable good humor and energy the artist herself exhibited even in the final days of her life. Murray’s journals are read by Meryl Streep and art world luminaries Roberta Smith, Paula Cooper, Jennifer Bartlett, and Vija Celmins testify to both her life and work. An exhibition of Murray’s work, curated by Carroll Dunham & Dan Nadel, is on view through January 29 at CANADA (333 Broome Street, NYC).”

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JANUARY 13: The Bye Bye Man (dir. Stacy Title)Coming Soon synopsis: “People commit unthinkable acts every day. Time and again, we grapple to understand what drives a person to do such terrible things. But what if all of the questions we’re asking are wrong? What if the cause of all evil is not a matter of what… but who?

“From the producer of Oculus and The Strangers comes The Bye Bye Man, a chilling horror-thriller that exposes the evil behind the most unspeakable acts committed by man. When three college friends stumble upon the horrific origins of the Bye Bye Man, they discover that there is only one way to avoid his curse: don’t think it, don’t say it. But once the Bye Bye Man gets inside your head, he takes control. Is there a way to survive his possession?

“Debuting on Friday, January 13th, this film redefines the horror that iconic date represents—stretching our comprehension of the terror this day holds beyond our wildest nightmares.”

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JANUARY 13: Claire in Motion (dirs. Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Claire in Motion is the second feature film from filmmaking team Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell. Exploring a short period of time inside one woman’s life-altering crisis, the story begins three weeks after math professor Claire Hunger’s (Betsy Brandt) husband has mysteriously disappeared, the police have ended their investigation and her son is beginning to grieve. The only person who hasn’t given up is Claire. Soon she discovers his troubling secrets, including an alluring yet manipulative graduate student with whom he had formed a close bond. As she digs deeper, Claire begins to lose her grip on how well she truly knew her husband and questions her own identity in the process. Claire in Motion twists the missing person thriller into an emotional take on uncertainty and loss.”

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JANUARY 13: MA (dir. Celia Rowlson-Hall)IFC Center synopsis: “In this modern-day vision of Mother Mary’s pilgrimage, a woman crosses the scorched landscape of the American Southwest. Reinvented and told entirely through movement, the film playfully deconstructs the role of this woman, who encounters a world full of bold characters that are alternately terrifying and sublime. MA is a journey into the visceral and the surreal, interweaving ritual, performance, and the body as sculpture. The absence of dialogue stirs the senses, and leads us to imagine a new ending to this familiar journey. The virgin mother gives birth to our savior, but is also challenged to save herself.”

JANUARY 13: Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past (dirs. Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards)Cinema Village synopsis: “What does it take to keep Jazz Age music going strong in the 21st century? Two words: Vince Giordano — a bandleader, musician, historian, scholar, collector, and NYC institution. For nearly 40 years, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks have brought the joyful syncopation of the 1920s and ‘30s to life with their virtuosity, vintage musical instruments, and more than 60,000 period band arrangements. This beautifully crafted documentary offers an intimate and energetic portrait of a truly devoted musician and preservationist, taking us behind the scenes of the recording of HBO’s Grammy award-winning ‘Boardwalk Empire’ soundtrack, and alongside Giordano as he shares his passion for hot jazz with a new generation of music and swing-dance fans.”

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JANUARY 20: Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.

“Critics and internet cats agree — this cat documentary will charm its way into your heart and home as you fall in love with the cats in Istanbul.”

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JANUARY 20: Staying Vertical (dir. Alain Guiraudie) (DP: Claire Mathon)Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked filmmaker seeking inspiration in the French countryside for an overdue script, begins an affair with a shepherdess (India Hair), with whom he almost immediately has a child. Combining the formal control of his 2013 breakthrough Stranger by the Lake with the shapeshifting fabulism of his earlier work, Alain Guiraudie’s new film is a sidelong look at the human cycle of birth, procreation, and death, as well as his boldest riff yet on his signature subjects of freedom and desire. The title has the ring of both a rallying cry and a dirty joke—fitting for a film that is, above all else, a rumination on what it means to be a human being, a vertical animal.”

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JANUARY 27: Sophie and the Rising Sun (dir. Maggie Greenwald)Monterey Media synopsis: “Set in the autumn of 1941 in Salty Creek, a fishing village in South Carolina, the film tells the dramatic story of interracial lovers swept up in the tides of history. As World War II rages in Europe a wounded Asian stranger, Mr. Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), appears in the town under mysterious circumstances. Sophie (Julianne Nicholson), a native of Salty Creek, quickly becomes transfixed by Mr. Ohta and a friendship born of their mutual love of art blossoms into a delicate and forbidden courtship. As their secret relationship evolves the war escalates tragically. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, a surge of misguided patriotism, bigotry and violence sweeps through the town, threatening Mr. Ohta’s life. A trio of women, each with her own secrets – Sophie, along with the town matriarch (Diane Ladd) and her housekeeper (Lorraine Toussaint) – rejects law and propriety, risking their lives with their actions.”

2016 in Movies: GIF Edition

In tribute to the glory of the moving images we call motion pictures, today I celebrate twenty-eight of the films I saw in 2016 with this set of GIFs. Enjoy them, I insist.

Anthropoid (dir. Sean Ellis)

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder)

Captain America: Civil War (dirs. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross)

Chicken People (dir. Nicole Lucas Haimes)

Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)

The Dressmaker (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse)

Eddie the Eagle (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer)

Florence Foster Jenkins (dir. Stephen Frears)

Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig)

Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

Hello, My Name Is Doris (dir. Michael Showalter)

How to Be Single (dir. Christian Ditter)

Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)

Keanu (dir. Peter Atencio)

Lion (dir. Garth Davis)

The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Money Monster (dir. Jodie Foster)

One More Time with Feeling (dir. Andrew Dominik)

Snowden (dir. Oliver Stone)

Star Trek Beyond (dir. Justin Lin)

Triple 9 (dir. John Hillcoat)

Weiner (2016, dirs. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)

X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer)

2016: Part 5

Deadpool. Directed by Tim Miller. Notes from December 30, 2016: Reviewing the long-awaited starring vehicle for one of Marvel Comics’ most loved creations, Deadpool, presents a conundrum: if you like the film too much, then you might sound like a delusional fan who has chosen to overlook or not even notice flaws, and if you fail to show respect and admiration for the film, then you are a critic who is considered “old” (in spirit if not in age), out of touch and worse. Which of my opinions will be accepted and which will be torpedoed?

I will say this: it is obvious that Ryan Reynolds is the only actor who could possibly play Wade Wilson/Deadpool. He’s a mercenary who is quick-witted and foulmouthed in equal measure, an unstoppable (literally, he’s immortal) antihero who fires one-liners off as rapidly as he does his bullets. As the opening credits state jokingly, the film contains the clichéd characters we have come to expect in a big-budget action movie, including a “hot chick” love interest (Morena Baccarin), a “comic relief” sidekick (T.J. Miller, whom I always adore), “a British villain” (Ed Skrein) and a “moody teen,” a member of the X-Men team known as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). That these amusing labels are displayed while Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” plays sweetly on the soundtrack is one of the finest moments in the film, a great juxtaposition of sarcastic humor and an unironic love of corny pop music (later in the film, Wade Wilson reveals that he is a huge fan of Wham! and George Michael; his admission of profound fandom is now bittersweet after Michael’s recent passing). I wish that the rest of the film had lived up to the promise of that initial sequence.

At the risk of sounding like a 24-year-old fuddy-duddy, I don’t think that Deadpool’s R-rated language makes the comedy wildly funny for anyone except adolescents. I am not a person who considers curses puerile or offensive in cinematic storytelling, so I don’t carry some ancient bias with me in that regard, but if the bulk of Deadpool’s comedic impact is predicated on the idea that naughty words should make you giggle, then there is an unquestionable deficiency going on behind the scenes. I know, I know, I’m supposed to read the comics and I should understand how faithfully the film recreates Wade Wilson’s somewhat twisted sense of humor, but I can’t help feeling slighted. Where’s the value in hinting at the outset that stereotypes might be subverted, if said stereotypes remain unchanged in the film? Morena Baccarin’s character, Vanessa, serves no purpose in the plot other than to be the girlfriend whose life begins and ends with Wade, while Ed Skrein, as archvillain Ajax, whose sole existence relies on perpetrating acts of supreme evil so rote that they must have come out of a handbook. Sure, that’s fun to watch, but in the end, if you care more about the cool tunes on the soundtrack than about the characters, then what was the point?

P.S. The casting department deserves extra credit for getting Leslie Uggams to play Wade’s roommate, a blind and cranky senior citizen known as “Blind Al.”

Hail, Caesar!. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Notes from December 28, 2016: Like another film from 2016 that I recently saw, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! has an appealing visual style but the story rings hollow. Hail overflows with so many performers – some are famous, others are veteran character actors and a few are up-and-comers – that the narrative suffers. (Wes Anderson’s smash hit from two years ago, The Grand Budapest Hotel, stumbled because of the same problem.) In theory, a comedic period piece set in 1950s Hollywood that concerns an exhausted studio chief (Josh Brolin), a kidnapped movie star (George Clooney), a group of Communist screenwriters and studio players (Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson) with secrets that they don’t want the public to know would add up to brilliance. Instead you are left intensely disappointed that the story does not offer any surprises; the Coens do not provide the viewer with new commentary on the politics of that era, nor is there any emotional depth with which to connect to most of the characters. At times the film is reminiscent of another dramedy about the dark side of the American Dream, Pennies from Heaven (1981), especially in the scene where two of Hail’s main characters sing a few lines from “The Glory of Love,” a song which was featured in an elaborate musical number near the end of Pennies.

The only truly worthy performances in the Coens’ film belong to Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a young actor who has carved a niche for himself as a singing cowboy but who is abruptly thrust into the world of drawing room dramas, and Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, the polite but frustrated director whose job it is to turn Hobie into a respectable leading man in a more critically-acclaimed branch of cinema. Ehrenreich and Fiennes share a scene depicting a hysterically funny elocution lesson. If only another wonderful cast member, Wayne Knight, had as much screen time to devote to the role of “Lurking Extra,” one of the two men who kidnap Clooney at the beginning of the film; evidently the Coens’ Hollywood, a Dream Factory at the height of its power, cannot fulfill every wish.

Lion. Directed by Garth Davis. Notes from December 30, 2016: For years I have asked myself why I cry so much during movies, even when I am viewing something that I do not consider a masterpiece. It was not until recently that I realized the answer: empathy. I empathize with characters’ situations to the point that if they experience an event that is sad or even traumatic, I feel those emotions so intensely that I weep, even if at the same time I recognize that the filmmaking is flawed. This is the case with Lion, a melodrama about family and racial identity which is designed to wrench as many tears as humanly possible from its audience. (I doubt that the Weinstein Company would have produced the film if it didn’t have the label “Oscar bait” written on it as boldly as if inked in Sharpie.) A five-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) when, while Guddu briefly leaves Saroo at a train station while he goes off to find work, Saroo boards an out-of-service train that departs the depot and transports the frightened boy to Calcutta, fifteen hundred miles from his Khandwa home. The rest of the first half of the film follows Saroo’s struggles to find an adult who can help him find his mother (Priyanka Bose), including a deceptively kind prostitute (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a sex trafficker (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and a sympathetic social worker (Deepti Naval) at a center for lost/abandoned children. The second, and more deeply histrionic, half of the film concerns Saroo’s adoption by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who want to give the boy a better life on Tasmania.

Abruptly fast-forwarding twenty years later, Saroo has grown up (now played by Dev Patel) and attends a college for hotel management, where he meets and falls in love with an American student, Lucy (Rooney Mara in the thankless role of “stock girlfriend,” zigzagging between acting as either a generically compassionate figure of support or a shrew who nags Saroo for being emotionally/physically distant). Saroo constantly questions his place in the world as an Australian man with a long-suppressed Indian heritage; he is haunted by dreams of his mother and Guddu, and the incredible pain of having been kept apart for decades. And so Saroo battles with himself over whether he should try to find his birth mother, fearing the effect that it will have on the Brierleys. (Saroo’s adoptive parents already have their hands full with another Indian son, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has a long history of psychological/emotional problems and issues with substance abuse.) It takes an absurdly long time for Saroo to decide what to do, which might be true to life, but his inertia doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.

Saroo’s and Mrs. Brierley’s challenges as conflicted individuals give actors Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, as well as young Sunny Pawar (who continues to appear throughout the film in flashbacks) some excellent showcases, sure to earn them Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominations at the upcoming Oscar ceremony. And certainly the film is always gorgeous to look at, photographed in appropriately pretty but somber golden-brown tones by Greig Fraser (Bright Star, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher). But despite the fact that Garth Davis’s film is based on a true story – screenwriter Luke Davies has adapted his script from the real Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home – I cannot help wondering how many of the critics and viewers who praise Lion and its central child actor have never seen Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy (surely Subir Banerjee, young star of Pather Panchali (1955), set the gold standard for Indian films about the earliest years of boyhood) or Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), a devastating tale about a boy abandoned by his family, forced to join the circus to make money and then left to fend for himself on the streets of Mumbai without any means of locating his home. That Ray’s and Nair’s films are works of fiction should not minimize the impact of Davis’s Lion, but it is a little difficult to be wowed by the cinematic rendering of a story that is too similar to those of more powerful productions.

P.S. The film ends with a song by the queen of cheesy “inspirational” anthems, Sia. You could argue that this choice of artist has some connective tissue linking it to Lion since Sia is Australian, but it would have been so much nicer to hear music by an Indian performer; it would have solidified the notion that Saroo had returned to his roots.

Money Monster. Directed by Jodie Foster. Notes from December 31, 2016: Although I will fall short of meeting the goal for this year’s 52 Films by Women challenge (Money Monster is number forty-one for me), I decided that for my last Netflix DVD of 2016, I would give Jodie Foster’s latest directorial effort a try. Having seen her other three films – Little Man Tate (1991), Home for the Holidays (1995) and The Beaver (2011) – I knew that Money Monster would be vaguely enjoyable but not intellectually stimulating, the cinematic equivalent of a McChicken sandwich. The plot follows a disgruntled working-class New Yorker (British rising star Jack O’Connell, overshooting the mark on his Queens accent) who has just lost his life savings after a particular stock crashes, and therefore holds the Jim Cramer-esque money-management show host (George Clooney) – whom he considers responsible – hostage at gunpoint. All this happens live on the air, which is probably supposed to be exciting yet it feels tired from the get-go. Didn’t Network cover similar ground forty years ago? Haven’t films been commenting on the evils of corporate greed for decades? The presence of Julia Roberts as the TV show’s producer does not help matters either; like Clooney, Roberts contributes star power rather than brilliant acting to the film, a performance that may impress you with its mediocre but unwavering commitment to entertainment value (stars always know how to turn on the ol’ 10,000-watt smile, even in horrid situations), but which you never forget is acting that lacks depth. On the other hand, Lenny Venito did a pretty good job as Clooney’s cameraman, which just goes to show you how much more agreeable it can be sometimes to watch a talented character actor than most of the bright white-toothed megastars of Hollywood.

As one A.V. Club user comment put it best: “I adore Jodie Foster as an actor, but I have to admit, as a director she kind of fulfills the late film critic Pauline Kael’s comment of actors who direct Starting at the Top, so they didn’t learn how to direct a movie before they’re given a chance to.

“Usually When Actors Direct, they’re good working with actors (because they’re one themselves), love big juicy scenes the actors can sink their teeth into (because those are the kinds of scenes they love to play), are madly in love with tricky camera moves and editing (to make their movies look “cinematic”), and have a miserable sense of flow and pacing (because those get in the way of all that acting and the camera moves!). There’s also that desire to Save the World – from Those Other Bad Guys, Who Bear No Resemblance To Anybody Working on the Movie!

“It’s why most actors who turn movie directors work well on character pieces, but suck at action and suspense. There are exceptions, obviously – both Clint Eastwood and Jon Favreau seem to be able to direct films pretty well, and Jonathan Frakes and Lucy Liu have a pretty good grip on directing series television. But for every one of them, there are dozen of William Shatners or Robert De Niros, who might be okay directing theater but shouldn’t be let near a director’s chair on a film or television set.”

Weiner. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Notes from December 31, 2016: I spoke too soon when I thought that I was done with my year of watching films directed by women; I have just done a double feature of two films that actually worked quite well together: the recent documentary Weiner, about disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s bid for New York City mayor in 2013, and Doris Wishman’s Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), a semi-documentary about the title star (a well-known burlesque queen in her day) deciding to abandon her career (here playing a slightly altered version of herself, an actress in presumably non-sexploitational films) in order to find peace in the paradise of a Florida nudist camp. Two different stories, both directed or co-directed by women, and yet they both present ways in which a celebrity can deal with attention-seekers, the obligations of fame and its accompanying pressures. Blaze Starr, or rather I should say the onscreen presentation of her, sought shelter from notoriety, while Anthony Weiner ran towards it again and again.

I cannot avoid feeling a level of connection – low though it might be at this point – with the saga of Anthony Weiner since he represented my district of Brooklyn and when I graduated from elementary school, I received the Anthony D. Weiner Award, which includes a commendation for “outstanding dedication to family.” Seriously, this happened.

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(It should be noted that Weiner did not show up at the ceremony. I was disappointed to shake a vice principal’s hand instead.)

The real star of Weiner is not the man himself but his wife, Huma Abedin. If there were an award for best acting in a nonfiction film, she would absolutely win. So much of the narrative is focused on her reactions to her husband, intense waves of frustration that emanate from her in scene after scene as new scandals keep breaking and she realizes that her husband has lied to her once more. Even though Weiner does not break ground cinematically – Chicken People and One More Time with Feeling were this year’s superior documentaries – the film is entertaining from start to finish and it tells a fascinating story about what it means for a man to be addicted to human interaction (not just as a public servant but also via the digital access granted by glowing screens) to the extent that it destroys his existing personal and professional relationships.

2015: Part 11

City of Gold. Directed by Laura Gabbert. Notes from December 10, 2016: Should a critic be easier or harsher when assessing the merits of a documentary about a member of the same profession? Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chief food critic for the Los Angeles Times, is chronicled in this pleasant but underwhelming film by Laura Gabbert (Sunset Story, No Impact Man: The Documentary). The film presupposes that its audience either has no knowledge of the history of food criticism or no problem accepting the basic premise that Gold is a one-of-a-kind gastronomical observer of the human condition. Some of Gold’s forerunners make appearances, including Calvin Trillin and Ruth Reichl, but of course there are others whom Gabbert overlooks – two names that immediately come to mind are Nika Hazelton and Mimi Sheraton (fun fact: my mother sat next to Mimi at the recent alumni gathering for the 75th anniversary of Brooklyn’s Midwood High School; they spent about twenty minutes talking). Jonathan Gold has the advantages of being younger than those pioneering women and writing now in 2016, but the film focuses so claustrophobically on the subjective narrative that Gold is the first and only critic of his kind that Gabbert leaves no room for any other interpretation (or truth). In fact, the most interesting part of the film was when Gold, while being interviewed by a radio DJ for a “Favorite Songs” playlist, analyzed the history and meanings of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” giving me pause to wonder why Gold didn’t go in for music criticism instead.

The Dressmaker. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Notes from September 28, 2016: Having never seen any of filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s work before (although I have wanted to see Proof and How to Make an American Quilt for quite some time), I could only judge 1950s period piece The Dressmaker on its own merit. (I suppose that that is ideally how criticism is supposed to work anyway.) While Kate Winslet is fierce and fabulous as the couturier who returns to her small Australian hometown of Dungatar with revenge on her mind, and some of the other cast members also add to the local color (including Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Sacha Horler, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte and Kerry Fox), the film is a jumbled mess of genres and themes with a wildly uneven tone. There are gorgeous costumes designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson (I’m mad about this red dress that Kate Winslet wears and Sarah Snook’s Saturday night soirée gown) and Donald McAlpine’s cinematography includes some excellent images and framing, so I’m glad that I saw The Dressmaker on the big screen, but the film’s decision to veer crazily into intense melodrama toward the end is preposterous.

P.S. The two elderly, New York-accented women sitting behind me gave the critique of the year as the end credits rolled: “Did you like it? No, it’s the strangest thing I ever saw!”

P.P.S. For those who have seen the film: a bunch of people behind me (including the aforementioned women) couldn’t remember, or didn’t understand the word for, the grain involved in a crucial scene in the second half of the film. Are there really adults who have never heard of sorghum, or were they just particularly bad at understanding the Australian accent in this instance?

Hello, My Name Is Doris. Directed by Michael Showalter. Notes from December 12, 2016: I’ll say it upfront: Sally Field is an incredible actress. Even in a film that falls somewhat short of her boundless talent, Field is able to transcend scripting limitations and create a multilayered character who is more than just a bundle of quirks, cat-eye glasses and 60s-girl-group-style hair extensions. As Doris Miller, a senior citizen who works as an accountant for a trendy magazine and who falls in love with a new, much younger coworker in the office (Max Greenfield), Field hooks us from the first minute. Much of the film’s comedy emanates from cringe-inducing situations involving Doris’s weird characteristics and the awkwardness of scenarios revolving around her making a fake Facebook profile (there is a great scene in which Doris, drunk and sitting around in her bra, rants online while the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” plays on the soundtrack), hanging around electronica concerts and knitting circles in Williamsburg, attempting to befriend airheaded colleagues (Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Lyonne, Rich Sommer) and visiting a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who tries to convince Doris, a lifelong hoarder, to clean and then move out of her recently deceased mother’s house. I was reminded of the older woman/younger man relationships in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – who says that age has anything to do with true love and beauty?

Some of the best scenes are the dramatic ones, however, like the two separate and highly emotional confrontations that Field has with her self-centered younger brother and his even more awful wife (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey) and with her longtime best friend (Tyne Daly). Field won’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance, but when you watch her discover social media, dance to modern music, experience confusion over common communication gestures or interact with unusual celebrities in her inimitable fashion, you know with certainty that after more than half a century she is still one of the best players in the game.

Joy. Directed by David O. Russell. Notes from November 19, 2016: Mark me down as surprised: I remembered Joy getting mixed reviews when it came out last year, and my feelings toward David O. Russell regarding I Heart Huckabees (one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I have ever had), Silver Linings Playbook (which I initially liked, but it doesn’t hold up) and American Hustle (wildly overrated, except for Bradley Cooper’s character) are less than positive, but I actually ended up enjoying his latest effort. Finally I have seen a film that has built on the promise that we got from Jennifer Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone – not completely, mind you, but there’s no question that by focusing Joy entirely on Lawrence, rather than making her a co-lead or a supporting character, she has the opportunity to develop a character with considerable depth. (Let’s not speak of her anemic performances in the X-Men series, which I blame largely on the screenwriters and directors for offering Lawrence so little with which to work.) Critics have argued that Lawrence was too young to play title character Joy Mangano, a woman who turned a difficult middle-class existence as a divorced mother of two with endless bills and mortgages to pay off into success as the inventor of the Miracle Mop. This is true, but I still thought Lawrence did a good job of making Joy a character we can root for. Some of David O. Russell’s narrative interjections about feminism are too clichéd to be effective, but the pacing (which I thought was just fine, unlike other critics) and the supporting players – Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini (marvelously villainous), Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, cameos by Ken Howard and Paul Herman – keep things moving. Joy has not converted me to Hollywood’s supreme fandom of Jennifer Lawrence, but I’m definitely closer to approaching it now than I was before.

Sisters. Directed by Jason Moore. Notes from September 28, 2016: Fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would surely enjoy this comedy; all the other viewers… not so much. (My opinion lies somewhere in the middle.) Tina and Amy have a lot of fun as an irresponsible sister and a boring/do-gooder sister respectively, particularly since the film primarily revolves around a raucous farewell party at the old family home (which parents Dianne Wiest and James Brolin are selling), leading Amy and Tina to switch their usual behavioral roles. The bulk of the film’s humor arises from Amy’s increasingly inebriated attempts to connect to a potential boyfriend played by Ike Barinholtz (best described by one IMDb user as “cute in an attainable way, not a Ryan Gosling way”), who is luckily a pretty good match for her, both temperamentally and comedically. Additional good moments in the film come courtesy of Maya Rudolph, John Cena and John Leguizamo, who also attend the big bash, and Chris Parnell as the victim of Tina Fey’s terrible eyebrow-styling in her home salon at the beginning of the film. Sisters is not a great film, but there is an unmistakable charm in its being easily disposable entertainment, satisfying for at least the two hours when you are watching it.

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: December 2016

Director/producer/actress Katie Holmes (center) on the set of All We Had, 2015.

Here are twelve new movies due to be released in theaters this December, 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.

DECEMBER 2: Best and Most Beautiful Things (dir. Garrett Zevgetis) (DPs: Sarah Ginsburg and Jordan Salvatoriello)PBS Independent Lens synopsis: “In rural Maine, a quirky, charming, and determined young woman named Michelle Smith lives with her mother Julie. Legally blind and on the autism spectrum, Michelle has big dreams and proudly wears the badge of outcast. Searching for connection, Michelle explores love and empowerment outside the limits of ‘normal,’ including a provocative sexual awakening. Best and Most Beautiful Things tells Michelle’s joyful story of self-discovery as a celebration of outcasts everywhere.

“After receiving an extraordinary education at the Perkins School for the Blind, a world-famous institution outside Boston which was attended by the young Helen Keller, Michelle becomes isolated after graduation, spending hours and days alone in her room, struggling to envision her future. She attends an alumni weekend where a school administrator unexpectedly offers her the possibility of an animation internship in Los Angeles. While Michelle eagerly anticipates this dream opportunity, her family and teachers worry about real-world logistics and Michelle’s readiness to live independently on the other side of the country.

“Michelle passes time on the computer, feeding her interests and bold curiosity about the world beyond her walls. Online, she meets and falls in love with a young college student named Michael, and together they become involved in a local fetish role-playing community. Through her relationship with Michael and their adventures with kink and BDSM, Michelle experiences a burgeoning empowerment and finds the acceptance that has eluded her since her time at Perkins. Best and Most Beautiful Things gently reveals how all the most beautiful things, including love and sexuality, are not bound by disability.”

DECEMBER 2: First Lady of the Revolution (dir. Andrea Kalin)From the film’s official website: “While visiting an aunt and uncle in the exotic countryside of Costa Rica, a young Southern Belle from Alabama accepted a ride on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a charismatic local farmer. That ride would propel her into history.

First Lady of the Revolution is the remarkable story of Henrietta Boggs, who fell in love with a foreign land and the man destined to transform its identity. Her marriage to José ‘Don Pepe’ Figueres in 1941 led to a decade-long journey through activism, exile and political upheaval, and ultimately, lasting political reform.

First Lady of the Revolution is not only a depiction of the momentous struggle to shape Costa Rica’s democratic identity; it’s also a portrayal of how a courageous woman escaped the confines of a traditional, sheltered existence to expand her horizons into a new world, and live a life she never imagined.

DECEMBER 2: Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)Excerpt from Variety review by Guy Lodge: “Midway through Things to Come, Isabelle Huppert’s protagonist has a disconcerting encounter in a cinema, distracting her from Juliette Binoche’s own on-screen emotional uncertainty in Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 jewel, Certified Copy. It’s a cheeky move to so fleetingly cameo that level of perfection in one’s own work, but Mia Hansen-Love’s fifth — and possibly best — feature pulls it off with warmth and grace to spare. At once disarmingly simple in form and riddled with rivulets of complex feeling, this story of a middle-aged Parisienne philosophy professor rethinking an already much-examined life in the wake of unforeseen divorce emulates the best academics in making outwardly familiar ideas feel newly alive and immediate — and has an ideal human conduit in a wry, heartsore Huppert, further staking her claim as our greatest living actress with nary a hint of showing off. Following widespread distribution for the dazzling but younger-skewing Eden, the arthouse future for Hansen-Love’s latest is surely a bright one.

“Among the more minor losses endured by heavily burdened philosopher Nathalie (Huppert) in the course of Hansen-Love’s gently meandering narrative is one of pedagogical authority. As her favorite student, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), grows into a writer and thinker of independent, often conflicting, agency, she’s both gratified and saddened that the path on which she placed him has diverged from hers; the student has become not the master, but merely his own man.

“Hansen-Love knows a thing or two about what we give and take from our teachers. Like her four previous films, Things to Come bears the delicate tonal imprint of her former mentor and now husband, Olivier Assayas — the wily presence of the great Edith Scob isn’t the only nod here to, in particular, Assayas’ Summer Hours. Yet the pic’s glinting aesthetic textures and searching philosophical preoccupations are quite plainly her own. As filmmakers, they share tastes and interests in the way lovers must do, as if they were mutually beloved songs. Hansen-Love’s sharply feminine and subtly feminist worldview, however, is marked by a guarded generational idealism and resistance to nostalgia that sets it richly apart from others in the current French canon; in Things to Come, her rotating sensibilities as intellectual, humanist and sensualist converge most satisfyingly.”

DECEMBER 2: Two Trains Runnin’ (dir. Samuel D. Pollard) (DP: Natalie Kingston)From the film’s official website:Two Trains Runnin’ is a feature-length documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard, narrated by Common, and featuring the music of Gary Clark Jr. The film pays tribute to a pioneering generation of musicians and cuts to the heart of our present moment, offering a crucial vantage from which to view the evolving dynamics of race in America.

“In June of 1964 hundreds of college students, eager to join the civil rights movement, traveled to Mississippi, starting what would be known as Freedom Summer. That same month, two groups of young men–made up of musicians, college students and record collectors–also traveled to Mississippi. Though neither group was aware of the other, each had come on the same errand: to find an old blues singer and coax him out of retirement. Thirty years before, Son House and Skip James had recorded some of the most memorable music of their era, but now they seemed lost to time.

“Finding them would not be easy. There were few clues to their whereabouts. It was not even known for certain if they were still alive.  And Mississippi, that summer, was a tense and violent place. With hundreds on their way to teach in freedom schools and work on voter registration, the Ku Klux Klan and police force of many towns vowed that Freedom Summer would not succeed. Churches were bombed, shotguns blasted into cars and homes. It was easy to mistake the young men looking for Son House and Skip James as activists. Finally, on June 21, 1964, these two campaigns collided in memorable and tragic fashion.

“In telling this remarkable story, Two Trains Runnin’ revisits an important moment when America’s cultural and political institutions were dramatically transformed. The movie is all the more pointed and relevant today, in an era of renewed attention on police brutality and voting rights.”

DECEMBER 9: All We Had (dir. Katie Holmes)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Genna Terranova: “Ruthie Carmichael (Stefania Owen) makes the best of bad circumstances, pulled along in the wake of the hard luck of her mother Rita (Katie Holmes). From escaping a bad boyfriend to their car breaking down on the road to going broke, they continually find themselves in search of stability. When their attempt at settling in a new town hits a stumbling block, and as the shine wears off of the kind strangers who supported them when they had first arrived, even Ruthie struggles to keep it together. Based on Annie Weatherwax’s 2014 novel, Katie Holmes’s feature directorial debut is a sensitive rendering of the Great Recession as told by people who were unprepared for the shortfall and could not have seen it coming. Owen and Holmes are perfectly matched as they explore a mother-daughter bond crashing against universal teenage themes: growing up under hardship, realizing the imperfections of parents and facing the many little dramas that overwhelm positivity and progress. Holmes finds in All We Had a stimulating and ultimately enriching coming-of-age drama about a resilient mother and daughter who find strength in each other.”

DECEMBER 9: Solitary (dir. Kristi Jacobson)Human Rights Watch Film Festival synopsis:Solitary tells the stories of several inmates sent to Red Onion State Prison, one of over 40 supermax prisons across the US, which holds inmates in eight-by-ten foot solitary confinement cells, 23 hours a day. Profoundly intimate, this immersive film weaves through prison corridors and cells, capturing the chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere of the prison. With unprecedented access, award-winning filmmaker Kristi Jacobson investigates an invisible part of the American justice system and tells the stories of people caught in the complex penal system – both inmates and correction officers – raising provocative questions about punishment in America today.”

DECEMBER 16: Collateral Beauty (dir. David Frankel) (DP: Maryse Alberti)Excerpt from Warner Bros. synopsis: “When a successful New York advertising executive suffers a great tragedy he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.

Collateral Beauty features an all-star cast, including Will Smith (Suicide Squad, Concussion), Edward Norton (Birdman or [The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance]), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Michael Peña (The Martian), Naomie Harris (Spectre), Jacob Latimore (The Maze Runner), with Oscar winners Kate Winslet (The Reader, Steve Jobs) and Helen Mirren (The Queen, Trumbo).”

DECEMBER 25: Fences (dir. Denzel Washington) (DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen)Excerpt from The Wrap review by Robert Abele: “It’s taken nearly 30 years for August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences to make it to movie screens since its roiling portrait of an embittered African-American mid-20th-century man exploded on Broadway in 1987. But if anybody was going to do it justice as a film, it’s Denzel Washington.

“The stage-trained megastar played Wilson’s Troy Maxson — former ballplayer, ex-con and struggling Pittsburgh garbageman — in a celebrated 2010 revival, and he’s now taken the reins behind and in front of the camera for a film adaptation that amounts to a great actor’s dedicated stewardship of the late dramatist’s considerable gifts. Can you tell it’s a play? Absolutely. Does that mean a damn thing? Not when the writing is this richly evocative, and the cast so often soars with it.

“It’s not just Washington in home-run form, but Viola Davis, too, as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose, a role she also played in the Washington-headlined production. Together they bring to vivid life the complexities and contradictions in an 18-year marriage built on a sense of duty neither realized was as fragile as it was. It’s a safe bet these in-the-moment powerhouses will be in plenty of accolade-centric conversations for the rest of the season.”

DECEMBER 25: Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi) (DP: Mandy Walker)Fox Movies synopsis:Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.”

DECEMBER 25: Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)New York Film Festival synopsis: “An audacious twist on the screwball comedy—here, the twosome is an aging-hippie prankster father and his corporate-ladder-climbing daughter—Toni Erdmann delivers art and entertainment in equal measure and charmed just about everyone who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Maren Ade’s dazzling script has just enough of a classical comedic structure to support 162 minutes of surprises big and small. Meanwhile, her direction is designed to liberate the actors as much as possible while the camera rolls, resulting in sublime performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, who leave the audience suspended between laughter and tears. A Sony Pictures Classics release.”

DECEMBER 30: Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer? (dir. Eve Marson)From the film’s official website: “Dr. William Hurwitz was a preeminent doctor sentenced to 25 years in prison for overprescribing painkillers. His story provides a window into the ethical dilemma of opioid prescriptions. Painkillers give doctors tremendous power to relieve pain, a primary goal of any physician, but this power begets trouble when the same drugs can lead to addiction, abuse and death.

“In 2016, painkiller abuse continues to skyrocket, the federal government has issued its first guidelines to control opioid prescriptions, and the investigation into Prince’s death only furthers finger-pointing at Big Pharma, doctors and addicts.

“There could not be a more critical time to spark discussion on the topic and call for careful thought and action.”

DECEMBER 30: Miss Violence (dir. Alexandros Avranas) (DP: Olympia Mytilinaiou)Excerpt of Starburst review by Martyn Conterio: “Ever since Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth wowed audiences back in 2009, Greek cinema has become the new Michael Haneke. Although Lanthimos and others have weaved into the fabric of their sometimes controversial work a certain absurdist humour, the award-winning second feature by Alexandros Avranas, Miss Violence, paints it black and black only.

“Angeliki (Chloe Bolota), on her 11th birthday, jumps out of an open window. She is smiling as she does so. The family appear sad and upset for five minutes and then carry on as if nothing untoward has happened. No questions are asked and no soul-searching undertaken. It’s like the poor girl has been erased from memory. But why?

“For a long time, and the film’s pace is pitched at glacial, Avranas feeds the viewer crumbs of information about the dynamics at work within the family unit. From the very first scene, even before the shocking act of Angeliki’s suicide, there’s something not quite right. Could it be the Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me To The End of Love,” playing on the stereo system or the bland colour scheme of the home interior and costume design?

Miss Violence is an experimental mixture of thriller narrative (removed of all genre thrills), a horror movie and a detective story, complete with a series of revelations so astoundingly grim that the overall reaction, as the film draws to a close, is one of absolute devastation.”

2016: Part 3

Arrival. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Notes from November 10, 2016: I had the opportunity to see Arrival in a screening at MoMA, the premiere of their annual “Contenders” series. Here’s the good: there are a number of genuinely tense and exciting scenes in Denis Villeneuve’s new sci-fi film, mostly the ones regarding the interactions between Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and the aliens. But the writing for Amy Adams’ character is paper-thin; she has no discernible personality, making her an almost completely blank slate except for her beyond-genius capabilities as a linguist that allow her to figure out the extraterrestrials’ vocabulary. If only we had a stronger sense of Adams’ character as a person aside from certain events in her life, it would be easier to connect to her and sympathize/empathize with her. It is not enough to see a protagonist deal with developments in the plot; we also have to perceive a noticeable effect on the character, much more than what we see for Adams in Arrival. She’s a great actress, capable of doing so much more with a character than whatever the script’s words mandate, but even she falls short here. Forest Whitaker, as the colonel who enlists Adams for communication with the aliens, is a generic authority figure whose only purposes are to scowl and question Adams’ decisions. On the plus side: Jeremy Renner does well with another severely underwritten role, injecting some much-needed levity as the scientist paired up with Adams to decipher the foreign entities’ language.

Every year we are given science films that are meant both to entertain and to provoke meaningful discussions about the intersection of humanity and universal, interspecial contact: 2012 had Prometheus, 2013 had Gravity, 2014 had Interstellar, 2015 had Ex Machina (as well as The Martian, although there were no aliens). Gravity was a thrilling experience in IMAX and the film gave a great lead role to Sandra Bullock, who carried the film almost entirely by herself and imbued her performance with both heartbreak and occasional humor; Ex Machina felt fresh and modern, with Alicia Vikander pushing boundaries in her performance as an android learning what it means to be human (or close to being one); Interstellar had some narrative issues here and there, but the acting was solid all around, it was another exciting IMAX encounter and the organ-centric score by Hans Zimmer is one of my favorite scores of the last decade, maybe even the 21st century so far. I should also mention Under the Skin (2013/2014) in this list; it was an independent film rather than a blockbuster or, in Ex Machina’s case, a more widely-seen indie, but Under the Skin is similarly concerned with the relationship between humans and nonhumans, and what happens when the different characters interact. (Plus Scarlett Johansson’s performance is brilliant and I think it’s the best work she has done, other than 2003′s Girl with a Pearl Earring.) This is all to say that Arrival did not surpass what any of those previous films achieved, either perfectly or imperfectly. Like Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Sicario, I am left feeling disappointed that a potentially interesting female protagonist in what we would traditionally call a “genre” film has been given short shrift.

Eddie the Eagle. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Notes from December 2, 2016: Most inspirational, overcoming-the-odds sports films, from Rocky (1976) to Hoosiers (1986) to Rudy (1993), follow predictable formulas. Eddie the Eagle is no different, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is something inherently satisfying in watching an underdog rise above difficult circumstances and beat the more experienced competitor(s). That is exactly what ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards represents for us, as portrayed by lead actor Taron Egerton; Edwards’ evolution from a middle-class, bespectacled, socially awkward English kid with “dodgy knees” to a beloved Olympian at the Calgary ’88 Winter Games is enjoyable to watch, following all the expected beats but doing so with heart and humor. Egerton, who shot to fame last year as the James Bond-esque star of the action-comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service, does really good work as our plucky hero. He hasn’t made many films, but given his natural, likeable presence onscreen and his successes with Kingsman and Eddie, I anticipate bigger projects and greater prestige in Taron Egerton’s future.

Hugh Jackman does a nice job as Eddie’s coach, Bronson Peary, a former golden-boy athlete whose clichéd descent into drunken grumpiness is turned around by the shining redemption that Eddie’s Olympic journey offers. British character actor Tim McInnerny steals his scenes as the snooty head of the British Olympics committee (determined to prevent Eddie from participating in the games and therefore, he assumes, embarrassing the UK), while Keith Allen and Jo Hartley also do respectably as Eddie’s parents. Jim Broadbent and Christopher Walken also get in on the action, contributing cameos as a BBC commentator and Jackman’s former coach, respectively. Little in Eddie the Eagle will surprise you, but the film’s ensemble displays a collective spirit as warm as the sweaters that Eddie wears in the film’s many alpine climes.

How to Be Single. Directed by Christian Ditter. Notes from November 10, 2016: Full disclosure: I watched this film last night to take my mind off of the election. It filled a gap between 2:40 and 4:25 AM, allowing me to forget for a little while that the words “President-Elect Donald Trump” were about to become a real thing. As a result, my thoughts on the film are a scattered collection of notes. Take them for what they are:

  • Yet another movie where a young woman moves to NYC to “find herself.” Reminds me a lot of Lola Versus, especially the similarity in the endings. After seeing Dakota Johnson’s performances in Fifty Shades of Grey (exhibit A) and How to Be Single (exhibit B), maybe someone should write an essay titled “Dakota Johnson, Greta Gerwig and the Politics of Awkward Womanhood in 2010s Cinema.”
  • Just like in another bad rom-com from recent times, That Awkward Moment, NYC is a magical wonderland where the snow is always clean, there is no evidence of sociopolitical strife and none of the characters has a Noo Yawk accent since they all grew up somewhere else.
  • I freely admit that the scene with Leslie Mann and the baby was cute.
  • Alison Brie was less a character than a lesson for Anders Holm’s character. She’s a woman who obsesses over dating apps because her sole purpose in life (or at least in this plot) is to find a man; he’s the bartender who refuses to ever get into a relationship because he only cares about sex, not romance. Surprise, surprise – Holm falls for Brie but things don’t work out as he hopes. Must have been fun for Alison to play a living, breathing plot device!
  • Some of the lighting by the cinematographer, Christian Rein, was excellent. He’s German-born, so perhaps he has studied Fassbinder? (Is that too much to hope for?)
  • One of the songs in the end credits is by The Cairo Gang, and they once recorded a pretty good version of Rowland S. Howard’s “Shivers,” so that’s a +1 just for association’s sake.

Loving. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Notes from November 18, 2016: Loving is probably the best film I’ve seen this year, rivaled only (in the fiction/drama and biopic departments) by Star Trek Beyond and Florence Foster Jenkins and, in the documentary category, by Chicken People and One More Time with Feeling. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jeff Nichols is the best young American director of the past decade. From Shotgun Stories to Take Shelter to Mud to Loving (I have not yet seen Midnight Special, but I will ASAP), Nichols has proved that no other filmmaker of his generation has such an amazing track record for capturing the complicated and compelling nature of the human experience in small-town America, whether in the 50s/60s or our modern-day nation. The story of Richard and Mildred Loving is an incredible tale of love, determination and strength despite the systemic racism they faced and the oppression of their civil rights. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga do a beautiful job of portraying their characters, imbuing the Lovings with dignity and backbone as they quietly battle for the freedom to live and raise their family in peace. Plaudits also go to Terri Abney (Garnet Jeter, Mildred’s sister), Marton Csokas (the sheriff who repeatedly arrests the Lovings for violating Virginia state law), Bill Camp (the Lovings’ first lawyer), David Jensen (the Caroline County judge who forces the Lovings to leave Virginia at the beginning of the film), Nick Kroll and Jon Bass (the ACLU attorneys who bring the Loving v. Virginia case all the way to the Supreme Court) and Michael Shannon (in a wonderful cameo as Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer who is sympathetic to the couple’s situation).

As with all of Jeff Nichols’ films, the cinematography is by Adam Stone, creating images of the actors and the landscape that will stay with you long after the film has ended. Rarely do I consider any up-and-coming director a true auteur – I don’t yet see that in the works of Tom McCarthy (good at directing actors but lacking a particular directorial style) or Denis Villeneuve (I have been disappointed by his two most recent films), for example – but in Loving and the three other Jeff Nichols films that I have seen, I see a specific point of view and the shaping of perhaps the most significant voice in American cinema today. I was lucky to see the film in a screening at MoMA, where Jeff Nichols and Joel Edgerton took part in a post-film conversation and Q&A; only two questions were taken from the audience, but each answer was so lengthy, detailed and thoughtful that us moviegoers were left with a lot to mull over. Joel Edgerton’s hope for the film’s viewership – that Loving’s message will reach the masses (which is to say, beyond the MoMA/NYC crowd) and encourage them to “go on the empathetic journey” with Richard and Mildred Loving and therefore gain a greater understanding of the human condition – is what has stayed with me most of all.

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing. Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Notes from December 3, 2016: I’m sure that most, if not all, Americans remember the horrific bombing at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators, resulting in the deaths of four people (one of whom was a police officer) and injuries for over two hundred other civilians. The recentness of the attack does not diminish the importance of the need for this story to be told – terrorism and mass violence are obviously occurrences that continue to plague the US – but by cramming too many participants and perspectives into Marathon, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg do their film an unquestionable disservice. We watch several survivors rebuild their lives with the aid of prosthetic limbs and physical therapy, including mother and daughter Celeste and Sydney Corcoran, spouses Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, and brothers Paul and J.P. Norden. It would have benefited the film to focus on only one of those pairs so that you don’t feel as though one story was more significant than another (the filmmakers certainly spend the most time on the medical and psychological struggles of Kensky and Downes), which I know that Stern and Sundberg could have done well since their documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) shone an incredible spotlight on only one subject. It also feels as though the forays into thriller territory (as the Tsarnaev brothers are apprehended) and courtroom drama (when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev goes on trial) are sequences from what should have been a separate film.