Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: February 2019

tumblr_plx279jcul1s5o8nro1_1280

Director/screenwriter Shelly Chopra Dhar (center) and cast members on the set of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, 2018. (Photo: BizAsiaLive)

Here are twenty 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.

tumblr_plx2hw8d6h1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1 (in theaters & on VOD): Braid (dir. Mitzi Peirone)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Matt Barone: “Lifelong best friends Petula and Tilda have been making ends meet by dealing drugs in New York City. But when a random drug bust results in them losing $80,000, they’re left with no choice but to flee town to evade both the police and their pissed-off dealer. Their hideout location is obvious: a mansion occupied by childhood friend Daphne, an agoraphobic heiress who teeters on the edge of sanity. At first, Petula and Tilda think they’ll just need to entertain Daphne’s seemingly playful world of make-believe; however, they soon come to realize Daphne’s mental state is, to put it lightly, wildly disturbed. What begins with innocent role-playing and dress-up quickly devolves into torture, madness, and bloodshed.

“Genre fans on the lookout for bold new filmmaking voices need look no further than first-time writer-director Mitzi Peirone. With the visually lavish and narratively head-spinning Braid, Peirone makes one hell of a first impression, applying a dizzying sense of dream logic and an uncompromisingly feminist edge to a Gothic, almost fairy tale-like psychological horror. Braid plays by no one’s rules but Peirone’s own. It’s one of the most eye-opening and wickedly singular genre film debuts in years.”

tumblr_plwzquehve1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1: Daughter of Mine (dir. Laura Bispuri)Quad Cinema synopsis: “In rural Sardinia, 10-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu) has been raised by practical Tina (Valeria Golino) and her partner, only to learn that her biological mother is the village’s free-spirited party girl Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher). Tensions continue to mount between the two mothers when Angelica finds herself in financial trouble and claims the girl as her own. This vibrant, sunswept neorealist drama from director Laura Bispuri (Sworn Virgin) is a piercing inquiry into the trials and joys of motherhood.”

tumblr_plx01eefc51s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1 (streaming on Netflix): Dear Ex (dirs. Chih-Yen “Kidding” Hsu and Mag Hsu)San Diego Asian Film Festival synopsis by James Paguyo: “Song Zhengyuan’s (Spark Chen) death has been difficult to process for his wife, Liu Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh). Only months earlier, Zhengyuan came out as gay and left his family to be with his partner, Jay (Roy Chiu). Sanlian’s anger reaches a breaking point when she discovers Jay is the the sole beneficiary on her husband’s life insurance policy and to get the money, she has to strike up a relationship with the man he was in love with. To complicate matters, her teenage son Chengxi (Joseph Huang), frustrated with the adults in his life, runs away from home and moves in with Jay, uninvited and unwanted, to learn more about the mysterious relationship his father had with this other man.

“What initially begins as a story of grief and betrayal slowly reveals a touching exploration of acceptance and sacrifice. Chengxi may be a typical moody teenager, but he is also a child confused about the world in which he finds himself. Sanlian lashes out in a constant state of pain, while Jay channels his grief by unexpectedly caring for Chengxi in his own way. At times heartbreaking, ironic, and playful, Dear Ex looks at the complexity of three people who must navigate strange living arrangements, fresh grief, and new definitions for love.”

tumblr_plx21ydqwe1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1: Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (dir. Shelly Chopra Dhar)AMC Theatres synopsis: “Some love stories are not simple, Sweety’s (Sonam Kapoor) is one such story. She has to contend with her over-enthusiastic family that wants to get her married, a young writer who is completely smitten by her, a secret that she harbors close to her heart and ultimately the truth that her true love might not find acceptance in her family and society. Resolving these issues proves hilarious, touching & life changing. Welcome to the most unexpected romance of the year!”

tumblr_plx0u6pxim1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 1: Miss Bala (dir. Catherine Hardwicke)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) finds a power she never knew she had when she is drawn into a dangerous world of cross-border crime. Surviving will require all of her cunning, inventiveness, and strength.”

FEBRUARY 5 (on digital & VOD): Anywhere with You (dirs. Hanna Ladoul and Marco La Via)Cineuropa synopsis: “Amanda (Morgan Saylor) and Jake (McCaul Lombardi) are in love and want to start a new life in Los Angeles. Will they make the right decisions? The first 24 hours of their new life will take them all around the city, bringing them more surprises and frustrations than expected.”

tumblr_plx1x5z0as1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 8 (in theaters & on VOD): Berlin, I Love You (dirs. include Dianna Agron, Massy Tadjedin and Gabriela Tscherniak)Cinema Village synopsis: “The latest installment of the Cities of Love franchise (Paris, je t’aime / New York, I Love You / Rio, Eu Te Amo), this collective feature-film is made of 11 stories of romance set in the German capital – with each segment handled by a different director.”

FEBRUARY 8 (in theaters), FEBRUARY 26 (on DVD): Holiday (dir. Isabella Eklöf)Fantastic Fest synopsis by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: “Pretty blonde Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the epitome of mainstream attractiveness, and is invited to join her Danish criminal boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) on a no-expense-spared summer holiday on Turkey’s idyllic Turquoise Coast. The young woman’s presence requires her to take on the role of a human trinket, a girl-shaped bauble whose inclusion in the titular getaway with Michael and his colleagues comes with unspoken expectations and demands. And she knows it.

“The feature film debut of Swedish director and writer Isabella Eklöf, Holiday is marked by a fashion magazine gloss with its aesthetic of hyper-commodified femininity. The look of the film feeds shrewdly into a fearless critique of what happens to a young woman who has been objectified to the point where she can only understand her own identity through the very terms of her objectification. At the heart of the film lies an undeniably brutal rape scene that makes explicit the until-then ambient, rumbling suggestion of violence and threat that surrounds Sascha: as a young woman in this man’s world, violence is not just a possibility, but a day-to-day reality.

“The neon-colored bikinis, nightclubs, fancy drinks, and crystal-clear swimming pools lie in sharp contrast to the dark revelations of Sascha’s journey, sparked into action when she meets free-spirited Dutchman Thomas (Thijs Römer). In the hands of a less capable, thoughtful, and original director, this scenario could easily collapse into the terrain of the cliched love triangle trope, but Eklöf knows the world is never so simple or clear-cut for women in situations like Sascha’s. Rather, violence becomes viral — a way of maintaining the status quo, even if that comes at the loss of agency and the acceptance of an identity that transcends two-dimensional commodified womanhood.

“Like so much in Eklöf’s film, the title is both an invitation and a provocation: HOLIDAY is no escape, but rather an unflinching, urgent, and desperately important statement about the world so many young women find themselves in.”

tumblr_plx1q5nbsz1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 8 (streaming on Netflix): ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (dir. Kelly Duane de la Vega)Tribute Magazine synopsis by Alexandra Heilbron: “Sam Cooke is profiled in this episode of the documentary series featuring famous stories about music’s impact on society. The most influential black musician of the Civil Rights Movement, Sam Cooke advocated for the rights of his fellow black musicians. An investigation into the circumstances surrounding his shooting death include theories that he was robbed and ‘trick-rolled’ by a prostitute. But many believe he was targeted by music industry moguls with links to the mob who wanted him dead for emerging as a totem for black musicians’ rights.”

tumblr_plx397ewoe1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 8 (in theaters & on VOD): Untogether (dir. Emma Forrest) (DP: Autumn Durald)The Hollywood Reporter’s Tribeca Film Festival review by John DeFore: “A handsome relationship drama about four fantastic-looking people whose interior lives are something of a wreck, Emma Forrest’s Untogether has its share of life/art parallels beyond the fact that the sisters at its core are played by real-life siblings Lola and Jemima Kirke. That excellent bit of casting, along with that of co-stars Ben Mendelsohn (the director’s ex-husband) and Jamie Dornan, should make the debut feature considerably more attractive to indie distributors, who will also respond to its smart, uningratiating screenplay and polished look.

“The Kirkes play Andrea (Jemima) and Tara (Lola), daughters of a deceased musician who evidently left them both a Los Angeles house and left Tara some daddy issues as well: She has lived here for a while with a much older man (Mendelsohn’s Martin) who was himself a two-hit wonder musician long ago. Now Andrea has come to stay with the couple, a year into recovery from heroin addiction and many years past the publication of her only novel.

“Andrea falls into a relationship with the much more successful Nick (Dornan), a physician who struck gold with a memoir about an affair he had while doing volunteer work in the Gaza Strip. Declaring from the start that he’s emotionally unavailable, Nick enjoys having Andrea on call, watching her dance for him in vintage lingerie (the script is oddly attentive to her retro wardrobe) and, in an echo of Dornan’s most famous role, sometimes tying her up with silk stockings. Though their personality defects aren’t identical, the two are enough alike to fall into something like doomed love.

“Meanwhile, though Martin is more emotionally mature than one expects a midlife rocker to be, Tara needs something beyond their relationship. A Jew who’s never participated in religion, she discovers a congregation led by a rabbi (Billy Crystal’s David) who radiates moral integrity; she begins spending free time at his synagogue, being carried away by the music. Kirke is persuasive as a woman so ready for deeper meaning in life that she may latch onto the first big idea she encounters.

“An early cross-cutting sequence hints at Forrest’s intent to mix things up for these rootless characters: Tara lingers after hours with David, listening to his earnest talk of social justice and activism; Andrea takes Martin to an insufferable book party after he casually points out some of the things wrong with her life. The film hops back and forth between the conversations, showing the sisters attempting to connect with moral or professional aspirations that their love lives may be hindering.

“The story’s least engaging character, Nick, hovers outside the moral orbit of the others, but Forrest has plans for him. A controversy awaits that will make his interactions with Andrea more meaningful, and whether they point toward a healthy relationship or not, the script pulls its elements together pleasingly in the end.

“Forrest started off as a music journalist, and occasionally seems to go out of her way to shoehorn some personal favorites into the plot. It’s eyebrow-raising, though of course not impossible, that 30-ish Andrea quotes the Manic Street Preachers (a band whose fans lean considerably older) and plays late-period Siouxsie and the Banshees on the bus; when the film needs to reveal the presumably decades-old song that made Martin a star, it appropriates an excellent 2007 composition by Austin’s Okkervil River that is probably too meta to fit the character or his period.

“But the film’s emotional intelligence gets it past the occasional false note, and the strength of its central performances keeps us engaged even when the characters themselves might not deserve our sympathy. ‘Untogether’ here isn’t a reference to relationship status as much a verdict on whether our protagonists have their acts together. Though they’re far from settled when the credits roll, they’re at least more pleasant to be around.”

tumblr_plx2kr1woc1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 13 (NYC), FEBRUARY 15 (LA): Birds of Passage (dirs. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)The Playlist’s Cannes Film Festival review by Jessica Kiang: “We humans have a mania for classification. We divide things into epochs and eras — Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous; Elizabethan, Victorian, Edwardian. We draw borders around regions, cutting rivers in half, like the flowing waters care, and creating nations so notional that a sneeze in one can bury a town beneath an avalanche in another. We boil sprawling cultures and variegated ethnicities down to single words, the better to pop up on census forms with a little checkbox next to them, waiting for your x. And if we’re not careful, if we’re not frequently reminded of their artificiality, we can start to see those divisions as real and defined. With the stunning Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra did a mournfully psychedelic job of exploding that misconception a little, imagining the tragedy of colonialism as a long, drawn-out process more defined by the inevitable transformation of an ancient way of life than its annihilation, as though the modern era was hallucinated into being by a past that, as Faulkner said, is not dead; it is not even past. And with Birds of Passage, the new film Guerra co-directed with his Embrace producer and partner Cristina Gallego, that beautiful and strange project is continued and expanded upon, into the troubled and often violent Colombia of the late 20th century, an era when airplanes and mirrored sunglasses and foreign exploitation commingled with the beads and silks and superstitions of tribal life, and gave rise to the phenomenon we recognize today as the Colombian drug trade. This is an absolutely extraordinary film.

“On one level it is easier to embrace than Embrace, given that it unfolds as a kind of dynastic rise-and-fall story, a Colombian Godfather spanning the late ’60s and ’70s, divided into 5 lyrically named chapters, or ‘cantos’: Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War and Limbo. It starts, as do most such epics, with a young man who craves social betterment. Here it is Rapayet (José Acosta) the nephew of a respected ‘word messenger,’ who exists on the periphery of the Wayuu tribe of northern Colombia, and wants to consolidate his standing by marrying the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a young Wayuu woman to whom we’re introduced in a glorious billow of blood-red silk and face paint during her ritual ‘coming out party.’ Reluctant to give Zaida’s hand in marriage to someone not in the inner circle, her mother Ursula (a blazing Carmiña Martínez, giving us the best ruthless clan matriarch since Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom) sets a near-impossible dowry. But Rapayet, along with his loose-cannon friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narváez) makes a deal with some Peace Corps soldiers, stationed in the area ostensibly as a bulwark against communism, but really just looking for a regular supply of weed. And with a few quick flips, Rapayet has not only made the money to meet Zaida’s dowry, he’s made the connections that will soon make his extended family the most powerful in the region.

“But not everyone is as level-headed as Rapayet. The alijuna (outsider) Moises quickly becomes a trigger-happy liability and later Ursula’s younger son Leonidas (Gredier Meza), a dyspeptic brat of a child, will grow up into a sociopathic, cruel, bottle-blond Crown Prince, a kind of Colombian Commodus, giving the family dynamics of Birds of Passage the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. And throughout it all, Ursula and Zaida are beset by portentous dreams in which their children’s faces wear shrouds, and Rapayet is haunted by the yoluja (ghost) of the friend he betrayed in the name of family honor.

“The Coppola parallels are writ large, but the early portion also owes a great deal to the Scorsese of Mean Streets in its depiction of the bonds of brotherhood among low-level hoodlums on the make, while the film is also saturated with imagery from genre westerns — John Ford doorway silhouettes and Sergio Leone widescreen vistas that echo with sussurating crickets and the screeching of unseen animals, as well as with the exotic instrumentation and pounding tribal percussion of Leonardo Heiblum’s uncanny score. But in the ethnographic strangeness that lurks in the corner of every frame, there is also something of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, and not since Zhang Yimou’s House of the Flying Daggers has there been a film more sensuously dedicated to the texture and colors of richly dyed fabrics and traditional textiles.

“DP David Gallego (who also shot Embrace and Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch and must surely now be counted among our foremost working cinematographers) finds explodingly colorful compositions that embody the tension between old and new, and between the often tacky trappings of Western-style new money, and the untameable natural world with which the Wayuu used to live in harmony. The greatest example is the folly of Rapayet’s flashy mansion, looking like something out of the ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,’ standing white, spare and architect-designed on baked earth cracked like pottery glaze, with the hot, crazy-making desert wind blowing ceaselessly though even its interior corridors.

“By locating this story within the indigenous population who become as much the architects of their own downfall as the Westerners they supply (who only exist on the periphery of this film), Guerra and Gallego along with screenwriters Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, have written Colombia’s tribal history back into the story of Colombia’s conflicted present. The Wayuu here are neither exploited innocents nor backward savages, but flawed humans indulging recognisable human instincts of greed and rapaciousness, and who have a hierarchical social system in place that is not so exotically alien that it cannot be easily crossbred with Western-style wealth and corruption. And so Birds of Passage is not squeamish about violence, and does not ignore the bigger sociological and geopolitical forces at work. But it does march to its own, slow, chantlike rhythm, depicting not a clash, but a continuity where colonialism seeded capitalism, which in turn bred conflicts in which ethnic Colombians were as complicit as they were victimized. The lack of sentimentality is startling.

“And that clear-eyed revision of accepted history has resonance far beyond the borders of Colombia. You do not have to have Wayuu ancestry, or any connection to the region to understand the broader implications of this epic story of haunted druglords and ruthless power grabs that are partly predicated on traditional beliefs and shibboleths. Guerra and Gallego’s film is no dusty period piece, it is wildly alive, yet it reminds us that no matter how modern we are, there are ancient songs our forebears knew whose melodies still rush in our blood. We are not creatures of one era or another or of one place or another, we are only ever birds of passage between our mythic pasts and our unwritten futures, being tossed around by the wind.”

tumblr_plx2r8lamg1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 15 (streaming on Netflix): The Breaker Upperers (dirs. Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek) (DP: Ginny Loane)Variety’s SXSW Film Festival review by Amy Nicholson: “Got a thousand bucks and a yen to be single? Call The Breaker Upperers, two nihilistic New Zealand best friends and roommates who will knock at your soon-to-be ex’s door, hand them your watch, and announce you drowned. Writer-director-stars Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami play Jen and Mel, who committed exclusively, if platonically, to each other 15 years ago when they found out they were dating the same man. Now, both are so soured on love that their hearts have curdled, making it easy to stick fake pregnancy bellies under their shirts and shatter strangers’ lives.

“Too bad for lovelorn rubes who here look like fools, but hooray for audiences discovering that the Wellington comedy scene has launched a female version of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. (Waititi signed on to executive produce.) The Breaker Upperers has the increasingly familiar patter of Kiwi comedy: dogged naivety, nervous politeness, hazy thoughts that trail off like vapor.

“Their business takes on all kinds of clients: straight, gay, male, female, old and angry, and young and stupid. Their newest client, 17-year-old rugby jock Jordan (Boy star James Rolleston, all grown up), can’t understand why his temperamental girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney) didn’t realize he broke up with her using emojis. He texted her a broken heart and a thunder cloud — take the hint. He’s as dumb as, well, pretty much every other character in the film, and he falls in love with Mel on sight. ‘Is that short for Melon?’ he asks. Sigh. But when Mel and Jen interrupt his game to give Sepa the bad news, Mel can’t help staring lustily as he swigs a soda in slow-motion and then sensually pours the fizz all over his head.

“That’s the kind of surrealist touch that makes The Breaker Upperers sparkle. It sputters along with an alt-world logic where a sucker like grief-stricken Annie (Celia Pacquola) truly believes her husband is at the bottom of the sea, not partying it up in Brazil. Annie will blunder back into Mel and Jen’s lives causing a minor crisis of conscience — or really, the realization that one of them still has a conscience — and along the way, she’ll set a penis hat on fire, blurt out too much about her gynecological health, and scramble Jen’s brain by putting on a ’90s Celine Dion karaoke ballad that will cause the cynic to hallucinate walking arm-in-arm with her ex (Cohen Holloway). In flashbacks, we see van Beek allow her face to soften. She plays most of the film on edge, accusing Mel of breaking company rules she’s just invented on the spot in order to make sure her only friend sticks with her. Someone’s got to be there for the awkward dinners with her sex-mad mom who refuses to frame pictures of Jen solo because her singleness makes her sad.

“Van Beek and Sami are clearly banking their careers on their debut feature helping them become known names in America. (They’ve both cameoed in What We Do in the Shadows and Eagle vs Shark, but, as Sami joked after the film’s SXSW premiere, you’d only spot her if she wrote down the timestamp.) Even so, they’ve let their film feel marvelously shaggy around the edges — their personalities pop — until after a whiplash-funny first hour, they play it safe with an everyone-gets-a-hug Paul Feig-style climax. (The movie literally ends with a soul train.) Still, it’s a terrific showcase for the duo and their entire cast, which, besides a pop-up bit from Clement, is curated from a local talent pool that Hollywood has yet to spelunk. After this, it should.”

FEBRUARY 15 (in theaters & on VOD): Patrick (dir. Mandie Fletcher)Time Out London review by Olly Richards: “If you’re not dog mad then there is absolutely nothing for you here. If you are then you’ll ‘aw’ and ‘ooh’ yourself silly at Patrick, a very gentle, quite adorable little film that essentially boils down to the story of a pug helping a sad teacher compete in a fun run.

“Beattie Edmondson (daughter of Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmondson) plays Sarah, whose life is, she thinks, not going well. Her boyfriend has left, her parents think her work as a comprehensive teacher makes her a failure and she’s starting to think they might be right. She also somehow lives in a huge flat in Richmond on her teacher’s salary, which withers your sympathy somewhat. Sarah’s misery is made worse when her late grandma bequeaths her Patrick, a very badly behaved pug. Sarah hates dogs, but perhaps Patrick can change all that…

“The dog, or in fact dogs, who play Patrick are, frankly, BAFTA-worthy. He’s a character that packs the charisma of a much larger beast into his tiny, wrinkly body. Credit for that, of course, should really go to director Mandie Fletcher (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, ‘Blackadder’), who’s made a selection of well-trained tricks look like a performance. Patrick’s presence serves as a boost to every joke in the script, making them all just a little funnier because his presence is so delightful. He’s surrounded by a cast of excellent comic actors – Jennifer Saunders, Tom Bennett, Adrian Scarborough, Gemma Jones – but they’re all mere support. The pooch is the star.”

tumblr_plx2tp6yta1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 15: The Unicorn (dirs. Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty)Anthology Film Archives synopsis: “This extraordinary, years-in-the-making documentary grabs hold of a truly unique central figure: outsider musician Peter Grudzien, the one-man musical force behind ‘The Unicorn,’ which has been described as possibly the first openly gay country album. But country doesn’t begin to describe the dizzying range of music included on this 1974 release. Peter composed, performed, and recorded ‘The Unicorn’ entirely in his childhood home in Astoria, Queens, and sold the 500 pressed copies out of a suitcase on the streets of the city. Despite this unpromising genesis, the album was rescued from oblivion and re-released in the 1990s, prompting the music critic and collector Paul Major to declare it the ‘greatest New York LP since the first Velvet Underground or first New York Dolls.’

“By the time filmmakers Isabelle Dupuis and Tim Geraghty encountered Grudzien, though, mainstream recognition remained elusive, with Peter himself living a marginalized and paranoia-fueled life in Queens with his forbidding, nonagenarian father, Joseph, and his schizophrenic twin sister, Terry. The Unicorn immerses us in Peter’s life, a hermetic world transfigured by his musical talent and stubborn resilience, but full of shadows both real and imagined.

The Unicorn is at once an invaluable act of cultural excavation, an unforgettable character study, and a cracked family portrait in the vein of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb. But while it may superficially resemble other biographical documentaries, it’s unusually alert to the messy contradictions and intermingling of creative inspiration and mental psychosis that characterize its remarkable subject, his even more unhinged family members, and by extension American culture itself. Ultimately it’s a powerful depiction of a troubled soul for whom music represents a vitally important survival mechanism in the midst of a difficult existence.”

FEBRUARY 22 (in theaters & on VOD): The Changeover (dirs. Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie)New Zealand Film Commission synopsis: “Based on the acclaimed novel by Margaret Mahy, The Changeover tells the story of Laura (Erana James), who loses her little brother in earthquake-scarred Christchurch. A decrepit old man (Timothy Spall) marks the child’s hand with a noxious stamp. Jacko (Benji Purchase) sickens quickly while the man grows younger. The doctors insist Jacko needs a bone marrow transplant — and Laura is the only donor. But Laura becomes convinced a mysterious older boy (Nicholas Galitzine) can help her ‘change over’ and become a witch, defeating the evil spirit sucking the life out of her brother.”

FEBRUARY 22: The Competition (dir. Claire Simon) (DPs: Prisca Bourgoin, Pierre-Hubert Martin, Aurélien Py and Claire Simon)DOC NYC synopsis: “In this Venice Film Festival winner, director Claire Simon goes behind closed doors during the months-long admissions period at France’s most selective film school, La Fémis, where thousands of hopefuls apply for only 40 available slots. The state-run institution, which teaches aspiring filmmakers their craft through handson training with working professionals, also turns to the latter to evaluate applicants. Simon captures entrance interviews and candid discussions among the selection committee, creating a revealing portrait of an institution and its gatekeepers.”

tumblr_plwxafiuka1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 22 (streaming on Netflix): Firebrand (dir. Aruna Raje)PopSugar synopsis by Corinne Sullivan: “Following the success of her National Award-winning Marathi-language film Ventilator, Priyanka Chopra teamed up with director Aruna Raje for another Marathi production, which follows a successful lawyer and sexual assault victim (Usha Jadhav) as she tackles difficult cases, as well as intimacy issues with her architect husband (Girish Kulkarni).”

tumblr_plx32gab4k1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 22 (streaming on Netflix): Paris Is Us (dir./DP: Elisabeth Vogler)Netflix synopsis: “Dreams and reality collide as a young woman (Noémie Schmidt) navigates a tumultuous relationship and rising social tensions, protests and tragedies in Paris.”

tumblr_plx2yqlbaf1s5o8nro1_1280

FEBRUARY 22 (streaming on Netflix): The Photographer of Mauthausen (dir. Mar Targarona)From a Cineuropa article by Alfonso Rivera:El fotógrafo de Mauthausen, which is based on real life events and was written by Alfred Pérez-Fargas and Roger Danés,stars Alain Hernández, Macarena Gómez and Richar Von Weyden. The film narrates how, with the help of a group of Spanish prisoners who lead the illegal organization of Mauthausen, Francesc Boix, an inmate working in his photo lab, risked his life to plan the release of some negatives that would demonstrate to the world the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the hell that was the Austrian concentration camp. The photographs they managed to save were decisive in condemning Nazi officials in the Nuremberg trials in 1946, where Boix was the only Spanish witness.

“The producer of El cuerpo and The Orphanage and director of Secuestro [Mar Targarona] stated ‘I was very moved when I read about the story of Francesc Boix and the 7,000 republicans who were in Mauthausen, which is not a very well-known historical event in Spain. It is shocking to see Boix testify in the Nuremberg trials and point out the executioners, evidently demonstrating that they knew what was happening in those camps. It is a historical example in which criminals were brought to justice thanks to the courage of a few. I wanted to honour those heroes and all the victims of Mauthausen with this film.'”

FEBRUARY 23 (airing on HBO at 10:00 pm): O.G. (dir. Madeleine Sackler)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Loren Hammonds: “Jeffrey Wright delivers a powerful performance as a maximum-security prison inmate named Louis, who, 24 years after committing a violent crime as a young man, finds himself on the cusp of release from prison, facing an uncertain future on the outside. He encounters Beech (Theothus Carter), a newly incarcerated young man who offers him much needed-friendship, though it’s not without unfortunate complications. The younger inmate echoes of his older counterpart, stirring instincts within Louis that had long been buried beneath a tough exterior. Sackler’s film is a taut prison drama that follows the seemingly mundane countdown of days before Louis’s release, until, almost imperceptibly, it transforms into a thriller, suddenly crackling with intensity. Filmed on location in an actual maximum-security prison with inmates participating as actors, the film lays bare, with remarkable realism, the very specific complexities of existing as an incarcerated man in America. Sackler’s background as an esteemed documentarian influences her first fiction film, a portrait of a proud yet regretful soul at a crossroads.”

2019 Oscar Nominations: My Predictions

tumblr_plpsrf8gnw1s5o8nro1_1280

Here are my predictions for the Oscar nominations that will be announced tomorrow morning. (As always, I didn’t attempt to guess at the three short film categories since I never really know anything about them until after the nominations come out.) Certain categories were particularly difficult for me to decide on, like Best Director, Best Hair & Makeup and the Best Sound Editing/Mixing awards, but I’ve done my best to read the minds of a voting group that is gradually expanding and diversifying.

(P.S. Many pundits anticipate that Ethan Hawke will receive a Best Actor nomination for First Reformed. I would love for that to happen, but Paul Schrader’s drama was ignored by SAG, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, so ultimately I don’t envision Hawke for the final five among lead actors. If he is nominated, though, I will be just as pleased as everyone else who has seen his remarkable work in the film, knowing that he deserves the acclaim.)

Best Picture: BlacKkKlansman; Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; First Man; Green Book; If Beale Street Could Talk; Roma; A Star Is Born; Vice

Best Director: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born); Alfonso Cuarón (Roma); Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite); Spike Lee (BlackKklansman); Adam McKay (Vice)

Best Actress: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma); Glenn Close (The Wife); Olivia Colman (The Favourite); Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born); Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Actor: Christian Bale (Vice); Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody); Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born); Viggo Mortensen (Green Book); John David Washington (BlackKklansman)

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Vice); Claire Foy (First Man); Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk); Emma Stone (The Favourite); Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book); Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy); Adam Driver (BlackKklansman); Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born); Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Adapted Screenplay: BlackKklansman; Black Panther; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; If Beale Street Could Talk; Leave No Trace

Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite; First Reformed; Green Book; Roma; Vice

Best Cinematography: Cold War; The Favourite; First Man; Roma; A Star Is Born

Best Editing: Black Panther; First Man; Roma; A Star Is Born; Vice

Best Production Design: Black Panther; The Favourite; First Man; Mary Poppins Returns; Roma

Best Costume Design: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; Mary Poppins Returns; Mary Queen of Scots

Best Hair & Makeup: Border; Mary Queen of Scots; Vice

Best Sound Editing: Black Panther; Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; A Quiet Place; A Star Is Born

Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; A Quiet Place; Roma; A Star Is Born

Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War; Black Panther; First Man; Ready Player One; Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Original Score: BlackKklansman; First Man; If Beale Street Could Talk; Isle of Dogs; Mary Poppins Returns

Best Original Song: “All the Stars” (Black Panther); “Girl in the Movies” (Dumplin’); “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns); “I’ll Fight” (RBG); “Shallow” (A Star Is Born)

Best Foreign Language Film: Burning; Capernaum; Cold War; Roma; Shoplifters

Best Animated Feature: Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; Mirai; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Documentary: Free Solo; Minding the Gap; Of Fathers and Sons; RBG; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Women-Directed/Photographed Films Coming to Theaters: January 2019

tumblr_pkolm27DXF1s5o8nro1_1280

Director/screenwriter Melissa B. Miller-Costanzo (center) with actors Brendan Meyer (l.) and Sam McCarthy (r.) on the set of All These Small Moments, 2017. (Photo: Katie Leary, Filmmaker Magazine)

Here are sixteen new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms 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.

(Apologies, by the way, for missing out on doing these posts in November and December 2018! I was overworked, and therefore missed out on informing you all of such films as All the Creatures Were Stirring, Anna and the Apocalypse, Becoming Astrid, Between Worlds, Bird Box, Capernaum, Clara’s Ghost, Destroyer, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, Dumplin’, Happy as Lazzaro, Jinn, Lez Bomb, The Long Dumb Road, Mary Queen of Scots, Narcissister Organ Player, The New Romantic, On the Basis of Sex, The Party’s Just Beginning, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, That Way Madness Lies, United Skates, Unlovable and Write When You Get Work.)

tumblr_pkoiu9bJZw1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 1 (VOD), JANUARY 4 (in theaters): State Like Sleep (dir. Meredith Danluck)Variety’s Tribeca Film Festival review by Nick Schager: “The aftershocks of trauma can take many forms, as Katherine (Katherine Waterston) learns following the death of her famous husband in State Like Sleep, writer-director Meredith Danluck’s unsettling first feature. Aided by Christopher Blauvelt’s sumptuous cinematography, this consistently surprising film slinks along with melancholic dreaminess, matching the fugue state that plagues its grief-stricken protagonist. With Michael Shannon and Luke Evans also upending expectations in supporting roles, it’s a confident debut that should reap considerable attention from distributors, and opportunities for Danluck, following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“‘Without stories, the truth is too random,’ opines Belgian actor Stefan (Michiel Huisman) during a TV interview at the start of State Like Sleep. Though the thespian comes off as full of himself (and also something decidedly odorous), it’s an insight that defines Danluck’s tale. Via eerie shots through Stefan and wife Katherine’s messy Brussels flat, as well as oblique glimpses of a gunshot and blood pooling around Stefan’s head, the subsequent drama is set in motion. Before audiences can settle in, however, the film leaps forward a year in time, to find Katherine — a photographer who has since abandoned her home — receiving news that her mother (Mary Kay Place) is in Brussels, and in the hospital. Thus, Katherine’s long-delayed return trip to the scene of the crime begins.

“With a look of perpetual misery plastered across her face, Katherine is soon dealing with not only her mother’s fragile brain-related condition, but also her nasty mother-in-law Anneke (Julie Khaner), who resents Katherine for stealing away the affections of her beloved boy. Back in the residence she fled, Katherine is compelled to confront the marital messiness that immediately preceded Stefan’s death, including a tabloid scandal involving leaked pictures of him with a mysterious woman. Wracked by questions about Stefan’s fidelity, as well as whether foul play was to blame for his demise, Katherine transforms herself into an amateur sleuth, trawling the darker corners of Brussels — and her memory — to solve what she suspects may be a whodunit.

“That endeavor leads Katherine to an underground nightclub run by Emile (Evans), a live-wire who was Stefan’s best friend since childhood (unbeknownst to Katherine), and who attempts to bed her by tricking her into snorting heroin. While eying Emile as a potential suspect, she strikes up an unlikely rapport with Edward (Shannon), a hotel neighbor who first introduces himself by drunkenly trying to enter her room. In Rear Window fashion, Katherine uses her camera to watch Edward through their adjacent windows. Yet despite a guilelessness that verges on bluntness, Edward is anything but a Raymond Burr-ish villain. Before long, their shared feelings of dislocation and longing — for connection, understanding, and relief from their loneliness — draws them into a tentative romance.

“Using Waterston’s changing hairstyle as a way to identify where different scenes fit in the film’s chronology, Danluck cross-cuts between past and present with stream-of-consciousness fluidity, creating a hypnotic mood in harmony with her hazy metropolitan milieu and Katherine’s dazed-and-confused headspace. To that end, State Like Sleep is bolstered by Jeff Wingo and David Mcilwain’s piano-and-electronica score, and moreover, by DP Blauvelt’s rapturous work. His woozy imagery is awash in reflections and light flares, filtered through streaky windows and translucent barriers, and marked by unexpected compositions that lend the action a striking, disorienting edginess.

“Waterston embodies Katherine as a lost soul consumed by delusional sorrow, and around the edges of her morose expressions, one can spy the woman’s marrow-deep desperation. Just as assured are Evans and Shannon, both of whom initially come across as neo-noir archetypes — the volatile underworld scumbag and the charming but untrustworthy stranger, respectively — and then skillfully develop surprising angles to their characters. Seething with irrepressible resentment, Khaner steals every scene she’s in, including a climax that plays like a startling slap to a slumbering face.”

tumblr_pkoiyjYooH1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 4 (streaming on Netflix): And Breathe Normally (dir. Isold Uggadottir) (DP: Ita Zbroniec-Zajt)Variety’s Sundance Film Festival review by Alissa Simon: “A struggling Icelandic single mother forms an unlikely bond with a female asylum seeker from Guinea-Bissau in the impressively acted social-realist drama And Breathe Normally from debuting helmer-writer Ísold Uggadóttir. Reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers, it unfolds amid grim, desolate-looking landscapes that supply the antithesis of Iceland’s tourist brochures. Although some might find the twists and turns of the narrative to occasionally defy credibility, others will be swept along with the gripping human dilemmas of the main characters. Further festival action is a given, especially since it includes zeitgeist topics such as poverty, refugees and LGBT issues.

“Tough, tattooed Lara (Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir) strives to stay a few steps ahead of the debt collector yet still provide cute and uncomplaining kindergartner son Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson) with the occasional treat, such as rescue cat Músi. She’s not one to accept the kindness of strangers; when someone else in the grocery line offers to cover the toilet paper she can’t pay for, she just pushes the item out of her pile.

“Director-writer Uggadóttir keeps viewers on their toes by subtly providing clues to Lara’s chariness, rather than spelling things out. We learn that her mother lives in Norway, she has not always had custody of her son, that a problem with drugs lies in the past and may resurface and that she has the occasional tryst with the mother of her son’s best friend.

“A lifeline for Lara’s financial situation seems to materialize when the border security forces at Keflavík, Iceland’s main airport, offer her a position as a trainee. And it’s there she first crosses paths with Adja (Babetida Sadjo), who is in transit to Canada on a fake French passport. After Lara flags the passport to her trainer, Adja winds up stranded in Iceland, first with a short prison term, then stuck in a run-down refugee center at the rough edges of the Reykjanes peninsula while the government considers her request for asylum.

“Meanwhile, money isn’t coming in fast enough for Lara, who, hounded by her landlord, puts her few belongings in storage and convinces Eldar that they are going on a secret adventure that involves sleeping in the car. Although Iceland would certainly provide support for housing and basic needs for a single mother like Lara, her unwillingness to seek or accept formal help leads her to make some unwise decisions. In a scene that hits hard with its straightforward simplicity, Uggadóttir shows mother and son satiating their hunger with chicken kebabs from a grocery store demonstration, reinforcing her message that not all of the needy are willing or able to partake of government services.

“When the paths of Lara and Adja cross again, it’s Adja who provides surprising succor, sneaking the mother and son into the refugee center so that they have a place to wash and a bed to sleep in. While this plot point might strain plausibility for some, ‘This American Life’ just reported on the unbelievable chaos and confusion at one small refugee court in Laredo, Texas, so who knows how carefully monitored Iceland’s isolated refugee housing really is.

“Just as one starts to predict what the ultimate arc of the screenplay will be, Uggadóttir, a Columbia University MFA graduate known for her prize-winning shorts, throws in a few twists, showing that Adja and Lara have more in common than they would have guessed. What might, in other hands, be melodramatic or emotionally manipulative remains resolutely unsentimental here.

“In what is essentially a three-hander, Guinea-born Belgian actress Sadjo impresses with her dignity and warmth. Meanwhile, petite Haraldsdóttir displays such patience and love for her son that she keeps viewers rooting for her to overcome her obstacles despite her occasional bad judgment. And young Pétursson is a delight as the least whiny child ever.

“Polish lenser Ita Zbroniec-Zaj, who has done excellent work for Scandinavian helmers such as Måns Månsson, Hanna Sköld and Goran Kapetanovic, provides the standout tech credit here. The turbulent autumn weather and rugged landscapes of Iceland practically become another character. She also visually reinforces the leitmotif of being trapped with images such as the cats at the rescue shelter and stowaways at the harbor, as well as plays of light and shadow throughout. The melancholy score by Gísli Galdur also makes a strong impression.”

tumblr_pkolcr3iu51s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 4: Communion (dir. Anna Zamecka) (DP: Malgorzata Szylak)Reverse Shot essay by Caroline Madden:Communion opens with a medium shot of a young man’s laborious struggle to put his belt through the loop of his pants. ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong,’ Nikodem (Nikodem Kaczanowski) says, chastising himself as he twists it backwards and fumbles with its clasp. Writer and director Anna Zamecka lingers on Nikodem’s strain to the point of discomfort, visually embodying the simmering pain and frustrations that embroil him and his family. Shot in Poland for 35 days over the course of a year, Zamecka’s debut feature unfolds in a measured and unvarnished style that reflects her anthropologist’s eye. She originally wanted to make a short fiction film based on her childhood—’It had to be fiction,’ Zamecka explains, ‘because I didn’t know how to begin to look for real people that had this similar situation’—but after serendipitously meeting the Kacanowski family she decided to document their lives instead. Communion concerns the devastating and ironic contradictions of 14-year-old girl Ola (Ola Kacanowski) tasked with nursing her autistic younger brother, Nikodem, and alcoholic father, Marek (Marek Kacanowski). Nikodem’s impending communion ceremony serves as the narrative fulcrum, an event that Ola hopes will reunite her with her absent mother, Magda (Magda Kacanowski).

“Ola occupies the vacancy left by Magda, tending to Nikodem and Marek with a resolute and tenacious spirit. She reminds her father not to drink, cooks his meals, cleans the home, keeps his appointments, and assists him in writing a letter to their landlord. But it is her relationship with the obstreperous Nikodem that puts her fortitude to the test. The simplest tasks—tying his shoes, giving him a bath, or quizzing him on Scripture—are made all the more difficult by his disability, which leaves him distracted and jittery. Nikdoem even self-identifies with the kinetic energy of animals, frequently pretending to be a lion.

“Every so often the pressures of Ola’s domestic role boil to the surface; at one point, after she must repair a broken cabinet door, she shouts, ‘I’ve had enough—is nothing normal in this place?’ The muted colors, mismatched vintage wallpaper, and threadbare furnishings of Ola’s home reflect her aberrant lifestyle and the fractured nature of her family. Zamecka juxtaposes these immuring, tattered interiors with the brightness and vitality of Ola’s social life: the idyllic woods where she plays with friends, or the electronic pulsations and flashing lights of a school dance. These are brief, invigorating respites from the adult responsibilities that encumber her. Aside from some of Ola’s friends, few characters appear outside of her familial orbit. She meets with a social worker, but Zamecka keeps his face off-screen, focusing instead on Ola’s careful replies and minute expressions. The priest who counsels Nikodem is shown only in profile, but we can still sense his exasperation as he tries to wrangle and prepare Nikodem for his sacrament. By obfuscating these adult bodies, Zamecka symbolizes the lack of institutional intervention available to this family.

“Communions are momentous and ornate occasions in Polish culture, but Nikodem’s spiritual milestone arrives without much fanfare. Left alone before the ceremony, Ola gingerly fixes her hair with a half-broken brush, then wrestles with the zipper of her fancy yellow-tulle dress. ‘I feel like a cartoon character!’ she cries, suspecting that she is merely costuming herself in the part of a daughter with a functional nuclear family. When Magda eventually returns, Zamecka collapses her long-awaited arrival under the weight of the family’s rigid tension and banality, suggesting that Ola must abandon her naïve self-delusions and acknowledge that the fault lines between her parents are irreparable. The reunited family remains mostly silent during the post-communion dinner, wolfing down their food. Ola scrounges for every second she can have that day with her mom, who makes discreet phone calls to her new partner to barter for more time with her children. There are indications that this other man is abusive, but Zamecka shrouds the adults’ personal details and history in mystery, perhaps to reflect the children’s unawareness. Ola’s wish comes true when her mother decides to move back in, but then she is saddled with caring for her infant half-sibling and mediating her parents’ fierce bickering. Thus, the tiny apartment seems more claustrophobic than ever, with bodies constantly crowding the film’s frame.

“The sacrament of communion is meant to foster one’s independent relationship with God, but it is the earthly relationships that are at stake in Communion. In regards to Ola’s mother, one of the social workers tells her, ‘There are two of you—it is a mutual relationship,’ but that is hardly the case. The lack of reciprocity in the adult/child relationships in Communion is disquieting; because of her absent parents, Ola endures hardships that no child should have to bear. Holy Communion also symbolizes a child’s entry into adulthood because they confront the idea that they are born with sin, but Ola and Nikodem’s innocence has long been lost, and they are the ones who must pay for the adults’ sins. Although the siblings’ parents care for them, they cannot see past their own problems. In her captivating and unsettling portrait of lost youth, Zamecka follows her destitute subjects with a patient and intimate observational style, imbuing the narrative with a palpable tension and touching upon her film’s many emotional notes with a quiet grace.”

tumblr_pkojf9kJ161s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 4 (streaming on Netflix): El Potro: Unstoppable (dir. Lorena Muñoz)Netflix synopsis: “Argentine cuarteto singer Rodrigo ‘El Potro’ Bueno rises to fame amid personal struggles in this dramatization of the charismatic superstar’s life.”

tumblr_pkojizvvqh1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 4 (streaming on Netflix): Lionheart (dir. Genevieve Nnaji)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “The directorial debut of one of Africa’s biggest screen stars, Lionheart shows Nigeria’s Genevieve Nnaji taking full creative control of the kind of empowering story that endeared her to Nollywood audiences all over the world. The director and co-writer also stars in the film as Adaeze, a savvy businesswoman who is itching to take over the reins of her father’s transport enterprise. Blinded by sexism, Dad favours his son for the top job, forcing Adaeze to work even harder to realize her ambition without seeming to go against her father’s wishes; but when she discovers that the family company has a faulty financial foundation, she is finally compelled to take the driver’s seat. Fresh from its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Nnaji’s vibrant and engaging drama evokes both King Lear and 9 to 5.

tumblr_pkojmetchB1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 4: Rust Creek (dir. Jen McGowan) (DP: Michelle Lawler)IFC Center synopsis: “An ordinary woman must summon extraordinary courage to survive a nightmare odyssey in this harrowing survival thriller. Sawyer (Hermione Corfield) is an ambitious, overachieving college senior with a seemingly bright future. While on her way to a job interview, a wrong turn leaves her stranded deep in the frozen Kentucky woods. Suddenly, the young woman with everything to live for finds herself facing her own mortality as she’s punished by the elements and pursued by a band of ruthless outlaws. With nowhere left to run, she is forced into an uneasy alliance with Lowell (Jay Paulson), an enigmatic loner with shadowy intentions. Though she’s not sure she can trust him, Sawyer must take a chance if she hopes to escape Rust Creek alive.”

tumblr_pkojq64U3F1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 11 (NYC/LA): Touch Me Not (dir. Adina Pintilie)Museum of Modern Art synopsis: “‘Tell me how you loved me, so I understand how to love.’ Together, a filmmaker and her characters venture into a personal research project about intimacy. On the fluid border between reality and fiction, Touch Me Not follows the emotional journeys of Laura (Laura Benson), Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis), and Christian (Christian Bayerlein), offering a deeply empathic insight into their lives. Craving for intimacy yet also deeply afraid of it, they work to overcome old patterns, defense mechanisms, and taboos, to cut the cord and finally be free. Touch Me Not looks at how we can find intimacy in the most unexpected ways, at how to love another without losing ourselves.”

tumblr_pkojt21Lyw1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 16: What Is Democracy? (dir. Astra Taylor) (DP: Maya Bankovic)Zeitgeist Films synopsis: “Coming at a moment of profound political and social crisis, What Is Democracy? reflects on a word we too often take for granted.

“Director Astra Taylor’s idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spans millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.

“Featuring a diverse cast—including celebrated theorists, trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, and former prime ministers—this urgent film connects the past and the present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, in order to provoke and inspire. If we want to live in democracy, we must first ask what the word even means.”

tumblr_pkok6jwOf31s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 17 (in theaters), JANUARY 18 (on VOD & digital): All These Small Moments (dir. Melissa B. Miller-Costanzo)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis: “Howie Sheffield (Brendan Meyer) is having rough year. He broke his arm, and, on top of that, he and his little brother Simon are unwilling witnesses to their parents’ (Molly Ringwald and Brian d’Arcy James) crumbling marriage. The only thing that keeps him going is the mysterious Odessa (Jemima Kirke), a young woman he sees everyday on his morning bus route. Soon, Howie’s worlds begin to collide as he cultivates a tentative friendship with his beguiling classmate Lindsay (a sensational Harley Quinn Smith), as Odessa is drawn into his circle, and as his parents struggle with whether to stay together or split up.

“First-time writer and director Melissa Miller Costanzo brilliantly brings to life this absorbing coming-of-age tale with heartfelt, nuanced storytelling and genuine intimacy. Shot on the streets of New York City, All These Small Moments features familiar neighborhoods and street corners that seem to change and expand alongside Howie as he travels a circuitous path to self-discovery and adulthood.”

tumblr_pkok9h6w5V1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 18 (in theaters & on VOD): An Acceptable Loss (dir. Joe Chappelle) (DP: Petra Korner)IFC Center synopsis: “She was the ultimate patriot. Now, what she knows could bring down the government. Libby Lamm (Tika Sumpter) is a former top national security advisor who, while working with Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), a ruthless, steely-willed political veteran, signed off on a controversial military action that was supposed to end the war on terror. The problem: thousands died under false pretenses. Haunted by what she knows, Libby sets out to tell the truth, risking treason—and her own life—to expose a cover-up that stretches all the way to the highest levels of government. This gripping saga of lies, conspiracy, and betrayal is an explosive look at what it takes to do the right thing—even if that means going up against your own country.”

tumblr_pkokf7qPJw1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 18 (in theaters & on VOD): Adult Life Skills (dir. Rachel Tunnard) (DP: Bet Rourich)NPR’s Tribeca Film Festival (2016) review by Linda Holmes: “One of the best things about covering film festivals — like the Tribeca Film Festival, where I’ll be for a couple of days — is seeing people’s work with very little context around it. By the time films are released in theaters, particularly when they’re being heavily marketed, I usually know a lot about them. I know something about what to expect, I know a good bit about the directors and actors, and very often, the film has been on various planning calendars for months.

“But particularly with smaller or midsize festivals (Tribeca is lower in profile than Toronto, for instance), I often run into things I’ve never even heard of until they show up in the film guide. Not only is this a useful reminder of just how much art is being made at all times of which even professional critics are unaware or vaguely aware, but it’s a chance to meet a piece of work with almost no expectations at all.

Adult Life Skills is the first feature from writer-director Rachel Tunnard, who first made a short called Emotional Fusebox that was nominated for a BAFTA award. She calls the short a ‘pilot’ for Adult Life Skills, which is having its world premiere here at Tribeca.

“The film stars Jodie Whittaker — whom I knew as the grieving mother in Broadchurch and whose other credits include Attack The Block and Black Mirror — as Anna, a woman about to turn 30 who’s living in the shed in her mother’s garden. Mom is about ready to kick her out, but Anna mostly stays holed up in there, making low-fi web videos where she draws faces on her thumbs. She has an outgoing best friend who wants her recover from what turns out to be buried grief, an awkward maybe-suitor, a plain-spoken grandma, and a sad child living next door who craves her attention even as she only reluctantly gives it to him.

“There are pieces of a lot of familiar stories here: a little About A Boy, a little Young Adult, a little Bridget Jones even. More than that, though, Adult Life Skills pulls from the deep well of the Quirky Oddball Picture, recalling everything from Juno to Submarine to Moonrise Kingdom. There is a quality to it that feels not necessarily cliched, but familiar. And what it amounts to in that regard is a genre film.

“It only makes sense that just as superhero films draw on other superhero films, and romances on romances and mysteries on mysteries, stories about the quirky oddball’s journey would influence each other and grow their own tropes. The composition of the shots that often isolates the oddball traveling across the screen, the editing rhythms, the frequent use of what High Fidelity called ‘sad bastard music’ — it would be easy to see the patterns emerge and to disengage on the theory that you’ve seen the film before.

“But as with any genre film, the trick is execution. Whittaker is so good in this role, so believable and sympathetic, that even the expected beats that perhaps shouldn’t work can work. Similarly, the press notes say that there was originally to be no potential love interest until Tunnard came across Brett Goldstein and wrote him a role as an offbeat old friend of Anna’s who gives the best explanation of the ending of Grease that I’ve ever heard, by the way. His role is small enough but valuable enough that it makes sense. It may be an outgrowth of that fact that because the film was conceived without a romantic element, the romantic element doesn’t seem like the driver of Anna’s story but the result of it, and that’s a good thing.

“That’s not to say Adult Life Skills doesn’t flirt with driving itself into a ditch. Let us be frank about children for a moment: putting a moppet in your movie is a dangerous thing, particularly if that moppet is in acute need, as the neighbor kid Clint is here. It can feel like a fat thumb on the scale, forcing emotion from the audience and even blackmailing it out of other characters in unnatural ways. But Ozzy Myers, whom Tunnard says she found at a school in Leeds and who had never acted before, is so unforced as Clint, and his chemistry with Whittaker is so good, that they pretty much pull it off. Here’s hoping experience with acting doesn’t ruin his acting.

“One of the curious things about recognizing a movie’s general style as fitting within your experience of films generally or festival films in particular is that when something happens that isn’t quite what you’re expecting, it jumps toward you. There is a moment late in the film in which Tunnard unexpectedly cuts to an embrace between Anna’s mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) and grandmother (Eileen Davies) that instantly takes both beyond being essentially the frustrated, disappointed mother and the frank, wise grandmother. It communicates an enormous amount about what’s been going on under Anna’s nose that she hasn’t seen because she is so withdrawn and so sad. That’s the kind of little spin on the formula that makes a genre work stand out.

“I can’t imagine a person experienced with offbeat English-language films of the last ten years not seeing much that’s familiar in Adult Life Skills, but it’s a lovely movie with some very good performances and it makes some very good choices. As, eventually, does Anna.”

tumblr_pkokhlFupG1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 18 (streaming on Netflix): Close (dir. Vicky Jewson)Netflix Media Center synopsis: “Inspired by the life of the world’s leading female bodyguard, Jacquie Davis, the film follows Sam (Noomi Rapace), a counter-terrorist expert used to war zones, who takes on the job of protecting Zoe (Sophie Nélisse), a young and rich heiress — a babysitting job for her. But a violent attempted kidnapping forces the two to go on the run. Now they’ve got to take some lives — or lose theirs.”

tumblr_pkol59RNd21s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 18 (in theaters & on VOD/digital): Egg (dir. Marianna Palka) (DP: Zelmira Gainza)The Playlist’s Tribeca Film Festival review by Kimber Myers: “With this sharp satire, director Marianna Palka continues poking and prodding at the various phases of women’s lives. In her 2008 directorial debut Good Dick, she took aim at dating with its anti-romantic comedy approach. Her 2017 pitch-black offering Bitch explored the life of a stay-at-home mother and wife who is so fed up with her treatment by her cheating husband and misbehaving kids that she begins acting like a vicious dog. With Egg, Palka makes what could be a thematic prequel to Bitch as its characters dissect the many decisions around pregnancy, childbirth, and the gender roles of raising children.

“When Karen (Christina Hendricks) visits her art school friend Tina (Alysia Reiner), the stark contrasts between the two are immediately clear. Karen and her husband, Don (David Alan Basche), are fast approaching the due date of their first child, and they take a traditional approach to pregnancy and parenting. Meanwhile, Tina and her husband, Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe), are forging a different path to parenthood. Tina is a conceptual artist and as a part of her upcoming ambitious show on motherhood, she is using Wayne’s friend Kiki (Anna Camp) as a surrogate for their baby. Over the course of an afternoon at Tina and Wayne’s Brooklyn loft, they discuss the merits of each couple’s choices as well as the larger philosophical debate around women and their relationships – or lack thereof – to motherhood. When Kiki finally appears, clad in cutoffs and bemoaning her belly, the day takes an unexpected turn.

Egg has the air of a stage play, with most of the film composed of people talking in a single location. But there’s real attention paid to the visuals, beyond just production designer Sally Levi’s detailed, lived-in creation of an artist’s loft and studio. As director of photography, Zelmira Gainza shoots the space with warmth and strong framing, keeping it from feeling like you’re watching a filmed theatrical piece with no sense of the cinematic medium.

“Palka’s last film, Bitch, had an equal satirical bite to this one, but it was intentionally over the top in its depiction of behavior and choices. Here Risa Mickenberg’s screenplay does amplify the absurdity of its characters and their situations for effect, but all five people in this film seem as though they could really exist, though you might not want to know them in real life. Egg may be making a statement, but the interaction between Karen and Tina largely is authentic, as their dynamic moves between long-simmering competition, outright animosity and sympathetic support. It all works due to Hendricks and Reiner’s performances, who offer emotional grounding to the comedy. Akinnagbe, Basche, and Camp are each hilarious, but the two leads make Egg both funny and real.

“The satire focuses not only on women’s own relationships to motherhood but also on how they’re judged, regardless of what their choices are, in every aspect of it. That judgment comes from all angles: other women, their partners and themselves. Egg deserves credit for shedding a special light on women who actively choose not to be mothers, a subject that might be growing on women’s sites but still isn’t often depicted on screen. Despite all the judgment of these characters by other characters, Egg itself refuses to do the same to them. It may poke fun at Karen and Tina, but it never says that their choices around motherhood aren’t valid and deserving of happiness. Its ultimate sympathy for these women may be at odds with earlier jabs at them, but it creates an empathetic space that is surprisingly emotionally satisfying.”

tumblr_pkokj4H09A1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 18: Who Will Write Our History? (dir. Roberta Grossman) (DP: Dyanna Taylor)Quad Cinema synopsis: “With a wealth of archival footage and detailed re-enactments, this film recounts the incredible story of Emanuel Ringelblum, who secretly led a team of writers and intellectuals to preserve a vibrant Jewish culture in the Warsaw Ghetto shortly after the Nazis took over. What resulted was a startlingly deep and diverse portrait of European Jewish life, as the Oyneg Shabes Archive made an invaluable contribution to the historical record. Based on the book by Samuel Kassow.”

tumblr_pkokpmFqID1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 25 (streaming on Netflix): Ánimas (dirs. Laura Alvea and Jose F. Ortuño)Sitges Film Festival synopsis: “Alex (Clare Durant) is a girl with a strong personality. She’s very close to her best friend Abraham (Iván Pellicer), a shy, insecure boy as a consequence of his complex relationship with his parents. Everything changes when Abraham’s father (Luis Bermejo) dies in a bizarre accident. From this moment on, Alex will be thrust into a mind-bending trip where the line between reality and nightmares will start to start to blur.”

tumblr_pkw1qlnEfJ1s5o8nro1_1280

JANUARY 25: Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (dirs. Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut)AMC Theatres synopsis:Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (Kangana Ranaut) who refused to cede Jhansi to the British and fought a fierce battle. Her life story is a tale of bravery, valor and woman’s strength to inspire generations to come.”

365 Day Movie Challenge: 2018

Here we are on December 31, so it’s time to go over my list of the films I watched in 2018. I didn’t watch as much as I hoped – the total count is 255 titles – but I tried my best to expand my cinematic knowledge as best as I could. On the plus side, I exceeded my goal to watch 52 films directed by women; that list appears at the bottom of the post.

tumblr_pkmiks1PRB1s5o8nro1_1280

1915-1919: Heart o’ the Hills; M’Liss

tumblr_pkmmrsRFrw1s5o8nro1_1280

1920-1924: The Love Light

tumblr_pkmmqdsxHL1s5o8nro1_1280

1925-1929: The Last Command; Piccadilly; Underworld

tumblr_pkmj4mTiDL1s5o8nro1_1280

1930-1934: Blonde Venus; Blondie of the Follies; Bombshell; Finishing School; Flying Down to Rio; Murder in the Clouds; The Phantom of Paris

tumblr_pkmlzeMdW21s5o8nro1_500

1935-1939: Mark of the Vampire; The Spy in Black; Theodora Goes Wild; The Whole Town’s Talking

tumblr_pkmlwuY5lY1s5o8nro1_1280

1940-1944: The Black Swan; Dive Bomber; High Sierra; In This Our Life; Out of the Fog; The Woman in the Window

tumblr_pkmmokvLW21s5o8nro1_1280

1945-1949: Dark Passage; Deep Valley; It Rains on Our Love; Paris 1900; Pillow to Post; The Threat; The Wicked Lady; Wonder Man

tumblr_pkmm7d2Bus1s5o8nro1_1280

1950-1954: Angel Face; Armored Car Robbery; Father Is a Bachelor; Hell’s Half Acre; I Was an American Spy; Kansas City Confidential; Knock on Wood; Lullaby of Broadway; The Man Who Cheated Himself; The Prowler; Rue de l’Estrapade; A Star Is Born; This Can’t Happen Here (aka High Tension); The West Point Story; Young at Heart

tumblr_pkmkcvQ4HE1s5o8nro1_1280

1955-1959: The Bat; Eyewitness; Hell Drivers; Meet Me in Las Vegas; The Tingler

tumblr_pkmkgof3ox1s5o8nro1_1280

1960-1964: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb; The Happy Thieves; Zotz!

tumblr_pkmk5xo8rq1s5o8nro1_1280

1965-1969: Flesh; The Girls; The Sex Killer; Take Me Naked; A Thousand Pleasures

tumblr_pkmmb19Uz81s5o8nro1_1280

1970-1974: The Altar of Lust; Angel on Fire (aka Angel Number 9); Heat; Trash; Women in Revolt

tumblr_pkmkntyAR71s5o8nro1_1280

1975-1979: Demon Seed; Eyes of Laura Mars; Face to Face; The Mafu Cage; A Star Is Born; Suspiria

tumblr_pkmmk6pTKD1s5o8nro1_1280

1980-1984: The Company of Wolves; Deadly Blessing; Fatso; Losing Ground; Making Love; Ms .45; Rocktober Blood; Sleepaway Camp; The Slumber Party Massacre; Special Effects

tumblr_pkmmf3oPFt1s5o8nro1_1280

1985-1989: The Blob; Blood Sisters; Bloodsport; Call Me; Do the Right Thing; The Fly; Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers; Halloween 5 (aka Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers); Just One of the Guys; A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master; A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child; 9½ Weeks; Pet Sematary; Poltergeist II: The Other Side; Throw Momma from the Train; To Live and Die in L.A.; Twins

tumblr_pkmlsgq8zh1s5o8nro1_1280

1990-1994: Bad Lieutenant; Blue Steel; Boxing Helena; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Double Impact; Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle; Indecent Proposal; Jungle Fever; King of New York; Mixed Nuts; The Night and the Moment; Passenger 57; Predator 2; Renaissance Man; Single White Female; Sliver; That Night; Universal Soldier

tumblr_pkmlbfHn2A1s5o8nro1_1280

1995-1999: Armageddon; The Babysitter; Clockers; The Devil’s Advocate; Embrace of the Vampire; Fire; Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers; Halloween H20: 20 Years Later; Jumanji; Lines from the Heart; Office Killer; Ravenous; Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion; The Sixth Sense; Velvet Goldmine; The World Is Not Enough; You’ve Got Mail

tumblr_pkmlixenb31s5o8nro1_1280

2000-2004: American Psycho; Bring It On; Campfire Stories; Coyote Ugly; 8 Mile; Halloween: Resurrection; Jurassic Park III; Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; Latter Days; Layer Cake; The Nomi Song; Thirteen Conversations About One Thing; 13 Going on 30; The Tollbooth; Wet Hot American Summer; The Woodsman

mysonriverexportedvdfcrrexportedgimp255c50ms

2005-2009: Basic Instinct 2; Belle Toujours; Brokeback Mountain; Bug; Dorothy Mills; Jennifer’s Body; Must Love Dogs; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; Penelope; The Ring Finger; Teeth

tumblr_pkmkz5uoIx1s5o8nro1_1280

2010-2014: Coffee Town; Easy A; Elena; Going the Distance; Honeymoon; The Iceman; Iron Man 2; Kiss of the Damned; The Lifeguard; Margarita with a Straw; Middle of Nowhere; Mosquita y Mari; Scream 4; Soulmate; 12 Years a Slave; Very Good Girls; The Voices; Young Adult

tumblr_pkmn1dc5C71s5o8nro1_1280

2015-2018: Allure; American Made; Anything; Atomic Blonde; Avengers: Infinity War; Battle of the Sexes; Beach Rats; Black Butterfly; Black Panther; Blockers; Bohemian Rhapsody; Book Club; The Bye Bye Man; Come Sunday; The Commuter; Crazy Rich Asians; Darkest Hour; Doctor Strange; Don’t Call Me Son; The D Train; The Favourite; The Feels; The Female Brain; Fifty Shades Freed; First Reformed; Fist Fight; The Florida Project; Flower; 47 Meters Down; Freak Show; Freeheld; Front Cover; The Girl on the Train; Good Time; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Half Magic; Hooligan Sparrow; Hotel Artemis; The House; The Incredible Jessica James; The Innocents; Itzhak; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Justice League; A Kid Like Jake; Lady Bird; Love, Simon; The Lure; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Marjorie Prime; Mission: Impossible – Fallout; mother!; Nancy; Oh Lucy!; Pacific Rim: Uprising; The Party; Patriots Day; A Quiet Place; Raw; Searching; Shirkers; Skyscraper; Sorry to Bother You; A Star Is Born; Stronger; Suspiria; 10×10; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Three Identical Strangers; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; 12 Strong; Unexpected; Venom; War on Everyone; What Haunts Us; Wolves; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

BONUS: 52 Films by Women Challenge (which I went well beyond!):

  1. Battle of the Sexes (2017) – dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  2. Freak Show (2017) – dir. Trudie Styler
  3. The Girls (1968) – dir. Mai Zetterling
  4. Elena (2012) – dir. Petra Costa
  5. Lines from the Heart (1996) – dir. Christina Olofson
  6. The Woodsman (2004) – dir. Nicole Kassell
  7. Finishing School (1934) – dirs. George Nichols Jr. and Wanda Tuchock
  8. Don’t Call Me Son (2016) – dir. Anna Muylaert
  9. Unexpected (2015) – dir. Kris Swanberg
  10. Margarita with a Straw (2014) – dirs. Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar
  11. Paris 1900 (1947) – dir. Nicole Védrès
  12. Lady Bird (2017) – dir. Greta Gerwig
  13. The Female Brain (2017) – dir. Whitney Cummings
  14. Losing Ground (1982) – dir. Kathleen Collins
  15. The Love Light (1921) – dir. Frances Marion
  16. Middle of Nowhere (2012) – dir. Ava DuVernay
  17. Hooligan Sparrow (2016) – dir. Nanfu Wang
  18. Itzhak (2017) – dir. Alison Chernick
  19. Eyewitness (1956) – dir. Muriel Box
  20. The Innocents (2016) – dir. Anne Fontaine
  21. Half Magic (2018) – dir. Heather Graham
  22. Going the Distance (2010) – dir. Nanette Burstein
  23. Fatso (1980) – dir. Anne Bancroft
  24. What Haunts Us (2017) – dir. Paige Goldberg Tolmach
  25. The Party (2017) – dir. Sally Potter
  26. Take Me Naked (1966) – dirs. Michael Findlay and Roberta Findlay
  27. The Lifeguard (2013) – dir. Liz W. Garcia
  28. Just One of the Guys (1985) – dir. Lisa Gottlieb
  29. 10×10 (2018) – dir. Suzi Ewing
  30. The Feels (2017) – dir. Jenée LaMarque
  31. The Ring Finger (2005) – dir. Diane Bertrand
  32. Blockers (2018) – dir. Kay Cannon
  33. Fire (1996) – dir. Deepa Mehta
  34. Very Good Girls (2013) – dir. Naomi Foner
  35. Beach Rats (2017) – dir. Eliza Hittman
  36. Mosquita y Mari (2012) – dir. Aurora Guerrero
  37. Embrace of the Vampire (1995) – dir. Anne Goursaud
  38. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) – dir. Amy Holden Jones
  39. Kiss of the Damned (2012) – dir. Xan Cassavetes
  40. American Psycho (2000) – dir. Mary Harron
  41. Blood Sisters (1987) – dir. Roberta Findlay
  42. Ravenous (1999) – dir. Antonia Bird
  43. Honeymoon (2014) – dir. Leigh Janiak
  44. Pet Sematary (1989) – dir. Mary Lambert
  45. Dorothy Mills (2008) – dir. Agnès Merlet
  46. The Voices (2014) – dir. Marjane Satrapi
  47. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) – dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui
  48. Jennifer’s Body (2009) – dir. Karyn Kusama
  49. The Lure (2015) – dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska
  50. Office Killer (1997) – dir. Cindy Sherman
  51. The Mafu Cage (1978) – dir. Karen Arthur
  52. The Bye Bye Man (2017) – dir. Stacy Title
  53. Soulmate (2013) – dir. Axelle Carolyn
  54. Rocktober Blood (1984) – dir. Beverly Sebastian
  55. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) – dir. Rachel Talalay
  56. Boxing Helena (1993) – dir. Jennifer Lynch
  57. Raw (2016) – dir. Julia Ducournau
  58. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001) – dir. Jill Sprecher
  59. Oh Lucy! (2017) – dir. Atsuko Hirayanagi
  60. Blue Steel (1990) – dir. Kathryn Bigelow
  61. Shirkers (2018) – dir. Sandi Tan
  62. The Tollbooth (2004) – dir. Debra Kirschner
  63. The Altar of Lust (1971) – dir. Roberta Findlay
  64. Angel Number 9 (aka Angel on Fire) (1974) – dir. Roberta Findlay
  65. You’ve Got Mail (1998) – dir. Nora Ephron
  66. Mixed Nuts (1994) – dir. Nora Ephron
  67. The Night and the Moment (1994) – dir. Anna Maria Tatò
  68. Nancy (2018) – dir. Christina Choe
  69. Renaissance Man (1994) – dir. Penny Marshall
  70. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) – dir. Susan Johnson

Nancy (2018, dir. Christina Choe)

tumblr_pkkmk4zNue1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknatfS8Z1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkmo1RjSP1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkmlzqksl1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknnv5M3f1s5o8nro1_1280

The only way to describe the psychological drama Nancy is as a mixture of Liza Johnson’s film Return, as far as being a low-budget portrait of a woman in small-town America whose life is quietly spiraling downward, and of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with Choe’s debut feature being a somber take on a woman using media (including social media) to escape her damaged life and create a new one. In all three films, a woman searches for a cure-all that will fill the emptiness in her soul, craving the validation that she believes she needs to define her identity.

The main character of Nancy is Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough), a 35-year-old woman who lives on autopilot. She works temp jobs in and around her upstate New York town and spends the rest of her time taking care of her overbearing mother, Betty (Ann Dowd), who is afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. In any available moments, Nancy stares at the screens of her phone or computer, seemingly addicted to the glow. She uses technology to gain sympathy from strangers; on a blog, under the pseudonym “Becca,” Nancy writes of the grief she has experienced since the death of her daughter. Although she lies about more than her name – including when and how her daughter died – Nancy wants so badly to experience an emotional connection that she goes on a lunch date with one of her readers, Jeb (John Leguizamo), maintaining the deception for as long as possible.

Soon after Nancy’s last encounter with Jeb, Betty dies suddenly from a stroke. This renders Nancy even more depressed and listless than usual. She finds renewed purpose just a few days later, however, when she sees a TV news interview with Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi) on the thirtieth anniversary of their daughter Brooke’s disappearance. The resemblance between Brooke and Nancy is shocking; the latter realizes that she has an opportunity to potentially gain the loving parents she has never had, although she can’t anticipate the toll it will take on her or on the hopeful couple when she insinuates herself into their lives.

tumblr_pkkmvzG6ys1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknrez5Kf1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkmyxvUZ31s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkkn31Oxlb1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknfiycF01s5o8nro1_1280

A lot of little details in Nancy add up to make it compelling viewing. The preternaturally large, haunting blue eyes and stark black hair of Andrea Riseborough enhance her character’s aura of detachment, a demeanor that is complicated, one presumes, by a lifetime of sadness. (Childhood traumas are alluded to, though we never learn the full extent of what Nancy endured.) I didn’t mention it in the first paragraph, but another film that Nancy reminds me of is Bug, the William Friedkin thriller about a mother mired so deep in mourning and denial for her vanished child that folie à deux with an evidently mentally ill man is their only logical answer to so much pain. Maybe this is a stretch, but I think Nancy also bears comparison with another little-seen drama released this year, Allure, in which the two female protagonists (one of whom has a history of childhood sexual abuse) yearn for independence from their fractured families, sliding into a dangerous relationship that fools the both of them into a false sense of security until reality becomes too glaring to ignore.

On the other side of the camera, Zoë White’s cinematography for Nancy captures the chilly austerity of New York State in winter, while Peter Raeburn’s score has a melodramatic sound that alternately evokes memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on “Twin Peaks” and of Cliff Martinez’s music for sex, lies, and videotape. Most intriguing, however, is the decision made by Christina Choe and editor David Gutnik to restrict the film’s images to the boxlike 4:3 aspect ratio for the first half hour, until the point when Ellen invites Nancy to come to her house. When Nancy packs her bags – as well as her cat, Paul – to embark on a road trip that may result in a brand new life, her world literally and figuratively opens up, demonstrated by the screen’s slow expansion to the “cinematic” 16:9 ratio as she leaves her dull existence behind.

tumblr_pkko1qfRBH1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkko3vFDrM1s5o8nro1_1280

tumblr_pkknz012yv1s5o8nro1_1280

Getting back to discussing the acting: besides Andrea Riseborough’s strong performance, J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi do wonderful jobs as Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, particularly the always underrated Smith-Cameron, who has received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards. Ann Dowd and John Leguizamo also make memorable impressions, despite limited screen time. I like that the director cast Buscemi and Leguizamo against type, granting them space to inhabit characters who establish quite easily that they are gentle, thoughtful men who discuss their feelings and are not afraid to show their care and concern for others. I have to admit that I didn’t entirely “get” the ending scenes of Nancy when I saw the film for the first time this past Friday night, but after watching again while simultaneously listening to Christina Choe’s commentary track on the DVD, certain themes and narrative choices appeared to come together more effectively. I appreciate films that give me more ideas to contemplate the second time around.

October Diary: 10 Films from a Month of Watching Horror Cinema by Women Directors

All this month, I have paid special attention to horror films directed by women. Inspired by my recent post about Mary Harron’s category-defying satire American Psycho, I thought I would publish some of the notes I took after watching ten particular titles on my October checklist. Ghost stories, vampire romances, slasher pics, period pieces about cannibalism, predatory-mermaid musicals, genre parodies – I tried it all.

tumblr_phdg45viox1s5o8nro1_1280

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) – dir. Amy Holden Jones (notes written: Mon. 10/8/18)

Rita Mae Brown, famed writer of the groundbreaking lesbian-themed novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), penned the original screenplay for The Slumber Party Massacre (available for free on YouTube), which was made in collaboration with Amy Holden Jones in her directorial debut. Originally intended to be a satire of slasher films, the finished product ends up coming across more like a regular (serious) horror flick than a parody, but in a brief 77 minutes, Jones and Brown deliver an entertaining thriller with plenty of gore.

The plot is simple and straightforward: serial killer Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) escapes from prison and fixates on a bunch of high schoolers as his next victims. Linda (Brinke Stevens) meets a bloody demise in the locker room after her friends have already left; the rest of the group of girls – Trish (Michelle Michaels), KIm (Debra De Liso), Jackie (Andree Honore) and Diane (Gina Smika Hunter) – become Thorn’s targets when they gather at Trish’s house for a sleepover. Two sisters who live across the street from Trish, Valerie (Robin Stille) and Courtney Bates (Jennifer Meyers), initially try to hold back their interests in crashing the party, but they soon realize that all is not well at Trish’s residence, leading the Bates girls to inspect the property for themselves and get ensnared in Thorn’s web.

Like pretty much every other film in its genre from that time period (or this one, probably), The Slumber Party Massacre is a hotbed of gratuitous T&A. It’s not necessary for the camera to lasciviously linger on images of the female characters in various states of undress, like when they take showers after gym class at school or change into pajamas at Trish’s place (in front of an open window, of course), but then again, it was essentially a requirement for nudity and sexual content to appear to some degree in horror films made in the early 80s. Despite the annoyingly predictable objectification of female bodies, what The Slumber Party Massacre gets right is its character development, some good acting among the young leads (particularly Robin Stille, whose Valerie character turns out to be a real badass; sadly, Stille committed suicide in 1996) and a number of genuine thrills and jump scares. That the misogynistic killer’s weapon of choice is a power drill is an effective piece of phallic symbolism on Rita Mae Brown’s part, and the way in which Thorn’s reign of terror is stopped furthers Brown’s point.

I also appreciate Massacre’s nods to some classic horror from earlier generations. The most obvious homage is to Psycho, given the use of the last name “Bates” for two of the main characters, but there is also a scene in which a character’s murder echoes a similar death in Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943), showing a victim clawing at a door that the people on the other side refuse to open, a decision that concludes with the corpse’s blood oozing under the doorway. Massacre also features solid direction by Amy Holden Jones, excellent cinematography by Stephen L. Posey and a suitably unsettling score by Ralph Jones, so there’s quite a bit to recommend the film for your October schedule.

tumblr_phdg05l7um1s5o8nro1_1280

Blood Sisters (1987) – dir. Roberta Findlay (notes written: Sun. 10/14/18)

New York-based filmmaker Roberta Findlay could probably do just about any job required in the motion picture industry. For the horror film Blood Sisters (available via YouTube), she worked as director, screenwriter, cinematographer (I’m pretty sure she shot almost all of her films) and co-editor (with Walter E. Sear, who had additional contributions as producer, production manager and score composer). Mind you, I’m not saying that the end result is any good – Blood Sisters is one of the strangest horror flicks I’ve seen recently – but it has its share of fun aspects.

Findlay’s film is both a stereotypical entry in the slasher genre, concerning a deranged killer stalking sorority girls who are spending the night in a notoriously “haunted” former brothel, and also a supernatural thriller since there really are apparitions in the creaky old house. As we can guess from the film’s opening scene, in which a little girl rejects the affections of a boy her age and he immediately runs to the brothel to shoot all of the prostitutes (including his mother) and patrons, the present-day murderer is that same boy as an adult. During the college students’ stay in the ex-brothel, some of the young women see visions of the dead prostitutes and the clients in mirrors; the appearances by these specters seem to be tailored according to sexual orientation since some of the main characters are shown heterosexual couplings, while the one lesbian in the group is presented with the memory of a sexual encounter between a pair of women.

Despite the usual conventions of the horror genre, the sexuality on display in Findlay’s film is pretty tame, which is somewhat surprising (and maybe a little disappointing) since everything she directed between and 1971 and 1985 was hardcore pornography. I wondered if Findlay was motivated to give horror a try because sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman did so with A Night to Dismember (1983), but according to a 2017 interview, Findlay claimed never to have seen any of Wishman’s work. (It’s worth noting, however, that Blood Sisters referenced the title of Wishman’s slasher thriller for its own tagline.)

To recap some of the things you can see in Blood Sisters, I’ll quote the headline of one IMDb user’s review: “Possessed nightgown! Strangulation by garter belt! Lesbian hooker ghosts!“ Sure, Findlay’s film is a low-budget exercise in poor taste, and you’re more likely to roll your eyes than cower in fear, but at least there are gems peppered throughout the dialogue. Two favorite lines: one guy says to another, “Eat my shorts, tampon breath!” (reminiscent of a similar retort in another recently viewed horror film, Campfire Stories – “Stop being such a sanitary napkin, dude!” – evidently part of a tradition of insults inspired by feminine hygiene products), and in a later scene, a character wearing a neon-colored item of clothing is asked by a friend, “Alice, can’t you turn that coat off?”

tumblr_phdg8yg3l01s5o8nro1_1280

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) – dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui (notes written: Sat. 10/20/18)

Before Sarah Michelle Gellar found superstardom as the title vanquisher of the undead, Kristy Swanson brought the starring role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to life. As the Valley girl armed with plenty of wooden stakes, gymnastics skills for days and an infinite array of cute neon crop tops and leggings – thank you for your service, early 90s fashion, you were truly inspired – Swanson embodies the heroine of Joss Whedon’s original screenplay and makes her hilarious, badass, sensitive and altogether awesome.

The rest of the cast is stacked with both established actors and newcomers, all of whom do great work: Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens (I guess this was one of his first high-profile projects following his 1991 arrest; he’s unrecognizable and a delight to watch), Rutger Hauer, Hilary Swank (making her big screen debut at age 17), David Arquette, Stephen Root (he steals every scene he’s in as the principal at Buffy’s high school), Natasha Gregson Wagner (she has my favorite line reading of the movie, asking her friends with goofy intensity, “Okay, guys, what do you think about the ozone layer?”), Candy Clark, Slash in a cameo as a prom DJ and, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part, Ben Affleck as a basketball-playing student. According to my TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a one-star production, but I say it’s a ton of fun and one of the best horror comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

tumblr_phdfzbwwbq1s5o8nro1_1280

Embrace of the Vampire (1995) – dir. Anne Goursaud (notes written: Sat. 10/6/18)

Now that it’s October, I plan on diving deep into the wide, seemingly unending selection of horror films that I have not yet seen. Since I am especially eager to become better acquainted with horror projects directed by women, I first took a gander at what was available in decent condition on YouTube and my first (frankly sort of random) choice was the erotic horror thriller Embrace of the Vampire.

Granted, I didn’t bother to Google the film before viewing it, but I knew two things: it starred Alyssa Milano in one of her first “adult” roles and that the director, Anne Goursaud, was best known for her work as an editor on some notable films from the 80s and 90s, including The Outsiders (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Ironweed (1987) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Embrace of the Vampire served as Goursaud’s directorial debut and while I can’t say that it exhibits either an original creative aesthetic or good taste, I do want to congratulate her for casting Martin Kemp as the nameless vampire who haunts virginal college student Charlotte (Milano), luring her via sex dreams and in hallucinations she has while sitting in her art history class. I can’t tell you how hard I chuckled when the opening credits rolled and I said to myself, “Martin Kemp? Do I know this much is true or is that not one of the Spandau Ballet guys?” (It was, he was the band’s bassist.) Unintentional as it was from the director’s point of view, I laughed every time Kemp’s moody character showed up.

Kemp is both a terrible actor and not particularly sexy (sorry, but that matters for this genre of film), so to be brutally honest it makes sense that the only reason why Milano’s character would be drawn to him is through forces outside of her control. On the other hand, Charlotte’s boyfriend, Chris (Harold Pruett), is barely a Casanova either, but I will not comment on his looks since I was saddened to read that Harold Pruett died of a drug overdose in 2002, a tragic end for a former child almost-star. Anyway, the three best performances are from Milano, Charlotte Lewis as a bisexual photographer who lives in Charlotte’s dorm and flirts with her, and Jennifer Tilly as another vampire (or at least I think she’s undead; I don’t remember if it’s explicitly stated). Watching all of these weird characters spout inane dialogue and pursue temptations of the flesh – like an embarrassingly lengthy “orgy” (or more accurately, a lot of topless people making out) fueled by Ecstasy – is often hilariously bad.

I assume that most people would only watch Embrace of the Vampire for its perceived sexiness, but it doesn’t deliver on that count. Perhaps excessive nudity is sufficient for some viewers, but I was let down by the dearth of actual sex scenes. I figured that it was a foregone conclusion that Anne Goursaud’s film wouldn’t rate too highly on the horror scale, therefore replacing thrills with tacky romance, but the lack of smut was pretty disappointing. Maybe things could have gone differently if the vampire had been portrayed by, say, Michael Bolton.

tumblr_phdodryrzs1s5o8nro1_1280

Office Killer (1997) – dir. Cindy Sherman (notes written: Tues. 10/23/18)

Photographer and conceptual artist Cindy Sherman made her sole foray into feature filmmaking with Office Killer, a morbidly funny dark comedy about a put-upon clerk who snaps once her job status has been demoted to part-time. Proofreader and copywriter Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane) is perpetually described as “mousy” and “strange” by her colleagues at Constant Consumer Magazine, owing to her introverted nature, her tendency to jump any time a person touches her, and the fact that she lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled mother (Alice Drummond). After Constant Consumer’s overbearing CEO, Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukowa), downsizes the staff and subsequently limits Dorine’s office time by making her work partly from home instead, our antiheroine tastes sweet revenge when she is indirectly responsible for the fatal electrocution of one of her other irritating bosses, Gary Michaels (a gloriously coiffed David Thornton), while fixing her computer during after-hours. There is no going back for Dorine after she opts to take the freshly deceased corporate lackey to her house; soon, corpses are accumulating in her basement left and right.

“It is true that to live inside a warm and nurturing environment is everybody’s dream,” Dorine muses in a voiceover, “but as we grow up we also need to experience independence and adventure.“ She takes the initiative to dispatch of all those who have wronged her, and even a few complete innocents to boot. And there are plenty more potential victims to choose from: Kim Poole (Molly Ringwald), an editor who hates Dorine’s guts for stealing one of her articles out from under her; Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Virginia’s second-in-command and one of the few office workers who shows any care for Dorine; and Daniel Birch (Michael Imperioli), who is Norah’s boyfriend and, more crucially, the IT expert who installs a computer in Dorine’s home and teaches her how to use email. With her newfound technological skill, Dorine manipulates the Constant Consumer hierarchy into doing her bidding and keeping her out of trouble with the law.

If the screenplay of Office Killer seems noticeably well-crafted, that is thanks to the talent involved: Cindy Sherman and Elise MacAdam wrote the underlying story, while MacAdam and Tom Kalin (renowned director of the films Swoon and Savage Grace) penned the screenplay and indie auteur Todd Haynes contributed additional dialogue. The performances are uniformly excellent, but above all the film is a showcase for Carol Kane, who is by turns adorable, pitiable and spine-chillingly menacing as Dorine. Too rarely have I seen Kane in leading roles, and certainly never one so deliciously malevolent.

tumblr_phdomzssfq1s5o8nro1_1280

Ravenous (1999) – dir. Antonia Bird (notes written: Mon. 10/15/18)

(Warning: spoilers in the last paragraph.)

Blending gruesome violence with pitch black humor and period-piece details, Ravenous is surely the only movie you’ll ever see about Mexican-American War veterans who are also cannibals. Set during the rough winter of 1847, the film follows Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a military man whose medal for valor in war was actually the result of cowardice – he played dead after being wounded, only getting behind enemy lines because his “corpse” was dragged there by soldiers. Because of the carnage he witnessed on the battlefield, Boyd has lost his taste for meat, but his hunger for flesh will soon return in an unexpected way after he is transferred to a new outpost in California.

Late one night, a Scotsman named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the camp, practically out of his mind from malnutrition. Colqhoun tells Boyd, Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones – how I do continuously find myself watching movies with this creep?), Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies) and some of his other rescuers about the terrifying circumstances of his journey across America. The party he had been traveling with lost its way during a snowstorm and they were forced to take shelter in a cave, where the lack of food eventually drove them to eat each other. Colqhoun escaped the situation when he thought he might be next on the menu, and the next day he leads Boyd and his superiors on a trip back to the cave to see if the last two survivors are still there. Unsurprisingly, this little adventure turns out to be a trap; Colqhoun clearly planned from the start to kill everyone. Only Boyd manages to flee his bloodthirsty attacker, although the price he must pay for attempting to hide in the woods will unleash his own similarly uncivilized cravings.

Pearce and Carlyle’s characters are like oil and water – Boyd is an introvert who only speaks when necessary, while Colqhoun is a loquacious gent with a penchant for flamboyant witticisms – and yet they are drawn to one another, each challenging the other in verbal and physical altercations. On the surface, Ravenous is an over-the-top dark comedy about literally carnal appetites, but the film also functions well as a metaphor for homosexuality. Colqhoun represents the embrace of gayness, while Boyd is repressed but constantly fighting the urge to succumb to the same desires. There is especially intense chemistry between the two main characters in a scene where Boyd comes close to licking blood off of a wound on Colquhoun’s hand. Numerous scenes also employ a female/gay male gaze as male characters view other men’s unclothed bodies, often searching for injuries that have penetrated the skin, to say nothing of the moment when Boyd and Colquhoun actually around roll in some hay during a melee in a barn.

Perhaps the subtext is only there for those who look for it, and the ending certainly raises questions about what the true message is if the narrative is indeed symbolic, but there is no question that Antonia Bird’s film is a delicious morsel. On the downside, Ravenous deserves points off for failing the Bechdel test so badly – there is only one female character, a Native American woman named Martha (Sheila Tousey) who exists solely to serve white men in power and to occasionally explain the local lore of her people – but one cannot argue that the film’s exploration of, shall we say, alternative lifestyles is fascinating.

tumblr_phdnvnmi3o1s5o8nro1_1280

Dorothy Mills (2008) – dir. Agnès Merlet (notes written: Thurs. 10/18/18)

Despite the claim made on its spooky DVD cover, the Irish psychological horror film Dorothy Mills is closer to Breaking the Waves than to The Exorcist, concerned not so much with demonic possession than with the demons of the past that have loomed large over an insular, fundamentalist community. Like the teenager Linda Blair played in that classic chiller almost half a century ago, the title character in Agnès Merlet’s film (played by Jenn Murray) is a girl not in control of her own mind and body. When a psychiatrist, Jane Morton (Carice Van Houten) is sent to the small island where Dorothy lives in the wake of a violent incident – a couple came home to find their babysitter, Dorothy, attacking their infant – the locals reveal both their hatred of the girl, their opposition to outsiders invading their territory and contradictory opinions on whether Jane should be allowed to investigate and potentially take the teen back with her to the mainland.

I wouldn’t describe Dorothy Mills as horror, but rather as a moving drama that observes how history affects and changes us, particularly with regard to tragedies that we can’t forget. It helps that the acting is solid across the board, particularly from Carice Van Houten as the conflicted psychiatrist, who is battling dark memories of her own, from Gary Lewis as Pastor Ross, whose word is law in this deeply religious region, and from the outstanding Jenn Murray (in her film debut) as the girl at the heart of the conflict. Dorothy is a complex character, to say the least, and Jenn Murray brings so many details to her performance that make watching her absolutely riveting. The cinematography by Giorgos Arvanitis also does a fine job of capturing the moods of the isolated village and its bitter residents.

tumblr_phdoyrjgnr1s5o8nro1_r1_1280

Kiss of the Damned (2012) – dir. Xan Cassavetes (notes written: Thurs. 10/11/18)

Xan (Alexandra) Cassavetes, the eldest daughter of legendary auteur John Cassavetes, made her debut as a writer-director with Kiss of the Damned, an elegantly crafted horror film that is currently available to stream via Hulu. While the film initially presents itself as a romance, following the unusual courtship of French vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) and American screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), the latter of whom Djuna bites shortly after meeting, but the story soon turns into a critique of upper-class excess. The rich are often portrayed as vampires in the media, sucking the life out of those less fortunate, but in Damned, the undead characters literally do just that; they are consumers in both the materialistic and literal senses of the word. They also indulge in a particular subsection of capitalism that allows for luxuries like fancy bottles of synthetic blood and parties where the immortals gather, mostly to congratulate themselves on no longer being mere humans.

The main conflict in the film arises from the arrival of Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who gets her kicks from seducing everyone she meets. This spells trouble for Djuna and Paolo, who already have a lot on their plate since they rent their house from another vampire, successful actress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), and at one point there is an unexpected visit from Paolo’s agent, Ben (Michael Rapaport, who provides some much-needed humor). The supporting cast also includes Ching Valdes-Aran as Irene, Xenia’s housekeeper; Riley Keough as Ann, a teenage devotee of Xenia’s theatrical career; and Peter Vack as one of Mimi’s victims.

The narrative of Kiss of the Damned is thinly plotted and predictable, following the main characters yet never feeling as though much is happening. Instead, Cassavetes relies on evoking a suitably moody atmosphere to fill in the gaps in the story. Tobias Datum’s cinematography and Steven Hufsteter’s score hark back to artistic horror films of the 1960s and 70s, making the film quite aesthetically pleasing even when the acting and writing are not always satisfying.

tumblr_phdoa9bxmn1s5o8nro1_1280

The Voices (2014) – dir. Marjane Satrapi (notes written: Fri. 10/19/18)

Available to stream now via Netflix, The Voices is not for everyone, particularly those viewers who would rather abstain from seeing a comedy about a murderer who keeps women’s severed heads in his fridge. Even so, let it be said that The Voices is not without its charms. Ryan Reynolds does a fine job of bringing complexity, humor and, when necessary, terror to his part as Jerry, a mentally ill factory worker who stumbles into serial-killing and finds himself unable to stop; Reynolds also provides the voices that Jerry hears coming from his pets, a dog named Bosco and a cat (with an uncanny, David Tennant-esque Scottish burr) named Mr. Whiskers, who act as the proverbial angel and devil on Jerry’s shoulders.

As deeply unsettling as the concepts for the film are, it is also a bizarrely enjoyable experience. The tone sometimes shifts wildly from one scene to another, jumping from surreal satire (the film’s opening is reminiscent of Blue Velvet, introducing us to a picturesque small town with a cloying jingle on the soundtrack) to slasher flick to candy-colored musical. The performances by Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as two of Jerry’s co-workers (and potential love interests), Fiona and Lisa, bring additional spark to the proceedings, while Jacki Weaver plays the pivotal role of Dr. Warren, Jerry’s sympathetic psychiatrist. The creative approaches taken in telling this story arise from the collaboration between director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums) and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (his background seems to be primarily TV), and while the film has its shaky moments here and there, it is highly entertaining and it continually kept me guessing what would happen next.

tumblr_phdnoa8o7f1s5o8nro1_1280

The Lure (2015) – dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska (notes written: Mon. 10/22/18)

Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature The Lure (which I believe is still available to stream through FilmStruck) is surely unlike any other film you’ve seen lately, blending fantasy, horror and romance into a musical set in Warsaw during the 1980s. A pair of mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), are brought onto dry land by a trio of cabaret performers – singer Krysia (Kinga Preis), her drummer boyfriend (Andrzej Konopka) and a twentysomething bassist (Jakub Gierszal) – who discover that the sisters are capable of transforming their tails into human women’s legs. Silver and Golden are added to the nightclub act, charming customers with backup singing that soon gives the siblings a chance for pop stardom of their own as a duo.

The interior of the club shimmers from the glittery costumes designed by Katarzyna Lewinska (who worked on another great film I saw earlier this year, The Innocents), the cinematography by Jakub Kijowski and the original music written and composed by Marcin Macuk, Barbara Wrońska and Zuzanna Wrońska specifically for the film, modeled on the synthpop and New Wave genres popular in that era. My personal favorite cut from the soundtrack is “I Came to the City,” a poppy ode to materialism sung by Silver, Golden and Krysia during a lavish shopping spree that they embark on while working-class citizens protest outside on the streets of Communist-run Warsaw (“I’m new to the city/I wanted to put my best foot forward/Change what I can change and get their attention/A mention, a nod … the city will tell us what it is we lack!”). Another musical highlight that was not created by the film’s composers, though, is a dazzling cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” sung by Krysia after the film’s opening credits as our introduction to the cabaret environment.

The Lure can be seen as an update of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Little Mermaid,” but Smoczynska’s version is markedly more adult. Silver and Golden take different approaches in adjusting to the world of two-legged humans and individually realizing their burgeoning erotic yearnings; Golden entices men and women into sexual situations that she uses to turn them into dinner (the sisters have an insatiable hunger for human flesh), while Silver experiences first love when she falls for the band’s cute, shaggy-haired bassist. Informed by her would-be lover that she will always be “a fish” to him as long as she does not have the typical female reproductive organs, Silver elects to sacrifice her aquatic anatomy by agreeing to undergo a dangerous operation that will make her a “real” woman.

There are consequences for Silver’s decision, however, and The Lure serves as a compelling look at the impact that love and lust have on women, as well as the price women sometimes pay when they think more of a man’s happiness than they do their own. Furthermore, the film explores what it means to inhabit a woman’s body, especially in the context of the importance a man places on a woman having a vagina in order to be perceived as whole and normal. Yes, there is blood, violence and death in The Lure, but the true horror is in how men manipulate women when, in the end, family may actually be the strongest bond of all.

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

Director Marielle Heller (center) with actresses Dolly Wells and Melissa McCarthy on the set of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, 2017. (Photo: Town & Country)

Here are twenty-six new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this October, 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.

OCTOBER 3: Moynihan (dirs. Joseph Dorman and Toby Perl Freilich)Film Forum synopsis: “‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion – but not to his own facts.’ – Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003). His aristocratic demeanor and Harvard polish belied Moynihan’s Depression-era roots in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, the son of a single mother. Joseph Dorman (his documentary, Arguing the World, which we opened in 1998, is a thrilling account of the 60-year battle among New York’s 20th century intellectuals), with co-filmmaker Toby Perl Freilich (Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment), now give us a portrait of a complex man who struggled to alleviate poverty and racism, but who was maligned for his use of the expression ‘benign neglect.’ Ta-Nehisi Coates, Eleanor Holmes Norton, George Will, and Henry Kissinger give insight into this “connoisseur of statistics” who served four presidents, anticipated the breakup of the Soviet Union, and was as comfortable writing about philosophy, ethnicity, and architecture as he was rethinking the Social Security and welfare systems.”

OCTOBER 5 (in theaters & streaming on Netflix): Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins)RogerEbert.com review by Matt Zoller Seitz: “Sometimes you want something so badly that you chase it for years, and the quest takes over everything.

“That’s what happened to Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), the protagonists of Private Life, a comedy-drama about a forty-something New York couple who are desperate to become parents.

“Rachel is 41. She’s not as fertile as she used to be. Richard is 47. He has just one testicle, and it happens to be blocked. This is a terrible state of affairs for any couple, but a comic gold mine for actors who express frustration as brilliantly as these two. We sense early on that Rachel and Richard’s obsession distracts them from dealing with longstanding issues in their marriage, and maybe individual neuroses as well. Richard was once an acclaimed actor and theater impresario. He now runs a pickle-making company. Rachel is a writer who’s trying to finish a new novel. She’s finding it hard to stay focused with all the obstetrical drama going on. They know having a child is a long shot. They’ve tried various procedures and treatments and flirted with adoption and surrogates. They refuse to give up. Should they?

“The first part of Private Life follows Rachel and Richard through the medical system, undergoing tests to figure out if they have a specific problem that can be fixed by science. Their fertility sherpa, Dr. Dordick (Denis O’Hare), speaks frankly of the obstacles in their path. They hear him but don’t absorb the facts as deeply as they should—or maybe they’re just hopeless optimists. Richard and Rachel are close with their in-laws—Richard’s brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), his second wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon), and Cynthia’s college-age daughter Sadie (Kalyi Carter)—and lean on them for emotional support and sometimes more. There’s a bit of drama early on when Richard asks Charlie for a loan to pay for a medical test. Cynthia explodes, warning him that they’ve been at this forever and that he needs to stop enabling them.

“The movie shifts into a different mode—less raucously funny, more tenderly observant—when Sadie, a budding fiction writer herself, moves in with Richard and Rachel, and the couple asks if she’d donate her eggs. (The movie makes sure to spell out that none of them are related—Charlie being Richard’s stepbrother and Cynthia’s second husband.) Sadie is intrigued. She needs the money. She loves Richard and Rachel. And she’s at her own crossroads in life, and maybe feeling it’s time for a gesture as dramatic as anything in the short stories that she loves (or in fiction written by classmates that she gripes about—mostly ‘thinly veiled autobiographical crap about their upbringing;’ Sadie is oblivious to the fact that she’s living some of the same cliches she despises in the fiction and the lives of others).

“I don’t want to go into too much detail about the bulk of the story because the plot takes a lot of twists and turns, some predictable, others unexpected, and because what’s important are the observations, visual as well as verbal, embedded in each scene. The film’s writer-director, Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, Savages) is a brilliant chronicler of upper-middle class white people and their foibles, and her eye for detail is anthropologically exact, empathetic but never begging for sympathy. She’s aware that these people can be myopic and petty, and that they’re so wrapped up in their individual dramas that they fail to appreciate what they do have; but she also understands the deep biological urges that drive Richard and Rachel, who spent the first part of adulthood committing to an artist’s life without taking on responsibility to anyone but each other.

“Some of Jenkins’ humor pushes right to the edge of farce without tipping over, as when Richard justifiably blows up at a doctor’s unprofessional behavior, then realizes he’s overdoing it and making a spectacle of himself. (Nobody does righteous snits better than Giamatti.) Other times, the film digs into the minutia of marriage and family life with the surgical precision of Mike Leigh, capturing fleeting images and moments that sum up an experience. The personalty test that Sadie takes in order to be cleared as a surrogate includes statements which, viewed in tight close-up, seem nearly poetic in their strangeness (‘Evil spirits possess me at times.’ ‘I would like to become a singer.’). A quick iris-to-black as Rachel succumbs to anesthesia, followed by a blurry shot from her point-of-view as she wakes up and sees a package of animal crackers and a bottle of apple juice on a meal tray, sum up the dreamlike feeling of suspension that accrues when you spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and operating rooms, with their blank walls and identically uniformed employees. (Hahn, who’s on a roll these days, is at the top of her game, handling Jenkins’ barbed dialogue and the story’s many reactive closeups with equal skill.)

“The dialogue, especially between Rachel and Richard, is just as astute. We see what drew them together (a shared love of creativity plus undeniable comic chemistry) as well as the despair that they hide from each other for fear of making a tense partnership unpleasant. Each sometimes feels that their failure to conceive is the other’s fault, and Jenkins weaves social messaging into their reasons for waiting, acknowledging it as a factor without telling us if she thinks they made good or bad decisions. Richard stings Rachel by suggesting that she’s assigning blame for their situation onto the mixed messages she received about family and career back in college. ‘You can’t blame second wave feminism for our ambivalence about having a kid!’ he groans. To the film’s credit, neither is portrayed as being entirely wrong.

“The movie also succeeds as a portrait of a particular urban lifestyle—creative people living beyond their means because they don’t want to give up youthful dreams of the big city—as well as the larger forces that conspire to make their existence precarious and unrealistic. The Lower East Side New York neighborhood where Rachel and Richard have lived for decades has become almost entirely gentrified (except for their block, which Sadie says is ‘very Serpico‘). The site of Richard’s old theater company is a bank branch. Condos are springing up everywhere, promising a tourist-like experience of a city that no longer exists.

“But of course, Richard and Rachel were probably in the first wave of bourgeois settlers back in the ’90s, and as such, they have to accept some blame for how things have changed. When Sadie, out for a walk with her possible future egg donors, spots a billboard advertising luxury apartments with the slogan ‘Live in Luxury, Party Like a Punk,’ she snarls, ‘It’s like an open invitation for assholes.’ The movie is aware that they’re also the assholes. When they visit Richard’s brother and her family in the suburbs, they’re seeing a likely future. If they leave the city, does it mean they surrendered? If they don’t conceive, does it mean all of that time and money was wasted?

“It’s becoming increasingly hard for films like this to have a big impact on audiences, in part because stories about recognizable, present-day adults of every social class have been largely driven from theaters and onto TV and streaming platforms. Anything that doesn’t involve special effects and some kind of world-ending threat is deemed ‘low stakes’ or ‘television’ and thus not worth leaving home to see. (This one is getting a hybrid release from Netflix, playing a small number of theaters while debuting online.) But when the story is told in as engaging and fair-minded a way as it is here by Jenkins—who’s as adept with lyrical images as she is with snappy dialogue, and allows us to laugh at the characters even as we feel for them—it’s as immersive as any blockbuster, sneakily so. This film is a reminder that the smallness of life can feel huge when we’re in the middle of it. A perfect final shot sums up everything Private Life has been telling us and showing us, while letting us imagine Rachel and Richard’s destiny for ourselves.”

OCTOBER 5: Trouble (dir. Theresa Rebeck) (DP: Christina Voros)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis:Trouble is a rollicking comedy about two siblings who stop at nothing to outwit one another. That fact that the dueling brother and sister in this case are middle- aged, but still feel a rivalry that most adults have long outgrown, makes theirs a particularly high-stakes conflict. Academy Award-winner Anjelica Huston stars as Maggie, a tough-as-nails widow who fights to hold onto the beautiful wooded farm in rural Vermont where she was raised and still lives, while Bill Pullman plays her ne’er-do-well brother, Ben, who plots to sell the land to developers right out from under Maggie. The film was written and directed by noted playwright and author Theresa Rebeck.”

OCTOBER 12 (in theaters & on VOD): After Everything (dirs. Hannah Marks and Joey Power) (DP: Sandra Valde-Hansen)The Hollywood Reporter review by Frank Scheck: “Depicting the highs and lows of a relationship marked by a possibly terminal cancer diagnosis, Hannah Marks and Joey Power’s romantic drama somehow manages to avoid clichés and oversentimentality. After Everything deals with two 23-year-olds, but it will likely ring true even for viewers whose twenties are a distant memory. Featuring terrific performances by its young leads, the film marks an auspicious feature debut for its writer-directors.

“The story begins with Elliot (Jeremy Allen White, Shameless) experiencing a strange pain in his groin during a one-night stand. He discovers that he’s suffering from a form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, which has resulted in a tumor on his pelvic bone. Around the same time, while waiting for a subway train he encounters Mia (Maika Monroe, It Follows), a frequent customer at the sandwich shop where he works, and impulsively asks her out.

“The two are soon involved in a passionate relationship, with Mia being lovingly supportive of her new boyfriend as he’s undergoing physically and emotionally debilitating chemotherapy treatments. Rather than drive them apart, Elliot’s illness seems to deepen their relationship, and he impulsively proposes marriage. For a while, the aftermath of the ‘shotgun wedding,’ as Mia describes it to Elliot’s concerned parents, proves happy. But even as Elliot is given a clean bill of health after successful surgery, the two young people begin to realize that their relationship is falling apart.

“While the pic’s tone is generally serious, it never becomes maudlin despite the tear-jerking subject matter. It also includes some genuinely funny episodes, such as a fantasy sequence involving Elliot’s efforts to become aroused while attempting to bank his sperm should his cancer prevent him from siring children; the couple giddily cavorting after ingesting ecstasy (but not before Googling ‘What happens when you take MDMA and have cancer?’); and their attempts to recruit a female participant to fulfill Elliot’s dream of having a threesome.

“The Generation Z demographic will certainly relate to such things as the film’s depiction of modern dating rituals like Tinder; unfulfilling jobs; roommates who spend their time bingeing on true-crime documentaries; and Elliot’s dreams of designing a new app. What impresses, though, is how effectively After Everything taps into universal themes involving the difficulties of sustaining relationships. And the way in which we can sabotage our future in an instant is perfectly encapsulated in an angry encounter between Elliot and Mia in which he blurts out something that he’ll never be able to take back.

“The filmmakers have attracted a talented supporting ensemble for this indie effort, including Gina Gershon and Dean Winters as Mia’s mother and her new boyfriend, and Marisa Tomei as Elliot’s attentive oncologist. But it’s the hugely appealing White and Monroe who authoritatively carry the film, mining the material for all its pathos and humor and displaying the sort of chemistry more often aspired to than achieved in romantic films. They make it look easy, as do the talented filmmakers.”

OCTOBER 12 (streaming on Netflix): Feminists: What Were They Thinking? (dir. Johanna Demetrakas) (DP: Kristy Tully)RiverRun International Film Festival synopsis: “Feminism seems to be the scariest word in the English language, but not for those who experienced the game-changing awakening that was the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s meant not only second class citizenship legally, but second class human being-ship for women, not invited to the parties of medicine, art, law, education, science, or religion, except maybe as the secretary.

“In 1977, a book of photographs captured an awakening–women shedding cultural restrictions and embracing their full humanity. This documentary digs deep into the personal experiences of sexism and of liberation by revisiting those photos, those women and those times. The film follows this ever-evolving dialogue right into the 21st century, and takes aim at our current culture, vividly revealing the need for continued change.”

OCTOBER 12 (in theaters & streaming on Netflix): The Kindergarten Teacher (dir. Sara Colangelo)Los Angeles Times review by Justin Chang: “‘Anna is beautiful / beautiful enough for me.’ So begins the lovely and, yes, beautiful first poem we hear composed by Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), who, at first, resembles an ordinary 5-year-old but might in fact be a pint-sized literary prodigy. The only person who notices is his kindergarten teacher, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who immediately takes him under her wing, eager to shield his talent from the indifference and banality of a world with no use for poetry.

“This is the story told in Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher, a deft and intelligent minor-key variation on a superb 2014 Israeli film of the same title. That earlier picture, written and directed by Nadav Lapid (Policeman), was a slow-to-boil psychological drama that built to a scalding indictment of the mindlessness and materialism that increasingly hold sway over contemporary life. Lapid’s social critique carried a particularly potent sting when directed at Israel, but it has been transplanted, seamlessly and with little dilution of impact, to the Staten Island neighborhood Lisa calls home.

“She lives there with a dependable husband (Michael Chernus) and two teenagers (Daisy Tahan and Sam Jules), who do things a lot of teenagers do — eat pizza, throw pool parties, stare at their phones — and who are sullen and non-communicative in ways that parents and children will instinctively recognize. But there is nothing reassuring about that recognition, and the movie regards these moments of estrangement and apathy less as normal phases of young adulthood than as troubling symptoms of a culture in decline.

“You can take or leave that thesis, but The Kindergarten Teacher moves too swiftly and absorbingly to brook much argument in the meantime. Lisa responds to her domestic discontentment by throwing herself into her teaching, determined to at least mold the more impressionable minds in her midst. After school, she seeks to ward off her own intellectual decay, and perhaps unlock talents that she’s never had a chance to explore, by attending a poetry-writing class. (At the risk of telegraphing a later plot twist a bit too blatantly, her teacher is played by Gael García Bernal.)

“The moment when Jimmy first recites his poem, pacing back and forth in the classroom as though lost in a fugue state, brings Lisa’s artistic aspirations and pedagogical instincts together. Lisa is struck by the poem’s elegant structure and subtle depth of feeling and also floored by the possibility that its young author — in all other respects a rowdy, adorable and utterly normal kid — might have an exceedingly rare gift.

“In cultivating that gift, Lisa initially seems to be doing an educator’s due diligence, as when she presses his somewhat flighty nanny, Becca (Rosa Salazar), to pay attention and write down any poems she hears him recite. She reaches out to Jimmy’s similarly neglectful dad (Ajay Naidu), who spends most of his time running a Manhattan bar, and also Jimmy’s uncle (Samrat Chakrabarti), a wordsmith who seems to have instilled a love of poetry in his nephew to begin with.

“What gives The Kindergarten Teacher its peculiar force is how quickly it acknowledges the darker side of Lisa’s nurturing impulse — and how successfully it ushers us into a strange complicity with her all the same. Colangelo, who made her feature debut with the 2014 drama Little Accidents, balances the story’s myriad conflicting tensions with admirable lucidity. That’s another way of saying that she keeps the camera steadily trained on Gyllenhaal, whose brilliantly discomfiting performance anchors every scene.

“Lisa is hardly the first schoolteacher to employ a measure of manipulation as an educational tactic. But there is something particularly ruthless about the way she wraps a steely disposition in a warm, cajoling smile, her eyes twinkling with affection even as they penetrate your every defense. For all the attention Lisa showers on Jimmy — waking him during naptime for private lessons, having him accompany her to a Manhattan poetry reading — she refuses to infantilize him or treat him as anything but the genius she believes him to be. She demands a level of commitment commensurate with her own.

“And Jimmy, played with remarkable self-possession by Sevak, responds to Lisa’s orders with a mix of obedience and confusion that feels like an implicit rebuke. On the surface, her increasingly desperate actions might seem reckless and deluded to the point of stupidity, but her motivations to the end remain irreducibly, gratifyingly complex. It’s hard not to suspect that Lisa might be driven in part by jealousy, rooted in a deep awareness of her own failures. It’s also hard not to discern an element of seduction, more psychological than sexual, in the way she tries to coax Jimmy’s talent into the light.

“But it may be hardest of all to completely dismiss Lisa’s convictions, or the sense that her behavior, extreme though it may be, is rooted in a completely accurate assessment of a morally and intellectually bankrupt society. The Kindergarten Teacher may offer a less audacious, more stylistically muted version of its predecessor, but by the time its quietly perfect final shot arrives, the movie has reached the same provocative conclusion. It’s not poetry, exactly, but it’s pretty shattering prose.”

OCTOBER 12: Over the Limit (dir. Marta Prus)Quad Cinema synopsis: “The title says it all in this mesmerizing, relentless documentary following Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun’s grueling journey to the 2016 Olympics. Herself a former gymnast, Prus opts for a fly-on-the-wall approach, capturing not only Mamun’s remarkable physical feats (leaping, tumbling, and unfathomable balancing acts) but the evident psychological strain of the sport—and of her demanding coaches, whose idea of motivation consists of hurling abuse from the sidelines. Their best advice? ‘Find your inner harmony and touch up your eyebrows.'”

OCTOBER 12: Sadie (dir. Megan Griffiths)The Seattle Times review by Moira Macdonald: “‘Everybody’s got details,’ says an old man in the locally filmed drama Sadie, whittling away at a stick. “You gotta know how to carve them.’ Luckily, Seattle-based writer/director Megan Griffiths (The Night Stalker, Lucky Them, Eden) knows exactly how to carve her characters — with the help of a skilled cast of actors. Though it addresses big themes — children’s exposure to violence; opioid addiction; single parenting — Sadie is at its heart an intimate story, about a mother and daughter and a man who seems to come between them. But its honesty and power makes it feel large; you live among these characters in their weary trailer park, aching for them.

“Filmed in rain-soaked Everett and punctuated by the sound of a train whistle on its way to somewhere else, Sadie quickly introduces us to its title character (local actor Sophia Mitri Schloss, perfectly capturing the quicksilver ice of being 13) who lives with her mother, Rae (the always splendid Melanie Lynskey). Sadie idealizes her military father, who’s been overseas for years; the lonely Rae, who knows things about her marriage that her daughter doesn’t, is ready to move on. Along comes a stranger: Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr.), who attracts the eye of both Rae and her friend Carla (Danielle Brooks). Things get messy, and Sadie — her eyes narrowing as if they’re being sharpened to a point — thinks she knows how to solve the problem. But she’s 13, and of course she doesn’t.

“Much of the pleasure of Sadie is watching its beautifully carved details: Lynskey’s soft, hopeful line readings, suggesting a woman who’s known disappointment and yet still believes something better might come along; Brooks’ way of hinting at a world of pain behind Carla’s sassy-best-friend persona; the tired browns and grays of the characters’ homes, where the air feels damply cold and water perpetually drips from the gutters. But it’s at its most mesmerizing when fixed on Schloss’ unblinking gaze; a child at war with forces — and consequences — that she can’t yet understand.”

OCTOBER 12: Stella’s Last Weekend (dir. Polly Draper)City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “Oliver (Alex Wolff) is a Queens high school senior who is madly in love with Violet (Paulina Singer), a fellow classmate who is the girl of his dreams. Oliver’s older brother, Jack (Nat Wolff), is not so lucky with his love life, having made a real connection with a girl several months earlier, who suddenly dropped him without any explanation. When Jack comes home from college for a special celebration of Stella, the family’s beloved but aging dog, he soon discovers that the girl who broke his heart is the very same Violet who has stolen Oliver’s heart. A series of comic complications ensue as the romantic rivalry between the brothers escalates.”

OCTOBER 12: Watergate (dir. Charles Ferguson) (DPs: Shana Hagan, Yuanchen Liu, Dennis Madden, Daphne Matziaraki, Morgan Schmidt-Feng)Cinema Village synopsis:Watergate tells, for the first time, the entire story of the Watergate scandal, from the first troubling signs in Richard Nixon’s presidency to Nixon’s resignation and beyond. (Surprisingly, despite many excellent books and documentaries, the story of the Watergate scandal has never before been told in a truly comprehensive way.). But crucially, the film also situates Watergate in the context of all the issues it raised – many of which, of course, now resonate powerfully with current events.”

OCTOBER 16 (on digital): The Devil We Know (dir. Stephanie Soechtig with co-dir. Jeremy Seifert)Variety‘s Sundance Film Festival review by Dennis Harvey: “The list of modern conveniences that will sooner or later take a toll on your — or somebody’s — health gets a lot longer with The Devil We Know. Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary exposes the apparently decades-long efforts by the DuPont corporation to deny the adverse effects of chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon kitchenware, which they knew about at least as early as 1982. They’re still denying them, even as birth defects and other problems have increasingly surfaced among factory workers and nearby residents whose water has become polluted with industrial waste.

“This cogent, powerful indictment will most likely make its primary impact in small-screen exposure — though the Trumpian war on industrial and environmental regulation lends it a particularly urgent relevancy.

“What we first see is rough old video footage shot by Wilbur Tennant, a West Virginia farmer who’d sold part of his property to DuPont. They’d said they’d use the land only to dispose of ‘non-hazardous’ substances, but he soon suspected otherwise — particularly once dogs, wildlife and his entire livestock herd died. His belligerent citizen activism was later echoed by Joe Kiger, an area schoolteacher turned whistleblower who grew uneasy about the impact of chemicals in drinking water, then more so as his questions to authorities (including the Environmental Protection Agency) were brushed off with evasive PR blather.

“Their community of Parkersburg, WVa., is the epicenter of woes from commercial use of C8, a compound long used in the manufacturing that is the town’s economic engine. Its variants are deployed not just in creating non-stick cookware, but everything from microwave popcorn bags to waterproofed Patagonia sportswear. There’s little discussion here of the potential impact on everyday consumers, beyond the fact that C8 can now be found in the bloodstream of nearly every American, and that it has a very long shelf life in landfills.

“Those who worked directly with the chemicals at the plant were the first to suffer ill health effects, including cancer and birth defects that in the case of Bucky Bailey required more than 30 corrective surgeries when he was just a child. Eventually the problems began drifting downriver to other towns whose water was contaminated by the same factories’ pollution.

“Damning evidence is presented here that DuPont knew of C8’s impact but hid and denied that knowledge — then took over production of the hazardous substance from 3M when that company stopped making the stuff due to the research findings. A class-action suit finally staggered toward a heavily compromised win for residents. Yet even that seemed to offer little assurance for the future: DuPont and others remain free to slightly change C8’s chemical formula and continue producing it, as indeed they’ve done.

“Mixing footage of public hearings, news reports and corporate ads, plus input from scientists and activists, The Devil We Know is a riveting tale of long-term irresponsibility and injustice. It’s made particularly infuriating by the contrast between workers who placed all trust in their employers’ goodwill, and the government agencies that did very little to intervene when it became obvious those workers were being often fatally victimized by knowing corporations. As with numerous other environmentally focused docus of late, this one underlines the extent to which the EPA has its hands tied by Byzantine federal/state control limitations, as well as excessive influence from the very corporate interests it should be patrolling.

“Soechtig presents an unusually engrossing docu for this type of subject, with human interest always in the forefront despite the complex timeline of events, issues and information presented. The director, whose prior docs Under the Gun and Fed Up were also well-received exposés (of the gun lobby and obesity-promoting food industry, respectively), presides over an expert assembly that’s sharp in every department.”

OCTOBER 17: Charm City (dir. Marilyn Ness)IFC Center synopsis: – “On the streets of Baltimore, shooting is rampant, the murder rate is approaching an all-time high and the distrust of the police is at a fever pitch. With nerves frayed and neighborhoods in distress, dedicated community leaders, compassionate law-enforcement officers and a progressive young city councilman try to stem the epidemic of violence. Filmed over three tumultuous years covering the lead up to, and aftermath of, Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, CHARM CITY is an intimate cinema verité portrait of those surviving in, and fighting for, the vibrant city they call home. Directed by renowned documentary producer Marilyn Ness (Cameraperson; Trapped; E-Team).”

OCTOBER 19: Brewmaster (dir. Douglas Tirola) (DP: Emilie Jackson)Cinema Village synopsis:Brewmaster artfully captures the craftsmanship, passion and innovation within the beer industry.The story follows a young ambitious New York lawyer who struggles to chase his American dream of becoming a brewmaster and a Milwaukee based professional beer educator as he attempts to become a Master Cicerone. Helping tell the story of beer are some of the best-known personalities in the industry including Garrett Oliver, Jim Koch, Vaclav Berka, Ray Daniels, Charles Papazian and Randy Mosher. Brewmaster creates a cinematic portrait of beer, those who love it, those who make it and those who are hustling to make their mark.”

OCTOBER 19: Caniba (dirs./DPs: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)Museum of the Moving Image synopsis: “This new film from the pioneering directors behind the landmark documentary Leviathan is a discomfitingly experiential portrait of unacceptable desires. On June 13, 1981, 32-year-old Sorbonne student Issei Sagawa was arrested in Paris after being caught discarding two suitcases containing the remains of his Dutch classmate, who he had murdered and begun to consume. Declared legally insane, he returned to Japan, where he has been a free man ever since. Though ostracized from society, Sagawa has made a living off his crime by writing novels, drawing manga, and appearing in salacious documentaries and sexploitation films. Meanwhile his brother, Jun Sagawa, harbors extreme impulses of his own. With Caniba, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor—titans of Harvard’s celebrated Sensory Ethnography Lab—pursue a minimalist audiovisual strategy that is in some ways the inverse of the maximalist Leviathan, fostering unease and reflection through deceptively meandering conversation and subtly shifting focus. And as such Caniba is a singular cinematic experience: a horror movie by way of the documentary interview.”

OCTOBER 19: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller)New Yorker review by Richard Brody: “Melissa McCarthy has been in need of a substantial dramatic role for quite a while, and in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which opens on Friday, she gets one—and makes the most of it. But it’s clear, from the very first scene, that the movie, directed by Marielle Heller, is far more than just a showcase for McCarthy’s artistry. The film tells the story of the real-life writer and literary forger Lee Israel, and is based on Israel’s memoir of the same title. It is a fiercely composed, historically informed, and richly textured film, as insightful regarding the particularities of the protagonist as it is on the artistic life—and on the life of its times.

“The action begins in 1991 and is set in Manhattan. Lee, a proofreader working an overnight shift in a law firm and an object of her younger colleagues’ derision (which she repays in sarcasm), is fired on the spot, not for drinking on the job (which she’s brazenly doing) but for cursing out the young supervisor who reproaches her. Lee brusquely finishes her tumbler of Scotch, dumps the ice cubes into the garbage can under her desk, and puts the glass into her tote bag before leaving. The gestures have a pugnacious elegance; the text (from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) is rich in epigrammatic flair. Above all, Heller achieves an extraordinary, tense balance of moods and tones that yields sharp dramatic insight. Lee’s playful inventiveness and flamboyant attitudes do more than fuse with recklessly self-destructive behavior; they also incite and inspire it.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is set at the crossroads of money and art. Lee was once a biographer who appeared on the Times best-seller list, but she can no longer find a publisher for any of her projects of cultural history from a woman’s perspective. Her main plan, a biography of Fanny Brice—the comedian who was portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl—comes to naught. She’s never held a day job before, and her acerbic, cantankerous demeanor gets in the way of her keeping one now. In any case, as the movie makes clear, the research-heavy, travel-based work of nonfiction requires both time and money. The new, celebrity-heavy world of corporate-merger publishing has little room for her. No advances are forthcoming. Lee can’t pay her rent, nor can she pay the veterinarian to care for her aging cat. She even steals toilet paper (and other, more lavish commodities) from a publishing party. When she’s compelled to sell a prized possession—a letter Katharine Hepburn wrote her when she was working on a profile of the actress—a light bulb turns on in her mind.

“After finding, by chance, a letter from Brice between the pages of a library book, Lee steals it and tries to sell it. Learning that its value would be increased if its contents were spicier, she spices it up with a flourish of a P.S. that seems to emerge from her own mind-meld with her cherished subject. Lee quickly morphs from a biographer into impersonator, relying on the same skills that she used to enter into imaginative sympathy with the people she wrote about. She becomes, in effect, a writer of docufiction, setting up a cottage industry of fabricated letters from celebrities she ‘gets,’ including Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward, Edna Ferber, and Dorothy Parker—writers whose identities are plotted on the dimensions of womanhood, gayness, Jewishness, sharp wit, and artistic talent. (The movie revels in the material specifics of her deceit, involving old manual typewriters, replicated letterheads, signatures that she forges by using an upturned TV set as a lightbox, and paper that she ages in her oven.)

“Lee is single, but is still in close mental proximity to her ex, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith). She’s also back in touch with a former acquaintance, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay man who’s H.I.V.-positive, homeless, free-spirited, defiant, and—like Lee herself—quietly and proudly desperate. As their friendship grows, he takes note of Lee’s sudden and unwarranted solvency and asks about it. ‘Can you keep a secret?’ she asks. ‘Who would I tell?’ he replies; ‘All my friends are dead.’ The devastation of the AIDS crisis is also at the center of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Heller, pointedly and surely, creates a work of mourning for its victims and of gratitude for the community of activists who fought for rights, respect, and treatment—and cared for the stricken among them.

“The movie is sharply historically informed, down to its urban geography. The bar that Lee frequents, and where she meets Jack, for the first time by chance and later by design, is Julius’, a longtime gay bar in the West Village and the site, in 1966, of the Sip-In, a historic protest against the city’s anti-gay laws and the bar’s own discriminatory practices. It’s not expressly a story of activism; Jack is depicted as an apolitical hedonist (he also gets involved in Lee’s criminal scheme), but he, too, is in his way an artist (also a heedless and sometimes destructive one)—an artist of life, whose ardent vitality contrasts cruelly with his fate.

“The decimation of the gay community marches alongside the decimation of the city’s artistic culture. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a movie of endings, a mournful film, suffused with an air of doom, in which the sort of genteel literary poverty that kept Lee going can no longer be sustained. Even the core of her art, her caustically aphoristic brilliance, comes off as a defense mechanism, not merely against the usual buffeting winds of life but against prying and suspicion from an age when L.G.B.T. people were the subject of severe legal discrimination and social prejudice. The scintillating verbal inventiveness that’s essential to her art, and to her personal allure, is also an electrified fence that enforces privacy, even at the price of desperate solitude.

“Heller’s geographic specificity includes appealing glimpses of some of the borough’s most picturesque bookstores—happily, ones that survive to this day, such as Argosy, Westsider, the Housing Works Bookstore Café, and Logos. With their venerable charm (filmed lovingly by Heller, with incisive, nearly matte-seeming cinematography by Brandon Trost), they nonetheless have the fragile air of survivors of a series of storms—and Lee’s own fraudulent sales of fabricated memorabilia turn out to be among the threats that these businesses face.

“These sales, and the confidence game that she plays with dealers in order to make them, are dramatized in outrageously careful criminal detail—as well as in their personal implications, both for Lee and for the buyers. In particular, a woman named Anna (played by Dolly Wells with a tremulous grace), who admires Lee’s voice and bearing, falls further under her spell, with painful results. The entire cast performs at a perfect pitch of slightly heightened tension that lends their range of emotions—confrontational worldliness, brave-faced struggle, solitary pride—a striving pitch of urbane intensity. In particular, Grant, as Jack, seems to bear a vast history of pleasure and trouble with a breezy flair, and, as Lee’s agent, Jane Curtin delivers hard wisdom with an intellectual boxer’s devastating deftness.

“Above all, McCarthy infuses the role of Lee with many levels of imagination. McCarthy is one of the most verbally inventive actors of the time and, playing a person of learning, imagination, and experience, her verbal inventiveness is no mere comedic adornment but the core of the character’s identity, and she flaunts it with a pathos that suggests the essential doubleness of art, its element of gaudy artifice as well as of intimate self-revelation. The pivot of the action is Lee’s unwillingness to expose her own life and character to the scrutiny and criticism of readers, and the gap that her inhibition—one born of her fortress of privacy—makes between her artistic soul and her artistic voice.

“The movie never excuses or minimizes Lee’s crimes (which eventually include the theft and sale of authentic letters); yet it considers them in the paradoxical light of her own talent, which, she asserts, was revealed more definitively in those forgeries than in her prior avowed works. The confessional book itself, on which the movie was based—and in which Israel cites and discusses these fraudulent works of her authentic artistry—provides a fascinating nonfiction view of these fictions. But the movie adaptation reaches beyond its source to broaden its backdrop and evoke resonant depths of mood, context, history, and perspective. It’s one of the rare movies that give a cinematic identity to literary creation, that virtually bursts with the athletic pleasure of imagination. Heller’s images are simple and poised, lucid but weighty—they vibrate with the expressive force that they condense and contain.”

OCTOBER 19 (in theaters & on VOD): Change in the Air (dir. Dianne Dreyer)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Change in the AIr opens in a modest home on a quiet street. An old man, Walter Lemke (M. Emmet Walsh), skips breakfast with his wife, Margaret (Olympia Dukakis), walks outside, and steps in front of an oncoming car. Deliberately. Moody Burkhart (Aidan Quinn), the police officer who responds to the accident, inquires about the woman, Wren Miller (Rachel Brosnahan), who placed the emergency call, but when he knocks on Wren’s door, she hides.

“The following day, Jo Ann & Arnie Bayberry (Mary Beth Hurt and Peter Gerety) return from a bird-watching expedition. Their next-door neighbor, Donna (Macy Gray), tells them Mr. Lemke is in the hospital and that she’s found a new tenant to sublet her apartment: Wren. When Mr. Lemke returns home, Jo Ann sees him sitting by himself in his front yard. She drags her lawn chair down the street and sets up beside him – invading his space with the best of intentions. Walter never says a word; Jo Ann never stops talking.

“Meanwhile, Josh (Satya Bhabha), the local mailman, daily delivers a large bag of letters to Wren’s door. In the days that follow, Jo Ann’s vigil on the Lemke lawn expands along with her fascination with Wren. But now it’s not just Jo Ann who is intrigued.

“This story embraces the imperfections that make us human, offers a way to set ourselves free and asks us all to take a good, long look at the wild birds in the sky.”

OCTOBER 19: An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (dir. Jim Hosking) (DP: Nanu Segal)Newsweek review by Andrew Whalen: “We are all more like characters in An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn than anyone is likely to admit. Following the tangled relations between a vanload of people in the lead up to a mysterious event at the Moorhouse Hotel, the evening with Beverly Luff Linn itself, director Jim Hosking’s follow-up to 2016’s The Greasy Strangler isn’t as fevered (he co-wrote this film with David Wike), but does cut closer to the childish heart of humanity.

Beverly Luff Linn doesn’t have the same defenses as The Greasy Strangler, which layered Riki-Oh ’s gorey plastic bodies, prosthetic penises and a strange, almost arthouse ending over its essentially puerile (in a good way!) appeal. Luff Linn opens in similar territory, with profoundly doltish characters working a business that seems unworkable, in this case a franchise coffee shop that mostly deals in carnival-cup cappuccinos that disgust customers. But Beverly Luff Linn never offers a retreat into anything as surreal as a grease-covered serial killer, instead sticking close to more familiar discomforts, beginning with store manager Shane Danger (Emile Hirsch) awkwardly firing his wife, Lulu Danger (Aubrey Plaza), according to corporate edict.

“Shane’s feelings of inadequacy lead him to rob Lulu’s brother Adjay’s vegan shop of its cash box, which Lulu quickly absconds with, hiding in the Moorhouse with inept hired muscle and wannabe drifter-adventurer Colin Keith Threadener (Jemaine Clement). As Colin pines for Lulu from across the gap between their twin beds, Lulu pursues her great lost love, in town for a special engagement, Beverly Luff Linn himself (Craig Robinson).

“At first, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn feels like it’s playing with pieces of melodrama, crashing absurd characters against each other and watching them tangle. Aubrey’s Lulu brings to every encounter a faux-aristocratic contempt, smoldering out from her mothy, estate sale wardrobe as she contemptuously holds Colin aloft. Shane waves a gun around and stalks Lulu, but is completely absent of menace, thanks in part to the blonde wig and Rita Hayworth sunglasses that make up his disguise. That all of the romantic subplots swirl around Luff Linn, who speaks entirely in grunts and growls, seems to highlight how An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn doesn’t care about the content of its characters’ torments.

“It’s not a notion Beverly Luff Linn is quick to counter, especially when so much of what’s fun and funny about it is pitched at the exact level of appeal of playing with your food. (Even better than the cheesy onion rings Colin scarfs are the hotel bar drinks, each of which come with one of those jumbo Tootsie Roll logs as a stirrer.) Characters call each other names like ‘big fat penis face,’ while Lulu self-importantly chides Colin for eating bar nuts by telling him ‘You know those might have poo on them, you don’t want to get poo in your mouth, do you?’

“But then a strange thing happens: their childishness begins to feel less like flippancy and more like raw pathos. Colin’s laborious story of how he got his name (something to do with an uncle and… teeth?) isn’t poignant in itself, but Luff Linn leaves Clement the room to breathe a tragic, hangdog energy into his character. Rodney Von Donkensteiger’s (U.K. comic actor Matt Berry, opening another front in his slow invasion of American comedy) overbearing protectiveness of Luff Linn begins to feel less like a joke and more like true romance (which pays off sweetly in an after credits sequence).

“The mechanisms of this drama continue to be juvenile, but begin to feel less like immaturity and more like a sympathetic guilelessness, instantly identifiable to anyone who’s felt the emptiness at the heart of adulting like a boss. When a character condescendingly orders, ‘The Earl Grey, I’m sure you haven’t heard of it,’ I could feel the barb reach back and burst my own embarrassed memories of performing sophistication.

“What the actual, magical evening with Beverly Luff Linn reveals I will not spoil, except to say I was surprised by its romantic earnestness. An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is an odd combination of characters who talk like playground bullies and an almost mystic somberness, as if ‘Twin Peaks’ invaded Best in Show. But what’s most impressive is how much open emotion emerges from its eerie, fart-haunted world.”

OCTOBER 19: Galveston (dir. Mélanie Laurent)Film School Rejects’ SXSW review by Matthew Monagle: “Here’s to films about sad-sack professional killers and the sex workers they love. For decades now, Hollywood has been telling elegiac stories of people on the run from lives of violence. Over time, this narrative has become cinema’s answer to the jazz standard, a familiar conceit that gives its performers ample opportunity to show off their own individual style. Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston is one such example within the genre; while there’s a thread of familiarity throughout the movie, her steady hand and the powerful performances of her leads give Galveston its own alluring sense of self.

“Roy Cady (Ben Foster) is dying. A lifelong smoker, Cady has just been given a terminal diagnosis by his doctor, and what little life Cady has cobbled together in New Orleans seems suddenly unimportant in light of his illness. He doesn’t care, for example, that his employer (Beau Bridges) seems to have stolen his girlfriend out from underneath him, but his boss cares, quite a bit, and would like to speed up Cady’s exit from this world. That’s why Cady is suspicious when he is told to intimidate a local lawyer but not to bring a gun; in the inevitable firefight, Cady leaves behind three dead bodies and gains Rocky Arceneaux (Elle Fanning), a sex worker whose only real sin is that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“After the two manage to calm their nerves with a few shots of whiskey – ‘Cheer up. You’re alive. I’m buying.’ – Arceneaux and Cady head out west, stopping on the Louisiana border to pick up her little sister along the way. Before long, they find themselves in the poorest part of Galveston, Texas, not sure what to do next but knowing their time together is probably limited. With nothing to lose and not much time left among the living, Cady begins looking for ways to potentially set up Arceneaux and her sister when he’s gone.

“Few actors embody the threat of violence quite like Ben Foster. From his recent supporting roles in Hostiles and Hell or High Water – not to mention his off-Broadway stint as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire – Foster seems born to play the abuser, a man hellbent on punishing those around him for the injustices he feels he’s been offered by the world. This sometimes leads us to forget Foster’s nuance as an actor. Foster finds little moments of fragility amidst the bravado and outrage; in one scene, for example, he contemplates a cigarette before choosing to light it, making a clear decision to embrace his end when it occurs.

“And then there’s Elle Fanning. Those familiar with her work in The Neon Demon know that Fanning possesses uncanny depth for an actress her age. With Arceneaux, she convincingly moves between innocence, innocence lost, and a calculated innocence that she uses to earn the trust of those around her. Galveston is cruel to Arceneaux, as it is to most of its characters, but Fanning’s performance keeps her character from ever falling into cliche. To borrow a phrase from another story set in Texas, there is a part of herself that she keeps just for herself; she has power, even if it’s just in the tough decisions she makes to keep ends together.

Galveston also presents an authorial puzzle for those willing to do the work. Rody Cady is unquestionably a character born from the mind of author Nic Pizzolatto; abusive, drunk, and quietly self-destructing, Cady possesses many of the characteristics we recognize from True Detective, the series that catapulted Pizzolatto to stardom (and just as quickly became his downfall with a lackluster Season 2). But unlike the characters in that series, Cady is deprived his victimhood by the women around him. His ex-girlfriend and the manager of his motel both see through Cady’s facade, and Rocky’s relationship with Cady is given a degree of independence by Fanning’s powerful performance. It’s hard not to wonder where Pizzolatto ends and where Laurent begins in the narrative. Galveston will undoubtedly make for a fine dissertation on adaptation one day.

“And what of Galveston itself? Outside of the film’s ill-conceived framing device of an impending hurricane, Galveston’s story is well-matched to its coastal setting. This is a city that has been wiped away by countless storms, only to rebuild unevenly across economic lines; at times, Galveston feels more like a movie borrowing from The Florida Project than a traditional crime thriller. Laurent delves into the poorest parts of the city to shoot her film – one particular tracking shot is like a guided tour of economic anxiety – allowing Galveston a sense of location unique to many of its peers. If Galveston is indeed just another hoary standard, then it proves more about the talent of the performer than the quality of the song. No noir can truly disappoint when you’ve got East Texas on your side.”

OCTOBER 19 (NYC), OCTOBER 24 (LA): On Her Shoulders (dir./DP: Alexandria Bombach)RogerEbert.com review by Nell Minow: “Four years ago, Nadia Murad Basee Taha was a teenager living in a Yazidi farm community in the Sinjar district of Iraq when ISIL took over the town, murdered 600 people, and captured the women and girls as sex slaves. She escaped three months later and has spent most of the time since speaking out on what happened to her and her people. This month, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This award-winning documentary tells her story.

Director Alexandria Bombach understands that there are two stories here. First there is the inspiring story of a young woman who had no ambitions of becoming a world figure but who overcame unthinkable loss and trauma by devoting herself to helping others. Then there is the story of a young woman who is forced to relive her most painful experience over and over and who is constantly bombarded by the overwhelming needs of others, from the photo-op sympathy of politicians and journalists to the heartbreak of her surviving community, most still living in refugee camps, who sob in her arms and beg her to get them some help.

Mostly, Bombach just lets the camera sit quietly as Murad goes through her exhausting schedule of meetings, media appearances, and book signings. She captures some telling images: a refugee lowering his fishing line into the ocean through a cracked panel in the fence around the camp, Murad touching a heavy chain around a locked gate, Murad’s comment on seeing a school marching band practice, ‘If this were in Iraq, someone would blow himself up.’ She gazes into a beauty salon mirror as her hair is wrapped around a curling iron. In one of her appearances before a UN assembly, we will learn something about what her long hair means to her.

Murad wants the world to hear her story and she is focused on a particular goal. She wants to be on the agenda of the meeting of world leaders in New York, to ask them to declare what happened to her people an official genocide and to give them justice. The process for getting the opportunity to speak to the assembly of Presidents and Prime Ministers is a daunting one. Early in the film she is preparing for what amounts to an audition. She will speak to a committee at the United Nations, and if she passes muster, she can move up to the next level.

“The time limit is strict. Her rehearsal for the initial presentation is 50 seconds over time so she has to figure out what to cut. If she takes out too much detail, the plea for help will have no weight. If she takes out the plea, she will leave without presenting a challenge to be met. When she has to shorten the speech for the final version, she eliminates the call to the world leaders to imagine what it would be like to be enslaved by ISIS because ‘What’s the benefit of asking them to imagine?’

“The film’s most affecting moments are when Murad speaks directly to the camera. She says that the only way she can deal with what she has suffered is to devote herself to helping the other girls who suffered, too, but do not have the opportunity to bring their stories to the world. She says she feels worthless, and will always feel that way until her people get justice.

She was content in her home in Sinjar, she tells us, doing chores, tending sheep, spending time with family, and hoping she could become a hairdresser, a place ‘where women and girls would see themselves as special.’ She wishes that people would know her as an excellent seamstress or athlete, not as a victim of ISIS terrorism.

It is at best bittersweet when she is named a goodwill ambassador by the UN. Her title carries as much tragedy as honor: Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. As Murad makes clear in her three minutes, there is no dignity without justice. There is only one border, she tells the presidents and prime ministers, ‘the border of humanity.’ We see this movie to learn who the young Nobel Peace Prize winner is, but in the end, it is about her challenging us to learn who we are.

OCTOBER 19: The Waldheim Waltz (dir. Ruth Beckermann)Metrograph synopsis: “When former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim ran for the presidency of Austria in 1986, he was suddenly haunted by the re-emergence of specters from his Nazi past, vehemently and disingenuously denied. Using archival material and her own vintage video footage of anti-Waldheim rallies which show anti-Semitism alive and well in the Europe of the mid-‘80s, Ruth Beckermann narrates this scintillating film, in which the combination of bald-faced lying by public figures, anti-media animus, and populist bully tactics speak all too clearly to our present moment.”

OCTOBER 19: What They Had (dir. Elizabeth Chomko)Vulture’s Sundance Film Festival review by David Edelstein: “Introducing her exquisite debut feature, What They Had, at Sundance, the writer-director Elizabeth Chomko addressed the movie’s initiating event — a woman with Alzheimer’s reaching the last-but-one stage, number six — only obliquely. Chomko painted a larger picture.

“‘Memory,’ she said, ‘is a gift we’re given. I don’t want to take it for granted.’ And so, in the film, the camera occasionally lingers on photos and home movies of Ruth (Blythe Danner) and her husband, Bert (Robert Forster), as they were in their 20s and 30s; and Ruth is tasked to carry a picture in a locket that can remind her, fleetingly, who the man across the table from her is.

“Before I get too lachrymose, I should mention that the movie has a lot of great laughs: The characters speak their minds and then some. The main couple isn’t the old one but a pair of middle-aged siblings, Bridget (Hilary Swank), and Nicky (Michael Shannon), who call each names like ‘turkey’ and ‘dingle-fairy’ and whose conversations often end in shouting matches. Bridget has flown in from Los Angeles to take some of the burden off Nicky and has brought her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who’s been thrown out of her college dorm for drinking and is almost as prickly as her uncle. Nicky is being eaten alive by multiple stressors. He has poured all his money into a high-toned bar that his father has never deigned to visit. And he feels that he alone bears the responsibility for his mother’s well-being. He’s furious that Bert won’t put her in a facility for people with dementia, even after she has wandered into the snow in a nightgown and boarded a train. Bert is a stubborn cuss.

“Actually, ‘cuss’ is the exact wrong word. A devout Catholic, Bert abhors his kids’ swearing and believes it’s his duty is to care for his wife until the bitter end. Also, he adores her. The subtext (and Über-text) of What They Had is the impact of such an overbearing father on his children’s self-esteem. Bert compelled (impelled, bullied) Bridget to marry an up-and-comer she didn’t love and now can barely stand. (Seen very briefly and played by Josh Lucas, the husband seems a nice enough fellow but dull.) Bert also insists on belittling Nicky — a bar owner — by calling him a bartender. The crux of Nicky and Bridget’s arguments is that she has power of attorney over her parents but won’t stand up to them. Nicky hectors her, she squirms, Nicky hectors her, she squirms, and nothing happens.

“Because nothing happens for a while doesn’t mean What They Had droops. Swank manages the difficult task of looking powerfully indecisive — i.e., animating her inaction, making you feel her inner struggle. Shannon I can’t begin to praise enough. Only last week, in a review of the war movie 12 Strong, I said he remains on pace to act in more movies than anyone ever while also doing plays, and here he is again and as good as I’ve seen him. (A tall order: He was, believe it or not, a definitive Dr. Astrov in an intimate theater production of Uncle Vanya a few years back.) His Nicky is primed to jump at his family’s criticisms, which means he seizes on those times when he can criticize back. Nicky is often hilariously rude and often just rude.

“Blythe Danner has the difficult task of responding to everything and registering almost nothing. She does it beautifully, with lyricism. Perhaps there’s something romanticized about her — forgive me — blitheness. I don’t know, not having observed enough people with Alzheimer’s. I do know that the way in which she switches on a dime from a nurturing mother (greeting every new person with ‘There’s my baby!’) to a little girl who wants to go home is heartbreaking. Forster, meanwhile, anchors the movie. Without yelling, his Bert has a bullying power — the kind that comes from utter faith in his own rationality (not to mention the Catholic Church).

“Chomko — a one-time actress and playwright — went through something similar with her own grandparents, to whom the film is dedicated. (They appear in a photograph, of course.) She does something in What They Had that I’ve never seen in this kind of film: The family laughs at some of Ruth’s screwball-illogical interjections. This didn’t offend me in the least: Laughter is a coping device, and Ruth — being largely oblivious — laughs with everyone else. Those moments are always double-edged, though. There’s a wonderful bit when Nicky solemnly informs Bridget that his mother hit on him and they both go into hysterics. But later, as the film inches towards its climax, Nicky tells that to his dad, and it’s the first time we see Bert speechless, unable to process what he’s hearing. There’s raw power in Chomko’s writing, but so much scrupulousness and craft that you feel safe when the time comes to weep.”

OCTOBER 26 (streaming on Netflix): Been So Long (dir. Tinge Krishnan) (DP: Catherine Derry)Screen Daily’s London Film Festival review by Nikki Baughan: “Seven years after her debut film Junkhearts screened at the London Film Festival, director Tinge Krishnan returns with Been So Long, set to bow on Netflix on October 26 but screening first as a Special Presentation at the same festival. Fortunately, this vibrant musical love story is a rather more upbeat prospect than her first work. As established in the colourful opening musical number, in which the historic markets of Camden are transformed into a joyous streetdance, Che Walker’s adaptation of his own 1998 play — reimagined as a stage musical in in 2009 — seems to paint London as a town of optimistic possibility. That, together with the rising star power of Michaela Coel (Channel 4’s ‘Chewing Gum’), should pull in numbers for the SVOD giant.

“On the surface, this is a fairly standard love-conquers-all narrative, complete with familiar beats; the excitement of initial chemistry gives way to doubts, mistakes are made, decisions are hard-fought and, eventually, fate finds its way. Been So Long is, however, given additional texture thanks to its black female focus. Working from Walker’s astute screenplay, Coel is excellent as determined single mother Simone, unwilling to admit her vulnerabilities – her desire to protect her disabled daughter both admirable and an obvious smokescreen for her own fears. Ronke Adekoluejo is a particular standout as her brash best friend Yvonne, a fiercely proud woman entirely in control of her own sexual identity, whose character arc also calls for some genuinely moving soul searching of her own.

“Simone has worked hard to create a safe bubble for herself and her young girl — ‘It’s me and you against the world’ is her constant refrain — but when she meets Raymond (Arinze Kene), recently out of prison and working to get back on his feet, their instant connection is like an emotional wrecking ball. While Yvonne encourages her to spread her wings — ‘Your vagina called me, and told me it’s dying,’ she admonishes — Simone finds herself locked in a battle between past mistakes and future happiness.

“Indeed, the entire cast, which also features George MacKay as a troubled young addict, shoulders the story with energy and personality; no mean feat when it also requires them to belt out Arthur Darvill’s original songs (rearranged for the screen by music producer and score composer Christopher Nicholas Bangs) and carry out some intricate choreography. While all are confidently handled by Krishnan, some of these moments work better than others — Yvonne’s ‘I Want A Fella’ is a raucous, feminist highlight, while Raymond’s bar seduction song is, perhaps intentionally, rather more awkward.

“Crucially, underneath the music and the soft-focus romance Been So Long makes some poignant observations about community, family and the importance of connection. Most obviously, that plays out in Simone’s personal experiences; that her own father left her mother, and her daughter’s father also walked out, has clearly shaped the cautious, independent woman she is today. It’s also important that, even as she falls in love with Raymond, it’s Simone’s relationship with her daughter and Yvonne that are the strongest in the film, and the ones she works hardest to maintain.

“In a wider sense, Been So Long also highlights how traditional social structures are being eroded. ‘People don’t want inclusivity, they want exclusivity,’ says the owner of a new local bar and, as cinematographer Catherine Derry lingers on the fading facades and shuttered buildings of Camden, it’s a reminder of how gentrification is redrawing the lines of community there. But, as her camera drinks in the stunning London skyline, or vivid sequences of people from all walks of life dancing in unison, it’s also clear that the film’s message is rather more optimistic. If we’re open to new experiences, and new people, we can still find our place.”

OCTOBER 26: The Long Shadow (dir. Frances Causey with co-dir. Maureen Gosling)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Of all the divisions in America, none is as insidious and destructive as racism. In this powerful documentary, the filmmakers, both privileged daughters of the South, who were haunted by their families slave owning pasts, passionately seek the hidden truth and the untold stories of how America—guided by the South’s powerful political influence—steadily, deliberately and at times secretly, established white privilege in our institutions, laws, culture and economy.

“William Faulkner once said, ‘The past is never dead. The past is not even past.’ And this echoes one scholar’s warning in the film: ‘We’re still fighting the Civil War, and the South is winning.’ Anti-black racism has survived like ‘an infection,’ rigging the game against African-Americans and denying them full access to the American dream.

“By telling individual stories—of free, enterprising blacks in Canada; of a modern, racially motivated shooting—the filmmakers movingly personalize the costs and the stakes of our continued inaction. The Long Shadow presents a startling, unrecognized history that provides much needed context when considering the major issues impacting black/white relations in the United States today.

“Finally, The Long Shadow is a masterful film that captures the disturbing story of the enduring human cost of prejudice and ignorance in the US that continues to cast a long shadow over our national identity and values and ultimately, our celebrated democracy.”

OCTOBER 26 (in theaters & streaming on Netflix): Shirkers (dir. Sandi Tan) (DP: Iris Ng)IndieWire’s Sundance Film Festival review by Eric Kohn:Shirkers is a documentary about the production of an uncompleted movie, but it doubles as an upgraded version of the missing project itself. As a punk teen in early-nineties Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote a feminist slasher movie for the ages, an exploitation road movie designed to ruminate on the energy of youth, creativity, and alienation. The director, a much older American high school instructor with dubious motives, stole the film canisters for unknown reasons and vanished into the mist; two decades later, Tan has completed a fascinating personal look at her quest to uncover his motives, resurrecting the significance of her original intentions in the process.

“Tan’s actual debut, Shirkers takes its title from her earlier effort, an adorably deranged slasher movie in which she starred as a bored young woman killing men to pass the time. Though her old pals celebrate its relevance to Singapore’s minuscule film community at the time, Tan — whose voiceover, hand-scrawled credits and substantial archival materials guide the narrative — sees it more as representative of her artistic awakening. As her older mentor’s greed and envy leads to tragic circumstances, Shirkers becomes a paean to the pivotal moment when the idealism of young adulthood faces a harsh reality check.

“With her best pals Jasmine Ng (later a filmmaker in her own right with 1999’s Eating Air) and Sophie Siddique, both of whom appear in Shirkers as their adult selves, Tan found an outlet from her drab surroundings through the subversive discoveries of loud music, Jim Jarmusch movies and underground zines. With a wondrous score underlining this dynamic period in her life, Tan reflects on what it meant to live on a small island nation and uncover the prospects of escapism through storytelling: ‘I had the idea that you found freedom with worlds inside your head.’

“Enter Georges Cardona, an assertive fortysomething who takes an interest in fostering his students’ enthusiasm for film history, even as his tactics seem questionable in retrospect. Far more than a classroom instructive, Cardona takes Sandi and her friends around for late-night drives, as old VHS footage documents their joy rides through empty roads as if they’ve broken into the set of Trash Humpers. Cardona may be crossing boundaries with his students, but they’re just thrilled to break all the rules.

“At first, he’s Tan’s key to realizing the creative utopia in her head, as the pair travels America together before she starts college in London. Then she writes the screenplay for Shirkers, and Cardona gives her the confidence to bring it to life. The production becomes a communal affair, but Cardona lords over it with a destructive air that only worsens as time goes on; he seems to consciously slow the production’s progress before stealing the end result, presumably obstructing Tan’s success as a twisted means of spreading his own failures to feel less alone in the world.

Shirkers didn’t vanish forever because its footage becomes the backbone of Tan’s documentary. The filmmaker finally scored the footage decades later, and in the process, learned more about Cardona’s deranged track record. The root of his motives is ultimately less revelatory than the way the movie uses it to explore the fragile nature of artistic desire and what can happen when it’s left unsatisfied. Cardona may have succeeded at spreading his malady, but Tan’s innovative diaristic project means that she gets the last word.

Shirkers has the handmade delicacy of a scrapbook come to life, blending ample footage from the original production with candid modern-day interviews and photography. Equal parts travelogue and archival rescue mission, the ensuing drama becomes a microcosm of broader themes. While the interest surrounding Tan’s project speaks to the limited field of Singapore’s film industry, her initial passion as a young cinephile reflects the state of a country capable of absorbing Western culture without cementing a cultural revolution of its own.

“Having established such potent themes and an intriguing central mystery, Shirkers falls short of a satisfying solution by its final third. Tan seems hesitant to reach firm answers about Cardona’s story, or the root of his obsession with her in the first place. Fortunately, those questions mainly serve as a conduit to discussions about her passion for the project.

“Whether it was a botched masterpiece or simply an idealistic young woman’s first stab at finding her creative voice, Tan can’t say. After shifting careers from production to criticism before finding her way back again, she has produced a remarkable statement on the formation of a creative identity across many years and life experiences. Whatever the original intentions of Shirkers, some two decades years later, she found out a way to complete it on her own terms.”

OCTOBER 26: Viper Club (dir. Maryam Keshavarz)The Landmark at 57 West synopsis: “ER nurse Helen Sterling (Susan Sarandon) struggles to free her grown son, a journalist captured by terrorists in the Middle East. After hitting walls with the FBI and State agencies, she discovers a clandestine community of journalists, advocates, and philanthropists who might be able to help. Co-starring Matt Bomer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye and Edie Falco. Directed and co-written by Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance).

OCTOBER 26: Weed the People (dir. Abby Epstein) (DPs: Paulo Netto, Richard Pearce and Jenna Rosher)Film Journal International review by Gary M. Kramer:Weed the People is director Abby Epstein’s effective exploration into the way cannabis oil is being used as an alternative medicine for kids battling cancer. The film introduces several patients, from Sophie Ryan, a baby with a brain tumor, to AJ Kephart, a teenager with stage 4 bone cancer, to show how they are responding to doses of cannabis oil—often in conjunction with chemotherapy. The results, as the film shows, are nothing short of miraculous.

“The stories are all heartfelt. Epstein wants Weed the People to provide folks with hope. It may jerk tears when one subject encounters a setback, or another patient loses their battle with cancer, but there will also be tears of joy with the film’s multiple success stories.

“A significant part of the documentary is devoted to questioning the dearth of research for medical marijuana in the U.S. and the government’s lack of support for the viability of cannabis oil’s medicinal properties. (The DEA declined loosening restrictions on medical marijuana.) Because marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, it is not tested for its healing properties—despite its use a century ago, before weed was criminalized. Moreover, scientists in Israel and Spain are making great progress in showing how cannabis is killing cancer cells. THC is shown for reducing tumor growth and metasticization.

“As such, individuals who believe in the healing properties of marijuana are on the front lines of this battle, and Weed the People showcases the important and groundbreaking work they are doing in the field. Dr. Bonni Goldstein, a cannabis physician, counsels patients and provides support for families like the Petersons, who have to move from Chicago to California to be eligible for medical marijuana.

“Likewise, Mara Gordon, co-founder of Aunt Zelda’s Oil, creates THC and CBD oils that are given to her patients to kill cancer cells in exchange for collecting their data (to determine efficacy). Her efforts are altruistic; she makes her oils in her kitchen, and charges families for the source plant but absorbs her overhead costs. Mara claims she doesn’t have medical training, but she does have experience, and her skills and care provide invaluable support for her patients and their families. Weed the People generates some drama when Tracy, the mother of a patient Mara is treating, becomes a ‘momcologist,’ and starts her product line, CannaKids. Tracy stopped using Mara’s more expensive products and used the knowledge she gained from working with Mara to her own ends.

“The ethical, legal and financial aspects of this burgeoning industry are indirectly addressed by Epstein’s film. There are some discussions of the expense, and Jim von Harz raises money through a fund to help supply cannabis oil for his daughter’s ongoing treatment. One mom, Angela Smith, is given an oil that is determined to contain rubbing alcohol, suggesting that there are hucksters out there offering faulty products. Moreover, when the Peterson family return to Chicago, ‘angel donors’ illegally send cannabis shipments to continue their son’s treatment. These are all fascinating if underexplored topics that could easily support another film on the subject of medical marijuana.

“But the broad approach and focus on the families and practitioners here is not a major drawback. Although Weed the People is one-sided—in that it does not give a voice to opponents of medical marijuana—this seems like a deliberate decision. Epstein is using the impassioned testimonies of parents to makes the film’s salient points.

“Several parents saw cannabis oil therapy as a last resort—because they were willing to try anything to save their children. In doing so, they become the treatment’s greatest advocates. As mothers like Tracy and Angela are amazed by the noticeable changes in their kids’ health, viewers, too, cannot help but be moved by the good news they receive and the support they get from their kids’ oncologists. It is gratifying to see footage of Angela’s son Chico, who suffers from a soft tissue cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, lying listlessly on the couch in early scenes riding a bike by the film’s end. When Chico wants to get a grow kit for his 14th birthday, it is both provocative and oddly satisfying.

Weed the People makes a convincing case for the progress and advances most of the kids profiled here experience. The film wears its bias proudly, as it wants to foment change and save lives. That message comes across clearly here, even if some folks may remain skeptical.”