Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (right) with director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler on the set of Black Panther, 2017. (Photo: Lisa Satriano)
Here are twelve new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this February, all of which have been directed and/or photographed by women. These titles are sure to intrigue cinephiles and also provoke meaningful discussions on the film world, as well as the world in general.
FEBRUARY 2: Before We Vanish (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) (DP: Akiko Ashizawa) – RogerEbert.com review by Simon Abrams: “There’s a lot of dead air in the endearingly eccentric Japanese science-fiction thriller Before We Vanish. That’s bound to be a deal-breaker for many viewers given that this film clocks in at 130 minutes, and feels like it could easily be half as long. Then again, you shouldn’t really expect much story or character development from this Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like alien invasion drama. Think of Before We Vanish as a very laid back hang-out movie that often coasts on off-kilter charm, and is frequently buoyed by basic, but stirring ideas that co-writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Tokyo Sonata) executes with characteristic flair. It’s an unsettling, and sometimes high-concept doodle, but it’s awfully hard to resist a film that marries Atomic Age paranoia and optimism with Kurosawa’s signature post-modern, atmosphere-intensive style.
“The plot, co-adapted with Sachiko Tanaka from Tomohiro Maekwa’s source play, is simple enough. Three aliens crash-land on Earth shortly before a planned planet-wide invasion. We are told this by the three disoriented Pod People in question: Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu), and Amano (Mahiro Takasugi). But that’s almost all we know for sure about these extra-terrestrials for a while since getting straight answers from Shinji’s group is rather difficult. Shinji and his fellow E.T.s latch on to human by-standers, like Shinji’s perplexed wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and cynical reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa), because they don’t understand complex concepts, and are therefore easily confused, and sidetracked. Then again, dispelling that confusion seems to be these aliens’s true purpose. They spend much of their time trying to understand complex concepts like ‘ownership’ and ‘family.’ The aliens learn by a bizarre psychic process that allows them to mentally absorb big ideas from reluctant humans’ brains. But once the transfer is complete, the human victim instantly forget whatever abstract theories were taken from them.
“Kurosawa and Tanaka run a fair distance with that tantalizing concept: what happens to people when they’re no longer sure of their character-defining obligations? The first couple of brain-washed humans are all happy, but useless in a society that they no longer mindlessly, but pragmatically devote themselves to. For example: Narumi’s boss has a childish tantrum after he forgets about his inhumane profit-driven concept of ‘work.’ But that reaction is too close to the experience of the man who prowls the streets with a crazed, child-like grin after he’s liberated of the concept of ‘ownership.’ And that response is too close to the one had by an unhinged middle-aged woman who now no longer remembers what ‘family’ is. We get it, we are prisoners of our beliefs. What now?
“Soon, the aliens and their warily sympathetic human guides start to bond, though sometimes for unclear reasons. In one of the film’s biggest highlights, Sakurai tries to warn his fellow humans of the impending invasion. He tells a crowd of dazed on-lookers exactly what’s happening: aliens are coming, and they’re taking the values that we hold most dear. Everybody stares blankly at him, as if to suggest that we are, in fact, the real pod people. This is the kind of scene that’s either ultimately childish or inspiring, depending on how well-executed it is. Thankfully, Kurosawa intuitively emphasizes Tsunematsu’s stiff body language, and the blank expressions on the people that Sakurai addresses. I was reminded of the iconic scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart collapses right after he’s practically buried alive in a mountain of constituents’ letters. Kurosawa’s scene is crucial in a similar way: this is the moment where despair finally gives way to a transporting optimism that carries the film to its corny, but well-executed finale.
“Some viewers might not like the way that the tone of Before We Vanish often drifts between emotional extremes. Some might not enjoy the arch tone of the film’s more unabashedly hopeful scenes. Some will want more naturalistic dialogue, or a more well-rounded narrative. I can’t blame them, or tell them they’re wrong for wanting what they want. But I will recommend Before We Vanish anyway, just because its naive hopefulness is infectious, and its big ideas are captivating. This is the kind of movie that’s destined to inspire a hardcore cult of fans, and will maybe even lead the next generation of genre filmmakers to tinker with their own big ideas. A little dead air is a small price to pay for that kind of lingering happiness.”
FEBRUARY 2 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): On Body and Soul (dir. Ildikó Enyedi) – Decider review by Joe Reid: “At times, On Body and Soul plays like a parody of the kind of foreign-language film you expect to see nominated at the Oscars. There’s a sparse, wintry eastern European locale, full of hard, grim-faced individuals who work inside the cold concrete environs of, in this case, a slaughterhouse. Juxtaposed with this kind of institutional Hungarian drudgery, though, are dream scenes where two deer meet in the middle of a wonderfully picturesque woods. These dreams, we soon discover, are the shared experiences of two employees: Endre (Géza Morcsányi), an older man who’s the manager of the slaughterhouse, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), an aloof, newly-hired young quality-control supervisor. There is no conventional way that you’d expect these two characters to end up in a love story, which is where the shared dreams of being deer come in.
“On Body and Soul is going to be a leap for anyone looking for a typical love story. Calling it a ‘love story’ at all pretty much misses the point. It’s more a story about alienation and the randomness that comes with making a connection with someone. What director Ildiko Enyedi does rather beautifully is take the mundane day-to-day that these characters are living and depict it so precisely that the imprecise nature of dream connections and love feel all the more ephemeral.
“With the story of Endre and Mária so ephemeral, Enyedi’s most indelible sequences involve everything around them. One particularly scene lingers in gory detail on the slaughtering and dismembering of a cow. It’s very much not easy to watch, but it’s tough to say it doesn’t do the job when it comes to showing the casual brutality of a world where we all rather hilariously attempt to find something as elevating as love.
“The great thing about the foreign-language category at the Oscars is that it pushes American moviegoers, even those who imagine themselves to be particularly dedicated, adventurous cinephiles, to step outside of the American filmmaking mores and dip into filmmaking styles they’re unfamiliar with. This year, there are offerings from Chile, Lebanon, Russia, and Sweden, and the cross-section of styles (and filmmakers). On Body and Soul might be the most singular and strange film of the bunch, and it’s not the easiest to cozy up to. Loveless, the Russian entry, is remote and chilly, too, but there’s something purposefully impenetrable about the relationship at the center of On Body and Soul. Particularly for a film that wants so much to be about this unlikely connection between them. But I keep going back to those scenes of the deer in the woods and how much more breathtaking and magical they are. They’re an escape in the most wonderful way. They’re what will make you sit up and take notice.”
FEBRUARY 9 (in theaters and on VOD): Becks (dirs. Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh) (DP: Kat Westergaard) – City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “Inspired by the real life of singer/songwriter Alyssa Robbins, Becks follows a musician (Lena Hall) who moves back to her childhood home in St. Louis after a crushing breakup with her longtime girlfriend. While performing for tips at a local tavern and struggling to reconnect with her ultra-Catholic mother, she strikes up a unique friendship with the wife of an old nemesis. Becks begins to discover her musical voice as she performs deeply personal songs about her ex and the loss of their relationship. Driven by an original score, the film’s musical numbers bring a unique new voice to the American musical movie.”
FEBRUARY 9: The Female Brain (dir. Whitney Cummings) – IFC Center synopsis: “What makes a woman swipe right for Mr. Wrong and left for Mr. Right? This simultaneously entertaining and enlightening comedy is a fresh, witty, and all-too-relatable look at the real-life science behind our (often regrettable) romantic impulses. Writer-director Whitney Cummings (‘2 Broke Girls’) stars as no-nonsense neuroscientist Julia, whose research into the biochemistry of the female brain is illustrated by three couples: newlyweds Zoe (Cecily Strong) and Greg (Blake Griffin), whose career troubles seep into their relationship; Lisa (Sofía Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole), who are looking to spice up their stuck-in-a-rut marriage; and Lexi (Lucy Punch) who can’t help trying to change her boyfriend Adam (James Marsden). Meanwhile, the straight-laced Julia’s own synapses start to fire when a handsome new subject (Toby Kebbell) joins her study…”
FEBRUARY 9: The Peacemaker (dir. James Demo) (DPs: Beth Balaban, Kevin Belli, James Demo, Mike Hechanova and Sarah Levy) – New York Times review by Glenn Kenny: “Padraig O’Malley is a scholar and what one might call an amateur diplomat. He is the peacemaker of this film’s title. The documentary, directed by James Demo, is not a portrait of an idealist. The Irish-born Mr. O’Malley is an often dour man, and when he speaks of his work, there are no stars in his eyes. One of his recent books, about Israel and Palestine, is called The Two State Delusion. In negotiation, as the movie shows, he is pragmatic, focused and often steely.
“His story is an unusual one, which the director unspools by showing Mr. O’Malley first in a war-torn Iraq, then in the streets of Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches. (He travels so frequently he calls no place ‘home’). He enters a church, and we soon understand he’s in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Filming an A.A. meeting isn’t exactly kosher, but Mr. Demo doesn’t show the faces of the other attendees. (It’s not quite clear that this session hasn’t been staged specifically for the movie.)
“A good part of the picture relies on Mr. O’Malley’s account of his life with and without the bottle — members call it a ‘qualification’ — during this A.A. gathering. He tells how he started in conflict mediation when, in the early ’70s, he bought a Cambridge bar and funneled its revenue into hosting a negotiation between warring factions of Northern Ireland — a first for these groups.
“‘I don’t love anybody,’ the lanky, white-haired Mr. O’Malley admits during one interview segment. It’s his peculiar detachment, perhaps, that makes him good at what he does, even when the summits he hosts — he spent years in Iraq and in South Africa — yield nothing more than agreements on bilingual street signs. The movie is a fascinating portrait that is if anything too brief.”
FEBRUARY 9 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Seeing Allred (dirs. Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by Daniel Fienberg: “Utterly and passionately hagiographic, the documentary Seeing Allred presents 96 minutes of reasons to stand and cheer for celebrated feminist lawyer Gloria Allred.
“That means, of course, that for ultra-conservative lovers of Netflix documentaries, it’s doubtful that Seeing Allred is going to dramatically change any opinions about her.
“For people with more tempered views on the notorious attorney, Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman’s documentary leaves a lot of questions unasked and tiptoes around plenty of other relevant conversations, but in its presentation of a career-in-full, it advocates persuasively for this advocate.
“Seeing Allred, premiering as part of the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance, feels like the film Allred would want a documentary about her to be.
“‘I think I’m very well understood by many people,’ she says before the film’s title card appears. And what of those who go out of their way not to understand her? ‘I don’t really care,’ she says, believably.
“Sartain and Grossman’s access to Allred began as the criminal accusations against Bill Cosby were starting to reach critical mass. It’s a perfect storm case for both Allred supporters and detractors, because she orchestrated a steady stream of press conferences relating to charges that were outside of the statute of limitations — the sort of thing that has always led to sniveling criticisms of opportunism and self-aggrandizement.
“The directors’ goal isn’t to debunk those slurs or to get Allred herself to debunk them. At the most, we get a couple variations on, ‘If she were a man, nobody would look at these qualities as negatives.’
“When Allred says she doesn’t care what people who don’t like her think, either that was a mantra she continued in interviews or it scared the directors off. Or maybe it didn’t interest the directors to know what she thinks about being lampooned by The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live or right-wing pundits. And they very much weren’t interested in asking her to defend herself, which is entirely fair. It’s left for one of the myriad admiring talking heads — even occasionally adversarial colleagues/pundits like Greta Van Susteren and Alan Dershowitz offer only respect here — to mention that for all of the perception of Allred working in a constantly publicized realm, most of her employment cases we hear nothing about. That’s a point Allred could make or the directors could want to show, but they don’t find it necessary.
“The documentary loosely puts Allred’s feminist awakening in a personal context, but that isn’t really the way the subject wants to frame it. She’s open but terse in discussing her own rape and subsequent illegal abortion, framing both in terms of the empathy she has for her clients. She’s entirely unwilling to discuss the end of her second marriage. She’s admiring, but not effusive in talking about daughter Lisa Bloom. Talking heads speak to Allred’s kindness and compassion; she doesn’t need to tell the camera that she’s kind or compassionate. A friend who does Gloria Allred-drag speaks to her sense of humor and her ability to laugh at herself; she doesn’t need to be funny or self-effacing for the camera (her amusement at frequent confusion with Sen. Barbara Boxer is one of the rare exceptions).
“Where Allred is comfortable is tracing a professional awakening in which she was fast to recognize that in press conferences or just televised announcements, she was being given (or grabbing) a platform and a voice that wasn’t being heard and that in being confrontational and steering into conflict, she was speaking the only language that the establishment was able to understand. It’s one thing to wonder if she has devalued that platform with some of the ways she’s used it, but it’s impossible to dispute that when she’s used the platform consistently on behalf of causes, she’s gotten results. So when she’s sitting behind a microphone next to Cosby accusers knowing that they can’t take Cosby to court, she’s in the business of giving voice, and if cynics ask, ‘Where’s the money or publicity for her in this?,’ the documentary draws the line directly to the Justice for Victims Act and then into her support for accusers of Donald Trump. When you draw enough lines and point to enough voices that she’s supported, you can actually believe Don Lemon when he says that without Allred he might not have his job, even if he’s not making a direct connection. The tentacles of her decades of campaigning are very visible.
“Because Allred isn’t into talking about mistakes or losses, one of the documentary’s most revelatory moments is the Hillary Clinton booster’s growing horror as the directors film what was supposed to be a celebratory 2016 Election Night. It’s unguarded and doesn’t feel camera-ready. There isn’t a follow-up interview where Allred theorizes on the election and what it meant. Instead, we just see her continue to amplify Trump accusers and take her place at the Women’s March and other protests.
“Seeing Allred makes Allred’s work the only worthwhile manifestation of her character, and when she says that her only fear is not living long enough to do all the work she wants to do, that’s the case the film has argued, too. It’s not a case for Gloria Allred that’s going to change any minds but, again, she probably really doesn’t care.”
FEBRUARY 16: Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler) (DP: Rachel Morrison) – Los Angeles Times review by Kenneth Turan: “We didn’t know we’d been yearning for it until it arrived, but now that it’s here it’s unmistakable that the wait for a film like Black Panther has been way longer than it should have been. On one level this is the next-in-line Marvel Universe story of the ruler of the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda who moonlights as a superhero and has to contend with threats and problems both internal and external.
“But Black Panther, as co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler and starring a deep bench of actors of color, is an against-the-grain $100-million-plus epic so intensely personal that when the usual Marvel touchstones (Stan Lee, anyone) appear, they feel out of place. A superhero movie whose characters have integrity and dramatic heft, filled with engaging exploits and credible crises all grounded in a vibrant but convincing reality, laced with socially conscious commentary as well as wicked laughs that don’t depend on snark, this is the model of what an involving popular entertainment should be. And even something more.
“Energized to a thrilling extent by a myriad of Afrocentric influences, Black Panther showcases a vivid inventiveness that underscores the obvious point that we want all cultures and colors represented on screen because that makes for a richness of cinematic experience that everyone enjoys being exposed to. Like Christopher Nolan, who was 35 when he reanimated the Batman franchise, the 31-year-old Coogler has a gift for putting his own spin on genre, for making popular culture worlds his own. He did it with Creed, making the Rocky franchise and Sylvester Stallone uncannily relevant. That was only his second feature following a Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning debut, Fruitvale Station, but five years ago.
“A key to Coogler’s achievement with Black Panther is that he’s taken key production people along with him on all three of his films, including production designer Hannah Beachler, editor Michael P. Shawver and composer Ludwig Görannson. Director of photography Rachel Morrison, recently the first woman ever nominated for a cinematography Oscar, returns as well, as does expressive actor Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler’s first two films. Here Jordan shares the screen with an impressive array of actors, from veterans like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker (an early Coogler supporter) to energized performers including Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke and, of course, Chadwick Boseman.
“An impeccable actor, Boseman brings the quality of belief he’s brought to playing real people like Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall to the role of King T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther. This character made his first Marvel appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which saw T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, killed in an explosion, putting his son in line for assuming the Wakandan throne.
“One of the great things about Black Panther is the specificity of this mythical place, masquerading as one of the world’s poorest countries but actually — thanks to a huge deposit of miracle metal vibranium — a hotbed of futuristic technology. Not only have production designer Beachler and her team created marvelous locations like the Challenge Pool at Warrior Falls, but veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter was instrumental as well. Both referenced everything including Ghanaian textiles, a 5th century Nigerian script and the dress of tribes like the Maasai, Tuareg, Dogon and Zulu.
“‘Never before in Hollywood have we had the chance to show the continent intellectually — it had all been Africa, dirt floors,’ Carter told California Sunday magazine. ‘We were trying to understand ancient African culture in a way that didn’t look “savage” but looked glorious, kingly, warrior-like.’ Carter’s most memorable creation, complete with neck rings borrowed from the Ndebele, is the Dora Milaje, the eight-member all-female royal bodyguard led by Okoye (‘The Walking Dead’s’ Gurira) who move with dazzling precision to strike terror into all who dare to cross them.
“As crisply scripted by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (‘American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson’), Black Panther begins with a challenge to T’Challa’s rule that must be played out according to strict ancient protocols followed by a fence-mending expedition to old friend W’Kabi (Get Out’s Kaluuya). Then the new king has to deal with both Nakia (Nyong’o), his former significant other now fully involved in her life as a spy, and his precocious younger sister Shuri (a very amusing Wright), who functions as a kind of Q to Black Panther’s James Bond. T’Challa is also intent on confronting the evil South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who was responsible for T’Chaka’s death. Working with Klaue is the mysterious Erik Killmonger, beautifully played by Jordan, a bad guy with a background and an agenda that will make heads spin all across Wakanda.
“With dialogue that deftly explores serious questions, such as how much if anything do wealthy countries owe the poor and oppressed of the world, Black Panther draws energy from Coogler’s sense of excitement at all he’s attempting. The result is a superhero movie that’s worth seeing twice, and that is a rare sighting indeed.”
FEBRUARY 16: The Boy Downstairs (dir. Sophie Brooks) – Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Liza Domnitz: “From first-time writer-director Sophie Brooks, this original romantic comedy is the coming-of-age tale of a young writer looking to find her way back in New York City after a two-year stint in London. Zosia Mamet exhibits winsome charm as Diana, navigating the rite of passage of every single New Yorker: the search for the perfect apartment. She seemingly finds such a jewel of a home, until realizing her downstairs neighbor is actually her ex whose heart she broke when she left town. Like a true New Yorker, she keeps the apartment.
“Making the oft-told girl-meets-boy story new again, The Boy Downstairs asks real questions about love, chemistry and growing up, as Diana declares her intentions for cordial cohabitation, only to find their initially farcical arrangement giving way to more complicated feelings. Featuring a stellar cast, led by Mamet and supported by indie stalwarts Matthew Shear, Deirdre O’Connell, and newcomers Sarah Ramos and Diana Irvine.”
FEBRUARY 16 (streaming on Netflix): Irreplaceable You (dir. Stephanie Laing) (DP: Magdalena Górka) – IndieWire article by Jenna Marotta: “The upcoming Netflix film Irreplaceable You boasts a female director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and star, a combination that worked well for the streaming service’s three-time Oscar nominee, Mudbound. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) plays Abbie, a woman thrilled to finally be marrying her elementary school sweetheart, Sam (Michiel Huisman from ‘Game of Thrones’), with whom she is expecting a child. At a doctor’s appointment, the couple is devastated to learn that Abbie actually isn’t pregnant: she’s given a terminal cancer diagnosis instead.
“Bucking the film’s title, Abbie then resigns to auditioning stand-ins to share a life with Sam. She also attends patient group therapy alongside the alter-egos of Christopher Walken, Kate McKinnon, Steve Coogan, and Tami Sagher (Don’t Think Twice). Irreplaceable You features sympathetic turns from Brian Tyree Henry (‘Atlanta’), Timothy Simons (‘Veep’) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook).
“It is the first produced screenplay from Bess Wohl, an actress who has appeared in guest parts on shows such as ‘Bones’ and ‘CSI: NY.’ Director Stephanie Laing has also been given her first opportunity to helm a feature; her resume includes producing credits on ‘Veep’ and ‘Vice Principals.’ Jonathan Tropper — who adapted his bestselling novel This Is Where I Leave You into another death-tinged film — is among the producers.
“Soon after Irreplaceable You debuts on Friday, February 16, Mbatha-Raw will play the mother to Storm Reid’s heroine, Meg, in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.”
FEBRUARY 16: The Party (dir. Sally Potter) – Variety’s Berlin International Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “It may have its uses in describing butter cookies and cat videos, but it’s fair to say that ‘short and sweet’ is an over-applied compliment: Sometimes it’s better to be short and severely, cheek-shrivelingly sour. So it proves in The Party, a deliciously heightened, caviar-black comedy that sets up its brittle, bourgeois characters like bowling pins and gleefully knocks them down in 71 minutes flat. Slight and self-contained, it won’t go down in cinema history as anything but, perhaps, the most purely fun film ever made by peculiar British experimentalist Sally Potter. Still, this sketch of an ambitious Westminster politician and dinner-party hostess (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose life comes spectacularly apart before the canapés are even served, is a consummate drawing-room divertissement, played with relish by a dream ensemble. Notwithstanding a somewhat strained twist, it’s as slender, sharp and snappish as a wishbone; chic arthouse distributors should RSVP to this Party without delay.
“Premiering in competition at Berlin, Potter’s film plays as a kind of antidote to Oren Moverman’s The Dinner in the same section. Both films chart the disastrous fallout as assorted secrets are uncovered at a dinner event organized by a political bigwig, but where Moverman’s film, with its grandiose Gettysburg allusions, reveals a pained social conscience, Potter’s is quite content to ridicule its middle-class subjects without taking a defined moral position on their foibles and failings. Think of it as a quinoa-classes update of Mike Leigh’s evergreen Abigail’s Party: Its gaze is fixed a few notches higher up the social ladder, but the characters are just as plagued by petty aspirationalism.
“After opening with one of those all-too-ubiquitous flash-forward shots, with a harried-looking Janet (Scott Thomas) aiming a gun at an unseen target, the film jauntily works its way to that climax. It’s early evening, and guests are beginning to arrive at Janet’s elegant Victorian home in a leafy part of London — raising a toast to her recent appointment as Health Minister. First up is her acidly cynical best friend April (a never-more-waspish Patricia Clarkson), a former idealist who congratulates Janet in the same breath as declaring democracy ‘finished.’
“April regards her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an anti-political humanist life coach, with eye-rolling contempt, though that counts as affection relative to her scorching dismissal of another pair of guests: dour academic Martha (Cherry Jones), a specialist in ‘gender differentiation on American utopianism,’ and her newly pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who squabble over the correct degree of radical feminism to assume these days. An illiberal outlier among the guests is Prada-suited, cocaine-dusted finance shark Tom (a fine, antic Cillian Murphy), whose wife is mysteriously delayed; still, she’s practically more present at the party than Janet’s husband Bill (played in deliberately, comically checked-out fashion by Timothy Spall), who eventually rouses himself from a glazed fug of ennui to deliver the first of several sequential bombshells.
“It’d poop ‘The Party,’ so to speak, to reveal anything further — though this is less a plot-based exercise than a tipsily conversational one. Potter’s eminently quotable screenplay works up just enough narrative momentum to sustain a barrage of killer one-liners: With the hors d’oeuvres increasingly unlikely to be served, decorum is swiftly shed and these privileged vultures instead feed ravenously on each other’s ideals. ‘Tickle an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist,’ April drily observes as even the most genteel guests begin to show their colors, and multiple relationships go into instant shock therapy.
“It’s never specified to which political party Janet belongs — though she’s an ardent defender of the National Health Service, so she’s probably no Theresa May sympathizer — but she appears here so airily removed from the outside world that it hardly matters. Whichever side she’s on, it’s one opposed by April, brilliantly played by Clarkson as the kind of self-styled truth-teller who actually conceals a lot of herself in her blanket nihilism. (‘Pretending hasn’t worked for your party for a while,’ she tells Janet — and she could be talking about either her political party or this particular botched occasion.) The Party flatters neither woman’s position, nor the other guests’ ideological perches in between. Everyone at this woebegone soiree comes off as slightly absurd in what could be read as a blasé, from-within satire of the ‘metropolitan elite’ so savaged by U.K. conservatives of late.
“One shouldn’t pull a muscle, however, in reaching for the subtext of Potter’s witty shaggy-dog story: Its giddy in-the-moment pleasures are enough, even if a final kicker of a reveal doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in retrospect. While this kind of chamber material risks seeming plucked from the stage — it isn’t, incidentally — Alexey Rodionov’s nimble monochrome lensing and Anders Refn and Emilie Orsini’s antsy editing lend Potter’s script a propulsively cinematic, bouncing-off-the-walls quality, smartly drawing to a close just as the joke threatens to wear thin. (Refn has collaborated with Lars von Trier in the past, and The Party sometimes does exude the splintery air of a glossier Dogme 95 exercise.)
“Potter’s cast, meanwhile, is perceptibly having a blast with her savory invective and insults: There’s nothing to dislike about a film that gives Patricia Clarkson the chance to tell Cherry Jones that she’s ‘a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker.’ Months after the U.S. election campaign turned an intended jibe into a rallying cry, Sally Potter’s latest further proves that there’s pleasure, pride or both to be taken in being a nasty woman.”
FEBRUARY 16: Western (dir. Valeska Grisebach) – Film Society of Lincoln Center synopsis: “German director Valeska Grisebach uses the Western as a template with which to draw out eternal human conflicts in this supremely intelligent genre update, her first feature in a decade. In remote rural Bulgaria, a group of German workers are building a water facility. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), the reserved newbie in this all-male company, immediately draws the ire of the boorish team leader, not least for his willingness to mingle with the wary locals. Cast with utterly convincing nonprofessional actors, Western is a gripping culture-clash drama, attuned both to old codes of masculinity and new forms of colonialism.”
FEBRUARY 23 (in theaters and on VOD): Half Magic (dir. Heather Graham) – IndieWire article by Kate Erbland: “For her directorial debut, long-time actress and Hollywood star Heather Graham tackled an R-rated mainstay — the sex comedy — with a decidedly feminine-focused twist and a strong message of self-love. Graham also stars in the film, which is apparently ‘pulled from personal experiences.’
“Half Magic follows a trio of very different women who share the same problem: their love lives just aren’t up to snuff. The ladies, including Angela Kinsey and Stephanie Beatriz, decide to take it upon themselves to pursue only good relationships with worthy men.
“In an official statement from Graham herself, the newly-minted filmmaker shares, ‘On the surface, Half Magic is a comedy about bad dating decisions. Why do we choose the people we choose? What draws us in? Why do we always “know better” but do it anyway? I have made some bad choices and put my self-worth into needing to be with “that” guy. So I made this film because I wanted to share the journey of how I got over the programming of my religious upbringing and terrible dating experiences to come to love myself and my sexuality.’
“Graham added, ‘I want to empower women to feel good about themselves and make better choices. I want to celebrate women enjoying their sexuality and finding their pleasure. I want to celebrate how strong we are and how we can create anything we want. …Over the last few months, a new sexual revolution has begun, with more women than ever coming forward to share their stories of sexual harassment. Gone are the days when women felt powerless, with their abusers facing no repercussions.'”