Writer/director Angela Robinson (center) with actresses Bella Heathcote and Rebecca Hall on the set of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, 2016.
Here are twenty-three new movies that have been released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this October (sorry for the delays on publishing this post and the one for last month – I’ll get back to my usual standard for punctuality in November!), 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.
SEPTEMBER 29 (Chicago), OCTOBER 13 (NYC): Signature Move (dir. Jennifer Reeder) – Asian American International Film Festival synopsis: “Every day, Zaynab, a Pakistani Muslim lesbian in her thirties, endures her TV-loving mother’s talk of finding a nice man to marry. While being closeted is far from easy, Zaynab decides that it’s at least easier than having to upend her mother’s conservative expectations.
“But that all changes when she meets Alma, an out and proud Mexican woman who just happens to be the daughter of a former professional wrestler. What starts as a one-night stand with someone whose name she can’t even remember quickly blossoms into something serious enough to threaten her complacency about her mother’s obsession with finding a husband.
“And how does Zaynab deal with all this stress? Lucha-style wrestling, of course!
“Signature Move is not only funny and poignant, but also important, especially in our modern political landscape. With Muslim, Pakistani, and queer voices all being suppressed individually, the idea of the three identities intersecting is foreign to mainstream media. And rather than portraying a simplistic tale of Muslim Pakistani homophobia, Signature Move recognizes cultural conflict in all their complexity, ultimately finding beauty in the ability of love to transcend differences.”
SEPTEMBER 29 (LA), OCTOBER 6 (NYC & OTHER CITIES): Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton (dir. Rory Kennedy) (DPs: Alice Gu and Don King) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton tracks the remarkable life and legendary career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. Much admired by the public, though often disdained or ignored by the surf industry itself, Laird is a unique sports icon—an athlete who has refused to compete professionally yet has dominated big wave surfing as no other figure in history has ever done.
“Laird’s biographical story is told against the backdrop of a winter surf season on Kauai, where El Niño storm systems threaten to bring the biggest surf in decades. Mixing never-before-seen archival footage, with contemporary verité scenes shot in Southern California, Bermuda and Kauai, Take Every Wave weaves the past and present into an intimate and compelling portrait of a superstar athlete at the top of his game. Threaded throughout is a revealing, deeply personal interview with Laird as well conversations with the family members, friends, collaborators and detractors who know him best.
“Take Every Wave provides an intimate, uncompromising look at a lifetime devoted to riding giant surf—and the price an athlete pays for greatness.”
OCTOBER 4: Chavela (dirs. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi) (DPs: Natalia Cuevas, Catherine Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio) – Film Forum synopsis: “Chavela Vargas (1919 – 2012): ‘A trailblazing free spirit whose appetite for tequila and women was as legendary as her soul-stirring vocals… A hard-drinking rebel who shredded the prevailing stereotype of the fem and flirty, hip-swinging señorita in Mexican popular music, the singer commands the stage in passionate performances throughout Chavela, owning a trademark androgynous look…that made her a queer icon long before she openly defined herself as a lesbian at age 81… singing deeply felt songs of pain, solitude and lost love in a voice both rough and tender. A queer icon long before she openly defined herself a lesbian at age 81.’ – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter. Featuring Pedro Almodovar, who used Chavela’s music in his films (The Flower of My Secret, Julieta) and introduced her to international concert audiences in the 1990s, when, as her manager notes, she tried as hard as she could to die on stage.”
OCTOBER 6: Faces Places (dirs. JR and Agnès Varda) (DPs: Roberto De Angelis, Claire Duguet, Julia Fabry, Nicolas Guicheteau, Romain Le Bonniec, Raphaël Minnesota and Valentin Vignet) – Quad Cinema synopsis: “At age 88, French New Wave icon Agnès Varda found a kindred spirit in JR, the acclaimed 33-year-old photographer and artist who shared her passion for images. Deciding to collaborate, they traveled through the French countryside, cameras in hand, speaking with locals and producing large-scale portraits of their faces, turning the stories and lives of these everyday people into art. The result is a road movie unlike any other, a documentary as delightful and inspiring as any work in Varda’s legendary career.”
OCTOBER 6: The Mountain Between Us (dir. Hany Abu-Assad) (DP: Mandy Walker) – 20th Century Fox synopsis: “Stranded after a tragic plane crash, two strangers must forge a connection to survive the extreme elements of a remote snow covered mountain. When they realize help is not coming, they embark on a perilous journey across hundreds of miles of wilderness, pushing one another to endure and discovering strength they never knew possible. The film is directed by Academy Award nominee Hany Abu-Assad and stars Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and Golden Globe winner Idris Elba.”
OCTOBER 6: Take My Nose… Please! (dir. Joan Kron) – City Cinemas Village East Cinema synopsis: “A seriously funny and wickedly subversive look at the role comedy has played in exposing the pressures on women to be attractive and society’s desire/shame relationship with plastic surgery. More than 15 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the US in 2016. Yet, for those who elect to tinker with Mother Nature, especially for high-profile women, plastic surgery is still a dark secret. Funny women are the exception. From Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr and Kathy Griffin, comedians have been unashamed to talk about their perceived flaws – and the steps taken to remedy them. For them, cosmetic surgery isn’t vanity, it’s affirmative action – compensation for the unfair distribution of youthfulness and beauty. By admitting what their sisters in drama deny, comic performers speak to women who feel the same pressures, giving them permission to pursue change (or not to) while entertaining us.”
OCTOBER 13: The Departure (dir. Lana Wilson) (DP: Emily Topper) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Ittetsu Nemoto, a former punk-turned-Buddhist-priest in Japan, has made a career out of helping suicidal people find reasons to live. But this work has come increasingly at the cost of his own family and health, as he refuses to draw lines between his patients and himself. The Departure captures Nemoto at a crossroads, when his growing self-destructive tendencies lead him to confront the same question his patients ask him: what makes life worth living?”
OCTOBER 13: M.F.A. (dir. Natalia Leite) – Birth.Movies.Death.’s SXSW review by Meagan Navarro: “Traditionally, the rape-revenge subgenre follows a typical formula divided into three-acts. In the first, a character is brutally raped and then abandoned for dead. The second sees the victim surviving and rehabilitating from their ordeal. In the final act, the victim takes brutal revenge by way of vigilantism on their attackers. While the revenge seeking portion offers a catharsis for both the victim and the viewers, it’s a skewed fantasy. Natalia Leite’s rape-revenge thriller forgoes the catharsis in favor of opening up a dialog with the audience.
“M.F.A. examines rape culture and the moral implications that arise from society’s aversion to facing an uncomfortable reality head on with its subsequent inability to handle sexual assault cases. For shy art student Noelle, it’s the system’s failings that lead her down the path of vigilantism after her graphic rape by a classmate. Traumatized, she turns to her bubbly neighbor Skye, played by Leah McKendrick (who also penned the screenplay). Skye advises her to chalk it up to a bad experience and let it go, because reporting it will only make things worse. Noelle decides to talk to a school counselor, a woman, who is more interested in knowing if Noelle’s attacker knew she meant ‘no,’ or if she perhaps had a bit too much to drink that night. Joining a support group doesn’t help either, as the women in the group are dedicated toward supporting other victims of sexual assault whereas Noelle wants to prevent rape from happening in the first place. Her entitled rapist proves unrepentant, creating a wider chasm of helplessness.
“Her rage grows to dangerous depths when she realizes that her campus is full of cases like hers, and in all of which the rapists faced no consequences for their horrifying actions. She takes it upon herself to serve due justice on behalf of other victims like her, becoming more brazen and violent with each act of retribution. Noelle’s transition empowers her, which should be liberating, but it comes with a cost. Each victim of violent crime copes in their own way, a fact that’s lost on Noelle through her consuming hatred. Even the best intentions can lead to dire outcomes. Systemic failure has created a monster out of Noelle.
“As Noelle, Francesca Eastwood delivers a powerhouse performance. Her transition from meek to empowered, broken to dynamic killer, masterfully works in conjunction with Leite’s unflinching social commentary. There’s a low budget simplicity that works, because it allows Eastwood’s richly layered performance to sell the narrative.
“For all that M.F.A. does well, it’s a bit too ambitious for its own good. Every question posed in the film is a valid one, but as a result the narrative gets spread too thin. The always effective Clifton Collins Jr. plays Detective Kennedy, a character that should bear more weight in the story but remains without purpose. There’s no time to really develop his character or fully bring Noelle’s arch to a satisfying close, because there’s too much to discuss in the short run time.
“Even still, M.F.A. is a necessary watch. It’s a harrowing atomic bomb of truth that should serve as a base for many talking points. The unfortunate reality is that many women have found themselves in Noelle’s shoes; finding the courage to speak out about their trauma only to be met with skepticism or disbelief. The isolation can leave the anger and pain without an outlet of release. The vigilantism is only a hypothetical outcome stemming from very real depictions. Noelle’s journey is wrath-inducing and heart-wrenching. Her vigilantism doesn’t offer a gratifying release for the audience, but that’s not the point. It’s not the first rape-revenge thriller to take aim at the law or legal consent, but it is the first whose main purpose is not to invoke a sense of fantasy but to invite thought-provoking conversation about a painful subject matter with no easy answers.”
OCTOBER 13: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (dir. Angela Robinson) – New York Times review by Manohla Dargis: “Suffering Sappho, Batman, you’re such a square! That’s especially true when you consider the real origin of Wonder Woman, the warrior with the indestructible bracelets and slightly kinky magic lasso who burst into comics in 1941. As it happens, there was more kink to her story than suggested by that golden lasso, which she uses to force her captives to tell the truth and looks like something from a bondage emporium. ‘On Paradise Island where we play many binding games,’ she says in an early comic while roping another woman, ‘this is considered the safest method of tying a girl’s arms!’
“There are some exceedingly delectable questions posed in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and a few frisky binding games on tap too. A sly and thoroughly charming Trojan horse of a movie, Professor Marston tells the story of the man who created Wonder Woman and the women who inspired him, both in and out of bed. The movie gleams and has all the smooth surfaces and persuasive detail of a typical period picture — the fedoras, the rides, the Katharine Hepburn trousers. All that luster, which too often in movies suggests polite manners and drowsily safe entertainment, proves to be a seductive, glossy way into something more satisfyingly complicated.
“If nothing else, Professor Marston is another reminder that once upon a time people had sexual appetites and relationships as complex as those of today (or of 18th-century France), something else the movies don’t always like to admit. Occasionally, grandpa might have even visited a dusty, mysterious shop with sexy specialty items in front and something naughtier in back. Dr. William Moulton Marston (a winning Luke Evans) finds out just how special those items could be when he pops into a store where a man calling himself the G-string King (J.J. Feild) opens up a world of consensual power play and pleasure.
“At that point, life has already become interesting for Marston. The writer-director Angela Robinson lays out just how, well, knotty it all is with wit, sympathy and economy. Spanning decades, the story takes flight in 1928 with Marston teaching young lovelies at Radcliffe. ‘Are you normal?’ he asks of a beaming, receptive audience that serves as an amusing stand-in for the viewer. Marston has answers to that and other questions, along with a theory he calls DISC — for dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — which sounds terribly complex and slightly ridiculous. (‘D, I, S and C,’ the real Marston wrote, ‘represent nodal points in the integrative emotion series.’)
“Ms. Robinson borrows Marston’s theory, using it as a clever if somewhat schematic framing device as she spins her story. There are moments of domination, psychological as well as physical. There are also interludes of inducement, submission and compliance mixed in with a sweet, soft-focus romance that initially involves Marston and his wife, a frustrated academic, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall, tart, brisk, essential), and soon includes a third, Olive Byrne (a very good Bella Heathcote). A student, Olive cracks open the Marstons’ marriage, but instead of destroying it helps it grow into a shared, liberating adventure that settles into something cozily domestic.
“The story of the world’s most famous female superhero, her creators and inspirers, has been told elsewhere, including in Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Ms. Robinson draws on archival sources for her telling and takes some liberties with the historical record, shuffling events around to dovetail with the polymorphous possibilities she’s most interested in. The movie recurrently returns to the 1940s with Marston being grilled by a comic-book skeptic (Connie Britton) about his creation, scenes that fill in some details but also interrupt the fluid narrative flow. These sequences read as a stand-in for the 1950s anti-comic-book crusade of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who condemned Wonder Woman as a ‘cruel, “phallic” woman.’
“Dr. Wertham saw cruelty in the Wonder Woman world, but Ms. Robinson sees deep, enduring love in its back story as well as freedom, including from rigid gender roles. Her version of the idealistic professor and his two wonder women, and the complex geometry that defined their relationship, may be a touch fuzzier than the actual story. Certainly the real Marston didn’t have Mr. Evans’s sleek matinee-idol looks. But it’s a pleasurable fantasy, as well as a gentle, appealingly Utopian vision of a world in which men and women can slip from their traditional binds into new, excitingly freeing configurations. Those might be surprising, perhaps even a bit tight around the wrists but, as Ms. Robinson suggests, there are so many possibilities when you’re given room to play.
“The real Marston was delightfully unbound. In 1937, Ms. Lepore writes in her book, he held a news conference to announce the coming Amazonian rule. The Washington Post ran with the story: ‘Neglected Amazons to Rule Men in 1,000 Yrs., Says Psychologist.’ The Los Angeles Times went with the punchier ‘Feminine Rule Declared Fact.’ ‘The next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy,’ Mr. Marston said (2037 here we come!). And ‘in 1,000 years women will definitely rule this country.’ Believing women superior, he thought they had twice ‘the ability for love’ as men, which would allow them to conquer the world. It’s a delicious idea although clearly we could use many more lassos.”
OCTOBER 13 (in theaters and on Amazon, iTunes and Video on Demand): Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (dirs. Anna Chai and Nari Kye) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste aims to change the way people buy, cook, recycle, and eat food. Through the the eyes of chef-heroes like Bourdain, Dan Barber, Mario Batali, Massimo Bottura, and Danny Bowien, audiences will see how the world’s most influential chefs make the most of every kind of food, transforming what most people consider scraps into incredible dishes that create a more secure food system. Wasted! exposes the criminality of food waste and how it’s directly contributing to climate change and shows ushow each of us can make small changes – all of them delicious – to solve one of the greatest problems of the 21st Century.”
OCTOBER 20: Aida’s Secrets (dirs. Alon Schwarz and Shaul Schwarz) (DPs: Christina Clusiau, Shaul Schwarz, Uriel Sinai and Yonathan Weitzman) – Music Box Films synopsis: “In this moving documentary, the discovery of records from WWII sparks a family’s quest for answers as two brothers separated as babies reunite with each other and their elderly mother, who hid more from them than just each other.
“Izak Szewelwicz was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945 and sent for adoption in Israel. Though Izak was able to form a relationship with his birth mother, his life was turned upside down years later when he located not only his birth certificate, but also another of a brother he never knew existed.
“Filmmakers Alon and Shaul Schwarz set out to find answers for Izak, uncovering questions of identity, resilience, and the plight of displaced persons as Izak and his brother Shep—both nearly 70 years old—finally meet in Canada before traveling to a nursing home in Quebec to introduce Shep to his elderly mother, Aida, for the first time.”
OCTOBER 20: BPM (Beats Per Minute) (dir. Robin Campillo) (DP: Jeanne Lapoirie) – Variety’s Cannes Film Festival review by Guy Lodge: “What does it take to fight a pandemic? Knowledge, courage and resilience, certainly, but also rough-and-tumble argument, a range of friendships both consoling and abrasive, a healthy sense of gallows humor and soul-sustaining supplies of loud music and louder sex. French writer-director Robin Campillo understands all of this in BPM (Beats Per Minute), his sprawling, thrilling, finally heart-bursting group portrait of Parisian AIDS activists in the early 1990s. A rare and invaluable non-American view of the global health crisis that decimated, among others, the gay community in the looming shadow of the 21st century, Campillo’s unabashedly untidy film stands as a hot-blooded counter to the more polite strain of political engagement present in such prestige AIDS dramas as Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club. Candidly queer in its perspective and unafraid of eroticism in the face of tragedy, this robust Cannes competition entry is nonetheless emotionally immediate enough to break out of the LGBT niche.
“Arthouse patrons who didn’t see Campillo’s remarkable 2013 breakout Eastern Boys may recognize him chiefly as the editor and writing partner of French auteur Laurent Cantet. Though Cantet has no direct creative involvement in BPM — he earns a thank-you in the closing credits — the spirit of their collaborations is plainly present in Campillo’s lively, literate script, written with AIDS educator and activist Philippe Mangeot. Cantet and Campillo’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class, in particular, is evoked through its reliance on contained, formalized group debate as a story propeller. Instead of a high school classroom, however, the four-walled narrative center here is an anonymous college lecture theater in central Paris, where members of AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) gather on a weekly basis to discuss their campaign strategy.
“The French branch of the movement founded in New York in the late 1980s, it’s a broadly accepting group on the outside — comprising AIDS victims across genders and sexualities, as well as parents and LGBT allies affected by the crisis. (Cantet and Mangeot are both members, with latter having served as its president in the late 1990s.) Beneath its right-on surface, however, it’s a collective splintered by differences in principle, politics and even HIV status. When Nathan (a fine, watchful Arnaud Valois) joins the group, he encounters chilly condescension from some of the group’s ‘poz’ members: A reserved, handsome and HIV-negative 26-year-old who keeps his personal association with the disease shyly guarded, he finds his queries about vaccines for the uninfected written off by them as naively obtuse. Among that skeptically positive faction is the young, expressively militant Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), the mouthiest of the ‘back-row radicals’ objecting to what they see as ACT UP’s ineffectively moderate approach to Big Pharma’s lack of progress in developing and distributing courses of AIDS treatment.
“The party lines are compellingly laid out in the film’s very first item of discussion: the fallout of an arguably botched on-stage intervention at a pharmaceutical conference, where organiser Sophie (Adèle Haenel, sturdy if a tad underused) finds her plans for peaceful protest — brightened by water balloons filled with fake blood — hijacked by Sean’s spontaneous manhandling and handcuffing of the night’s key speaker. What counts as violence, and how close can you skate to it to shock complacent corporations into action? This becomes the driving point of argument in the group’s weekly meetings, as Sean — and others whose health, like his, is in rapid decline — fear they literally don’t have time for the more diplomatic tactics of Sophie and team leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz) to take hold.
“Thus does the tenor of discourse take on a true matter-of-life-and-death urgency, integrating the film’s intellectual, procedural and spiritual interests to riveting effect: ‘living politics in the first person,’ to pinch a piquant phrase from the film’s own script. This rattling verbal interplay is kept buoyant and insistent by a well-chosen, well-bonded ensemble, with Pérez Biscayart’s bristling performance — running a mile a minute from anger to apathy and back again — first among many equals.
“At 140 minutes, the film doesn’t get as much under the skin of several key players as it could do, though it finds a galvanizing human center as — despite differences of opinion in the lecture hall — a tender, mutually dependent romance blossoms between Sean and Nathan. The film’s frank, sensuous depiction of the couple’s compromised but still active sex life adds visceral, tactile human stakes to ACT UP’s ideological battle: They want the right not just to fair, undiscriminatory medical and social treatment in the public eye, but to love without fear behind closed doors. The emotional centerpiece of the film is an extended sex scene, exquisitely shot in dusky-blue shadow by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, in which the couple’s lovemaking seamlessly melts into flashbacks of each man’s most fatefully formative erotic encounters, an exquisite tangle of limbs reaching across both time and internal trauma.
“As in Eastern Boys, Campillo’s predominantly candid, unvarnished shooting style wrongfoots viewers ahead of his gutsiest manipulations of sound and image — in this case, a stark, unsubtle passage of widescreen visual poetry that turns the Seine purple with the blood of the needlessly damned. The oblique title, meanwhile, refers not just to medical heart rates as bleakly tracked on hospital monitors, but to the euphoric rhythm of the electronic music that soundtracks ACT UP’s occasional disco breaks, in which matters of love, death and ideology are briefly lost to the rush of the dancefloor, and strobe-lit faces fade into dust motes and blood cells. In one of BPM’s most gently funny scenes, a well-meaning parent is ridiculed for suggesting ‘AIDS is me, AIDS is you, AIDS is us’ as a campaign slogan. By the end, you see where her critics are coming from: Campillo’s sexy, insightful, profoundly humane film is most moving in those ecstatic interludes where, for a blissed-out moment or two, AIDS is no one at all.”
OCTOBER 20: Jane (dir. Brett Morgen) (DP: Ellen Kuras) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Drawing from over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage that has been tucked away in the National Geographic archives for over 50 years, award-winning director Brett Morgen tells the story of Jane, a woman whose chimpanzee research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionized our understanding of the natural world.
“Set to a rich orchestral score from legendary composer Philip Glass, the film offers an unprecedented, intimate portrait of Jane Goodall — a trailblazer who defied the odds to become one of the world’s most admired conservationists.”
OCTOBER 20: Never Here (dir. Camille Thoman) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Oldenburg International Film Festival review by Stephen Dalton: “Performance artist, documentarian and editor Camille Thoman has assembled an impressive range of talents for her narrative feature debut, an atmospheric indie psycho-thriller with shades of Lynch and Hitchcock. The Killing star Mireille Enos plays the lead, Sam Shepard makes his final screen appearance and Zachary Quinto has a credit as exec producer. Vexing, disquieting, willfully opaque in places, Never Here had its European premiere at Oldenburg International Film Festival last week. Vertical Entertainment is planning a limited U.S. release Oct. 20, with a pay TV launch to follow on Starz in early 2018.
“Enos stars as Miranda Fall, a New York-based conceptual artist whose latest gallery show uses images and locations purloined from a lost cellphone. This invasion of privacy outrages the phone’s original owner, Arthur Anderton (David Greenspan), who ominously warns Miranda ‘you did a bad thing’ at the launch party. Later that night, back at her apartment, Miranda’s art dealer and secret lover Paul Stark (Shepard) witnesses a stranger assaulting a woman in the street outside. Covering for Paul, who is married with a sick wife, Miranda tells the police that she saw the attack alone, sketching a likeness of the suspect based on Paul’s description.
“The case falls to detective Andy Williams (Vincent Piazza), who just happens to be one of Miranda’s old flames. Although the sexual chemistry between them still sizzles, Andy becomes increasingly suspicious of Miranda’s account of the assault. In a further fateful coincidence, it transpires that Miranda also knew the victim and possibly the attacker too. She becomes obsessed with one of the nameless suspects (Goran Visnjic) after picking him from a police identity parade, tracking down his address and creeping around his empty apartment, risking her safety on the spurious alibi of preparing a new art project. Meanwhile, an elusive mystery man appears to be shadowing Miranda’s every move in return. Or is she losing her grasp on reality and stalking herself?
“Never Here wears the outer clothes of a crime thriller to cloak a more haunting, disturbing, open-ended rumination on voyeurism and identity. Thoman cites Paul Auster’s textually tricksy New York trilogy and the Alfred Hitchcock classic mystery The Lady Vanishes as influences, even including a short clip from the latter and naming one of her minor characters after its star, Margaret Lockwood. But Thoman’s film is more than a cerebral exercise in homage. It also works on the visceral level of a nightmarish mood piece, mostly unfolding in underlit interiors that clearly invoke the shadowy occult realm of Lynch more than Hitchcock.
“Thoman’s playfully arty touches include highlighting details with red circles on screen, and deploying Jenny Holzer-style neon slogan artworks as visual clues. She repeatedly implicates the viewer as voyeur with mobile camerawork that prowls and jerks and hovers uncomfortably close to characters, mimicking the stop-start motions of a stalker. Visual focus is deliberately blurry in places, amplifying the theme of identity melting and dissolving. James Lavino’s score is a patchwork of sonic unease, sprinkled with non-diegetic drones and crackles, another Lynchian touch. Thoman also loops and layers snippets of dialogue, using them almost like musical motifs.
“Ending without firm narrative closure, Never Here is possibly too subtle for its own good, refusing to spoon-feed audience expectations with neat explanations and satisfying shock twists. Its self-consciously cryptic style will alienate some viewers, and arguably becomes overly mannered in places, veering more toward art installation than movie. It is sometimes unclear whether Thoman’s narrative knots and muted emotional shadings are the result of smart novelistic game-playing or simple inexperience.
“Even so, Never Here manages to remain engrossing throughout despite minimal violence and none of the sexualized female victimhood that drives most stalker thrillers, an admirable subversion of genre tropes. Enos gives a finely calibrated performance as Miranda, an apparent mystery to herself, her deadpan surface confidence masking submerged psychological trauma. And Shepard is reliably classy in his final screen role, still wolfishly handsome on the cusp of 70 but emphatically low-key, generously underplaying his icon status. On this evidence, Thoman has sufficient ambition and technique to fuel a fascinating future career behind the camera.”
OCTOBER 20 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): One of Us (dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) (DPs: Jenni Morello and Alex Takats) – Toronto International Film Festival review by Thom Powers: “One of Us plays like a documentary thriller about individuals trying to escape a closed society. New York’s Hasidim are one of the most insular communities in North America. Haunted by the Holocaust’s decimation, they live by strict codes that discourage contact with outsiders. We meet three people who are driven to break away despite threats of retaliation. Etty was forced into marriage at age 19, birthed seven children by age 29, and recounts a history of spousal abuse. Luzer, in his late twenties, broke ties with his family in order to pursue his dreams as an actor. Eighteen-year-old Ari suffers from the trauma of sexual abuse and wants to explore a different way of life.
“Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady captured these lives for over a year of twists and turns. Cinematographers Alex Takats and Jenni Morello vary between close-up intimacy and long-lens surveillance to manoeuvre in neighbourhoods where cameras and outsiders are met with suspicion. Composer Todd Griffin supplies a haunting score.
“While rooted in a specific community, One of Us explores a universal theme: the value of individuality versus belonging to a group. What does it mean to separate oneself from everything that’s familiar? These stories have much to teach about courage, resilience, and claiming one’s own identity.”
OCTOBER 20: A Silent Voice (dir. Naoko Yamada) – The Hollywood Reporter’s Annecy International Animated Film Festival review by Jordan Mintzer: “The ripple effects of bullying come back to haunt a high school student years later — and over the course of two ambitiously overstuffed hours — in A Silent Voice (Koe no katachi), which was adapted from the popular manga series by Yoshitoki Oima.
“Packed with drama, laughter, tears and at least two suicide attempts, this third animated feature from director Naoko Yamada (Tamako Love Story) does its best to condense a seven-volume series into one feature-length film, though it tends to suffer under the weight of so much material. Already a hit in Japan, where it grossed close to $20 million last year, Silent Voice has been released in several other territories (including the U.K.) and should embark across Europe after playing competition at Annecy.
“Impressive in the way it takes a single incident and shows how it can damage both the victims and the perpetrators for a long time to come, the story (written for the screen by Reiko Yoshida) follows Shoya Ishida, a taciturn teenage boy who tries to jump off the bridge at the start of the film. Soon after, we learn that when he was back in sixth grade, Shoya terrorized a new classmate named Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf-mute girl who couldn’t be more gentle and kind, even when she’s the brunt of everyone’s jokes.
“A decade later, Shoya has never managed to shed the bully label of his youth, becoming an outcast in his own right who’s now shunned by the rest of his school. He tracks down Shoko, who he hasn’t seen since they were kids, in the hopes that she will pardon his terrible behavior. Their very long and awkward friendship — or courtship, if you can call it that — occupies the majority of the film, with the two damaged souls searching for some kind of solace in each other’s company. But communication between them is not that simple, even if Shoya tries to learn sign language, while the lasting effects of their trauma seem to leave permanent wounds.
“Like a very dark and twisted Mean Girls, Silent Voice chronicles the cruelty and isolation of Shoya, Shoko and their friends or frenemies in ways that can sometimes grow exhausting, with several moments of major drama — and a few hair-raising stunts — punctuating the narrative. These are definitely some highly emotional adolescents, melting under the sinister looks of others or hurling themselves into a local river without warning. A few stabs at humor involving Shoya’s newfound buddy, Tomohiro Nagatsuka, help to lighten the overall tone, but while the film has lots of qualities, subtlety definitely isn’t one of them.
“Where director Yamada excels is in depicting the interior worlds of the two main characters, paying particular attention to details, whether visual or sonic, that seem to place a constant divide between Shoya and Shoko. In one sequence, he creeps up behind her and she only realizes he’s there when a bunch of pigeons suddenly fly away. In another, he places his hand on a railing, and the reverberations signal his presence to a waiting Shoko. And when Shoya becomes the school loser himself, he sees everyone else with a big ‘X’ across their face, as if they’ve become abstract manifestations of his own rejection.
“Alongside the rich animation work by Futoshi Nishiya, the sound design by Yota Tsuruoka and Hiromune Kurahashi uses lots of ambiance to contrast the audible life of Shoya with the silent one of Shoko. It’s such a chasm that seems to keep them apart, while their shared positions as teenage pariahs — not to the mention the fact that neither of them seems to have a father figure in their life — is what ultimately may unite them.”
OCTOBER 20: Tempestad (dir. Tatiana Huezo) – Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Through a subjective and emotional journey, this film conveys the paralysing power of fear: fear as a sickness that prevents you from taking a stand on your life, on the future of your children; which clouds your ability to dream and grow.
“A morning on a quite normal day: Miriam is arrested at her workplace and is accused, without proof, of ‘people trafficking.’ The violence she suffered and was exposed to during her imprisonment has left a profound gap in her life.
“Adela works as a clown in a travelling circus. Ten years ago, her life was irreversibly transformed; every night during the show, she evokes her missing daughter, Monica. Tempest is the parallel journey of two women. Mirror-like, it reflects the impact of the violence and impunity that afflict Mexico.
“Through their voices, we are drawn into the heart of their feelings, steeped in loss and pain, but also love, dignity and resistance.”
OCTOBER 27: The Divine Order (dir. Petra Biondina Volpe) (DP: Judith Kaufmann) – Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Dan Hunt: “Political and religious leaders in Switzerland cited the Divine Order as the reason why women still did not have to right to vote as late as 1970. Director Petra Volpe explores this surprising history through the story of Nora, a seemingly unremarkable housewife from a quaint village who must learn to become an unflinching suffragette leader. After organizing the village’s first meeting to support women getting the right to vote, her family is mocked, bullied, and shunned. Despite the obstacles and backlash, Nora perseveres and convinces the village women to go on strike, abandoning their homes and families. A strong ensemble cast brings the story to its inspirational conclusion when Swiss women finally secure the right to vote in 1971. The Divine Order is a heartfelt and captivating film about regular people demanding their right to an equal voice.”
OCTOBER 27: Félicité (dir. Alain Gomis) (DP: Céline Bozon) – Quad Cinema synopsis: “In a makeshift bar on the tough streets of Kinshasa, the proud Félicité (remarkable newcomer Véro Tshanda Beya) scrapes by as a singer, fronting infectious songs by local orchestra the Kasai Allstars. But after her teenage son falls victim to a motorcycle accident, Félicité is sent looking for money to pay for his medical bills and finds herself on a transformative journey. Bursting with music and richly textured, this vibrant, electrifying film opens a window to a world too rarely seen onscreen.”
OCTOBER 27 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (dir. Griffin Dunne) (DPs: Tom Hurwitz, Reed Morano and William Rexer) – Metrograph synopsis: “Across more than 50 years of essays, novels, screenplays, and criticism, Joan Didion has been the premier chronicler of the ebb and flow of America’s cultural and political tides. In the intimate, extraordinary documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, actor and director Griffin Dunne unearths a treasure trove of archival footage and talks at length to his “Aunt Joan” about the eras she covered and the eventful life she’s lived. Didion guides us through the literary scene of New York in the 1950s and ’60s, as a writer for Vogue; the return to her native California for two turbulent decades; the writing of her seminal books, including Play It as It Lays and The White Album; her film scripts, including The Panic in Needle Park; her view of 1980s and ’90s political personalities; and the meeting of minds that was her long marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne.”
OCTOBER 27: Maya Dardel (dirs. Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak) – Samuel Goldwyn Films synopsis: “The film depicts the final weeks leading to the ambiguous disappearance of Maya Dardel (Lena Olin), an internationally respected poet and novelist, who lived until 2016 in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Maya announces on National Public Radio that she intends to end her life and that young male writers may compete to become the executor of her estate. They are challenged intellectually, emotionally, erotically, until one of them begins to fathom Maya’s end game.”
OCTOBER 27: Mr. Roosevelt (dir. Noël Wells) (DP: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen) – Variety’s SXSW review by Andrew Barker: “Mr. Roosevelt is the debut film by writer-director Noël Wells, a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic. It also features Wells in the lead role, as a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic, only to make an abrupt return to attend a cat funeral at the home of her ex-boyfriend, and perhaps take stock of the shambling mess she’s made of her life amidst Austin’s remaining pockets of weirdness. If you’re already starting to roll your eyes, stop: This riotously endearing comedy is substantially funnier, sharper, and more peculiar than that premise is bound to make it sound. While its knowing touch for the rhythms of Austin life make it a perfect fit for SXSW, the film has potential to travel much further, and announces Wells as a behind-the-camera talent worth watching.
“A veteran of L.A.’s improv scene, Wells had a single-season run on ‘Saturday Night Live’ before landing her recent role on ‘Master of None,’ and the former experience certainly seems to inform Mr. Roosevelt’s opening scene, as Wells’ fictional counterpart Emily soldiers through a failed audition for a sketch-comedy show. (Kristen Wiig is among Emily’s celebrity impressions, though it’s her take on Holly Hunter haggling at a yard sale that really should have gotten her a callback.)
“All she has to show for her time in Hollywood is one viral video that she ‘wasn’t able to monetize’; she’s barely making ends meet as a promotional video editor; and the improv comedy dating pool is proving somewhat suboptimal. So when she receives a call from her ex, Eric (Nick Thune), with news that their once-shared cat is sick, she doesn’t hesitate to hop on a plane to Texas with little but the clothes on her back.
“Back home, she learns that the cat has already died, and Eric – whom she had just assumed would let her stay at his place – is happily cohabiting with his new, perfectly poised girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom Emily takes an immediate dislike. After all, she’s completely redecorated the place, relegating all of Emily’s leftover possessions to a shed out back. Pleading poverty, however, Emily gets the couple to put her up for a few days.
“Although she’s only been gone for two years, Emily finds her former home city has been gentrified just as strikingly as her former home. Her favorite dingy coffee shop has been boarded up, and the new one nearby is a modernist maze of antiseptic steel. Eric has embraced a thoroughly L.A. set of voluntary dietary restrictions, and Celeste lists her occupation as ‘entrepreneur.’ The two take Emily out to the kind of restaurant that actually requires nicer attire than t-shirts and jeans, and it isn’t long before she has a tableside meltdown.
“Quickly coming to Emily’s rescue is a firecracker waitress-musician named Jen (Daniella Pineda), who recognizes her from her fleeting bout of YouTube stardom. After employing some tough love methods to staunch her panic attacks, Jen becomes Emily’s new best friend literally overnight, and ferries her around from overcrowded artist co-ops to topless Greenbelt picnics and musical house parties. Meanwhile, Celeste mounts an ever-escalating Cold War with her predecessor, and Eric and Emily spend enough time together to risk rekindling their old flame.
“Nothing here, from the premise to the plotting to the basic tone, is particularly novel, but the entire affair has a distinctive personality. Wells has a clear gift for physical comedy, and as a director, she tends to underplay her funniest bits in a way that gives the film an engaging, lackadaisical flow, rather than fragmenting into a series of sketches. That distinctiveness extends to her character too – the hapless twentysomething woman-child has become almost as well-worn a type as its male equivalent, but Emily feels like an original creation within those broad parameters.
“Mr. Roosevelt does occasionally reveal a few first-time filmmaker kinks, and in the later-going Wells forces closure on some narrative arcs that could have just as well stayed open-ended. But never does the film’s comic energy wane, and the supporting cast is highlighted by Lower, Pineda, and a scene-stealing turn from Andre Hyland, whose puckish stoner may be too laid-back even for Austin.”
OCTOBER 27: Novitiate (dir. Margaret Betts) (DP: Kat Westergaard) – Toronto International Film Festival review by Jesse Wente: “Oscar winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) oversees a bevy of up-and-coming female actors in this drama about aspiring nuns at an isolated Catholic school in 1964, who are forced to re-examine their faith and their calling in light of the liberal reforms of Vatican II.
“‘It was… peaceful,’ is how Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) describes her first experience of church to her agnostic mother (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen’s home life is seldom peaceful, but in the church and God, she finds the love that she is missing. Further entranced by the nuns at her school, Cathleen announces at 17 that she’s ‘in love’ and entering the convent. There she finds a harsh environment of devotion, the strict hand of the Reverend Mother, and the companionship of other girls similarly eager to show their love for God.
“A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Vatican II and the massive reforms to the Catholic Church in the 1960s, Novitiate is a stirring exploration about women finding themselves, their faith, and their passions beyond religion. The film is host to a remarkable cast of young actors portraying the novices preparing for life as nuns. Melissa Leo gives one of the year’s strongest performances. Her Reverend Mother is boiling rage underneath her vestments, angry at the changing church and its disrespect to the women who have devoted their lives to it.
“Writer-director Maggie Betts wonderfully blends contemplative pacing with the emotive performances of her cast, crafting a surprisingly sexy and deeply effective story. Novitiate is a film about love — physical, spiritual, and emotional — in its many evolving forms. It’s a stirring debut from a director we are sure to hear much more from in the future.”