2017: Part 3

Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Notes from October 9, 2017: Beatriz at Dinner might not literally be the “first great film of the Trump era,” as the poster states – doesn’t that honor belong to Get Out? – but Miguel Arteta’s film certainly is a beautifully made, sharply incisive dramedy observing the many divisions in American society. We follow an eventuful day in the life our protagonist, Beatriz (a brilliant Salma Hayek), who works as a holistic healer at a cancer treatment center and also as a masseuse to an upper-crust clientele in southern California. Late one afternoon, Beatriz drives from Santa Monica to Newport Beach for a massage appointment with a rich housewife, Kathy (Connie Britton). The two women seem to have a personal bond: Kathy’s daughter, Tara, was stricken with cancer as a teenager and Beatriz’s care and friendship helped Tara on the road to recovery. When Beatriz finds that her old car won’t start and that she can’t leave Kathy’s house just yet, Kathy invites her friend to stay for a dinner party that she and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are throwing for some of his colleagues and their wives. This is the point at which the story’s wheels really begin to turn.

As the guests arrive at the house, Beatriz struggles to fit in with conversation topics that concern only the rich, white social circle. Despite engaging in chitchat that she enjoys, it is clear that the other visitors – including Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), Alex (Jay Duplass) and Jeana (Amy Landecker) – consider her a bizarre anomaly encroaching on their comfortable territory. As the dinner progresses, Beatriz finds herself locked in a war of words with Grant’s boss, Doug Strutt (the incomparable John Lithgow), a Trumplike tycoon who flaunts both his wealth and his contempt for anyone of a lower social class (or perhaps a darker skin tone) than him. Beatriz tries to enlighten her companions with her memories of growing up in a Mexican village that was destroyed by an American construction company that never followed through on its building plans, but the only feedback she receives is disinterest.

Beatriz at Dinner’s mood changes as our heroine becomes increasingly aware that Kathy and Grant’s home is a hostile environment. The film shifts from comedy to drama as Beatriz’s confrontations with her adversaries become ever more emotionally charged. It’s too bad that Mike White’s script loses its satirical edge, but this is necessary to show Beatriz’s evolution over the course of this tense and upsetting night. Many viewers have argued that the film’s ending is a letdown, that it suggests – in a “bigger picture” sense – that acquiescing is the ultimate solution when one is faced with a bully or an outright villain. But if you consider Beatriz’s own story, just focusing how much she longs to return to a past that no longer exists (as evidenced in the themes of the song she performs for the dinner guests), the conclusion of her arc makes sense.

It’s amazing to realize how rare it is to see Salma Hayek in a performance like the one she gives in Beatriz at Dinner. The successes and failures of her career have always seemed to be predicated on how much makeup her characters wear and/or how tight and revealing their clothes are; occasionally she gets an opportunity, like in Frida and in Beatriz at Dinner, to show her power as an actress. In Beatriz, she wears no makeup; her hair is tied in a straightforward ponytail; her outfit is a utilitarian work ensemble. Without all of the usual distracting accoutrements, we can concentrate on the simple, striking impact of Hayek’s face, which radiates so much grace and strength in every frame. Even if you think you disagree with the political messages of Beatriz at Dinner, please see it for its extraordinary spotlight on Salma Hayek, as well as the poetic cinematography of Wyatt Garfield.

Brawl in Cell Block 99. Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Notes from October 25, 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal action thriller that is definitely not for all appetites, but if you can tolerate the extreme levels of violence – the film is unrated, but the MPAA would have slapped it with an NC-17 warning – you will be rewarded with some of the most memorable acting, writing, cinematography and fight sequences of any film that has been released this year.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a former boxer who loses his job at the local auto shop in the film’s first scene. He is a physically intimidating protagonist; besides being a 6′ 5″ man whose bald head is adorned with a cross tattoo, Bradley rips his wife Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) car apart with his bare hands after he comes home early and discovers that she has been having an affair for the past three months. The only way that the couple can salvage their fractured marriage is for Bradley to return to his former career as a drug runner. This decision seems dangerous for both Bradley and Lauren, who are both recovering addicts, but when the film cuts to “eighteen months later,” the pair are living happily in a bigger, fancier house and expecting their first child.

As we know from the film’s title, however, this paradise will not last. Bradley and some new business partners he doesn’t trust are involved in a police ambush, which results in him shooting his comrades to prevent them from injuring the police. Despite the good intentions behind Bradley’s actions, he is found guilty of the murders and is sentenced to seven years in prison. While in jail, Bradley is visited by a mysterious, German-accented man (Udo Kier, the incomparable king of genre cinema), who shows Bradley photo evidence that Lauren is being held hostage and the only way Bradley can save her is to kill a certain inmate in Cell Block 99 of the Red Leaf detention center, a maximum-security facility for all the most depraved criminals.

Moments after the conversation with the “Placid Man” (as Kier’s character is called in the end credits), Bradley sets himself up by attacking several corrections officers. Branded a severe threat to his fellow prisoners and staff, Bradley is immediately transported to Red Leaf, where he meets sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, literally twirling his mustache in malicious delight). A few more skirmishes finally bring Bradley down to the fabled Cell Block 99, where the most psychotic convicts reside. This odyssey, which by now has reached mythical proportions, culminates in a series of supremely gory conflicts between Bradley and some unexpected opponents, some images of which I may never be able to remember without feeling ill. This viciousness is necessary, however, since Bradley is a man on a mission and if he doesn’t complete the Placid Man’s assignment, his wife and unborn daughter will pay the price.

So what makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 so worthy of your time? First, there’s Vince Vaughn’s performance. He anchors the film not only as a physical presence but with solid acting and a sharp wit (my favorite: in an early scene he refers to a young woman’s tight and short blue jumpsuit as “zesty”); humorous dialogue provides much-needed emotional ballast during the film’s relentlessly grim bloodbaths. (Also, for the record: Vince Vaughn has not magically transformed into an excellent actor with Brawl. His dramatic talent has been evident for years, as people have known since his indie days in the 90s and – my personal favorite – in the bar scene from Into the Wild.) Don Johnson and Udo Kier give that extra-special “character actor” touch to roles that are vaguely defined by a general sense of evildoing, and I also enjoyed seeing another veteran of film and television, Willie C. Carpenter, as “Lefty,” the friendly lifer who tries to help Bradley assimilate to prison conditions on his first day there. Finally, as the icing on the cake, there are the aesthetics of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like the 70s exploitation films that clearly influenced writer-director S. Craig Zahler, Brawl features a soundtrack of soul/Motown songs, including brand-new tracks by some bona fide legends, the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Visually, the film benefits from cinematographer Benji Bakshi‘s eye for framing and contrasting light/shadow.

If you’re willing to give Brawl in Cell Block 99 a try, more power to you. Some may say that it is a film made in bad taste, but then again aren’t most delicious indulgences unhealthy at their core?

Ingrid Goes West. Directed by Matt Spicer. Notes from September 23, 2017: Ingrid Goes West is one of the surprise gems of the year, a satire about social media mania that asks us to consider the limits any of us would go to just to feel loved and important. Matt Spicer’s film skewers the millennial generation’s habit of creating Instagram celebrities who boast of carefully curated lives, but we also see a thought-provoking exploration of the lengths some people will go to in order to stave off loneliness.

When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), she’s busy pepper-spraying a bride at a wedding party. Ingrid’s anger at not being invited to the event is irrational; she only vaguely knew the other woman through Instagram, but in Ingrid’s mind, they were good pals. After Ingrid’s stay in a mental health treatment center, we quickly realize two crucial details about her: she spent a number of years as her mother’s caretaker (I think the film implied that Mrs. Thorburn died not long before Ingrid met her Instagram “friend”) and she easily develops intense attachments to other people. As Ingrid resettles into her empty house and tries to find a new purpose in life, she discovers a magazine article about an up-and-coming Instagram “influencer,” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and before we know it, Ingrid is grabbing her $60,000 inheritance from her mom’s will, moving out to Venice Beach, California and trying to figure out how to meet her current obsession.

After renting a house that’s owned by a young screenwriter, Dan (an exceptionally charming O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Ingrid dyes her hair the same color as Taylor’s (blonde), changes her wardrobe to dress more like her new hero, reads the novels that Taylor mentions loving on Instagram and visits the same eateries and shops that Taylor frequents. An accidental run-in with Taylor at a bookstore is almost disastrous – it would have been, had Taylor deigned to pay attention to such a klutzy commoner – but Ingrid quickly devises a new plan for actually meeting Taylor. One break-in and dog theft later, Ingrid is formally brought into the Sloane house, genially returning “lost” pup Rothko and ingratiating herself into the world of Taylor and her artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell).

Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, shopping, partying and spending time at a Joshua Tree retreat. Reluctantly, Ingrid also gets closer to Dan, who sees something more like the “real” her than the version of Ingrid that she pretends to be for Taylor and Ezra, but at the same time, a visit from Taylor’s irritating brother, Nicky (a scene-stealing Billy Magnussen), threatens to undermine Ingrid’s new way of life. Throughout the story there is tension as to whether Ingrid’s feelings for Taylor border on psychotic, and whether circumstances might result in a violent outburst; the third act of the film certainly ups the ante and takes our protagonist in several disturbing directions.

The entire cast of Ingrid Goes West does excellent work, but Aubrey Plaza in particular shines in a performance that shows her emotional range, which up to now has not always been reflected in her choice of roles. (She made me cry in the last few minutes of the film, which not every actor can do.) Ingrid is not always likeable, but she is achingly human in every complicated moment. We may not understand or agree with Ingrid’s intentions – she probably doesn’t fully comprehend them either; moreover, the film is ambiguous as to whether she is romantically inclined toward Taylor – but Ingrid’s need for human connection in a world that used to shut her out for being “herself” is a desire that we can all recognize. Ingrid Goes West illustrates how easy it is for people to hide behind façades that they believe are preferable to their natural selves; the absurdity of the situations is sometimes hilarious, but just like real life, sometimes the pain of maintaining that meticulously designed existence is heartbreaking.

Lucky. Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Notes from October 17, 2017: Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton capped his career with one last transcendent performance in Lucky, an introspective dramedy that honors its ninety-year-old protagonist with a heartfelt showcase. Lucky (Stanton) is a World War II veteran who lives a bare-bones existence in a small Southwest town, a place where the vistas are not unlike those seen in an earlier masterpiece starring Stanton, Paris, Texas (1984). Over the course of a few days in Lucky’s life, we see him interact with friends and foes alike, including rakishly dressed senior citizen Howard (David Lynch – no relation to Lucky’s director), life insurance salesman Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston), married barflies Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), diner owner Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), Dr. Christian Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr., in a role reminding me a lot of when he played a physician on “Portlandia”), fellow WWII vet Fred (Tom Skerritt), waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) and bodega clerk Bibi (Bertila Damas).

The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja was obviously tailor-made for Harry Dean Stanton, whose character often mentions his recollections of growing up in Kentucky, clearly autobiographical tidbits from Stanton’s own upbringing; Lucky’s atheism and his other philosophical musings were probably inspired by Stanton’s beliefs as well. The story moves slowly, perhaps too slowly for some viewers, but for anyone who knows and appreciates Stanton and the many wonderful characters that populate the cast, Lucky is a gem. The film’s beautiful performances – including a bravura monologue by David Lynch’s character about his abiding love for his pet tortoise, and a scene set in a diner in which Stanton and Tom Skerritt compares WWII stories, a poignant moment reminiscent of a similar scene in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story – and the cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt create a compelling portrait of a one-of-a-kind man. Thanks for the memories, Harry Dean – there was no one else like you.

Unforgettable. Directed by Denise Di Novi. Notes from September 19, 2017: Unforgettable has the plot and acting of a histrionic Lifetime TV movie, but it gives Katherine Heigl an unexpectedly satisfying role that stretches her acting muscles far beyond the scope of her usual rom-com performances. Heigl plays Tessa Connover, the psychotic ex-wife of David Connover (Geoff Stults), a businessman who is about to marry our protagonist, Web designer/editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson). David has convinced Julia to leave New York and move in with him in his California house, which also means getting to know David and Tessa’s young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Naturally, David has no idea how angry Tessa is over their divorce or what lengths she will go to ensure that Julia leaves the Connover family alone permanently.

Conventional melodrama fuels the character developments and plot twists in Unforgettable, hurtling the story toward certain inevitable conclusions. David is an exceedingly boring character, straight out of the Lifetime handbook for cardboard-cutout boyfriends. As is the case for heroines in many of that network’s soapy thrillers, Julia is trying to rebuild her life after having been in an abusive relationship, hiding this history from David because she wants to appear “strong” and forget the fact that she was once a victim. It is also no surprise that David and Julia have been fooled by Tessa’s pristine façade; underneath the flawless makeup, tightly tied-back ponytails and crisp white dresses, Tessa is a deeply manipulative person who targets Julia in such a way that David begins to think that Julia is crazy for disliking (then being terrified of) Tessa. Still, the film takes pains to illuminate the source of Tessa’s pathology: her mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd), drilled both the drive for perfection and the fear of failure into her daughter. As cruel as Tessa is, she is pitiable since we understand that she has been victimized too.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for Unforgettable to receive any honors come awards season, but Katherine Heigl should be commended for stepping outside of her comfort zone. I think she may have played a somewhat similar role in the dark comedy Home Sweet Hell (2015) – a film I haven’t seen but am now interested in – but Unforgettable should earn Heigl some new fans and, with any luck, more complex characters to play. I’m also curious to see what Denise Di Novi directs next; Unforgettable is her first feature, but she has been a producer since the early 1980s, helping make such modern classics as Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Little Women and A Walk to Remember.

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

Director April Mullen and her all-female crew on the set of Below Her Mouth, 2015.

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

MARCH 31 (NYC), APRIL 7 (LA): Cézanne et Moi (dir. Danièle Thompson)Landmark Sunshine Cinema synopsis:Cézanne et Moi is the compelling and moving chronicle of the surprising lifelong love/hate relationship between two of the creative geniuses of the 19th century, post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne, Yves Saint Laurent) and novelist Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet, Tell No One). Zola came from a poor family and wrote proletarian novels, but eventually won fame and fortune; Cezanne, the rebellious son of a rich banker, had long years of poverty and struggle as an artist, rejecting society in pursuit of art. They met as schoolboys in Aix-en-Provence, both outcasts, and became best friends; both sought the bright lights of Paris as young men, living life to the fullest. Rebellion and curiosity, hopes and doubts, girls and dreams of glory—they shared it all; yet rivalry and hurt feelings drove them apart. This gorgeous production was shot in part on location in Provence around Montagne Saint-Victoire, memorialized in so many of Cezanne’s paintings. Written and directed by Danièle Thompson (Avenue Montaigne, Jet Lag), an Academy Award nominee for her Cousin Cousine screenplay.”

APRIL 7 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Alive and Kicking (dir. Susan Glatzer)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Alive and Kicking is a feature-length documentary that takes an inside look into the culture of swing dancing and the characters who make it special. We explore the culture surrounding Swing dance from the emergence of the Lindy Hop to the modern day international phenomenon. The film follows the growth of Swing dance from its purely American roots as an art form, to countries all over the world. Alive and Kicking looks at the lives of the Swing dancers themselves to find their personal stories and why this dance fills them with joy.”

APRIL 7: Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis: “Featuring a cast teeming with some of the UK’s most charismatic comedic actors, Bill Nighy and Richard E. Grant among them, Their Finest is about boosting morale in a period of national — and personal — crisis.

“Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a ‘slop’ scriptwriter, charged with bringing a female perspective to war films produced by the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division. Her current project is a feature inspired by stories of British civilians rescuing soldiers after the retreat at Dunkirk. Catrin’s artist husband looks down on her job, despite the fact that it’s paying the rent. At least lead scenarist Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) appreciates her efforts.

“While on location in Devon, Catrin begins to come into her own and earn the respect of her peers. She’s the only crewperson that Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), a past-his-prime yet nonetheless pompous actor, will talk to.

“Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the film pops with witty banter and flows with lovely period detail. The characters are uniformly textured and the performances nuanced. Nighy is perfectly cast in his endearingly withering role, and Jeremy Irons turns up for a delicious cameo. It is, however, Arterton’s show. She brings subtlety, intelligence, and a range of beautifully gauged emotions to Catrin, whose path to self-renewal is an inspiring example of a talented woman forging her place in the world.”

APRIL 12: Glory (dirs. Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)Film Forum synopsis: “Frank Capra by way of Bulgaria. When a disheveled railroad worker discovers fistfuls of money on some rural train tracks, he turns over the dough to the police. The grateful authorities reward him with a televised ceremony and a new wristwatch to replace his old one (a family heirloom). But the glitzy new watch stops working and the smarmy, workaholic publicist for the Ministry of Transport can’t seem to find his old one. The man’s nonstop attempts to get his beloved old watch back wreak havoc on her efforts to use the heart-warming story of an honest good Samaritan to distract public attention from a burgeoning corruption scandal. A simple premise deepens into an incisive portrait of a bureaucracy riven with cynicism and a government happy to swallow its most idealistic citizens whole. From the directors, and starring the lead actors, of The Lesson, which Film Forum opened in 2015.”

APRIL 14: Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (dir. Maura Axelrod)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “In the documentary feature Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, filmmaker Maura Axelrod excavates Maurizio Cattelan’s disruptive and indelible career as the art world prankster of our time. Interviewing curators, collectors, art-world luminaries (and even his ex-girlfriends), to build a compelling picture of the conceptual artist and what makes him tick.

“Known best for his shocking photorealistic wax sculpture of Pope John Paul being felled by a meteorite, and of a child-size Hitler kneeling in prayer, Cattelan’s work is often wildly offensive – and yet incredibly popular – selling for tens of millions of dollars at auction.

“The film explores the origins of Cattelan’s work, and delves into the mythology of the famously elusive artist’s personal story as well. And like the best mysteries, viewers emerge from this dizzying journey knowing everything and nothing about a man who, from his professional inception, ushered us into a dazzling hall of mirrors that enchants and perplexes to this day. Maurizio Cattelan shook up the contemporary art world beginning in the late 1980s with a series of action-based installations including his first solo show in Milan, Torno Subito (Be Right Back), in which he padlocked an empty gallery – barring entrance to critics and spectators – and simply hung a sign on the door that read ‘Torno Subito’ or ‘Be Right Back.’

“Over his twenty-year career, Cattelan has continued to provoke and inspire, culminating in an all-encompassing installation and the proclamation of his retirement in 2011. His stunning final exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City features all of his works to date suspended – execution style, as sharper critics described it – from the ceiling of the world-famous museum’s rotunda, encapsulating a brief but meteoric career that Cattelan himself supposedly terminated at the height of his success.”

APRIL 14 (San Francisco), APRIL 21 (NYC and other cities): Tomorrow (dirs. Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Showing solutions, telling a feel-good story… this may be the best way to solve the ecological, economical and social crises that our countries are going through. After a special briefing for the journal Nature announced the possible extinction of a part of mankind before the end of the 21st century, Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, together with a team of four people, carried out an investigation in ten different countries to figure out what may lead to this disaster and above all how to avoid it.

“During their journey, they met the pioneers who are re-inventing agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education. Joining those concrete and positive actions which are already working, they began to figure out what could be tomorrow’s world…”

APRIL 21: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (dir. Lydia Tenaglia)Grub Street post by Sierra Tishgart: “Almost a year after debuting at film festivals, executive producer Anthony Bourdain and director Lydia Tenaglia’s documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, will hit theaters next month — premiering in New York and Los Angeles on April 21.

“The film explores Tower’s successful yet mysterious career in cooking: He’s credited by many as a chef who revolutionized cooking in this country, yet his name remains unknown to many people outside the industry. He first made a name for himself at Chez Panisse in 1972, but left after a dispute with owner Alice Waters, eventually opening Stars Restaurant in San Francisco to international acclaim. But after a few years, he left Stars, too. More than two decades later, he returned to professional cooking for a stint at New York’s fabled Tavern on the Green.

“Tower may not get the same recognition as his contemporaries, but as Bourdain explains in the trailer, ‘We should know who changed the world — we should know their names.’ Interviews with Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, and Martha Stewart reinforce Tower’s role as one of the founding fathers of American food.”

APRIL 21: Unforgettable (dir. Denise Di Novi)Warner Bros. synopsis: “Warner Bros. Pictures’ dramatic thriller Unforgettable is the first film in the director’s chair for veteran producer Denise Di Novi (Crazy Stupid Love, Focus). Katherine Heigl (27 Dresses, Knocked Up), Rosario Dawson (the Sin City films) and Geoff Stults (TV’s The Odd Couple) star in the film.

“Tessa Connover (Heigl) is barely coping with the end of her marriage when her ex-husband, David (Stults), becomes happily engaged to Julia Banks (Dawson)—not only bringing Julia into the home they once shared but also into the life of their daughter, Lily. Trying to settle into her new life, Julia believes she has finally met the man of her dreams, the man who can help her put her own troubled past behind her. But Tessa’s jealousy soon takes a pathological turn until she will stop at nothing to turn Julia’s dream into her ultimate nightmare.”

APRIL 26: Obit. (dir. Vanessa Gould)Film Forum synopsis: “When New York Times writer Bruce Weber comes into the office, the first thing he says is: ‘Who’s dead?’ Times editor William McDonald, Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, and others appear on screen — very much alive — in Vanessa Gould’s witty, eye-opening inside account of the ‘dead beat’ – the Times’s obituaries desk. According to Grimes, ‘dull, dry, responsible’ copy was once the norm. Today, the paper’s obits are among the best-written, most-read articles, and an ever-fascinating showcase for notable lives and achievements, from Nobel Prize winners to the inventor of the Slinky. Gould lets us in on more than a few secrets: how subjects are ultimately chosen, who merits star placement, who has an ‘advance obit’ (there are 1700 on file, kept under lock and key), and how the Times maintains its vast archive. Sole morgue-keeper Jeff Roth gives us a breathless tour of the paper’s century-old trove of clippings and photographs.”

APRIL 28 (in theaters and on Video on Demand): Below Her Mouth (dir. April Mullen) (DP: Maya Bankovic)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Magali Simard: “One of the boldest and sexiest dramas of the year, April Mullen’s Below Her Mouth tells the story of an unexpected romance between two women whose passionate connection changes their lives forever.

“Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is a successful fashion editor living with her fiancé, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). On a night out in the city with her best friend, she meets Dallas (Erika Linder), a roofer recently out of a relationship. Jasmine is taken by surprise when Dallas confidently hits on her; she turns Dallas down, but can’t get her out of her head.

“Dallas continues her cool, self-assured advances. In a matter of days, Jasmine succumbs and the two women embark on a steamy affair. It feels like a fantasy world compared to Jasmine’s life and plans with Rile, but soon reality rears its head, and she will have to face the profound changes their sudden romance has wrought in her.

“Stephanie Fabrizi’s screenplay powerfully and honestly explores what happens when two women fall hard for each other, and Mullen brings the story to the screen with uninhibited flair and assurance, showing us how love can arise from some of the messiest times in our lives.

Below Her Mouth is a rarity in more than one way: it’s a fiction film shot with an entirely female crew, and it’s an uncommonly frank look at the all-encompassing nature of attraction — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the transcendendent.”

APRIL 28: Buster’s Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Colin Geddes: “An eccentric mountain man is on the run from the authorities, surviving the winter by breaking into empty vacation homes in a remote community. Regularly calling into radio talk shows — where he has acquired the nickname ‘Buster’ — to rant about the impending dangers of Y2K, he is haunted by visions of being lost at sea, and memories of his former life as a family man.

“Buster (Rami Malek) was once Jonah, a hard-working husband and father whose job as the night-shift concierge at a hotel took its toll on his mood and, consequently, his marriage to the sensitive and long-suffering Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) — until a chance encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter (DJ Qualls) changed the course of their lives forever. As the sad and solitary present-day Buster drifts from house to house and eludes the local sheriff at every turn, we gradually piece together the events that fractured his life and left him alone on top of a snowy mountain, or perhaps in a small rowboat in the middle of a vast ocean — or both.

“Following the found-footage genre twister The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith’s second feature puts her on another level as a writer and director. Beautiful, enigmatic and elliptical, Buster’s Mal Heart also features a powerful performance from Malek as the silent, broken protagonist. Taking his first big-screen leading role after his starring turn in the hit TV series Mr. Robot, Malek proves here that he’s more than capable of carrying the weight of a feature film.”

APRIL 28 (in theaters and streaming on Netflix): Casting JonBenét (dir. Kitty Green)Excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance Film Festival review by Leslie Felperin: “Building on an approach to nonfiction storytelling she first explored in the her award-winning short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green creates something powerful, provocative and dazzlingly original with her second feature documentary, Casting JonBenét. In essence, this sui generis work offers a kaleidoscopic array of personal reactions to the famous 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsay.

“But the interviewees are not people who were directly involved in the case, although some had very tangential connections to the murder. Instead, they are all actors: a mix of professional and non-pro, from in and around Boulder, Colorado (where JonBenét lived and died), auditioning to play the murdered child’s now-deceased mother, Patsy, father, John, brother, Burke and, of course, JonBenét herself, among others.

“Over the course of the film, the participants share not just their own hunches and suspicions about what happened that morning after Christmas, but also personal revelations about themselves and why the case resonates with them so deeply 20 years on. Ultimately, this evolves into a layered meditation on many things — crime and guilt, the exploitation of children and acting itself, to name just a few.

“…The point, however — unlike many of the documentaries about the case over the years, some of which have prompted libel cases from the surviving Ramsey family members — is not to make a definitive argument that this or that person or persons, known or unknown, killed JonBenét. Rather, her tragic death becomes a prism through which the stories and feelings of the actors themselves, and of course our own, are refracted. A man shares how his performance changed between the time he was cast for this film and the time he was called in for the film’s grand finale, because in the intervening time he was diagnosed with cancer. One woman shares how she was sexually abused as a child when she was about JonBenét’s age, while another discusses how her own brother’s murder affects her perspective on the case and her need to bear witness through acting.

“…As did Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Casting JonBenét expands the formal horizons of documentary, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, not to take a particular side, but to question how we can ever know what really happened. It may be about a murder that occurred more than 20 years ago, but on another level it’s a film that feels very much a product of these troubled, post-truth times.”

APRIL 28: Danger Close (dirs. David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud) (DP: Alex Quade)Cinema Village synopsis: “Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, whose previous work includes the acclaimed military documentaries Citizen Soldier and The Hornet’s Nest. This riveting documentary follows Alex Quade, the only reporter and only female ever embedded long-term with U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) overseas on highly classified combat missions, as she embeds with elite SOF (including the U.S. Army Special Forces or Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and CIA clandestine operatives) to tell their stories from the front lines. Danger Close follows Alex as she lives alongside these highly trained forces on some of the most daring missions ever documented in Iraq and Afghanistan.”