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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 in Movies: GIF Edition

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

Anthropoid (dir. Sean Ellis)

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

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

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

Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross)

Chicken People (dir. Nicole Lucas Haimes)

Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)

The Dressmaker (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse)

Eddie the Eagle (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer)

Florence Foster Jenkins (dir. Stephen Frears)

Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig)

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

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

How to Be Single (dir. Christian Ditter)

Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)

Keanu (dir. Peter Atencio)

Lion (dir. Garth Davis)

The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Money Monster (dir. Jodie Foster)

One More Time with Feeling (dir. Andrew Dominik)

Snowden (dir. Oliver Stone)

Star Trek Beyond (dir. Justin Lin)

Triple 9 (dir. John Hillcoat)

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

X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer)

2016: Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016: Part 4

Anthropoid. Directed by Sean Ellis. Notes from December 22, 2016: Numerous critics raked Anthropoid over the coals this past summer, presumably because it is now considered near impossible to make a World War II-related thriller unless you have the panache of a Spielberg or a Tarantino. In truth, filmmaker Sean Ellis shows a great deal of potential here; despite having missed his previous featujares – Cashback (2006), The Broken (2008) and the highly praised Metro Manila (2013) – I suspect he has a long career ahead of him. Pulling triple duty as director, screenwriter and cinematographer, Ellis shows a definite flair for action sequences and getting good performances out of his cast. The second half is far superior to the first, but that’s to be expected in a film that you want to focus more on the war effort than on romantic subplots.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, a pair of Slovak and Czech soldiers respectively. They parachute into the Czech countryside and enter Prague with the task of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was third in the Nazi hierarchy’s command, behind only Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. This extraordinarily dangerous mission is carried out with the help of a number of Czech contacts, including “Uncle” Hajský (Toby Jones), Adolf Opálka (Harry Lloyd), Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski) and Marie Moravec and her son A’ta (Alena Mihulová and Bill Milner). Gabcík and Kubis are further assisted by two women posing as their girlfriends, Lenka (Anna Geislerová) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon); naturally, each couple falls in love for real. These relationships threaten to drag the film into the realm of soggy melodrama, but once the day of the assassination plot arrives, the narrative really takes shape. (It helps that both Murphy and Dornan do well in their roles, especially noteworthy since Jamie Dornan must be trying extra hard to prove that he can be more than Christian Grey.) Once the film gets to the climactic scenes set in a church, Ellis displays some incredible subtleties of emotion in the midst of fast-paced, brutal warfare. There is a moment when, after having heard a particular gunshot ring out (I won’t explain the context), a single tear streams down Murphy’s face – it is a shot so painfully beautiful that I had to rewind the movie to experience it again.

In one of the DVD’s special features, Cillian Murphy described the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion through the lens of its impact on the outcome of the war: “It’s kind of like the movie has, sort of, two endings, do you know? There’s the one, tragedy, and then the one that is also tragic but in the greater scheme of things, it’s a victory. So it’s fascinating and it kind of stays with you, and again that’s another yardstick by which I measure movies. They shouldn’t be disposable. They should leave, like, a residue on your skin and on your psyche for a few days or a few weeks. That’s, to me, what cinema should be about.” I couldn’t agree more.

Captain Fantastic. Directed by Matt Ross. Notes from December 23, 2016: Written and directed by the great Matt Ross (he plays Hooli mastermind Gavin Belson on “Silicon Valley”), Captain Fantastic tells the engaging story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a man who has raised his six children (George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell) in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, somewhere in Washington. The kids’ mom, Leslie (Trin Miller), who has suffered from depression from years, commits suicide at the beginning of the film, a death which sets the rest of the film’s events in motion. Because Leslie dies in a city hospital, her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) take over plans for the funeral and try to keep “crazy hippie” Ben and his children away with threats of arrest over “child abuse.” (Besides being homeschooled in the wild, the kids spend their days “training” – vigorous exercise, rock climbing, hunting and skinning game, etc.) The film asks many questions of both the main characters and the viewers: who is right in this situation? Is Ben right to prepare his sons and daughters for being able to adapt to any situation that Mother Nature might throw at them, or are the grandparents right about wanting the kids to experience “normal” interactions in “civilized” society?

Ross handles these issues skillfully and elicits excellent performances from his actors. Naming the anticapitalist adult protagonist “Benjamin Cash” is a tad on the nose, but other than that screenwriting glitch, I really enjoyed Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of this dad who just wants to do right by his family. I was also impressed by the actors who played the six children, particularly George MacKay as eldest son Bo, Nicholas Hamilton as rebellious teenager Rellian and Charlie Shotwell as one of the youngest kids, inquisitive son Nai. Kudos also goes to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (he must be 2016′s MVP since he also photographed Elle and Jackie), who contributes top-notch work, particularly in the forest scenes. For all I know there could be other films this year that discuss Buddhism, the numerous achievements of Noam Chomsky (the Cash family celebrates his birthday in place of Christmas) and detailed analysis of the novel Lolita, but surely none of them does so as well as Captain Fantastic.

Jackie. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Notes from December 15, 2016: Does it matter whether an actor looks like the person he/she/they are portraying in a biopic? Except for the iconic haircut, Natalie Portman does not physically resemble Jackie Kennedy in the new film Jackie, but Portman’s performance is so intense and nuanced that she became the woman in every possible way; it is difficult to imagine any actress doing more remarkable work than her during this awards season. Jackie is a film about trying to understand the unthinkable – a First Lady who witnessed her husband’s gruesome assassination happen right in front of her, and who then had to figure out how to carry on with the whole world watching her – and attempting to simultaneously show a sliver of Jackie’s soul while also keeping her at a distance, a celebrity whom we will never truly know. Larraín allows us to walk in Jackie’s shoes and get inside her head while also viewing her from afar, half a century after the events in the film took place. Madeline Fontaine’s costumes, Stéphane Fontaine‘s cinematography and the production design, art direction and set decoration by Jean Rabasse, Halina Gebarowicz and Véronique Melery recreate the physical atmosphere of the early 1960s, but perhaps the film’s most vital asset is the music composed by Mica Levi, a moody and heavy set of minor tones not unlike Levi’s score for the sci-fi horror tale Under the Skin (2013) – a fitting connection since Jackie is, in its own way, a story of both horror and ghosts. If there is a film more emotionally devastating than Jackie in theaters right now, then I have yet to see it.

Keanu. Directed by Peter Atencio. Notes from December 24, 2016***: As a fan of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key since their days as cast members on “MADtv” and also for their work on their Comedy Central show “Key & Peele,” I was expecting big things from their first starring film vehicle as a team. Unfortunately Keanu falls flat most of the time, trying so hard to entertain us with its parodies of action movie tropes that the comedy is often deflated before impact. Peele plays a depressed artist/photographer whose outlook brightens after a kitten appears on his doorstep (and whom he immediately names Keanu – specifically because of the Hawaiian word for “cool breeze,” not the name of the actor.) It turns out that the feline belonged to a bunch of drug dealers who have just been murdered by a pair of assassins called the Allentown Brothers (also played by Key and Peele); when the killers ransack Peele’s house to steal the kitten, Peele and his straitlaced cousin (Key) spend their weekend in the company of gangsters, impersonating the Allentown Brothers in the hopes of getting Keanu back from another drug lord, Cheddar (Method Man).

Keanu doesn’t lack for action, but jokes about black and Latino cultural stereotypes can only go so far. The two inspired subplots are the scenes involving Will Forte as Jordan Peele’s cornrow-wearing pot dealer (at one point Forte pleads with a gunman to spare his life because “I know everything about hip-hop!”) and the running gag depicting Keegan-Michael Key’s character as a massive fan of George Michael; at one point Key experiences an amusing drug-induced fantasy during which he believes he is a part of Michael’s “Faith” music video, and also sees a vision of Keanu the kitten voiced by – you guessed it – Keanu Reeves. Just for those sequences, the film might be worth seeing, but otherwise you will be disappointed.

***This write-up was done before George Michael passed away. That doesn’t retroactively change my view of the film, however, since I already appreciated the scenes that incorporate his music.

Midnight Special. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Notes from December 26, 2016: As a huge fan of Jeff Nichols’ four other films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Loving), I had high expectations for the sci-fi drama Midnight Special. Alas, the film is easily the weakest of Nichols’ features, substituting his usual emphasis on strong, well-developed bonds between characters for bigger-budget, overambitious flashiness.

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst play the parents of a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who has otherworldly powers that cause him to emit extreme amounts of white light from his eyes and hands. It is never explained how he obtained this ability or why he would have been born with it since as far as we know, he was indeed born to Dunst (rather than being found on a doorstep or in a cornfield like Superman). Sam Shepard appears briefly at the beginning of the film, playing Lieberher’s adopted father; Shepard runs a creepy religious cult and he is Dunst’s father, another unexplained yet important point since Dunst and Shannon apparently met when they were both involved with the cult – just how did Shepard get hold of Lieberher? Is Shepard actually the boy’s legal guardian? Nichols never gives us the details.

Midnight Special’s narrative focuses on a dangerous trek that Shannon, Dunst, Lieberher and Joel Edgerton (in an excellent performance as a childhood friend of Shannon’s) make to do something never fully explained. Shannon knows that Lieberher has to be brought someplace by a certain date, but when and how did Lieberher ascertain this knowledge? The film skirts particulars by requiring us to assume that Lieberher can do anything and learn anything just by being special and having an infinite reserve of alien faculties. As always, Jeff Nichols’ actors do fine work – also including Adam Driver as an FBI analyst, Bill Camp as a lackey who is willing to kill for Shepard and David Jensen as another of Shannon’s buddies, who ends up doing more harm than good – and Adam Stone, who has photographed every Nichols film, contributes his impeccable eye for framing and lighting to the cinematography. There are moments when the score by David Wingo (who has composed for all of Nichols’ films except Shotgun Stories) adds much-needed gravitas to the baffling plot, but technical elements cannot completely salvage a muddled story. Sometimes films work because of a je ne sais quoi that allows the filmmaker to express an enigmatic sense of beauty; consider Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). If a film’s unanswered questions only confuse and irritate the viewer rather than provoke and illuminate, though, little can be done to improve the experience.

La Belle Michèle

Michèle Morgan, who passed away yesterday at age 96, was one of the great stars of French cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. For some actresses (and their fans) it might have been enough just to be a beautiful presence onscreen, but Michèle was always much more than a pretty face. She had a remarkable ability to find the passionate depths of any character she was given, whether it was a beret-sporting gamine who casts her spell on an army deserter (Jean Gabin) in Marcel Carné’s proto-noir Port of Shadows (1938), a wide-eyed maid who falls in love with a valet (Jack Haley) in Tim Whelan’s musical comedy Higher and Higher (1943) or the kindhearted mistress of a butler (Ralph Richardson) accused of murdering his wife in Carol Reed’s drama/thriller The Fallen Idol (1948). Michèle knew when to play cool and assured and when to magnify the high-spirited, richly emotional aspects of a role; she owed some of her success to her exceptionally good looks, particularly her striking blue eyes, but the enduring truth of her appeal was in the way she could imbue the women she played with the intelligence and poise that only a genuinely gifted performer can possess.

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Three weeks ago I watched one of Michèle’s classic French films, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (aka Stormy Waters) (1941), which is available via the Criterion Collection in the box set Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During the Occupation. In the film, Michèle plays a cynical young woman whose path crosses with that of an older sea captain (Jean Gabin) who rescues her from a ship stranded during a tempest. The two embark on an affair that ends, like all memorable French dramas must, in tragedy.

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Michèle’s finest scene in Remorques is at the end of the film, when Jean Gabin leaves their hotel room to return home and reunite with his dying wife. Michèle hands Gabin’s first officer a starfish that she found on the beach during one of the couple’s clandestine meetings. It is a quiet, tender moment made bittersweet by the tears in the corners of her eyes even as she insists on smiling through her sorrow – she knows that the romance has ended and that she will never see her beloved again.

Earlier, in September, I watched one of the few American films Michèle made in the 1940s, Joan of Paris (1942), a World War II espionage drama from RKO Pictures in which she plays a penniless Frenchwoman who helps an RAF aviator (Paul Henreid) and his comrades on their mission to get back to England after being shot down over Paris. At the time I saw the film, I was so struck by two particular scenes that I took many screenshots to capture those images; I have gathered some of them here to further pay tribute to Michèle. I implore you to seek out Joan of Paris, which is available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. Although the screenplay has a number of flaws and the film focuses more on action than on character development, the performances by Michèle, Paul Henreid, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, a young Alan Ladd and John Abbott are well worth seeing.

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In the second half of the film, Michèle goes to a church to pray for Paul Henreid and his fellow aviators as they attempt to carry out their perilous escape plan. I am certain that director Robert Stevenson deliberately sought to evoke the intense close-ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). There is a dazed, haunted look in Michèle’s face as she begs God to spare Henreid from the Nazi antagonists’ bloody wrath.

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At the film’s end, Michèle and a compassionate local priest (Thomas Mitchell) come to terms with the grim consequences of her assistance to the Allied fliers. Michèle walks toward the camera, solemn and trembling yet certain that she has done the right thing. Cinematographer Russell Metty observes the shifting planes of Michèle’s face, the different reactions made visible depending on the angles of light and shadow. This is a performance which the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described in January 1942 as having “deep poignance and real nobility,” an evaluation which still rings true three-quarters of a century later.

I’ve Just Seen a Face

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Sometimes there are faces that are so incredible in close-ups and extreme close-ups that they are almost painful to witness. Cinema makes these visages become works of art, portraits encased in celluloid (or digital, depending on the director) museums where history is captured and stored at the rate of 24 frames per second. These are faces that transcend any theoretical limitations of the camera, the perceptions of the audience, maybe even the story being told – the character evolves into a new and different beast, in the most positive sense. When an actor displays this level of ability to breathe life and meaning into a role, far beyond whatever was suggested on the pages of the script, you will know without hesitation that you have encountered a transformative creation that is both magnificently constructed for the movie theater experience and is also, in a strange way, even more affecting, thought-provoking and real than reality.

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Natalie Portman’s depiction of Jackie Kennedy in the new Pablo Larraín film Jackie is one example of this phenomenon. Close-ups and extreme close-ups allow nowhere for the actor, or the audience, to hide. Portman has to be able to project every ounce of Jackie’s grief, fear, self-loathing and stubborn vanity when her face fills the frame, and moviegoers have to confront those images over and over. Larraín’s film achieves the unbelievable feat of simultaneously getting under the skin of a complex woman, digging into her soul during the most heartbreaking and traumatic week of her life, and also staying at a distance, allowing the character to shape the recollection of events being told to a reporter (Billy Crudup) a week after JFK’s assassination. Jackie reminds me of the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), the scripted documentary in which Nick Cave recounts five decades’ worth of memories and shows us the controlled version of his life that he wants us to see – sleeping, eating, typing lyrics in a house which isn’t his actual house; reciting monologues that explain his innermost emotions via voiceovers recorded in post-production. Objectivity does not exist when people decide how their truths are told and how facts are remembered.

At one point in the film, Portman’s Jackie murmurs, “I lost track somewhere. What was real? What was performance?” Who but Jackie Kennedy herself can say whether Natalie Portman’s performance is psychologically accurate? Perhaps Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim provide no concrete answers, either for Jackie (the character or the real person), for Portman as an actress or for us as the onlookers. The only certainty I have that Portman succeeded in her portrayal is a gut feeling, the awareness when the end credits began to roll that she had accomplished something that will continue to resonate with me, long after this Oscar season ends.

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