2017: Part 2

Dunkirk. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Notes from August 9, 2017: Two weeks ago, I saw Dunkirk in a 70mm IMAX show at my favorite IMAX venue, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater in Manhattan. As I have probably said numerous times in earlier reviews, that screen provides the definitive IMAX experience for viewers in New York City. I was doubly excited in this instance because I went to Dunkirk with a good friend of mine who did not grow up in New York and who had never been to this particular IMAX theater. (I am happy to report that she was indeed astonished by the immensity of the screen, even more so since we were sitting in the last row, almost exactly in the center.) I mention all of these details because they helped inform how I processed the overwhelming magnitude of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

From the moment the film started, I was firmly ensconced in the narrative. I felt as though I were actually in the movie. Every heart-pounding tremor boomed out of the sound system and was transferred directly into my seat. It was easy to be captivated by the simple story of young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) since his struggle is universal: to survive. The close-ups of Tommy were breathtaking in IMAX, although perhaps I was specially attuned to them because I often study and write about the impact of faces and bodies in cinema. It is for this same reason that I was also blown away by the performance given by Aneurin Barnard as another of the main soldier characters, Gibson. Barnard has marvelously expressive eyes, a real gift for him to have as an actor since Gibson moves through his scenes in silence.

Indeed, much of Dunkirk’s intensity relies on visuals and on the actors’ abilities to express themselves without dialogue, just like in silent cinema. The subtlest changes in a person’s face can shape a language of their own. You may hear from other viewers and critics that Dunkirk’s characters lack development and the story lacks the types of expected dramatic arcs that accompany traditionally fleshed-out characters, but I do not believe that filmmakers “owe” those details to an audience, nor do I need to know those aspects of a character’s life, either past or present, in order to care. I identified with Tommy as he fought his way through obstacle after obstacle; he felt fear and panic, and I know those emotions intimately. I have been fortunate never to have experienced warfare firsthand, but the fact that Christopher Nolan’s film allowed me to connect so strongly with its soldiers, sailors and heroic citizens is an extraordinary achievement.

Besides Tommy, Gibson and Alex (Harry Styles in a reasonably successful film debut), who are the soldiers we follow on the beach, the film also observes two high-up military officials, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), as well as the valiant work done in the air by pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) and by sea via the civilian vessel captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and one of Peter’s schoolmates, George (Barry Keoghan, who will be seen as the young lead of Yorgos Lanthimos’ next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in November). Another key member of the cast is Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), the unnamed British serviceman who is found in the Channel by the Dawson boat and whose experiences at Dunkirk have left him shell-shocked. All of these performers do incredible work, but Murphy is especially affecting.

Don’t be fooled by reviewers who say that Dunkirk has no one protagonist, though. In spite of the tripartite storytelling created by Nolan (as we have seen throughout his career, he is obsessed with narratives about the manipulation of time), there is no doubt that Tommy is at the center of the action. He is the first character we pay attention to in the film, and the last person we see onscreen. Other characters carry their sections of the narrative, but Tommy is the beating heart of our viewing experience. Christopher Nolan has compared Fionn Whitehead to a young Tom Courtenay, and I absolutely agree.

It should go without saying – although I will say so anyway – that the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (he has shot several big-deal movies in the last decade: Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Interstellar, Spectre) and the editing by Lee Smith (he has cut every Christopher Nolan film dating back to Batman Begins) are top of the line. Think pieces from the past few weeks have criticized various aspects of Dunkirk, including the lack of diversity and the fact that the characters refer to “the enemy” rather than Nazis or Germans, but one of the most crucial components of artistic license is the ability to tell a story from the perspective of one’s choosing. First, Nolan’s choice of language does not negate the evilness of the Nazis, and second, I do not believe that Nolan intended to depict the entirety of the Dunkirk experience. We do not see the faces of every single person on the beach. Instead we concentrate on four soldiers, two pilots and three civilians. Their stories are their own, not anyone else’s (even though Tommy was evidently written as an Everyman figure). No film should be held to the same standards expected from a comprehensive, thousand-page textbook.

Tonally, Nolan’s film is closer to the mood of World War I stories like Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory or the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, rather than what we usually expect from modern films made about World War II. The brilliance of Dunkirk isn’t just in how it portrays the effects of psychological trauma on soldiers who are barely old enough to shave, let alone fight and die in battle; it is also in the knowledge that Tommy and his comrades must reckon with two opposing truths, the importance of the Allied cause versus the utterly cruel and harrowing realities of combat. World War II movies don’t have to show limbs flying everywhere, like in Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge; we know that that happens in war. But Dunkirk still communicates the lows and eventual highs of this historic evacuation by showing pain, doubt, loss, but throughout it all the strength of the human spirit. I applaud the bravery of examining the grotesque nature of war seen through the eyes of young men while simultaneously acknowledging how necessary it was for World War II to be fought and won by the Allies; one does not cancel out the other. Therein lies the significance of the film’s final shot and the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece as a whole.

Kong: Skull Island. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Notes from September 10, 2017: Following Godzilla, the second creature feature in Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse is Kong: Skull Island, a suitably larger-than-life take on everyone’s favorite giant ape. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts turns the clock back to 1973, when the US was split between those who supported the Vietnam War and those who opposed it, each side vehemently defending its stance. Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a group of scientists (including Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz and Tian Jing) and an antiwar photographer (Brie Larson) on a top-secret mission to Skull Island, aided by a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a lieutenant colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) who is angry that Americans are leaving Vietnam, and a number of soldiers (including Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Jason Mitchell) who are on their way home from Saigon when they are asked to do this one last task for the government.

No one but Bill Randa realizes the dangers that inhabit Skull Island – and even he doesn’t know exactly what to expect – so the team of explorers is in for the world’s rudest awakening when the helicopters attempt to make landfall. Mighty Kong is on the rampage and many soldiers lose their lives, but it turns out that Kong is actually the territory’s protector; the real threats are the “skullcrawlers,” beasts that could definitely give you nightmares. Kong is the last line of defense against those other ancient predators, and no matter how much the humans try to help, it is up to the king to save the day.

Kong: Skull Island is a decent popcorn experience, a mainstream diversion that consistently entertains you for two hours, but I have one major bone to pick with Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Comparisons with Apocalypse Now are apt; certainly many other critics have noted the aesthetic homages that Kong pays to Coppola’s classic; but Kong tries way too hard to drive home the idea that it is somehow better than the standard mainstream adventure flick. Vogt-Roberts one pretentious film school lesson after another into the proceedings, whether it’s the rapid-fire editing by Richard Pearson, the cinematography by Larry Fong (especially in the scene where we first meet Tom Hiddleston’s character in a neon-lit bar, but elsewhere in all the super-saturated greenish-gold tones on the island) or the wall-to-wall soundtrack of choice 60s/70s rock songs. Any one of these elements would be impressive, but the onslaught of everything altogether seems to say “Isn’t this movie so much better than its predecessors?” A young filmmaker should focus more on getting good performances out of his actors – only Samuel L. Jackson and a particularly well-cast John C. Reilly as a World War II vet who has been stranded on Skull Island since the 1940s – than on whether he has crammed in all the techniques you might see on a professor’s checklist.

Once Upon a Time in Venice. Directed by Mark Cullen. Notes from July 29, 2017: I should probably be more cautious about which films I decide to which simply because a favorite actor is in the cast. Case in point: Thomas Middleditch, the absurdly talented star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Cinematically I am sometimes rewarded, as with the irreverent joy of his performance in The Bronze, while other times I witness the career-low stupidity of the Hangover rip-off known as Search Party; Once Upon a Time in Venice is much closer to the latter than the former.

Middleditch plays John, the younger partner in Steve Ford’s (Bruce Willis) vaguely shady detective agency. Los Angeles gumshoe-ing aside, this ain’t exactly The Long Goodbye. The comedy here plays to the lowest common denominator, substituting dick jokes, pornographic graffiti and needless sex scenes for nuance, wit or even a hint of film noir-style cool in the many action sequences. The humor is supposed to arise from us all laughing warmly at Willis being too old and grizzled for his role, but that gag has run its course.

The plot is primarily concerned with Willis and Middleditch retrieving Willis’s stolen dog from various drug dealers, a narrative which last year’s Keanu employed first (albeit with a kitten) to more amusing effect. Jason Momoa earns a few chuckles as a cocaine kingpin called Spyder, and Adrian Martinez scores in his small role as one of Willis’s beleaguered compadres, but I have no idea why Famke Janssen took the thankless and boring job of playing Willis’s sister, nor do I understand what John Goodman is doing in this movie as Willis’s best friend, Dave. The part requires nothing of Goodman except to play a more stoned version of his sidekick character from the Big Lebowski. I am similarly puzzled as to why Kal Penn, Elisabeth Röhm, Billy Gardell, Christopher McDonald, Ron Funches and David Arquette contributed cameos, but I guess there’s not much point in my asking further questions of this disappointing movie.

P.S. One of the few funny lines: Thomas Middleditch’s character describes himself as “I’ve been told I’m a bit of a young Roger Daltrey, if he spent a lot of time with computers.”

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Directed by Jon Watts. Notes from July 30, 2017: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good selection for a diverting night at the movies; it delivers high-octane action without ever quite reaching the emotional heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy or even the schmaltz of the Andrew Garfield-starring reboots. It’s not Tom Holland’s fault that I’ll only ever be able to see Tobey Maguire as Marvel’s beloved webslinger, so I commend Holland for giving us a spirited and thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of Peter Parker.

Jon Watts’ version of the classic superhero story focuses on young Peter facing off against disgruntled former engineer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), better known as Vulture. Keaton growls and sneers, but he does not add much more than that to the film, although he and Holland engage in a tense, violence-free conversation in perhaps the film’s finest scene. Holland explores Peter’s struggle to handle the complexities of first love and his duty to protect innocent lives with fresh-faced charm; it is easy to empathize with him, although I find it interesting that the film never once mentions Peter’s childhood, his parents or an Uncle Ben. (Am I forgetting crucial information mentioned during Tom Holland’s debut as Peter in Captain America: Civil War?)

In the footsteps of Rosemary Harris and Sally Field, Marisa Tomei plays Aunt May with a more youthful energy and sense of humor. Contrary to the amount of promotion that Zendaya did for Homecoming, her character (“Michelle”) is not Peter’s love interest; that role goes to Laura Harrier, the tall and graceful performer who plays Liz, another of Peter’s classmates. Harrier doesn’t get too many chances at character development here, but I appreciated her efforts.

Where Homecoming falls short is in its sense of purpose. It is the third “first” Spider-Man film in the last fifteen years, and it does not improve upon previously employed formulas for cinematic success. In spite of Vulture’s penchant for high-tech gadgets capable of vaporizing opponents, I never actually got a sense that the villain (about whose backstory I know remarkably little – the comics probably would have informed me, but the film certainly didn’t) or his weaponry posed a grave threat to New York or to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, Homecoming triumphs in the casting of its smaller roles: televised appearances by Chris Evans as Captain America, constantly reminding school kids of the importance of education, safety and other virtues; Jacob Batalon as Peter’s endlessly encouraging best friend, Ned; Tony Revolori (last seen by me as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Flash, a minor nemesis from Peter’s high school; Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, who will presumably become the Prowler in the sequel; Tyne Daly in a brief appearance as a domineering authority figure at the beginning of the film; a fun cameo from Hannibal Buress as a disinterested gym teacher; and Martin Starr as the teacher in charge of Peter’s debate team – for my money, Starr delivers the funniest line in the movie (you’ll know it when you see/hear it). Maybe whatever good vibes Spider-Man: Homecoming operates on are courtesy of the “Freaks and Geeks” reunion of Starr and one of Homecoming’s screenwriters, John Francis Daley. I won’t mind more of these Tom Holland-led Spider-Man adventures as long as talents like Daley are working behind the scenes.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Notes from July 21, 2017: Now the record holder for the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman at $750 million and counting, Wonder Woman proves that the story of DC Comics’ most enduring superheroes can be told with genuine emotion and plenty of awesome action, not compromising one for the other.

Gal Gadot brings tremendous strength and likeability to her portrayal of Diana (later known as Diana Prince), Princess of Themyscira. Diana grows up on that isle, surrounded by powerful women like her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and General Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana is so inspired by them that she decides she must train to become a warrior too. When circumstances bring American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to Themyscira when he is trying to outrun the Germans – outside of the island’s sheltered atmosphere, the real world is embroiled in World War I – he joins forces with Diana, who is convinced that the God of War, Ares, is the cause of the international destruction. What ensues is a series of battles that test Diana’s courage, physical power and her understanding of love.

Gadot is well-matched by Pine, who has become my favorite of the various Chrises (Evans, Pratt, Hemsworth) thanks to his portrayal of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboots and as the co-lead of one of last year’s finest films, Hell or High Water. Pine brings charm and intelligence to the role of Steve Trevor, as well as having real sparks with Gadot. Both actors bring a ton to the table, in addition to the character arcs created by story writers/screenwriters Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. Other commendable performances are given by Danny Huston as Ludendorff, head of the Nazi faction that Diana and Steve are hunting; David Thewlis deftly plays Sir Patrick, the Parliament legislator who supports Diana’s quest to stop Ludendorff; Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve’s bubbly secretary; Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock as the other members of Diana and Steve’s undercover cadre; and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru, the unstable scientist responsible for the German military’s most dangerous chemical weapons.

Wonder Woman is not entirely as successful a project as I hoped it would be, given that most of the plot’s twists and turns are easy to figure out ahead of time. There is no denying, however, that the film is a completely entertaining and emotionally engaging package. It is rare for Hollywood to produce such an inspirational and empowering blockbuster.

P.S. I’m tempted to say that Wonder Woman reminds me of Pop Culture Detective’s “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, since Steve Trevor is the first man in Diana’s life and she almost instantly develops feelings for him (and, we presume, he doesn’t have to worry too much about disappointing her in their love scene since she has no prior experience), but Diana also upends the trope; instead of blindly following Steve and believing anything he tells her, for example, she often questions him and rebels against his line of thinking. Their relationship is ultimately built on respect. Besides, as all viewers of Wonder Woman will recall, our heroine is well-versed in literature on sex and sexuality. Diana knows she doesn’t need a man in order to find physical/emotional fulfillment; she wants Steve and that makes all the difference.

P.P.S. More real talk: Diana wants to believe that a god run amok is responsible for the madness of World War I, but the reality is so much scarier: mortal human beings were capable of creating that cesspool themselves, a war that could have been avoided since it never should have escalated as it did.

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

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Writer/director Kirsten Tan and Bong the elephant on the set of Pop Aye, 2016.

Here are twenty-three new movies due to be released in theaters or via other viewing platforms this June, 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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JUNE 2: Band Aid (dir. Zoe Lister-Jones) (DP: Hillary Spera)Sundance Film Festival synopsis: “Married couple Anna and Ben fight constantly. It doesn’t help that they’ve each come to a standstill in their careers, or that, together, they’ve suffered a heartbreak neither wants to face. But one day they come up with a brilliant idea they actually agree on: Why not start a band and use their arguments as songwriting inspiration? Almost as soon as they dig out their old electric guitars from the garage, their musical partnership starts to jell, but it soon becomes apparent this is only a temporary distraction from their real problems.

“Debut feature director Zoe Lister-Jones, who also writes and stars in Band Aid, offers an honest, intelligent, and hilarious perspective on modern relationships. Carefully observed and cleverly conceived, the film hinges on the undeniable chemistry between Adam Pally and Lister-Jones—not to mention they make a delightful indie pop duo (along with Fred Armisen on drums). Together they create a moving and comedic portrayal of a couple in denial of their pain, and who have to heal separately in order to move forward.”

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JUNE 2: Letters from Baghdad (dirs. Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum)Synopsis from the film’s official website:Letters from Baghdad is the story of a true original—Gertrude Bell—sometimes called the ‘female’ Lawrence of Arabia. Voiced and executive produced by Academy award winning actor Tilda Swinton, the documentary tells the dramatic story of this British spy, explorer and political powerhouse. Bell traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence to help draw the borders of Iraq after WWI. Using never-seen-before footage of the region, the film chronicles Bell’s extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British male colonial power. With unique access to documents from the Iraq National Library and Archive and Gertrude Bell’s own 1600 letters, the story is told entirely in the words of the players of the day, excerpted verbatim from intimate letters, private diaries and secret communiqués. It is a unique look at both a remarkable woman and the tangled history of Iraq. The film takes us into a past that is eerily current.”

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JUNE 2: Sámi Blood (dir. Amanda Kernell) (DPs: Sophia Olsson and Petrus Sjövik)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Steve Gravestock: “Amanda Kernell’s powerful feature debut Sámi Blood explores the Scandinavian variant of a shameful practice employed by self-proclaimed ‘civilized’ (i.e., white) nations around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries: the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their parents, homes, and traditional lifestyles and forced integration into an educational system that taught them that their customs and lifestyles were inferior at best.

“Kernell’s heroine Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) is a teenage Sámi girl in the 1930s who is sent to a boarding school that is intended to raise its Indigenous charges to a level ‘acceptable’ to the rest of Swedish society. (These schools even allowed phrenologists, the pseudo-scientists of the day, to study the Sámi children in order to identify which traits distinguished them from ‘regular’ Swedes.)

“Curious and excited, Elle Marja at first excels in her new surroundings, mastering the Swedish language and her other lessons while her younger sister, Njenna, struggles. But this very success, coupled with Elle Marja’s intense desire to be accepted by her teachers, her internalization of the school’s vile lessons about race and class, and her burgeoning sexuality, soon drives a wedge between her and her fellow students, forcing her to take an action she may not have the opportunity to regret.

Sámi Blood has all the anger and indignation one should expect from a drama centred on such appalling events — events that should by now be all too familiar to Canadians, given the belated apology from the Harper government for Canada’s residential schools system. But with Kernell’s nuanced direction and Sparrok’s devastating performance, it’s also a brilliant character study, showing how this kind of officially sanctioned abuse insidiously attacks the minds of its victims as well as their bodies. Reminiscent of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Alanis Obomsawin’s work, Sámi Blood is driven by righteous rage, psychological acuity, and a profound empathy.”

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JUNE 2: Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)Warner Bros. synopsis:Wonder Woman hits movie theaters around the world this summer when Gal Gadot returns as the title character in the epic action-adventure from director Patty Jenkins (Monster, AMC’s The Killing). Joining Gadot in the international cast are Chris Pine (the Star Trek films), Robin Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Netflix’s House of Cards), Danny Huston (Clash of the Titans, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), David Thewlis (the Harry Potter films, The Theory of Everything), Connie Nielsen (Fox’s The Following, Gladiator), Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In), Ewen Bremner (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Snowpiercer), Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead, FX’s Better Things), Lisa Loven Kongsli (upcoming Ashes in the Snow), Eugene Brave Rock (AMC’s Hell on Wheels) and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle).

“Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers…and her true destiny.

“Patty Jenkins directs the film from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on characters from DC. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston. The film is produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder and Richard Suckle, with Stephen Jones, Geoff Johns, Jon Berg, Wesley Coller and Rebecca Steel Roven serving as executive producers.”

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JUNE 7: Ascent (dir. Fiona Tan)Film Forum synopsis: “Mount Fuji, still an active volcano, has long inspired artists with its dramatically symmetrical snow-capped cone, its intimations of danger, and its historical/political role in Japanese consciousness. Dutch artist Fiona Tan, clearly under the influence of Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, draws upon more than 4000 images of the iconic mountain. In both English and Japanese (she speaks English, actor Hiroki Hasegawa speaks Japanese), the film muses upon history, mythology, aesthetics, and geology – plus love and grief, Godzilla and Van Gogh, the role of the cherry blossom, and much else. This is an experimental movie in the best sense – a creative fusion of words and images, historical and contemporary thought, and Eastern and Western philosophy.”

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JUNE 9: As Good as You (dir. Heather de Michele)Queens World Film Festival synopsis: “Jo’s (Laura Heisler) world is thrown into utter disarray when her wife Amanda passes away. Her cozy domestic life shattered, her writing career tossed aside, Jo desperately starts chasing a dream that she and Amanda had once shared – starting a family together. Jo asks her late wife’s brother, Jamie to be her sperm donor. Craziness ensues, in the form of a visit to the fertility clinic’s psychologist (Annie Potts), and a love triangle with her two best friends, Nate (a straight man with his own tragic past–played by Raoul Bhaneja) and Lisa (Jo’s best friend, a lesbian punk photographer and bar owner–played by Anna Fitzwater). As Good as You is a human-scale, character-driven film set in a sleepy, safe Los Angeles; it’s a serious comedy about trying to grieve the right way, and maybe growing up a bit in the process.”

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JUNE 9: Megan Leavey (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)Bleecker Street Media synopsis:Megan Leavey is based on the true life story of a young Marine Corporal (Kate Mara) whose unique discipline and bond with her military combat dog saved many lives during their deployment in Iraq. When she is assigned to clean up the K9 unit after a disciplinary hearing, Leavey identifies with a particularly aggressive dog, Rex, and is given the chance to train him. Over the course of their service, Megan and Rex completed more than 100 missions until an IED explosion injures them, putting their fate in jeopardy. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) from a screenplay by Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt, the film also stars Edie Falco, Ramón Rodríguez, Bradley Whitford, and Common.”

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JUNE 9: Raising Bertie (dir. Margaret Byrne)Synopsis from the film’s official website: “Set in Bertie County, a rural African American-led community in Eastern North Carolina, Raising Bertie takes audiences deep into the emotional lives of three boys – Reginald ‘Junior’ Askew, David ‘Bud’ Perry, and Davonte ‘Dada’ Harrell – over six-years as they come of age. This powerful vérité film produced by Chicago’s internationally acclaimed Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), Raising Bertie movingly weaves the young men’s stories together as they try to define their identities, interconnecting narratives of family, youthful innocence, first love, systemic racism, educational inequity, poverty and unemployment, and the will to succeed in the face of formidable odds.

“Rural minorities like the youth in Bertie represent some of the nation’s most vulnerable and least visible individuals, existing at that critical juncture of rural disenfranchisement and the achievement gap for young people of color. Rural child poverty rates continue to rise while poverty rates for minorities in rural areas are nearly three times that of rural whites. Despite this, the national media and educational reform movement have focused primarily on the needs of urban and non-rural youth, largely ignoring this vital segment of America. This is particularly troubling considering that rural areas provide most of our food, house most of our prisoners, and provide a large number of our armed personnel.

Raising Bertie is an experience that asks us to see this world through their eyes, inciting recognition of lives and communities too often ignored. Intimate access provides a unique longitudinal observation of the everyday, and what happens in the lives of young people caught in the complex interplay of generational poverty, economic isolation, educational inequity, and race.”

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JUNE 14: Moka (dir. Frédéric Mermoud) (DP: Irina Lubtchansky)Seattle International Film Festival synopsis: “Along the shores of Lake Geneva, a fire is raging. Diane (Emmanuelle Devos, Coco Before Chanel) is grieving, her son the victim of a fatal hit-and-run accident seven months prior. With the police no closer to identifying a suspect and her marriage in shambles, Diane enlists the help of a private detective, who tracks down the make and model of the car—a mocha-colored SL 1972 Mercedes—that permanently altered her family’s life. Diane travels across the Swiss-French border with a list of owners of this rare automobile, finally settling on Marlene (Nathalie Baye, Day for Night) and Michel (David Clavel), a well-to-do Evian couple who fit the sole witness’ description perfectly. With her prey in sight, a pistol in hand, and revenge her sole remaining instinct, Diane carefully, methodically invades the couple’s seemingly comfortable life, waiting for the right moment to strike. Devos and Baye, two renowned veterans of French cinema, share the screen for the first time, going toe-to-toe in this slow-burning psychological thriller of obsession, paranoia, and unbreakable maternal instinct, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay and handled with Highsmith/Hitchcockian panache by Swiss director Frédéric Mermoud (Les Revenants).”

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JUNE 16: From Hollywood to Rose (dirs. Liz Graham and Matt Jacobs)Eye for Film review by Jennie Kermode: “Margaret Thatcher is frequently credited with having claimed that anybody who rides on a bus after the age of 26 is a failure. Liz Graham and Matt Jacobs’ film is full of people making excuses for being on buses. They don’t normally travel this way, they insist. They can’t deny using buses because those are the places where they meet and get talking as one bedraggled middle aged woman (Eve Annenberg) makes her way through Los Angeles at night with make-up smeared all over her face, wearing an increasingly tattered wedding gown.

“Mysterious as the Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill, but a lot less glamorous, this tired and confused woman might be invisible to her fellow passengers if it were not for her dress. Everybody wants to know her story but, with the exception of one determined child, nobody wants to ask. Instead they talk around the subject or simply talk about themselves. They talk about their failed relationships, their thwarted ambitions, the mothers who don’t understand them and the lizard people sending telepathic messages from the centre of the Earth. Jewish, Chinese, trans and geek stereotypes abound but are acknowledged as such – sometimes, rather glumly, by those who embody them – and there’s a sweetness about the rendering of all the characters that goes a long way. The film sends the message that what matters is not whom one jokes about but the nature of the jokes.

“Nobody seems a more obvious target for cruel jokes than the poor bedraggled Bride, and her obvious vulnerability gives her the power of immunity through excess, bringing out the best in people (to the point where they sometimes confess the worst). Along the way she proves to have a depth and complexity nobody really expects, giving us glimpses of a much bigger story and forming unexpected friendships. There’s also a showdown with a woman who recognises her that’s straight out of Jerry Springer territory but is given comedic weight by its context, with nonplussed onlookers unsure of the proper way to react.

“Although the film is notably free of characters who insist they’re really actors, there’s a lot of satire here that’s very much focused on LA, and people who know the city will get more out of it. That said, the simple story and well-drawn characters have universal appeal, and the quietness of the film, the dryness of much of its humour, brings something different to situations that would normally be played in full-on wacky style. There’s an edge to Annenberg’s performance that suggests depths of despair just out of sight, and it’s this that lets the film get away with its positivity without becoming too sugary.

“A warm-hearted and thoughtful little film, From Hollywood to Rose travels along a familiar route but lets you appreciate what there is to observe along the way.”

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JUNE 16 (NYC), JUNE 23 (LA): Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All (dirs. John Griesser, Jean Griesser and Lauren Ross)Illuminate Film Festival synopsis:Hare Krishna! is a documentary on the life of Srila Prabhupada – the 70-year-old Indian Swami who arrived in America without support or money in the turbulent 1960s. With his unflinching determination and faith, he ignited the worldwide spiritual phenomenon, known as the Hare Krishna movement.

“Suddenly thrust into the raging countercultural scene, Prabhupada speaks of the world’s real need – a revolution in consciousness. He teaches that the way to find real happiness is by going within and connecting to your true self. This universal message resonates with more and more people, including musician George Harrison whose hit song ‘My Sweet Lord’ features the Hare Krishna chant. From there, Prabhupada’s movement explodes!

“This is the true story of an unexpected, prolific, and controversial revolutionary whose books have sold over 520 million copies and has inspired millions of seekers and yoga enthusiasts worldwide. Using never-before-seen archival verite, his own recorded words and interviews with his early followers, the film takes the audience behind-the-scenes of this infamous movement to meet the Swami who started it all.”

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JUNE 16: Lost in Paris (dirs. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon) (DPs: Claire Childeric and Jean-Christophe Leforestier)From IndieWire’s Telluride Film Festival review by Eric Kohn: “No modern comedy group has shown as much commitment to resurrecting the spirit of classic slapstick than Brussels-based husband-and-wife comedy duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. They have performed for decades, but only brought their talents into feature-length filmmaking in the last 10 years, with films like the wordless Rumba and The Fairy showcasing their commitment to a humor otherwise absent from contemporary cinema. Their lanky figures are ideal vessels for deadpan visuals that mine territory ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Jacques Tati. Lost in Paris, their fourth effort (and first without co-director Bruno Romy), continues that earnest commitment to the genre by tapping into the material’s appeal without reinventing it.

“Abel and Gordon have yet to produce a full-bodied work with more originality than references, and Lost in Paris doesn’t move the needle in that regard. But it’s another charming doodle that does justice to their brand of studied humor. The pair blends storybook visuals with a stream of clever gags and oodles of pathos to deliver an infectious romance almost too eager to please at every turn.

“While the appearance of French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva in a supporting role suggests the filmmakers are moving beyond their own antics, Lost in Paris predominantly belongs to Abel and Gordon, once again playing would-be lovers in an eccentric story filled with bizarre turns. It starts with Fiona (per usual, the couple uses their real names) living in a remote, frozen region of northern Canada that looks like something out of Wes Anderson’s toychest, where the wind blows all the locals around the room whenever someone opens the door. It’s here that she receives a desperate note from her senile Aunt Martha (Riva), complaining that a nurse has been attempting to lock her away in a retirement home. On a whim, Fiona heads to Paris — all it takes is a gentle push out of the snowy frame from one of her peers, and she’s arrived in the big city — and promptly falls into the conundrum of the title.

“Fiona’s a walking punchline from the moment she gets to town, wandering the streets with an oversized red backpack sporting a tiny Canadian flag, but the humor turns melancholic when she finds her aunt’s apartment empty and she has nowhere to go. Things only get worse: she tumbles into the Seine on more than one occasion, loses her passport and her cash, and gains a pesky stalker in the process. That would be Dom (Abel), a Chaplinesque tramp who lives by the river and instantly falls for Fiona after he comes across her missing belongings. But even after offering his assistance to find her missing aunt, she’s mortified by his grimy, streetwise ways, although his persistence pays off.

Lost in Paris becomes a gentle romance about awkward loners with a shared tendency for disaster-prone antics, but the flimsy plot of Lost in Paris provides an excuse for Abel and Gordon to unleash their visual humor, which at best mimics Tati’s ability to turn the surrounding environment into a character itself. The couple’s initial courtship begins in one of the more prolonged and effective sequences, a clumsy pas de deux at a seaside restaurant where blaring music causes everyone in the room to bounce together to the same beat. Elsewhere, tangents include the disastrous effect of a wayward fishing line, and a cigarette that burns through a newspaper to create a peephole as Dom spies on Abel at a diner. There’s also a few moments of terrific comic suspense, including the threat of an incinerator and a wayward ladder at the top of the Eiffel Tower. No matter its wandering trajectory, Lost in Paris remains unpredictable until the bittersweet end.

“…Abel and Gordon are much better at prolonged jokey setups than narrative coherence, but that speaks to the pastiche they’re committed to offering. Notably, Lost in Paris premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the same time as La La Land, a sugary nostalgia trip that salutes antiquated musicals in much the same way that Lost in Paris pays tribute to another discarded genre.

“While La La Land recreates the spectacular canvas of classic Hollywood productions, Lost in Paris operates on a more restrained scale. The filmmakers use obvious green screen effects, and swap fancy camerawork for clever angles and playful choreography. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Abel and Gordon keep turning it with their own intimate touch.”

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JUNE 16: Maudie (dir. Aisling Walsh)Toronto International Film Festival synopsis by Michèle Maheux: “Maud Lewis is among the most inspiring figures in Canadian art. Afflicted with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she spent her early life dismissed for what was presumed to be her limited ability. But Lewis’ colourful paintings, made on surfaces ranging from beaverboard to cookie sheets, established her as one of our country’s premier folk artists. Starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, this moving film explores Lewis’ life in all its heartbreak and triumph.

“Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, 1937. Maud Dowley (Hawkins) is stuck living with her unsympathetic aunt. Desperate to break away, she responds to a local fish peddler’s call for a housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Hawke) is disagreeable and initially cruel to Maudie, but the two quickly acknowledge that each is in their own way a social outcast. They need and understand each other. Within weeks, they marry.

“One day a summer resident comes calling. She’s a New Yorker, wears alluring clothing and talks like Katharine Hepburn. She sees something in Maudie’s paintings and commissions one. Suddenly Maudie’s pastime is recognized as having real value. People come from far and wide. Eventually her work will hang in the White House.

“Cinematographer Guy Godfree fills Maudie with majestic images of maritime landscape and light, while director Aisling Walsh focuses on character, drawing performances of emotional complexity and great physical detail from her leads.

“Though set in the past, Maudie speaks to the present in many ways — this is, after all, a tale of a woman asserting herself as a generator of both art and commerce. But it is also a story of the power of creativity to transform a life and touch the soul.”

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JUNE 16: Rough Night (dir. Lucia Aniello)Sony Pictures synopsis: “In Rough Night, an edgy R-rated comedy, five best friends from college (played by Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz) reunite 10 years later for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami. Their hard partying takes a hilariously dark turn when they accidentally kill a male stripper. Amidst the craziness of trying to cover it up, they’re ultimately brought closer together when it matters most.”

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JUNE 23: All the Rage (Saved by Sarno) (dirs. Michael Galinsky, David Beilinson and Suki Hawley)DOC NYC synopsis: “Dr. John Sarno takes a radical approach to back pain, instructing patients to focus on repressed emotions as the source. His book Healing Back Pain has been dismissed by peers, but acclaimed by countless readers. Among them are filmmaker Michael Galinsky (Battle for Brooklyn) who takes a first-person approach to exploring the work of Dr. Sarno. Through interviews with Sarno and esteemed patients like Larry David and Howard Stern, the film offers a radical rethink of how we approach health care.”

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JUNE 23: The Bad Batch (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)From The Hollywood Reporter’s Venice Film Festival review by David Rooney: “A savage dystopian fairy tale in which one of the few comforting images is of a makeshift family dining in the desert on a spit-roasted pet bunny, The Bad Batch is another surreally atmospheric post-feminist genre spin from Ana Lily Amirpour. As with the Iranian-American writer-director’s 2014 Sundance discovery, the vampire spaghetti Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the new film is both violent and dreamy — a bewitching fusion of The Road Warrior with Robert Rodriguez-style scorched-earth badassery and a mystical Western strain that tips its hat to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. But those influences notwithstanding, Amirpour creates a world that’s very much her own.

“Running close to two hours, the movie is overlong and not without draggy patches, but it’s sustained enough to keep you watching. And with its depiction of an extraterritorial American wasteland where society’s rejects are dumped to fend for themselves after being tattooed with a ‘bad batch’ number, it’s also a bizarro fantasy that might easily be the hideous result of some kind of demagogical Donald Trump cleanup experiment. Its weirdness alone should guarantee the movie an audience, unlike The Neon Demon, a far more self-indulgent and self-consciously droll recent excursion into genre art that shared scenes of human snack food.

“…A cacophony of announcements at some kind of criminal processing facility reveals that a fresh ‘bad batch’ intake is coming through, and we see Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) being escorted through the gate of a massive metal fence. But this fence is there to keep people out, not in. A sign reads: ‘Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. Hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good luck.’

“Arlen’s luck runs out fast. She barely has time to take shelter from the sun in a wrecked car and freshen her lipstick when she’s abducted by scouts from a nearby cannibal community, who appear out of the sweltering desert blur on a golf buggy. She’s drugged but still conscious enough to watch in horror as they unburden her of a limb or two using a hacksaw, cauterizing the wounds with a fry pan. Down but not defeated, Arlen manages to overpower her captor and escape on a skateboard, picked up half-dead in the desert by a wandering mute hermit (Jim Carrey) with a supermarket shopping cart.

“As an opening act, this is pretty juicy stuff, as lurid and grisly as anything that ever came out of the Italian flesh-eater exploitation wave of the 1970s, though with a far cooler detachment and a delightful playlist of music that ranges from unnerving to sardonic to hallucinogenic. Arlen’s nightmarish ordeal is ushered in by the bouncy early-’90s dance pop of Swedish group Ace of Base’s ‘All That She Wants,’ in the first of many instances of unexpected music choices yielding slyly twisted results. (The film has no actual score, though it features a soupy soundscape, dense with ambient dread.)

“…The Bad Batch looks sensational. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent — he also worked with Amirpour on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as did editor Alix O’Flinn and costumer Natalie O’Brien — gives even the pastels a sinister glow in the vast desert skies over parched, flat ground, at one point whipped by a dust storm. (Shooting, as in Amirpour’s previous film, took place in desert locales around Los Angeles.)

“But the sharpest tool in the movie’s arsenal is its soundtrack, which makes extensive use of sonic duo Darkside, along with tracks from South African hip-hop concept band Die Antwoord, synth-wave exponent Jordan Lieb, who records as Black Light Smoke, indie ambient purveyor Francis Harris, and Portland’s Federale, whose Ennio Morricone-influenced spaghetti Western tracks also were featured in Amirpour’s first film.”

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JUNE 23 (limited release), JUNE 30 (wider release): The Beguiled (dir. Sofia Coppola)From IndieWire‘s Cannes Film Festival review by David Ehrlich: “Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), The Beguiled is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find [Sofia] Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. The year is 1864, the Civil War still rages on despite the outcome growing more certain by the day, and — somewhere amidst the unloved willow trees that surround the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia — seven women of various ages are cooped up in a schoolhouse like chickens waiting to be plucked.

“These are the small handful of students and faculty who remain at the Farnsworth Seminary; the rest of the residents have abandoned the gothic mansion like rats from a sinking ship (including the slaves, who surely took advantage of their captors’ dwindling numbers), leaving behind only those who have nowhere else to go. The girls range in age from minors to matrons, but they all have one thing in common: It’s been a very long time since they’ve seen a man, and even longer since once has been close enough to touch.

“And then, like the answer to a prayer that these devout belles would never dare offer to their Christian God, a man appears. And not just any man, but Colin Farrell. An Irish immigrant who sold his soul to the Union Army for $300, Corporal John McBurney is in urgent need of some tender care. He’s run away from the battlefield with ‘enough iron in his leg to shoe a horse,’ and he’s on the brink of death by the time he’s discovered by the youngest of the Farnsworth females. She escorts him back to the house, where the air stiffens as soon as the soldier is dragged inside.

“Perpetually clenched headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees to care for this uninvited guest, but she’s well aware that he might cause trouble. Trouble from teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning, another Coppola alum), a born rebel in every sense of the word who sweats pure hormones as she stares at the exposed ‘blue-belly’ from across the room. Trouble from Edwina, her teacher, who seems tortured by the same desire that tickles the younger girls. And trouble for Martha herself, who has a little bit too much fun scrubbing her patient down (particularly when her hands wander below his Mason-Dixon Line). John rouses as inevitably as he arouses, but if he thinks that he’s stumbled into a male fantasy, he’ll soon find that this fantasy may not belong to him.

“Shot in Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House (a location recognizable from the ‘Sorry’ portion of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) and almost entirely confined to the seminary’s withered interiors, Coppola’s film is told with surgical precision and savage grace. The story reveals itself across a tight 93 minutes — a considerably shorter runtime than that of Siegel’s film — packing all manner of ripe details and intimations into each of its frames.

“The writer-director trims Cullinan’s book down to its bare essentials, cutting out all of the most heightened elements (like incest) so that she could see these girls more clearly and represent their conflicting perspectives with less clutter to get in the way. The result is a movie that sometimes feels too compressed, like a bonsai tree that’s suffered one too many cuts, and the scale of the story can be uncomfortably dwarfed by the depth of its characters, and the performances that bring them to life.

“That’s true for Kidman, the movie star going supernova in her hyper-contained role as a woman who’s torn between lust, envy, and her maternal instincts. And it’s truest of all for Dunst, the most conflicted woman at Farnsworth, who longs for the outside world but is tortured by the messenger it sends her way.”

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JUNE 23: Good Fortune (dirs. Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell)Zurich Film Festival synopsis:Good Fortune is the rags to riches tale of conscious capitalism pioneer John Paul DeJoria. Born with nothing, at times homeless on the streets of LA, ‘JP’ spent his early adulthood in and out of motorcycle gangs only to wheel and deal his way to the top of a vast hair and tequila empire. A modern day Robin Hood, JP’s motto is ‘Success unshared is failure.’ The son of immigrants, JP defies the stereotype of ‘the 1%’ and is the poster boy of the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. A success story full of ups and downs, Good Fortune is the portrait of an extraordinary business man.”

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JUNE 23: In Transit (dirs. Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu)Synopsis from the film’s official website:In Transit journeys into the hearts and minds of everyday passengers aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in America. Captured in the tradition of Direct Cinema, the film unfolds as a series of interconnected vignettes, ranging from overheard conversations to moments of deep intimacy, in which passengers share their fears, hopes and dreams. In the space between stations, where ‘real life’ is suspended, we are swept into a fleeting community that transcends normal barriers, and where a peculiar atmosphere of contemplation and community develops. To some passengers, the train is flight and salvation, to others it is reckoning and loss. But for all, it is a place for personal reflection and connecting with others they may otherwise never know.”

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JUNE 28: Pop Aye (dir. Kirsten Tan) (DP: Chananun Chotrungroj)Film Forum synopsis: “A man and his elephant walk into a bar: well, not quite — but close. Pop Aye is the story of a successful Bangkok architect whose late-midlife crisis leads him to an encounter with the elephant (Popeye) with whom he spent an idyllic childhood in the Thai countryside. Together they embark on a road trip to deliver both man and beast to their origins. The local police cite him for not having a permit to travel with an elephant; a transgendered prostitute joins him in a karaoke duet at a roadside dive; and a poetic, possibly delusional, pauper offers companionship. But the real star is the big guy: Popeye lumbers along with great dignity and endless fortitude. He is the center of a mysterious, funny and often absurd universe that while seemingly particular to Thailand is, ultimately, not unlike our own.”

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JUNE 30: The Little Hours (dir. Jeff Baena) (DP: Quyen Tran)Sundance Film Festival synopsis: “Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord. Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry.

“Loaded with comedic talent and written with an off-kilter, yet knowing touch, The Little Hours is an immensely charming romp. Writer/director Jeff Baena’s riotous follow-up to Sundance Film Festival favorites Life After Beth and Joshy has transferred the nervy comedic energy from his earlier work to the Middle Ages with hilarious results.”

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JUNE 30 (theatrical release), JULY 4 (Video on Demand): The Reagan Show (dirs. Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez)Tribeca Film Festival synopsis by Cara Cusumano: “A Republican president takes office at the height of his Hollywood-powered, camera-ready fame. He governs with lenses constantly flashing, and claims that he’s just the public face in front of real policy-makers and dangerous global threats. That’s the story of America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan. The movie star, known for playing cowboys and gun-toting heroes, took over the White House in 1981 and led the United States against Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s threats of war. Amidst the actual governing, though, Reagan’s presidency set a new standard for video documentation. Cameras followed Reagan’s every move, leading opposing pundits to accuse him of ‘majoring in public relations’ more so than hardline presidential affairs.

“Comprised entirely of archival footage taken during those pre-reality-television years, The Reagan Show is a highly entertaining and informative look at how Ronald Reagan redefined the look and feel of what it means to be the POTUS. Co-directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s film uncannily provides a fascinating precedent for the made-for-TV President.”

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JUNE 30: 13 Minutes (aka Elser) (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel) (DP: Judith Kaufmann)Lincoln Plaza Cinemas synopsis: “During Hitler’s anniversary speech on November 8, 1939, a man is arrested on the Swiss border for possession of suspicious objects. Just minutes later, a bomb explodes in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, immediately behind the Führer’s lectern, killing eight people. The man is Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a carpenter from Königsbronn in the Swabia region. When a map of the site of the assault and detonators are found on him, he is sent to the head of the Criminal Police in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaussner), and the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow) to be questioned. From them, Elser learns that his attempt has failed – that the man he wanted to kill in order to stop the bloodshed of the World War that had just begun, has left the Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the explosion. For days, Elser is interrogated by Nebe and Müller, for days, he holds out against their questions. Until he finally confesses – and relates the story of his deed.”

Update: Wonder Woman’s New Director

Just days after the departure of director Michelle MacLaren from Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman film, the studio has chosen her replacement: Patty Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning biopic Monster (2003). A few years ago Jenkins had been attached to direct Thor: The Dark World (2013) before being replaced by Alan Taylor. This new development in the Wonder Woman production saga means that Jenkins is once more in the position of being the first woman to direct a Marvel superhero film. Exciting news!

Some More Thoughts on Women Directors and Action/Adventure Movies

In yesterday’s post I listed a number of women directors who might make good candidates for the newly open job opportunity at the helm of Wonder Woman. While it’s true that directors such as Mimi Leder and Karyn Kusama might well be qualified because of the action-oriented components of their work, it occurs to me that there is no reason why a woman director couldn’t succeed with Wonder Woman no matter what genre(s) she has been associated with. Male directors are constantly roped into superhero franchises regardless of what they have done in the past; the résumé of Marc Webb, for example, showed music videos, the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009) and an episode each of “The Office” and “Lone Star” before he was signed up to direct The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Prior to directing The Green Hornet (2011), Michel Gondry was known for directing music videos and the romantic dramedies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006). And what about Kenneth Branagh as the director of Thor (2011)? Who made that decision? Because, of course, when you think “Marvel superhero” you definitely think of “the new Olivier” as the ideal choice for direction. Hmmm.

Not only does being a man help in these matters, but it doesn’t always ruin careers when male directors make films that are critical and/or financial flops. Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit tanked last year but that didn’t stop his latest film, the big-budget fairy-tale fantasy Cinderella, from debuting last month. When female directors fail – or, sometimes, even if they succeed – it can take years for them to rebound, if they ever do. Kimberly Peirce had tremendous success with her Oscar-winning debut, Boys Don’t Cry (1999), but her second film was not released until nine years later (Stop-Loss, a 2008 drama about young veterans returning home from Iraq) and her next film, a remake of Carrie released in 2013, was so mediocre – not to mention only barely breaking even at the U.S. box office – that I’m guessing it will delay Peirce’s abilities to make another movie. Mimi Leder, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s post, proved that she had the chops to make entertaining action films with The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), but the massive disappointment of Pay It Forward (2000) has resulted in her directing only one film since then, the straight-to-DVD action drama Thick as Thieves (2009). Leder has been able to find steady employment by directing for TV (“The West Wing,” “ER,” “Shameless,” “Nashville,” “Smash,” “The Leftovers”), but evidently being the first female graduate of the AFI Conservatory (1973 – a full twenty-four years before The Peacemaker) doesn’t mean enough to Hollywood to get Leder a feature film assignment again. These are things I keep in mind as I follow the Wonder Woman story, waiting to see who will fill in for Michelle MacLaren and whether the chosen director’s past work will have any bearing on the selection.

What’s Next for Wonder Woman?

Last night I was leafing through the April 2015 issue of Vanity Fair when I came across a profile of women directors. The written piece is only one page long in the magazine, while the other five or six pages are devoted to photographs of women filmmakers over many generations, from Ida Lupino on the set of Hard, Fast and Beautiful in 1951 to Ava DuVernay filming Selma in 2014. The article ended by mentioning the most recent additions to the canon: Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which broke records on Valentine’s Day weekend two months ago, and the upcoming comic-book-adaptation Wonder Woman, which has been surrounded by a lot of hype not only because it will be the first Marvel action film to feature a female protagonist but also because of the buzz surrounding its attached director, Michelle MacLaren. MacLaren cut her teeth on such critically-acclaimed and popular TV shows as “The X-Files,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” “NCIS,” “Game of Thrones” and “Better Call Saul.” Wonder Woman was scheduled to be MacLaren’s feature film debut, in addition to being the first Marvel film directed by a woman.

Imagine, then, my surprise and disappoint to find out early this morning that MacLaren has stepped away from the project, citing “creative differences” with the studio, Warner Bros. This development is reminiscent of what happened with Patty Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning drama Monster (2003). Jenkins was supposed to direct Thor: The Dark World before she was fired and subsequently replaced by Alan Taylor. In the twelve years since Monster, Jenkins has not succeeded in directing any other feature films; her only work has been sporadic jobs for TV – an episode of “Arrested Development” here, an arc on “Entourage” there. Even though Jenkins won an Emmy for her direction of the pilot of AMC’s “The Killing” in 2011, her most recent work in the years since then is another pilot, a drama called “Exposed” which ABC has not picked up and which may not see the light of day.

Because Warner Bros. went out of its way to hire a female director for Wonder Woman, my hope is that the studio can find a replacement with an equally impressive résumé who also happens to be a woman. Anyone who saw The Babadook last year knows that Jennifer Kent is more than capable of delivering thrills as well as nuanced direction of actors, while more seasoned directors like Mimi Leder (of the thriller The Peacemaker and the big-budget apocalypse blockbuster Deep Impact – though the flop Pay It Forward completely derailed her fifteen years ago), Catherine Hardwicke (she found tremendous box-office success with the first Twilight movie) and Karyn Kusama (the boxing drama Girlfight, the live-action film version of the animated MTV series Æon Flux and the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body all had female protagonists) could do well too.

Lexi Alexander has actually directed a comic-book movie in 2008, Punisher: War Zone, so her name should be thrown in the ring as well, even though the film failed at the box office (likely the reason her career has slowed down since then). A newcomer to directing, Anna Foerster, has done cinematography and special effects for action films including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, Kusama’s Æon Flux and White Down House and she is now attached to direct two action films, Source Code 2 and Secret Hunter. One might also look to the upcoming film XX, an anthology which will feature segments all directed by women, including Karyn Kusama, Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Jennifer Chambers Lynch (a Razzie winner for 1993’s Boxing Helena who has since shown skills in the thriller and horror genres with Surveillance and Chained in 2008 and 2012, respectively).

Male directors get all kinds of chances to direct big-budget blockbusters, no matter how small-scale their initial output was; female directors have to work much harder at “convincing” both the studios and the audiences as to why they would be right for the same assignments. (There is widespread agreement now that Kathryn Bigelow is a great director of action and suspense films, but the thought was only officially accepted after her Oscar win for The Hurt Locker “legitimized” this notion, and it always comes with the disclaimer of greatness for a woman in a man’s profession.) There is no reason why a woman director cannot be just as, if not more, qualified to direct a Marvel superhero film that any man, but it remains to be seen if Warner Bros. will do right by their original commitment to telling this particular narrative from a woman’s unique point of view.