Category Archives: New Directors / New Films

DONALD CRIED

DONALD CRIED
USA
Director: Kris Avedisian
Runtime: 83 minutes
Language: English

4.5/5

Here is one of the strongest debut pictures which was first seen in 2016’s New Directors – New Films, finally making its official debut in a criminally limited amount of theaters nationwide. [It just completed a three-week arc in NYC and is now premiering in a arthouse theater near you.] Kris Avedisian’s often abrasive comedy should be playing to packed houses in multiplexes, it’s that good of a movie, because we all know a Donald Treebeck, we all probably were a Peter Latang, and the good thing is, to see the complex love-hated, dysfunctional relationship between the two central characters is to witness an uncomfortable past come back from the dead, even when what brings it back is an off-screen death that’s also used as a MacGuffin.

Peter Latang j(Jesse Wakeman) has returned to Warwick, RI to handle his dead grandmother’s affairs. While en route he loses his wallet and is literally stranded with no place to go. Running into his old high school friend Donald Treebeck (Kris Avedisian) he devises to have Donald drive him around town and loan him a little bit of money that can allow him to do the bare essentials and then split for good. What he doesn’t know is Donald is more than willing to help, with a catch.

The two men couldn’t be more different. from the first scene Peter is introduced and remains firmly entrenched in upper crust New York exec-wear complete with an elegant pea coat and scarf. He speaks in a curt, formal speech that says he just doesn’t have the time for you right now unless it’s to do a sale (or hook up later with a pretty exec, played by Louisa Krause). Donald on the other hand is a complete man-child, 30 going on 12, maybe 14, and a visit to his bedroom pretty much confirms this. How these two were ever friends is anyone’s guess, but as the movie progresses we get glimpses of Peter’s own past as a goth and someone who wasn’t all that nice to Donald. That now the tables have somewhat turned and Peter is the one getting progressively humiliated by Donald’s lack of boundaries and infantile behavior (which borders on the downright creepy at times) is probably a kind of comeuppance, but not much. Even now, Peter still remains as unpleasant as ever; he just happens to dress better and make more money.

If anyone is to be pitied it’s Donald: once the story reveals its sad (open) secret about the title character we sympathize. I dare anyone not to get moved into tears at the poignant finale. Kris Avedisian has created much more than a movie — this is a mirror for us to see ourselves in it, warts and all, and see on which extreme we will fall.

THE ALIENS AMONG US: EVOLUTION & ARRIVAL

EVOLUTION

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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Has horror ever looked so boldly sensual while dialing up the dread? The opening scene of Evolution establishes the tone of Lucile Hadzhihalilovic’s new feature which was screened last March at the Film Society’s New Director – New Films festival, and the tone is disorienting at best. We’re brought into the surreal via the ocean, with undulating flora reacting to the currents of the turquoise sea. Into the frame enters our protagonist, a little boy in red trunks named Nicolas, swimming. He catches the glance of what winds up being a large red starfish . . . and then something a little more gruesome.

Like a figure in a Lovecraftian story he’s seen then running across a rather desolate coastal landscape where he informs his mother of what he’s seen. The mother, rather coldly, dissuades Nicolas that he saw such a thing. She is one of several mothers who dress in the same identical beige nurse’s outfit and take care of a boy with almost clinical detail. The women per se are extremely strange; they seem lifted up from a different period altogether — I kept getting the Renaissance as all of them have pale Raphaellite faces, barely visible eyebrows, and wear their hair in a tight bun. There are scenes with them involving gurney beds and injections under harsh lights that are squirmy to say the least, and all one can ask is, “What is going on here?”

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Not wanting to spoil anything, because there will be discoveries and one particular scene pulled straight out of a Hieronymous Bosch with the violence culled, but the horror intact that made my skin cringe. Even more disturbing is a friendship of sorts Nicolas develops with a sympathetic nurse who behaves in a way that is in direct contradiction her colleagues for reasons left unexplained. Many might feel very squeamish at some of the scenes, but Evolution‘s purpose is precisely to evoke a different sort of horror — not the one with jump scares and humans revealing the monster inside, but what a perverted sense of cultural and racial preservation can do when it involves the young and frail.

Evolution is playing in limited theaters but is also available on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and other on demand platforms.

 

ARRIVAL

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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One of the reasons I’ve been staying away from sci-fi pictures is because when what hits the screen are essentially variations of either Aliens or Independence Day, it’s only time when the glitter will fall off the rose and leave me blank. [Note, that I don’t include anything Star Wars or Star Trek as part of the genre, because those, my friends, are space operas and rely on science fiction just as much as melodramas rely on realism to make their plots work.]

So I was a little apprehensive when Arrival was announced in trailers early in the fall. I kept expecting yet another iteration where Amy Adams would somehow be a part of a mission that would transform  her into a potential Final Girl coping with having to save the world. All over again. It was also being played right next to the future release of Life starring Jake Gylenhaal and Ryan Reynolds, and if you see the trailer, you’ll understand my hesitance.

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This is not to say Arrival is terribly original: ever since George Melies’ 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, man has attempted to make contact with alien worlds to find out if the age-old theory that “we are all alone” is true or merely a myth. Heck, there are paintings from the Renaissance depicting what seems to be egg shaped spaceships floating above the skies while a pastoral scene takes place. Also, who can forget the now classic scene in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still where “they” arrived to Earth — right on DC — and despite initial horrors, attempted to teach us the basic concept of universal love through the humanoid presence of Michael Rennie?

Arrival starts from Wise’s film at the root and grows into the structure Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters presented. All over the world in 12 apparently random locations, giant eggs not dissimilar to the ones in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day arrive and hover over the globe, vertical towers that emit no exhaust or pollutants. The initial expectation is that of the menacing alien invasion of War of the Worlds. Looting happens, stocks plummet, and the world jumps into chaos that drip of “end of the world” sensibility.  Adams, who plays linguist Louise Banks (who has opened the film just losing her daughter to cancer), is called upon to attempt to communicate with the aliens manning one of the ships to see what their true intention is. Along with a colleague, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they ascend the ship in a sequence filled with incredible dread because there is no possible way to guess where we (as the audience) may be headed to. Plus, the appearance per se of these creatures — two of them — is of such frightful, but also, majestic nature, mainly because all we glimpse are seven tentacles which they utilize to squirt black into onto the panel separating Adams and Renner from them.

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The black ink is crucial because it forms floating rings. At first, this would signify nothing, but Adams’ keen observation starts to see patterns in the way the ink flows — there is a highly evolved language at display here, complex sentences that convey thought and meaning. Just at the point that Adams is about to make a breakthrough, the aliens issue forth a cryptic message: “Use weapon.” All this time, other governments around the world have been trying to also crack a communication with the aliens — some with varying levels of distrust, as it does happen — so when they also get this message, panic breaks loose, and China issues their own ultimatum to the coalition of nations working together. Either the aliens remove themselves from the Earth, or they risk getting attacked.

This is the point where Denis Villaneuve could have turned this story into a more basic “us versus them” story. Everything points at this direction. But like the story from which it’s based, there is something else at play. Adams, by now the only link between us and the two heptapods (whom she has named Abbot and Costello in an affectionate, but clever scene that instantly bestows the heptapods with humanity), starts to approach a deeper truth in this odd message. It’s here as well when the nature of interpretation and language analysis comes center stage. How many times have wars been started over a mis-translation? The Bible itself is riddled with them,  most notoriously the passage of Sodom and Gomorrah and how they met their ends — which, again, is not too removed from the crux of Arrival’s problem, and when you see it, you will agree. Adams plays her third act as a mangle of nerves, fear, and internalization as she searches for a solution to the situation at hand. This is her movie all the way despite Renner’s and Forrest Whittaker’s presence. It’s Adam’s selfless character who transcends the fears we all have of the unknown, and allows for a deeper sense of understanding that ultimately proves essential for mankind.

THE FITS

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

Royalty Hightower in The Fits. Image by Variety.

Without sounding like a snob I want to confess something. Reader, I’ve seen a lot of movies. I don’t mean several hundred — that’s barely a calendar year from new releases, film festivals, and home releases. I’m talking about movies in the thousands, enough to pack a video store if they were in style.

When you can lay this claim about yourself you reach a point where you start looking for alternative forms of narration on camera, movies that are a little different from the mainstream. This is not to say mainstream cinema is bad — but when you see the same tired archetypes over and over again and now with the market saturated with colossal blockbusters retelling the same superhero story that always winds up with more reboots . . . well, to the art-theater you go.

The Fits came out as an official selection at New Directors, New Films back in March and I missed it by a fraction, so when it got its own release at Metrograph — a new movie theater for art-house lovers all the way on the LES — I rushed to see it. Reader, go see this marvelous film while it’s held over until the weekend of July 4th. This right here, is pure cinema, a story told with little dialogue, with characters that express through dance and feeling, meta-narration at its best.

Before we see her, we hear her: Toni, doing sit ups and pull ups at a boxing gym where her brother practices. Her face is a mask of pure determination, her body already lean and tomboyish, her hair in tight braids. She doesn’t say a word, even on the way home. At school we see her carrying some huge bag as though it were a cross over her shoulder; walking slowly in sharp contrast to the dance troupe she discovers and that ignites her interest. Friendships materialize out of thin air, and while Toni’s dance movements are heavy with boxing references, she starts “getting it” and even pierces her ears in order to feel more a part of the group of older women she clearly admires.

The Fits takes a takes a slow left turn, however, when one of the dance troupe instructors comes down with uncontrollable shaking and barely able to breathe. No one knows why it happened, and Toni’s friend Beezy suggests it may be epilepsy. Other girls also come down with what gets called “the fits” and the media alludes that the water may be unsafe to drink. But what does this have to do with Toni, proper, or her new found friends? Is every female under 18 at school going to fall under the spell of the fits?

Anna Rose Holmer leaves her debut film in a shroud of ambiguity that clearly went over well with the audience at the screening I saw: there was a collective mind-set of “getting it”, even when we kept seeing a sense of nascent horror creep into the fabric of the story. The Fits, with its casual sense of humor and visual incursions into poetry and surrealism (especially at the moving end sequence, a wonderful immersion into Toni’s mind that elevates the entire story out of its semi-darkness as the entire cast of girls dance, clothed in blue and gold) is closer to performance art itself than an traditional picture. So much of it relies on the non-verbal movements of Royalty Hightower who is on camera practically all throughout its run. This is a girl who can convey so much emotion into her oval face, she would be, I think, ill-serviced by rote dialogue that would verbally express what her character is going through in the awkwardness of childhood. The Fits might not be to everyone’s liking but if you discover it, you will have in your hands a wonderful piece of work.

HOUSE OF HORRORS: Under the Shadow and The Invitation

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Whoever said horror was a genre gone South clearly hasn’t been paying attention. I mean let’s face it, for every Annabelle or Paranormal/Last Exorcism rehash that (allegedly) attempts to scare the living daylights out of you and succeeds only in either a) putting you to sleep, b) screaming a the television to characters too stupid to live or c) actually contemplating throwing your smart TV out the window in a fit of rage and rushing out into the night to commit some act of mayhem (inside your head, never in the flesh, we are all Walter Mittys at heart, heh-heh), there often comes one or two smaller ventures either straight out of Sundance, SXSW or other film festivals and sneaks into select art-house theaters. There these movies, dripping atmospheric dread to spare and leaving any CGI or green screen effect to a bare minimum (a throwback to Lewton and even J-Horror), singlehandedly manage to creep right under the skin and stay with you as if they were a cinematic version of Morgellen’s disease.

And that’s a good thing. No one wants to see a movie, no matter how good it is, and barely even recall it days later. If and when you see a horror movie that vanishes into thin air moments after the credits roll, call it a night and watch some creepy pastas on YouTube.

From Iran and currently showing at the Montclair Film Festival after having debuted at Sundance, SXSW and New Directors/New Films in March comes is Babak Anvari’s debut feature film Under the Shadow, a truly eerie story of an oppressed woman dealing with a mysterious force from outside in wartime Tehran. Shideh is an unconventional Iranian woman: she won’t use the chador in the house, she exercises to Jane Fonda VCRs (the story takes place in the late 80s), and she’s given support to a liberal cause. It’s the cause that has landed her in hot water when reapplying for medical school. Because of this, the doors to a higher education close on her. Her husband fares better, being called off to war to work as a doctor and leaves Shideh alone with her daughter Dorsa.

Once alone, whatever was out of kilter starts to manifest itself: Dorsa’s doll goes missing. Outside, missiles fall upon the city, leaving terrorized residents to seek protection from fallout in basement shelters. A missile actually manages to fall into Shideh’s apartment building, landing on the floor above, but ominously does not go off. It does, however, leave a crack in her ceiling . . . and with it, something invisible and ominous starts to manifest inside Shideh’s apartment, with unknown intent.

When it becomes clear that the must leave the apartment, Dorsa’s doll goes missing and Dorsa herself starts talking to an unseen person. It’s here when Babak Anvari ratches up the tension with some truly frightening jump-scares along the way, all the while keeping the story’s location grounded in Iranian reality (for example, an attempt by Shideh to leave the house with Dorsa from the unexplained presence which seems to be getting stronger within the minute lands her in the wrong hands of the law because she did not have her chador on. In many ways, Under the Shadow could very well, like The Babadook, be a horror allegory encompassing female oppression at the hands of forces outside her control. While the heroine in Babadook was fighting a metaphysical manifestation of her own grief, Shideh seems to be fighting against her country and it’s anti-woman laws itself. under the guise of a disembodied thing seeking to come in and wreck havoc.

Under the Shadow is a strong debut and a well-composed visual piece. Even at its brief run — a mere 80 minutes not counting end credits — and treading over familiar horror tropes, it doesn’t feel stale or go for cheap shocks, and takes its own time to get the wheels rolling. It’s amazing what lighting can do to a place: Anvari slowly turns Shideh’s apartment from a relatively safe haven into dark corridors, pools of shadows, and I on more than one occasion kept myself at the edge of  my seat waiting for something. I didn’t know what — I just knew something could appear, anywhere. That to me makes a horror movie memorable, and this picture is dread in the flesh.

[Under the Shadow as of this writing doesn’t have a release date.]

invitation

Imagine you’re invited to go to a gathering with friends. Once you get there, you get a sense that despite how nice, pleasant, and polite everyone seems, something is not right. Imagine that your hostess also seems to be playing up the “everything is perfect” role — almost to a shrill fault — even when you can clearly see that it’s an act from a mile away.

Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) are en route to the Hollywood Hills to meet up for a dinner party thrown by his former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). We get some backstory that Eden and Will lost their son and Will hasn’t seen Eden since, and even before he and Kira arrive he seems on edge. Almost as if summoned, they strike a coyote with their vehicle and Will has no choice but to beat it to death with a blunt object.

Once at the party, things proceed smoothly, but Will continues to be something of an odd-man out. It is understandable since this was his former home and memories linger rather vividly, but there’s an odd giddiness to it all that seems off kilter. A party guest unwittingly becomes the receiver of Eden’s out of nowhere violence early on, but she continues to behave almost in a state of a high. And then, David brings out a video that seems to be selling a concept of a cult and suicide. What’s going on here? Some are intrigued, and one guest who leaves early, upon seeing how intent David and Eden are into presenting this alternative belief to their guests, expresses her discomfort into what seems to be a cult belief. And there is a guest no one knows from, a man who charmingly tells everyone about his wife’s death.  And a girl who continuously tries to throw herself onto Will and looks . . . a little loopy.

Director Karyn Kusama keeps everything very much under control for a long stretch of her story but the sense of dread reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby permeates the entire mise-en-scene. As the party changes gears ever so subtly from simple to sinister and even we question if Will is all there or perhaps about to suffer some mental breakdown, Kusama suddenly yanks the rug from under you and the gloves are off. The Invitation’s slow escalation takes a hard turn left and as all the pieces fall into place, the real reason for them all being there explodes in everyone’s faces. This is a very good horror film that points the finger at the dangers of drinking the Kool Aid; it’s tense, moody, and equal parts terrifying because it presents a situation that could and has happened before.