Category Archives: Tribeca Film Festival

2017 TRIBECA NASTIES ON DVD: TAKE ME & HOUNDS OF LOVE

Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) gets tied up in Take Me.

THE BIG SICK
USA
Director: Pat Healy
Runtime: 85 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies Grading: C–

Bad movies exist in all shapes and sizes and have only one purpose: to make you wonder what went wrong that they deserve to be considered such. Maybe it was the direction that was too flat, or too uninviting; perhaps the acting was so bad it bordered on camp; there’s a laundry list of possible misfires that could have contributed to the failure of a movie to deliver and be remembered in a good way. Tribeca, a film festival that often showcases films by new and rising directors, sometimes takes the word ‘new’ and runs with it; for a festival that showcases nearly 100 films of all shapes, sizes, and genres during its two week run in April, it can have the luxury to show several turkeys and still get away with it (and make a neat profit).

Take Me, an incompetent comedy-thriller-character piece directed and acted by Pat Healy, an indie character actor whose most notable credit was being the creepy-as-fuck voice of the ‘cop’ in the Craig Zobel indie thriller Compliance from 2012, falls under that nebulous category of bad film that makes it to Tribeca because, film, right? To explain: somehow, the movie gets selected, bows at Tribeca, and lands in  VOD distribution (although it has a guaranteed slot at the midnight hour at IFC for a week or two). There, it thrives at a price of 6.99, a price much preferable than its 15 dollar tag in theaters, and people like me and you can watch without feeling cheated out of our hard-earned money and forget about it moments later. Not to digress about the film, but I guess it just shows that anyone with access to a camera can make a movie, but hey, what do I know. Let’s just say, this is one smelly turkey.

To keep it short, the premise is almost identical to the one Neil LaBute presented in his much superior Some Velvet Morning (a movie I highly recommend you watch on Prime for free if you haven’t; it’s that good). The crucial difference is that of subtlety. LaBute’s little film is a masterclass in restraint that threatens to explode between the two actors cohabiting a tense New York apartment and with dialog that melts from their viperous lips; Take Me offers no such gifts in dialog or performances and is basically blunt-force trauma masquerading as edgy cinema. From the word go we know what is happening; Healy runs an agency that pretends to kidnap people for a space of 8 hours as fetish — basically, an S & M company in which the person will be abducted, tortured, and released, all for a fee that Healy will collect. This time, however, he gets a call from a woman, Anna St Clair (Schilling) who wants to disappear for a weekend and is not afraid to get slapped around. She’s willing to pay him a plum sum upfront, mind you.

Healy takes the offer, and while the abduction sequence is still disturbing to see as it’s filmed dead on, and it’s followed by an interrogation sequence that while bizarre is still jarring, it never really makes us feel that this is something real (the movie has a lengthy prologue, and as if to nail it, another explanatory scene, with the intention of letting us know what we’re in for). Something starts to emerge in the fallout of the two actor’s encounter. It looks for a good while that Anna might not even know why she’s in the predicament and a news item seems to confirm that. Healy wonders if he’s in over his head, and tries to work things out with Anna, but Anna shifts from victim to temptress so quickly, and we never truly connect with Healy’s character, that it becomes impossible to watch except from a distance and look at the clock to see how much time there is left to this.

It is a shame because there are a couple of moments when Take Me adds little spark to its narrative: there is a side character, Healy’s sister (Alicia Delmore), who leaves a comic impression so strong that one would wish the movie had brought her in to complicate matters to a boiling degree. However, the two leads are so unsympathetic in every way that we just get to watch them go through the motions and attempt to out-guess where they’ll go next and what will the story turn into. A third act power reversal proves little cleverness in the plot procedures, and by the time the credits start rolling, I felt as though my time had been wasted by a story that didn’t quite pull it together. Take Me is not the movie you want to see if you like smart thrillers. For that, stick to The Game, or Some Velvet Morning.

HOUNDS OF LOVE
Australia
Director: Ben Young
Runtime: 108 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies grading: B+

Inspired, it seems, by the Moorhouse Murders, a series of crimes committed by David and Catherine Birnie who abducted, raped, tortured, and killed four women (their fifth was unsuccessful) in the 1980s, Hounds of Love is a gritty exploration of the darkest forms of love between two psychopaths addicted to their own perversions. The opening is a shocker for its combination of slow-motion images of girls playing volleyball in a Perth high school, while a couple, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) stalk them in a vehicle. Cut to a scene later in the middle of the afternoon as the couple approaches one of the girls as she walks home and offer her a ride. The girl accepts. We later see shots of her, dead, in the White’s home. It’s all done in one short chilling series of takes, effectively laying out how matter-of-fact something as horrifying as snuffing the life out of a person can me under the right circumstances.

And of course, once is never enough. We’ll never know how many murders the Whites may have committed but it’s clear that where there was one, there will be more. And, sure enough, shortly after we get introduced to Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teenager angry over the split between her parents Maggie and Trevor (Susie Porter and Damian de Montemas), we see her on her way to a party while staying with her mother and getting lured into the White’s vehicle. The abduction sequence is so brilliantly done, because it starts out as casual conversation between neighbors, evolves into an offer that plays onto Vicki’s own innocence, then lands her into the nightmare hell that is the White house as they, in one static shot, chain Vicki onto a bed while she kicks and screams for help.

Luckily, Ben Young, the director behind this explosive debut picture, isn’t content to turn this into another version of exploitation or abduction porn. Vickie may be young but she’s not naive and look for her interactions with Evelyn to unsettle her and perhaps by doing so, secure her own freedom. Look for how delicate certain scenes between Vicki and John are handled — yes, they are perverse, but then again, how can one approach what must be suburban hell where death is certain without venturing into queasy territory? Where the movie plays strongest is in focusing on Evelyn and John and their twisted dynamics: Evelyn, implied to be a willing victim who’s allowed herself to be a puppet for John’s deviant passions, rants and rages at the very thought that Vicki could be a possible replacement in a scene where John takes Vicki into a room but locks the doors, leaving Evelyn the third wheel. John meanwhile, continues to deliver promises to kill the girl . . . when in fact he has no intention of doing so.

Hounds of Love won’t be for everybody due to its subject matter, a topic that has become almost ubiquitous on Discovery ID (if you follow some of their shows about evil women or twisted couples). There is always danger to overdo the sexual violence against a younger person and on at least one occasion it gets almost too hard to watch. However, this is a strong, muscular debut picture that is much more restrained even in its more harrowing moments. It’s to its success that it also has a trio of actors committed not only to the ugliness of the situation at hand but at their psychological make-up, Add to that a slight twist that builds to a remarkably suspenseful crescendo and you have yourselves one damn good movie and a director to pay attention to.

Hounds of Love is available on VOD via Amazon Prime. Take Me is on Netflix On Demand.

THE HERO

Sam Elliott defies death in The Hero.

THE HERO
USA
Director: Brett Haley
Runtime: 93 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies Grading:

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Superstardom somehow eluded him, and yet he’s still remembered as the lanky, grizzled cowboy from the 80s and 90s with the deep, resonant voice and powerful presence. A twist of irony now brings Sam Elliott back on the big screen in this intimate narrative as Lee Hayden, a man well past his prime, who’s become nearly forgotten as an actor who once had a huge hit movie in the 70s called “The Hero”, a picture that has since earned him a cult following. Now, older, withdrawn, divorced from his artist wife Valerie (a much welcomed appearance by real-life wife Katharine Ross), estranged from his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), he spends time building pipe dreams with his neighbor and former co-star in a TV series, Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), a one-time promising actor who now sells drugs and does little else but collect old movies.

A call to appear in an obscure awards show that caters to actors who have starred in Westerns to receive a lifetime achievement award brings Lee back into the spotlight and into the attention of stand up comedian Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an occasional user who’s also one of Jeremy’s clients and has an attraction to older men. While accepting his award (and under some happy pills to coast the evening, thanks to Charlotte), Lee goes viral and begins to trend. Calls to audition for parts in big-budget movies start appearing, but Lee has serious doubts of his own self — plus, ever since the doctor diagnosed him with a dangerous form of cancer, and sensing time is closing in on him, it starts to affect him in ways he couldn’t have imagined. An attempt to rekindle with Lucy doesn’t go as planned, and he wonders where is this new relationship with Charlotte going.

I may have become a bit cynical because the cancer (or potentially fatal-disease) storyline has been done to pieces (and with much success among female-centric audiences looking for a good cry, but The Hero fires on all cylinders with the expertise of a grizzled gunslinger with a few surprises still underneath his sleeve. Never once does the story wring any emotion from you using his disease — a plus for me. In fact, Sam Elliott’s performance alone is solid gold. Here’s a man at the twilight of his years, a loner, quiet, not much of a husband it seems (a thing that he owns), even less of a father, drifting on old fame from a bygone era. The cancer-diagnosis turns up as a catalyst — but to an extent — to shake Lee up a little, make him dust himself off and see what repairs he might still be able to perform. Charlotte, a character that could have been written off as a one-scene only performance, grows on Lee in unexpected ways and boy, can Prepon bring in a grounded performance. In the end, however, this is a moving portrait of a man lost at sea trying to find his way back and perhaps, extend his chances at a second shot at life, if at all for a few. Highly recommended.

The Hero continues its run in NYC at the Village East as it moves into its second month in theaters. Go see it.

DEAN

DEAN
USA
Director: Demetri Martin
Runtime: 87 minutes
Language: English

B

It’s nothing short of surprising how far Woody Allen’s influence in indie cinema has reached. Because of him we now have several observant New York film directors doing rather well in creating movies that tell, in an economic 90 minutes, a slice of life of a New Yorker going through some kind of trauma, while always maintaining a solid sense of humor. Demetri Martin, an actor and director whose work I barely know, debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival with this cute little comedy about grief as told through the mind and imagination of Martin’s alter-ego Dean, a successful comic book artist who continually evokes the Grim Reaper in almost everything he draws (which is almost all the time — and he shows his illustrations, often which provide a nice dose of humor to make a point).

After the death of his mother, Dean finds himself in a rut unable to create and has just broken up with his girlfriend. He’s also at an emotional crossroad with his father (played by Kevin Kline in a subtle turn) who has decided to sell the house and move into a smaller space. In an impulse he travels clear across the country, lands in LA, meets some cool hipsters, among them a girl (Gillian Jacobs, last seen in Don’t Think Twice) who is all but perfect . . . which is part of the problem.  Dean is one of these barely there movies that really need to be seen to witness an incisive slice of life that attempts to portray the awkwardness of moving through life while trying to pick up the pieces left behind. This is a solid debut from a young director who has a keen ear for sharp dialogue along with pretty good performances by its mainly young cast (although Mary Steenburgen also manages to breathe life into her rather wispy, brief role as Kline’s real estate agent with whom he tentatively starts a relationship with.

BUSTER’S MAL HEART and Other TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL STANDOUTS

[Originally written May 3rd, 2017]

So, one more year of the Tribeca Film Festival and I’m as happy as a fat cat after finishing off a meal full of good, salty stuff. It’s not often when I can get a chance to go see world premieres and exclusives at an indie film festival (mainly because I travel a lot) so this time I made a point to instead of trying to over-compensate and watch all of the films coming out as I did last fall at the New York Film Festival but to see the ones that caught my attention the most. I did have a slant towards foreign selections because while the American entries  usually get shipped, the foreign ones fare somewhat less well. Some do make it to the screen (The Wedding Plan is into its third successful week at the Quad and the Lincoln Plaza) while others either play at the Film Forum or get the VOD treatment if at all.

Here are the ones I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival:

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Switzerland-Germany
Director: Petra Biondina Velpe
Runtime: 91 minutes
Language: German

Mostlyindies rating: B+

It comes as a shock that Switzerland, a country that has given us Geneva, was basically in the woods when Gloria Steinem and the feminist movement happened in the US. Up until the early 70s women did not have any rights in Switzerland–much less the power to vote. Nora (Marie Leuwenberger) lives in a small, ultra conservative town and is completely oblivious to the rapid modernization of the world around her. Her daughter (Ella Rumpf, previously seen in the French horror film Raw) is in prison for having flirted with a boy Nora and her husband didn’t approve of. Nora herself is basically a prisoner of her own life; she has no income and her husband legally has the rights to keep her in the house, cooking, cleaning, keeping it nice and warm while he produces the cash. It doesn’t come as a fluke when Nora somehow accidentally walks into feminism. She then proceeds to change her looks, dress in the style of the day (the movie takes place at the dawn of the 70s), and meet up with like minded women looking to emancipate themselves from male dominance. Soon they’re attending vagina workshops, rediscovering themselves, and distributing pamphlets all over town. Predictably, this doesn’t go over too well with the men who fear they will lose total control of a world that belongs to them, and little do they know that the women plan to fight for their rights, tooth and nail. The Divine Order never gets too overtly serious for its own good, but it still manages to describe the struggle for women’s equality — a fight as of this writing not fully won as women still make less than men — and it feels fresh since we only recently had a women’s march on Washington. There is a universality to this story that is reflected in another movie (not a Tribeca selection, though) called The Women’s Balcony, an Israeli film that tackles women’s rights through religious customs, but more about that later.

 

TOM OF FINLAND
Finland
Director: Dome Karukoski
Runtime: 115 minutes
Language: Finnish, English

Mostlyindies rating: B-

How do you depict the life of an artist who’s visual work (alongside fellow artists George Quaintance and Dom Orejudos, a.k.a. Etienne),  has become the cornerstone of hypermasculine gay fetish art without carnalizing it or treating it as sleaze? Dome Karukoski’s biopic of Touko Laaksonen eventually brings some of that onto the screen — there’s really no other way to tell  a convincing story without inserting images of hunky male models that were the ideals of Laaskonen’s art — but it also focuses on the events that shaped Laaksonen into the artist (and role model) he eventually became).

Early on, Tom of Finland takes the shape of a war movie in which even sexual encounters — all taking place in near obscurity — is treated as if it were a spy film. One gets a chance to see what influenced Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) in a scene that lingers on after it’s over. He murders a Soviet paratrooper, but following this event, he can’t but approach the dead man and stare into his unearthly beauty (and tell-tale mustache), a thing which points at the type of men he would later draw. Later on, Laaksonen meets the man who would be his life-long partner (Lauri Tilkanen) in a dark cruising scene rife with a sense of shame, anonymous, and the threat of capture. It is  also telling to see subplots about intolerance that revolve around Laaksonen’s kind but homophobic sister and Laaksonen’s former general in command Alijoki (Taisto Oksanen), a closeted man who’d bailed Laaksonen out of a Berlin jail for attempting to sell his fetish art, threw fetish parties for a tight-knit circle of gay friends, experienced the wrath of the police of the time who raid his house, take him to prison, where he decides he no longer wishes to be gay.

The second half of the picture is a little less repressive, and justifiably so: Following Stonewall, it seemed that an iron curtain had been lifted; no longer was it a crime to be gay, men began finding their identities through Tom’s art, which by the 1970s and 80s was showing up everywhere (albeit underground). Of course, there is the shadow of AIDs that makes its way into the story’s homophobic subplot and a backlash against Tom’s art soon follows, but it doesn’t damper the movie’s spirit inasmuch as reaffirm it and like crabgrass — the weed that won’t die — Tom’s art finds its way into bookstores and open consciousness.  If there is a moment when the film somewhat loses steam it’s when it becomes preachy towards the very end in an effort to provide a sense of inclusivity to all types of men (as opposed to the type that would be considered a Tom’s man). Overall, the movie is quite insightful in bringing as much of Laaksonen’s storied life into two hours, and perhaps it does become a little too serio-comic towards its second half for its own good, but it’s better than not having anything at all. Watch for Tom’s muse, his Kake character, who makes appearances here and there in the most unlikely of places.

Tom of Finland has no date of release yet in the US but might be included in LGBT film festivals later on.

 

MANIFESTO
Australia
Director: Julian Rosenfeldt
Runtime: 90 minutes
Language:  English

Mostlyindies rating: B

Coming into Manifesto is like entering a giant atrium with multiple installations playing at once — with the exception that every installation features Cate Blanchett playing a different character, sometimes funny, sometimes commanding, sometimes meek, petty, argumentative, insane, informative, or plain chaotic, and it’s a conceptual bliss, a shot in the dark, a burst of light, a cry of pain. I won’t go into details about what Manifesto is — what it’s trying to say — which is, in a nutshell, a statement about art and the state of the world today. I recognized my favorite piece — Tristan Tzara’s Manifesto on Dada. The way Blanchett enters into this powerful monologue in the form of a eulogy on Someone Who Has Died is at first, controlled, but clearly spitting the words out in preparation for a declaration of war. It’s not long before her tone sharpens, rises, and becomes deeper, louder, every time punctuating a sentence with the word “Dada.” [For the uninitiated, Dada is a baby’s cry — the primal scream is you will, and Dadaists took its ‘scream’ as to mean everything and nothing at the same time. Life is bullshit, and then you die. The end. Hoe does this one piece relate to the other? Does it even matter? Bookended in the movie she appears as a crazy homeless man espousing Marxisms, walking along in a landscape that once may have been thriving with human life and industrial wealth but has long since disappeared, leaving only ruins and decay. And yet in another vignette she’s two characters talking in “weather-speak” — that clipped lingo weather forecasters adopt when depicting storms, et. al., and then it reveals that while art is shit, so is there own performance. This is what I love about experimental film — it can be analyzed left to right, up to down, and it still reveals everything and nothing. We should have more films that challenge the audience and make them scratch their heads. We need more Manifesto.

 

THE LOVERS
USA
Director: Azrael Jacobs
Runtime: 95 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies rating: A

They’re married, but the marriage itself is at a dead end and exists only for curt hellos, good mornings, good byes, while both live separate as strangers. They’re so out of touch with each other that neither of them know the other is carrying on with someone else. So . . . why are they still married? Why haven’t the just split up? That’s the question that gets smothered one morning to MIchael (Tracy Letts, letting his romantic and yes, sexy lead flourish) and Mary (Debra Winger, a welcome return to movies) when something so out of left field happens.

They fall back into lust.

And it hits not as a fluke — it hits big. Huge. It’s almost like a drug that suddenly both have discovered — it keeps on delivering highs upon highs and for once, both have become civil, even friendly, towards each other. The problem is, again, they’re both involved in heavy relationships with other people (Aiden Gillen and Melora Walters) whom they continue to lie to and lead on as if nothing were happening, but it doesn’t take long for the second pair of characters to find out. Coming into the mix is a visit by their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (a sensitive Jessica Sula; if you remember she was one of the three kidnapped girls in Split). Joel has no pleasant memories of his parents and wonders what the shtick of happiness is all about.

The Lovers is all about small, private, intimate performances that make it as a domestic dramedy seem so real you might as well be peering into someone else’s house and documenting. In a previous time this could have gone into Noel Coward territory, but writer-director Azazel Jacobs treats his topic as adult as he possibly can, and even when dramatics take over, it never comes across as too strident. What I liked the most about The Lovers, however, was the sole presence of Letts and Winger as husband and wife who re-ignnite their passion. These are two actors playing people caught in a completely inappropriate and awkward situation, who know they need to call it quits and not hurt their new partners, but wonder if they can do so without causing harm to themselves. This is a smartly made movie.

 

PARIS CAN WAIT
USA / Japan
Director: Eleanor Coppola
Runtime: 90 minutes
Language: French, English

Mostlyindies rating: A

Some of the simplest stories can often hide the most complexities if the right actors can elevate their parts into something completely different and this is the case of Eleanor Coppola’s Bonjour Anne (re-titledParis Can Wait, which actually makes more sense; Bonjour Anne would seem to signify a drama about a woman leaving towards an uncertain future heavy with drama). A movie that depicts the adventures of an American housewife often neglected by her busy movie-prodicer husband (and I can’t possibly not guess that there may be something autobiographic to this scenario as director Eleanor Coppola is the wife of Francis Ford Coppola), Paris Can Wait has a sense of the romantic without directly approaching it. Anne, the wife in question, seems to be content with her life — but even in the limelight she seems to be but a shadow next to her husband Michael (Alec Baldwin, displaying the right dose of self-involvement without coming across as a grotesque caricature of narcissism; he does love Anne but he has a career to honor as well).

When business matters force their vacation at Cannes to come to a screeching halt, Michael flies back out to the Budapest to scout locations for his new film, leaving Anne stranded. While she states she could easily take the train and be in Paris in less than seven hours, Jacques (Antoin Vlard), a business associate of Michael, offers to drive her  Michael accepts the deal and before you know it Anne and Jacques are off touring the French countryside, making stops here and there while she alternates between sort of enjoying herself and growing increasingly frustrated that Jacques won’t drive her directly to Paris, but instead would rather prefer to literally stop, smell the flowers, and engage in an impromptu picnic.

Paris Can Wait shares with the Before trilogy (particularly Before Sunrise) that it features mostly two characters getting to know each other’s through keen character observation. It’s clear from the start that Jacques might be a little too interested in Anne for comfort–everything he does and says carries a weight that is meant to impress her–but Anne… while confident and self-possessed, she’s a little different. She’s more reserved, cagey. She continually talks about Michael but one gets that she’s  not exactly “happy”  and certainly their interrupted phone calls are a glaring example that they have a fractured communication. Also there’s that little action Anne does when storing pictures in her camera–while she deletes any evidence that she took shots of Michael, one in particular catches her attention and she keeps it.

Reader, Paris can Wait is so deceptive it’s a surprise when we reach a point where the romantic suspense is overflowing. Anyone else would have made a trifling mess closer to farce but Eleanor Coppola times her wispy travelogue with an increasing sensuousness that comes alive with Lane and Vlard’s effortless, textured acting and delicious chemistry. The film teeters and balances itself on an invisible line that we know at a moral level should not happen, All is left is for us to sit back and see not if, but when these two will cross that line.

 

BUSTER’S MAL HEART
USA
Director: Sarah Adina Smith
Runtime: 96 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies rating: B+

Stress can make its way into a man’s mind in a plethora of insidious ways and before you know it he’s turned from being a mild-mannered individual and morphed into something monstrous. That is the feeling I gleaned from watching Sarah Asian Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart — that of a man trapped by his own limitations, a low-paying job as a hotel concierge, a family that sees him as threat, and a wild man trapped at sea screaming at apparitions that may or not be real. [I took mild issues with the fact that he’s Hispanic, played by Rami Malek, an actor of Egyptian descent, only because whenever you see men going off the deep end they are mostly NOT Hispanic but White, but I digress; I get it, it could be anyone)

Buster’s Mal Heart drives you right into the aftermath of the matter. We see Buster (Malek) being chased down by some cops who are trying to gun him down. But why? What could he have done that he needs to be either brought back to face imprisonment or be obliterated by a volley of bullets? Soon later, we see him in flashbacks, wandering the Pacific Northwest, hair down to his shoulders, sporting a thick beard, with wild eyes that seem to be seeing something we cannot. He invades summer homes that are now closed for the cold, he comically defecates in places that he really shouldn’t, and all the while, even deeper memories surface. There’s a wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and child. There are her parents (one of them is played by Lin Shaye who appears in the Insiduous franchise), and they clearly have some issues with Buster, Even so, this can’t quite be the reason that Buster seems to go nuts in later scenes.

I love Buster’s Mal Heart for reasons that exist in domestic horror stories: we know there is a monster, but it has no face. We know that perhaps all this Y2K conspiracy (the movie takes place in 1999, right before or during the brief but disturbing period where people feared the worst) might be total bogus only because it’s rather clear to us as outsiders looking in that clearly nothing happened; no new world order ascended, and we’re still here trying to sort realities out. What makes Buster’s Mal Heart such a frightening movie is that the characters here are up against the same enemy in It Comes at Night and a multitude of other horror stories: the horror of themselves, their own minds that are on the verge of complete collapse. What emerges as an even bigger tragedy is that Buster, our antihero, never had a chance to win from the word go.

 

THE CIRCLE

US – United Arab Emirates
Director: James Ponsoldt
Runtime: 105 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies rating: C+

It’s no secret that we live in surveillance nation and James Ponsoldt’s motion picture, already in heavy promotion as of late last year, looked like an interesting premise that came in at a perfect time when it seems that the only way anyone can even exist is by and through a social network. So, a movie that places our heroine (Emma Watson) in a Facebook-esque company headed by a creepy yet jovial Tom Hanks where sharing — heck, oversharing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week —  would be the likely place to construct a thriller about the loss of personal identity, right? Of course. And for the better part of the movie, it succeeds in doing just that. Even from the word go there is something off about how complacent everyone seems, how there seems to be an almost reverential attitude towards The Circle’s CEO (Hanks, doing a blend of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg although I am inclined to go more for the latter). Watson becomes The Circle’s breakout story, but that comes at a cost — one that insinuates itself more and more as the film gets deeper into its story. Something happens inside of Watson’s character and she makes her escape to a secure place to be by herself. She gets immediately captured — yes, I will use that word — by other employees working for The Circle who bring her back home, safe and sound . . . only to proceed to degrade her to bits in public as a form of punishment for having renounced her role in the company.

[Also, floating around the story’s edge, is a character that could easily be based in either Apple’s or Facebook’s other founding members, a man who holds an important link to revealing the truth behind the Man Behind the Curtain. He only exists to bring a sense of even more menace outside the movie’s fabric, but the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with him for the most part.]

What happens when Watson’s character gets the dog’s collar — and it indeed is, something of a collar, but you have to see it to believe it and it is truly disturbing — is a complete and unexpected character change. She gives in, seemingly unable to even think for herself, and we see her now as an automaton, going through the motions, sharing everything with everyone within her network with the only privacy left being for her to go to the bathroom to do her business. The submission Watson goes through, her personality transformation from person to digital character, is a profoundly disturbing part of the film that I wish the director would have elaborated on more. The Circle, in order to gives its audience a more satisfying sense of closure, stops right here and devolves into something I call back tracking — it forgets how sinister its own presentation of Big Brother through the form of tiny cameras truly is and then picks up a character that had it had forgot, a character who I feel had the ability to stop this crazy all this time, but whose act of liberation had to be ceded to the Final Girl in a horror movie that doesn’t fully live up to its own hype.

 

NADIE NOS MIRA (NOBODY’S WATCHING)
Argentina
Director: Julia Solomonoff
Runtime: 108 minutes
Language:  English/Spanish

Mostly indies rating: B+

There are two stories being told in Julia Solomonoff’s observant drama about a gay actor attempting to make it happen in the United States. The first one is the most obvious and is actually the less interesting only because it follows a well-established pattern. Nico (Guillermo Pfering), an Argentinian actor who shot to fame via a series, has left it all behind to come to the US and pursue a successful film career. While his fictitious counterpart languishes in a coma to justify his absence, Nico languishes in poverty, rooming with a female friend, while attempting to make ends barely meet as a nanny to anyone who will pay him, which includes his friend Andrea (Elena Roger).

The second story, which emerges from the background of Nico’s increasingly sad life, is the fact that he is a man running away from himself. Having been involved with a married man who, to complicate things, is the producer of the show that shot Nico to fame and has no intention of letting him go, Nico fled to the US to start a new life and potentially find himself. Now Nico passes the time biking throughout New York, waiting for his next project that will never happening, and while babysitting, resorting to petty theft. Auditions go bad — he’s either not Latino looking or just not the right fit, and his accent, an American producer tells him later in the film, is too exotic to sell a part.

Nothing that happens in Nadie nos mira comes as anything new; indie cinema is filled with movies that touch the topic of a character locked in a seemingly impossible situation swimming upstream. However, Solomonoff’s movie never reduces Nico to a caricature of failed aspirations — we feel his pain, his increasing desperation to make matters work even when it becomes clear that at one point he will have to open his eyes. What she does manage is to convey, rather beautifully, a nuanced portrait of an illegal alien and how he will grapple with the sense of alienation and the possibility that perhaps he is chasing a pipe dream. Certain comparisons will draw it towards 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, but this is its own movie, thoughtful and compassionate towards people who for whatever reason come to a country looking for answers where there may not be any.

 

SAMBA
Dominican Republic
Director: Israel Cardenas and Laura Guzman
Runtime: 90 minutes
Language: Spanish

Mostlyindies rating: C

Using boxing as a means to redemption goes all the way back to almost 100 years ago when The Champ made its way into movie theaters in its first incarnation (the second would arrive in 1979 and was a total tear-jerker). Only last month American theaters played the Finnish boxing biopic The Best Day in the Life of Olli Maki, and Chuck, also known as The Bleeder as it was released right after its Tribeca debut, also touches on the topic of boxing legend Chuck Wepner.

Laura Guzman and Israel Cardenas movie isn’t a biopic, but a story told in a neo-realist style about Francisco Castillo (Algenis Perez Soto), a man released from a 15 year sentence to an uncertain future. Rejected by both his mother and his son Leury (Ricardo Toribio, last seen in Guzman’s and Cardenas’ Sand Dollars), who’s engaging in criminal behavior, Francisco somehow finds himself (after getting fired from a job at the port because of his criminal past) joining a boxing gym and being tutored by a former Italian boxer Nichi Valente (Ettore D’Allessandro), a man who also comes with his own set of financial problems and excess baggage and who along gym owner Luna Torres (Laura Gomez of Orange is the New Black) see Francisco, who becomes quite the asset, as a cash cow.

This is a rather straight-forward story, basically well done in all aspects, that offers a glimpse at the lives of a man caught in his own personal hell desperately trying to find a second shot. It doesn’t offer anything new but it still emerges over its somewhat slight material and paves the way for future projects to come out of Dominican Republic as it begins to make its presence known in film festivals. Will it have a run in the States? Possible, but for the time being, Samba makes its debut in Dominican Republic on June 29.

WOLVES

WOLVES
USA
Director: Bart Freundlich
Runtime: 103 minutes
Language: English

2.5/5

You know when you walk into an establishment, say, Mexican, and from the split-second you step in, everything —  from the decor, the placement of the bar, the food, the service, down to minutiae like the water being served — looks and tastes and feels exactly the same as a dozen other places you’ve been to around the country? This is what I felt when I saw Bart Freundlich’s sports drama Wolves: so many other movies have come before it that depict much of the events that transpire in his movie that I felt like I was watching something of a greatest hits section of a family going through a crisis and a young man trying to score for the team even when the odds are stacked up against him.

The premise: a jock that’s really a good guy has a difficult father (Michael Shannon, totally in the wrong film) whose antics get out of control and threaten to derail his son from his ambitions. Luckily for them, this is at heart a feel-good picture that is set to the motions of delivering — and why shouldn’t it? Considering the level of turmoil that the cast is put through it’s only justifiable to give them a moment’s reprieve unless it would turn into a Manchester by the Sea type of film in which there really is no way out of pain and tragedy. If you’re a die-hard fan of Michael Shannons’ work as I am you will like this movie; if you hate sports, stay away; Wolves in short is the equivalent of a derivative story you’ve seen  many times before, and because of that it’s also unremarkable.

LAVENDER

LAVENDER
USA
Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly
Runtime: 92 minutes
Language: English

1.5/5

Ever since Hitchcock used repressed memories as plot devices to narrate his formidable movies every director wanting to probe the waters of supernatural horror has tried to emulate the Master of Suspense, sometimes getting close like Christopher Dolan’s Memento, and sometimes misfiring badly, such as this new arrival onto the indie scene. It’s a shame because the story itself could have been a great platform for its lead actress to perform the heck out of a tormented character haunted by the past. Instead we get a color-by-numbers product that is as dead on arrival as its mystery.

In 1985 young Jane Ryer was found holding onto a knife, covered in blood, crouching in a corner of her house while her family lay lifeless before her. There was some speculation that she may have snapped, but who in their right mind would think a girl of her age would be able to produce this level of carnage? Fast forward to the present: now Jane Ryer has grown into a happy young woman married, with a daughter and a career as a photographer. A car accident (that happens just when she’s singing a piece of a child’s song, Lavender — hence the title, clever) lands Jane in the counsel of a psychiatrist (Justin Long) who attempts via therapy to induce her memories. A mysterious box arrives, and Jane realizes what it’s about.

Soon we see her being drawn back to the house where the events from 1985 occurred. This, instead of inducing an interest in a mystery, instead creates scenarios where anything and everything that is meant to be seen as a Portent of Horror happens: a red balloon with a key, a chase through a maze of bales of hay that leads to another gift box, and the requisite supernatural specters that have to make their appearance to remind you this is a thriller rife with horrific overtones. Meanwhile, Jane grows none the wiser and digs not an inch into her own psyche, but instead becomes a passive conduct for cheap scares that will inevitably play themselves out in the time the movie takes to get there, which at least here, is mercifully quick.

Lavender comes courtesy from Tribeca Film Festival, which should give you an idea of what you’re getting as cinematic entertainment. Abbie Cornish can, on occasion, motivate you to see her perform onscreen (as she did over 10 years ago in her debut picture Somersault) but ever since she’s been adrift and resembling a clone of Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts — all doll-faced, no character. Everyone else, especially Dermot Mulroney, else is wasted, the story falls apart, and you’re left with the feeling that you just got swindled. If at least there was a smidgen of style, Lavender could transcend its limitations but it never even tries to build any tension. A colossal waste of time.

BETWEEN US

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Upon watching Rafael Palacio Ilingworth’s micro-drama Between Us I kept getting snippets here and there of John Cassavetes’ Faces played in a hipster key for today’s younger audience not used to close-ups and long, drawn-out sequences of banter. Indeed, there is a similarity borne perhaps from the need to tell urban stories of marital woes (and I’m not even going to reference Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, which yell at me or not, is also at the root of this cute little movie). A couple of thirty-somethings, Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) and Henry (Ben Feldman) are starting to go through the aches and pains of being together for six years and wonder why they’re still together. [Reader, if you’re in this situation, chances are, you shouldn’t be, but then you wouldn’t have a movie.] A simple visit to one of these overprices minimalist apartments provides ample room for all their fears to surface up like a wound that was once thought healed. Dianne wants it for practical reasons and plus, the market. Henry fears it’s too cold for his more eclectic style. Me, I just kept thinking what do both of you do to afford something that surely must cost a fortune? But I digress. It’s the jumping off platform to subsequent scenes that display how different they are, how much farther apart they are drifting, and how unwilling either one of is to confront the other. After a nasty fight both seek the company of others; Dianne drifts off to a tentative flirtation with a colleague and winds up with a performance artist (Adam Goldberg) and Henry strikes it up with a student (Analeigh Tipton, a dead ringer for Michelle Williams and probably the brightest note in this movie) who appears as a free spirit straight out of the swinging 60s. Ilingowrth’s Between Us is a bit too loose and casual despite strong performances. Even so, it does deliver the difficult premise of two people who can’t seem to be together but also don’t seem to know when it’s time to call it quits.

[On Amazon Instant Video and other VOD platforms.]

EQUITY

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

Its trailer suggests Anna Gunn playing a woman with power, and boy does she wield it. Even so, this is a man’s world and the story of Equity — written, produced, directed, and acted by women in plum lead roles — is ultimately about a strong, ruthless woman’s drive to secure a product into the marketable hell that is Wall Street, who finds out just how hard it is to play against the Big Boys. Playing completely against her more subdued housewife from Breaking Bad, Anna Gunn virtually explodes on screen from the second she comes on, proclaiming rather openly how much she loves money and from then on just letting her hair down and her fangs sink into a character that has no problem going against her own sex if it means coming out on top. Gunn is Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker who just came out of a bad IPO (which has given her the attribute of being problematic to work with) and is trying to get her foot into the trading jungle via a new social media outlet, the rather femininely named Cachet.

Working with her is her right hand woman, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), who does much of the hard (and often dirty work) for Naomi, including using her own sexuality in order to secure a part of the big picture that is Cachet. Erin wants a promotion, but Naomi sidelines her, which leaves Erin quietly seething. In the interim, Naomi’s lover Michael Connor (James Purefoy) is trying to fish for insider information in order to sell for a hedge fund (masked as a hedge dog). Michael isn’t above checking Naomi’s blackberry, although finds himself sold short when he realizes she’s blithely given him a fake password. Adding to the plot is an old friend of Naomi’s, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), an up and coming DA who’s investigating Michael Connor. A reunion dinner with Naomi goes rather bad as Naomi’s own paranoid suspicion comes into play, which leaves Samantha no other option than to up the stakes of her investigation. The issue is, Samantha is also into money and her government salary (as comfortable as it is) won’t quite provide for her and her kids. [She has a wife, criminally underwritten and played by Tracie Thoms, of whom we get to know nothing and see her in only a peppering of short scenes.] It’s only time before Sam wonders if her own case against Michael Connor (and, potentially, Naomi herself) is worth it.

Subplots pepper the story, adding a rich layer of smaller characters that move in and out and create a tight noose that doesn’t let up until the final scenes. This is the thriller for the cyber age, one where car chases are non existent and one can kill off a character without having to off them personally. There are still the necessary meetings in shadowed parking lots with characters of dubious loyalty, hackers and the like, so in this, Equity maintains its roots in film noir in all but the noir and reverses the genders expertly. Anna Gunn plays her role as a desperate woman trying to maintain afloat, trusting no one and even going to shocking lengths to avoid any more scandal. The script probably overdoes her reactions to certain events late in the film, so instead of having one major scene-chewing meltdown (like the one Michael Douglas had in Wall St.) we have three, and they all seem rather underwritten and a tad superficial. There’s none of the kind of bite that something written for Meryl Streep in Manchurian Candidate or even the comedic Devil Wears Prada gave her. Even so, and some rather obvious telegraphing to the audience, Equity is a sharp film, feminist, grim, showing that women can be just as bad if not more than the men and then some. It probably won’t get Gunn any awards but should introduce her as a force in the film world, post AMC.

MICHAEL SHANNON, TIMES TWO: ELVIS & NIXON AND MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

I’m convinced that one day Michael Shannon is going to win an Oscar. An actor who’s been in movies for almost 25 years and started in tiny parts, Shannon rose steadily until his breakout role in William Friedkin’s shocking paranoid thriller Bug (written by Tracy Letts, who also penned August: Osage County). His profile increased when the Academy Award came calling for his supporting part in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road in 2009, and since then he’s been that character actor who, while mixing high profile pictures (Man of Steel) with smaller affairs (The Iceman, Mud, 99 Homes, Freeheld) hasn’t quite yet broken into super stardom. Although that may change when Nichols’ upcoming film (and fourth collaboration with Shannon), Loving, hits the US in November. Fingers crossed.

Midnight Special is in that bracket of silly sci-fi / conspiracy flicks that we’ve seen many times before, going back to the kind of entertainment that the 70s and 80s brought (Escape from Witch Mountain, anyone? How about Firestarter? How about Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters?). Now, this is hardly that kind of  movie. Under Nichols’ direction, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. When the movie starts proper, It presents a motel room where Roy Tomlin and his partner, state trooper Lucas, are watching an AMBER alert on TV describing them as dangerous men who have kidnapped a young boy, Alton Meyer. It becomes quickly established that Roy is Alton’s father and that he’s protecting him from some danger. We then cut to a place called The Ranch, a place based on the Warren Jeffs compound where their leader, Pastor Calvin Meyer, calls on two of his guys to retrieve Alton. While conducting mass, he starts quoting forth a series of numbers, which his followers repeat. At that moment the FBI intervenes and NSA agent Paul Sevier who is working with the FBI interviews Meyer, asking how did he come upon these numbers. Meyer believes they are divine and part of a greater force no one can begin to understand; Alton would have trances and speak in tongues and deliver these numbers to Meyer. Sevier informs Meyer that these numbers are hardly divine in nature but part of a heavily encrypted code with tightly classified information that could cost Meyer everything.

Roy and Lucas drive through the pitch black night until they have an encounter with a trooper that goes all kinds of bad. From there on, they make it all the way to a former Ranch member’s house, and here is where things begin to come together: one night the men are awoken by what seems to be an earthquake but in reality turns out to  be the immense power unleashed by Alton who shoots what seems to be laser beams from his eyes. After a situation at a gas station turns deadly, they meet up with Alton’s mother Sarah who had allegedly abandoned him at birth for the Ranch members to raise. Together they must escape capture from forces wanting to probe into Alton in ways that may seem inhuman, but also, from members of the Ranch who aren’t willing to let their Messiah go without a fight.

This is all the stuff of tired sci-fi plots about gifted, otherworldly children in peril and the guardians or parents there to protect them at all costs from the more archetypal forces of darkness. It works thanks to a strong direction, a care placed in the construction of the plot, a sense of paranoia and tension that continues to manifest itself throughout — the sense of being watched is overwhelming — and the performances of Michael Shannon as Roy, Kirsten Dunst as Sarah, and Joel Edgerton in a smaller part as Lucas. It does eventually become a little too hokey towards its denouement and the seams of the film’s budget start to show. Even so, the movie is solid entertainment and should play well in rentals after a good run in movie theaters. Adam Driver and Sam Shepard have small parts as Paul Sevier and Calvin Meyer.

No less sillier but in ways no one could expect is the movie based on an actual event that happened on December 21, 1970. On that day, The then King of Pop, Elvis Presley, decided to write a letter to the president, Richard Nixon, on how he would like to have a meeting with him. The fact that he hand wrote it in what seems to be chicken scratch handwriting, and that it was delivered to Nixon in a manner that was a completely bizarre chain of events, and that his aides thought it would be cool if their Commander in Chief actually met with the guy which would elevate his profile with the younger generation makes this the stuff of bizarro stories. There is no way that this could have actually transpired.

And yet it did, and how Elvis & Nixon get to sit down together in the White House is the fun part of the movie. Elvis & Nixon, while boasting a fairly good amount of actors — among them Evan Peters, Colin Hanks, Johnny Knoxville, Alex Pettyfer, and Ahna O’Reilly, this is basically a two-hander. On one side you have Kevin Spacey playing a completely different type of president, and on the other there is Michael Shannon, who while never even remotely looking like Elvis channels him all the way through and makes him believable. Both men tear into their roles with an equal sense of humor and self-deception, but while Spacey’s Nixon emerges as a rather borderline caricature, Shannon’s Elvis is a little harder to pin. There is a scene early in the movie when he explains to his public relations manager (Pettyfer) the difference of who he was, before he became a star, and who the public perceives him to be, all rhinestone, rings, and black tinted hair. It’s a rather affecting touch to what could have seemed to be a surface performance.

Elvis & Nixon is fun trip into nostalgia of a more innocent time. In another setting this could be almost surreal with a good amount of screwball thrown in, but its events are shown straight-faced to a fault. Meanwhile, all you can do is wonder what the heck is going to happen next, or how far can it all go. And to imagine that all this happened, and that there is a picture to prove it. Indeed, amazing.

BAD HURT

1.5 out of 5 stars (1.5 / 5)

 

Bad Hurt is one of those movies where everything that can possibly befall a family does so, in groups, without a moment of rest in between. In fact, so much misery happens in such a short period of time it almost becomes numbing. You keep expecting the ground opening to swallow them up. Again, why I avoid many TriBeCa Film Festival movies. This is suffering porn.

So, let’s see. There’s this Irish family, the Kendalls living in Staten Island, and by living, I mean going through the motions while chaos, madness, sickness, and never-ending agony dances around them without an end in sight.

Elaine and Ed Kendall (Karen Allen and Michael Harney) head the household and provide 24-hour care to their severely, mentally disabled daughter DeeDee (Iris Gilad) who constantly seems to be on the verge of going deliriously manic and has to be taken out of the special needs school due to her violent tendencies. DeeDee, however, has made a friend in Willy (Calvin Dutton), and that friendship seems to have romantic overtones.

Kent (Johnny Whitworth) is the next son who once served the Gulf War and since then  suffers from crippling PTSD — so much that his capacity to communicate verbally is impaired and he is dependent on pain killers and Elaine’s care to alleviate his crippling pain. And finally, there is Todd (Theo Rossi), the son with the least amount of baggage, whose problems are minuscule compared to the rest of the household. Todd is, as a matter of fact, the one who is the glue keeping the Kendalls from falling to pieces at a moment’s notice.

Kitchen sink events unfold rather quickly, often one on top of the other, and it becomes clear this is a family who needs a lot of healing. However, I’ve seen other movies about dysfunctional families and there is at least some levity in between the stories. Bad Hurt seems to have lumped together every possible combination of human suffering, so much that even a quiet tucking into bed or a funeral scene becomes a battlefield, and a conversation between father and son discloses a secret and unleashes bloody hell. I’m not saying this is a bad thing — catharsis is necessary in order not to end up like the family in the recent Louder than Bombs — but paring it down a little would have been better. Everyone appears to be carrying a massive burden and worse, unable to know when to stop, rest, and continue.