Monday, March 28, 2016

Girls recap: Season 5 Episode 6: "The Panic in Central Park"

Last night's installment of Girls continues this season's run of eventful, emotionally revealing episodes, in which one or two of the main characters zigzag toward some kind of self-awareness, often while exploring an unfamiliar environment. The settings feel like a significant part of that awakening, since Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her friends spent the great majority of the first four seasons either indoors or on dark city streets at night. These artificially lit, often cramped or crowded locations functioned as a series of cocoons in which the characters hung out almost exclusively with people more or less like themselves. But the girls are breaking out of gentrified Brooklyn more than ever this season, exploring environments like a sun-drenched Coney Island, cat cafés and communal hot tubs in Tokyo, or that spa where Hannah and her mom went to last week.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Dark Horse

In James Napier Robertson's The Dark Horse, down-and-out former chess champ Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) finds a measure of salvation for himself, his nephew, and an endearingly scrappy group of at-risk kids by teaching the young ones how to play chess. That may sound either like a film you've seen too many times already or like a formula for easy uplift. But it's neither, thanks to powerful performances and a realistic depiction of the dangers and challenges that face Genesis, a bipolar Maori man who was raised by his older brother and spent much of his life either homeless or in a mental institution.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I Saw the Light

This carefully respectful, sensitively acted biopic sands all the edges off Hank Williams’s story to create a frustratingly inert portrait of an artist whose soul-piercingly mournful music and preternaturally confident and captivating stage presence made him one of the great musical stars of the last century.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Girls recap: Season 5 Episode 5: "Queen for Two Days"

The uncharacteristically tidy march that Girls's main characters have been making toward maturity and relative happiness gets satisfyingly disrupted in “Queen for Two Days,” which focuses on the surprising difficulty of figuring out who and what makes us feel at home. In the episode's main storyline, Hannah (Lena Dunham) reluctantly spends a weekend at a tony spa with her mother, Loreen (Becky Ann Baker), who wants a time-out to figure out whether to stay in her marriage now that she knows that her husband is gay. Loreen tells Hannah about her decision in a speech that's a realistic, if rueful, acknowledgement of what home means to her: “I know it sounds sad to you,” she says, “but I like our house, and your father's very nice, and he makes me laugh when he does that Chris Rock. And he plays Scrabble really well. These things count for a lot.”

Thursday, March 17, 2016

New Directors New Films: Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow was screened in this year's New Directors New Films festival.

Like an Iranian take on The Babadook, writer-director Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow is an emotionally direct and realistic horror story centered around a socially isolated mother and child who are terrorized by eerie supernatural events. The paranormal happenings are very likely a combination of the mother's hallucinations and the child's way of making sense of the violence the mother perpetrates as her sanity ebbs and flows, but Anvari keeps things creepy in part by leaving open the possibility that there really may be something supernatural out there.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Miracles from Heaven

As she did in The 33, director Patricia Riggen introduces Miracles from Heaven's characters by establishing one dominant trait that will define them throughout. Also as in that film, she shoots those characters early on at a beatific backyard barbecue, pushing in for idyllic close-ups of wholesome sights like ribs being basted and kids on rope swings to establish a family in the context of its community—a lively congregation led by the friendly, funny, and wise Pastor Scott (John Carroll Lynch). In short, the film's first few minutes are engineered to make clear that, as Kevin Beam (Martin Henderson) tells his wife, Christy (Jennifer Garner), “It's a good life, Christy Beam!”

The Confirmation

Bob Nelson's The Confirmation is bookended by two confessions by eight-year-old Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher). In the first, he strains to come up with something worthy of penance eight weeks after his last confession. By the next afternoon, he has a roll call of sins to confess after spending an eventful day with his father, Walt (Clive Owen), filled with lying and stealing. We're meant to understand that it isn't through the religious ceremony of the title, but through those sins—or, more precisely, through learning that committing such “sins” is sometimes the right thing to do—that Anthony makes his first meaningful step toward manhood. That's an interesting premise for a coming-of-age story, but it's undermined by the film's occasionally dubious ethics and its tendency to soft-pedal the dangerous situations it sets up.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Interview: Arnaud Desplechin

A nostalgic and deeply emotional tale, My Golden Days is Arnaud Desplechin’s second film about Paul Dedalus. Very loosely based on the filmmaker himself (his name is a nod to James Joyce’s alter ego in Ulysses), Dedalus is played here by two actors, longtime Desplechin collaborator Mathieu Amalric as a middle-aged man looking back on his youth, in three scenes that frame the adolescent action, and Quentin Dolmaire as the young Paul. In an unexpected and generous twist, what appears at first to be a male coming-of-age story winds up being less about Paul than about his first love, the volcanic, creative, and fearlessly original Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). We spoke to Desplechin late last year, when he was in town to promote the film during the New York Film Festival. Animated and articulate, he talked about why it’s French to love M. Night Shyamalan, why it gets harder to collaborate with an actor after years of working together, and why it’s important to him to include black characters in his films.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Girls recap: Season 5 Episode 4, "Old Loves"

Like a Jane Austen novel, Girls seems obsessed lately with pairing its main characters up with long-term mates, but the romance is mostly a smokescreen for the show's—especially this season's—main focus: the slow, often painful crawl toward emotional maturity. As in Austen's work, making a good romantic match on Girls is just one of the more easily dramatized rewards of gaining enough self-knowledge to know what you want and enough self-discipline to make the sacrifices to get it. Several key characters make progress toward earning their relationship stripes in “Old Loves,” with Elijah (Andrew Rannells) leading the way with all the sparkly delight of a drum major.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

New Directors New Films: Donald Cried

Donald Cried was screened at this year's New Directors New Films festival.

In this emotionally astute debut feature, Kris Avedisian anatomizes a type of encounter that's much more common in life than in movies: an awkward reunion between two long-estranged friends that unearths a complex mix of guilt and shame in the one responsible for the estrangement. It would be easy for a filmmaker to either make such an encounter feel tediously uneventful or to pump it full of movie-ish melodrama, but Donald Cried does neither, remaining resolutely realistic while mining plenty of pathos, humor, and drama from the situation.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Americans Season 4

It's telling that several scenes from the fourth season of The Americans begin with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) or Philip (Matthew Rhys), married Soviet spies, waking up from a nightmare. These dreams are pungent metaphors for the couple's growing desperation, as they agonize over how to protect their children from a life they feel increasingly trapped within.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Brothers Grimsby

Like Ali G and Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's Nobby from The Brothers Grimsby is a human Rorschach blot, crafted to suss out essential truths about the people he interacts with. But where those other two characters put their audiences in a privileged position, laughing at (or admiring the patience of) the non-actors they interacted with, Nobby tests us like a hyperactive preschooler, sometimes hamfistedly transgressive, sometimes simply mischievous, and occasionally scoring a surprisingly cogent point.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Girls recap: Season 5 Episode 3, "Japan"

This season of Girls has been partly about constructing a situation for each of the main characters that could presumably hold steady after the series ends next year, and “Japan” tucks Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) cosily into her totally Shosh-friendly Tokyo apartment, whose brightly colored façade makes it look like one big piece of playground equipment. From the moment she wakes up, to an alarmingly cute alarm clock, it's clear how well suited she is to her new city, from its love of all things young and perky to her doting boss, Yoshi (Hiro Mizushima), a curly haired cutie who sees her as “a shiny star.” When the two of them eye each other shyly in the company cafeteria, Shosh and her Japanese female co-workers holding cones of cotton candy while Yoshi and his boys lick ice cream cones, the stylized middle-school vibe is both touching (because it feels so right for Shoshanna) and sweetly absurd.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Like most films set in battle zones, including many that were intended to be anti-war, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot glamorizes armed conflict by stressing the romantic intensity of life lived and relationships forged under the shadow of death, an intensity that carries an atavistic appeal for young people hungry to test their mettle. But by making the fantasy of proving oneself by heading off to a foreign war its central theme, then taking an honest look at some of the messier ethical dilemmas that lurk beneath that narrative, the film lopes into some surprisingly complicated and thought-provoking territory.