February 5, 2018

ShowbuzzDaily’s Complete 2018 Sundance Film Festival Reviews

There are certain inevitabilities at Sundance, apart from snow:  something will go wrong (after I waited on line for 2 hours on opening day, the box office discovered that it had lost one of my passes), and no matter how carefully one chooses one’s film selections, some of the hottest titles will be missed.  For me, those were the midnight movies Assassination Nation and Hereditary, which were logistically impossible to get to after the late-evening premieres on those nights..  I also missed the talked-about Eighth GradeSearch and Blaze.  It was an unusual Sundance, though, in that there was no overwhelming favorite, no Boyhood or Whiplash or Manchester By the Sea, and it’s very possible that none of the festival’s films will feature heavily in next year’s Oscar race.  On the other hand, there were a lot fewer terrible movies than Sundance usually delivers, and so the 21 titles below, organized in rough order of preference, are largely shades of very good, with only the bottom few not worth seeing.  (And even they’ll have their fans.)

BEIRUT (Bleecker Street):  With the exception of occasional John Le Carre adaptations, Hollywood has more or less abandoned the field of intelligent adult thrillers about international intrigue, once a bread and butter genre.  Screenwriter Tony Gilroy, with Michael Claytonand his Bourne scripts, has almost singlehandedly tried to keep the category alive, and Beirut, which Gilroy wrote 25 years ago and recently revised, is a reminder of how satisfying these stories can be.  Jon Hamm, in his best big-screen role to date, plays Mason Skiles, a one-time rising star in the US diplomatic corps who fell into alcohol after a tragedy in the title city; 10 years later, the CIA finds him mediating low-grade labor disputes, and brings him back to the Mideast to help negotiate the release of a kidnapped former friend and colleague.  Skiles, underestimated by just about everyone, has to think on his feet amidst the lies and contradictions of the terrorists, the Israelis, and various branches of his own government.  Brad Anderson’s direction is crisp and creates a believable 1980s Lebanon war zone via Morocco locations, and there’s a bang-up supporting cast that includes Rosamund Pike (a bit overqualified for her limited role), Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Larry Pine, Mark Pellegrino, Idir Chender, and Ben Affan.  Beirut is best, though, as a showcase for Gilroy’s skillful plotting and smart dialogue, and for Hamm’s lived-in performance as a more popcorny Michael Clayton.  It’s a little sad that such a mainstream entertainment would even need a slot at Sundance to make a mark, but better that than nothing at all.

A KID LIKE JAKE (IFC):  Silas Howard’s dramedy is a small-scale triumph, successfully navigating its way from a wry account of upper-middle-class Brooklynites Alex and Greg (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) trying to get their 4-year old into private school, into a wrenching story of the family being pulled apart as Jake’s behavior suggests that he may be trans.  (Howard is himself trans, but this isn’t his story:  the excellent script by Greg Pearle is based on Pearle’s pre-existing play.)  It’s a big subject, one that goes beyond its specifics to question the nature of parenthood itself, and how much control a mother and father should try to exercise over a child whose actions may not fit in with prevailing norms.  Howard and Pearle do justice to the complexity of it all, and they’re helped by a superlative cast.  Danes and Parsons surprise on opposite ends of the scale:  Danes is refreshingly likable and funny at the outset, and when things get serious, Parsons matches her step for step, no mean feat when your scene partner is Claire Danes.  (An argument scene between the two of them toward the end of the film is as good as any 10 minutes we’ll see on screen this year.)  The leads are surrounded by great character actors, including Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, Ann Dowd, and Amy Landecker.  Howard, whose experience until now has been more in episodic television than in features, provides a sleek, handsome background for the actors (the cinematography is by Steven Capitrano Calitri, and the editor is Michael Taylor).  In a brisk 92 minutes, A Kid Like Jake manages to be thought-provoking, emotionally gripping and often quite engaging, an indie that with the right handling could reach a mainstream audience.

WILDLIFE (no distrib):  If you’ve ever felt sorry for youngsters who are cordoned off from their parents’ difficult relationships, and then blindsided by the consequences, Paul Dano’s directing debut advises that pity should really be reserved for those children who know all too much about what’s going on.  Dano’s austere and disturbing drama isn’t likely to attract wide audiences, but it’s an impressive start to his broadened career.  Dano also co-wrote the script with Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s novel, which centers on young Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould).  When Joe’s father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his golf pro job at a smalltown 1960 Montana country club, things go haywire, and Joe is in the middle of it all.  That’s particularly true with respect to Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), who becomes a walking embodiment of fury, self-disgust and desperation, and who incorporates Joe in her campaign to seduce the well-off Warren Miller (Bill Camp).  The acting by all concerned is superlative, and Mulligan is especially jaw-dropping, because we haven’t seen her give a performance this adult and scalding before.  (In a fantasy production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she would always have been the Honey until now, but suddenly she seems just a few years away from being an awesome Martha.)  When actors turn director, their skill with performers is taken for granted, but Dano’s work is impressive on every technical level as well:  his collaborations with cinematographer Diego Garcia, production designer Akin McKenzie, and composer David Lang are distinctive and honed.  Wildlife is almost unrelievedly bleak, and Dano’s comfort with long silences sometimes makes its 104 minutes feel long.  Dano, though, is a real filmmaker, not just an actor who wanted a turn behind the camera.

WHAT THEY HAD (Bleecker Street):  Elizabeth Chomko’s writing/directing debut trods familiar ground, another tale of a dysfunctional family brought together by crisis, with the enforced intimacy leading to an eruption of resentments and some live-changing consequences.  But What They Had is a reminder that emotional toughness and honesty, especially when mixed with a full cargo of fine acting and a script that leavens its soap opera with believable humor, can redeem even the most familiar plot constructs.  The crisis here is the worsening Alzheimer’s of Ruth (Blythe Danner), which brings daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank, with her strongest role in years) and granddaughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to Chicago, where Bridget’s brother Nick (Michael Shannon) hopes they’ll help him convince their stubborn father Burt (Robert Forster) that it’s time for Ruth to move into an institution that specializes in Alzheimer’s patients.  Beyond that central dilemma, each character has their own problem:  Bridget’s marriage has grown cold, Nick feels unappreciated by his father and has recently been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, and Emma wants to drop out of college.  All of this could easily have felt rote, and you might fear the worst in the opening minutes, but Chomko treats each character with seriousness and care.  Forster, Swank and Shannon make a marvelous ensemble:  Forster continues his renaissance of recent years (he’s becoming a artisan of gruffness), Shannon has the unusual chance to be (very) funny, and it’s just a relief to see Swank deliver in a project that’s worthy of her.  Danner, in the showiest role, is properly heartbreaking.  What They Had earns its tissues.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (Orchard/MoviePass):  It’s not easy to come up with a new spin on the venerable heist movie genre, but writer/director Bart Layton has managed just that with American Animals.  Layton had been until now a documentarian, and here he intercuts between his dramatized version of a real life robbery in which four college students targeted rare books by Audubon and Darwin worth millions, with actual interviews he conducted with the criminals themselves (and a few others).  The result isn’t just a rousing and sometimes very funny thriller, but a commentary on fiction vs. reality and on the difficulty of pinning reality down at all, since often the interviewees here disagree about key elements of their own story.  This is Layton’s first try at directing actors, and he seems to be a natural, with turns by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson that aren’t overshadowed even when they’re contradicted by their living counterparts.  (Ann Dowd, as ever, is also splendid in a small but key role.)  Sharply edited by Chris Gill, and with some particularly effective use of musical needle-drops, American Animals makes its meta-ness work in its favor.

JULIET, NAKED (Roadside/Lionsgate):  Every Sundance has a title or two that isn’t particularly “indie,” other than through the fact that its stars aren’t hugely bankable.  That’s the case with the likable Juliet, Naked, which continues Nick Hornby’s remarkably fruitful relationship with the movies.  Hornby doesn’t choose to adapt his own books for the screen, and the script for Jesse Peretz’s film is credited to Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor and Evgenia Peretz.  They’ve pruned the novel into an intelligent, engaging comic romance for audiences interested in the love lives of characters past their first flush of youth.  As the presence of Judd Apatow as a producer may suggest, the adaptation also emphasizes the lighter, less difficult parts of Hornby’s story.  In both its written and filmed forms, the story hinges on a delicious irony:  fanboy academic Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) worships the vanished 1990s rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), but it’s Duncan’s own skeptical girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) who wins Tucker’s affections when he reads her pan of the demo tape version of his one and only legendary album on Duncan’s website.  Annie, a museum curator in a small English town, has been living a muffled life with Duncan, and she finds herself through her e-mail correspondence with Tucker and then when she meets him in person once he’s traveled to England for family business.  There are a lot of interesting ideas circling around here, about the relationship between artists, their art, and their fans; the way that online communication has brought us closer together and more distant than ever; the definition of “family”; and whether Annie’s compulsion to mother (even though she has no children of her own) is entirely healthy.  Ultimately, though, Juliet, Naked is more interested in being adorable than provocative.  There’s a hole at the center of Annie’s bond with Tucker, because the movie wants us to see her as becoming increasingly mature through the relationship, but Tucker isn’t all that much more developed a man-child than Duncan is.  Luckily, much of Juliet, Naked is indeed adorable.  Rose Byrne has been primed for a lead role for quite a while now, and she makes Annie believable and charming.  Chris O’Dowd has all the biggest laughs and makes the most of them.  Ethan Hawke barely even has to act (although he does):  the photos of his actual 1990s stardom on Duncan’s wall juxtaposed with his current self is its own version of Boyhood.  Peretz keeps it all smoothly running.  Composer Nathan Larson merits special credit for convincingly creating the Tucker Crowe songs that Hornby only had to describe in the novel.  In the end, Juliet, Naked is more Top 40s than punk rock, but it has its share of hummable tunes.  With the right distributor and marketing, it should make quite a few fans of its own.

THE TALE (HBO):  It’s difficult to approach The Tale simply as a movie, particularly after a screening where writer/director Jennifer Fox was in attendance, because it’s an intensely personal and intimate document.  Like Bart Layton with American Animals, Fox is a former documentarian whose first scripted film investigates the relationship between narrative and fact in original cinematic ways.  With The Tale, though, Fox’s subject is her own experience as a 13-year old whose sexual relationship with an adored authority figure was something she considered a genuine romance at the time, only to realize decades later that it had been a predation.  Obviously, this couldn’t be more timely, but Fox isn’t simply recounting a terrible story.  She’s after something much more complicated and uncomfortable, refusing to condemn her younger self’s feelings even while understanding that she was being manipulated in a monstrous way.  Fox has crafted The Tale cleverly as a sort of detective story, in which her older self (played by Laura Dern) hunts down the truth of what happened when she was 13 (when she is played by Isabelle Nelisse)–it’s almost as if she’s learning about her own version of The Matrix.  Both Dern and Nelisse are powerful, and Elizabeth Debicki and Frances Conroy are expert mixes of charm and ugliness as the younger and older versions of the trusted adult who helped in Jennifer’s seduction.  Fox’s coup, though, was in casting Jason Ritter as the predator (also played briefly by John Heard):  as creepy as the story would inevitably be, it’s much worse (and in a terrible way, makes much more sense) when the role is played by someone whose entire career exudes niceness, here delivered with full-on charm but deadened eyes.  The Tale becomes difficult to watch before it’s over (in the post-screening Q&A, Fox and Nelisse explained how painstakingly and artfully some scenes had been shot and edited so that the young actress would not actually have to take part even in simulations of what was being depicted), and the HBO sale makes sense, because it was hard to imagine the film at a multiplex.  Those who see it, however, are unlikely to forget it.

COLETTE (Bleecker Street):  These days, the early 20th Century French writer known as Colette is remembered mostly if at all for having written the story that became the musical Gigi, but her own life proves to be remarkably timely in Wash Westmoreland’s film.  Westmoreland developed the project for a dozen years (originally with his late husband Richard Glatzer, with whom he co-directed Quinceanera, The Last of Robin Hood and Still Alice, and who retains a co-writing credit here with Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz), and it’s had the luck to hit at exactly the right moment in popular culture.  Colette (played with depth and grit by Keira Knightley) was a young country girl who married the older novelist known as Willy (a superb Dominic West), a womanizer and literary fraud who farmed most of his writing out to others.  When Willy realized Colette’s talents as a writer, he exploited her work, which was published and copyrighted in his name.  The screenwriters are fair enough to make it clear that although Willy was a bastard, without his encouragement Colette would probably never have expressed herself at all, either artistically or sexually, as in the latter case he was mostly turned on by her bisexuality.  Colette’s saga goes on to include avant-garde French theater of the era (including her taking part in the stage’s first same-sex kiss, which caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge) and even the rise of mime, the ultimate French trope.  Her decision to break free of Willy and establish her own public identity was a precursor of the issues that are even now being debated in television and film, among other places.  One might have wished for a bit more context–Colette’s life was going on at the same time as Impressionism was revolutionizing the art world, and World War I was fast approaching–but Westmoreland’s film is satisfying, and for the most part pointed without being preachy.  The cinematography, production and costume design (respectively by Giles Nuttgens, Michael Carlin and Andrea Flesch) are also admirable for what must have been a limited budget.

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (no distrib):  A story set in a gay conversion therapy school might seem like the occasion for a film of scorching fury or wild satire, especially as told by a lesbian filmmaker, but director Desiree Akhavan and co-writer Cecelia Frugiuele (working from a novel by Emily M. Danforth) provide a surprisingly nuanced take with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, as much Short Term 12 as But I’m A Cheerleader.  Not that there’s any doubt what the film’s point of view is on the school’s odious actions, but even the story’s chief villain, headmistress Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) is presented as far from stupid, and her brother and co-teacher Rick (John Gallagher, Jr, who was in Short Term 12), a supposedly “reformed” gay man, is as sad as he is a figure of comedy.  Miseducation‘s heart is with its students, especially Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz), her friend who goes by the name Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), and Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs).  The first three are the school’s rebels, and as Miseducation follows them, it walks in the path of many other stories of secluded private schools and their unwilling pupils, despite its school’s extreme curriculum.  The cast is uniformly excellent, and Akhavan, whose previous film was the micro-budgeted Appropriate Behaviour, proves herself able to provide commercial sheen and pace to a more mainstream project.  This Miseducation, which won the festival’s Dramatic Jury Award, is both harrowing and charming.

COME SUNDAY (Netflix):  American films that feature religious figures tend to come in two varieties:  the cloying “faith-based” dramas that play quite literally to the choir, and the “edgy” films in which the supposedly pious are revealed to be hypocritical and often evil frauds.  Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday is a rarity, a film that attempts to deal seriously and in an open-minded way with issues of doctrine and faith.  Written by Marcus Hinchey (and based on a This American Life report), it tells the story of Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a bishop in the ministry of Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen) and Roberts’ protege, who lost his mega-church when he came to believe and preach that non-believers were not consigned to eternal hell.  Although not a work of cinematic vision, Come Sunday is admirably fair in its portrayal of all the points of view it presents, following its lead character in expressing compassion even for those who disagree with Pearson, including Roberts and Pearson’s closest professional associate (played by a subdued Jason Segel).  Ejiofor is moving as a man of conflicted and profound values, and Condola Rashad, although playing “the wife,” has a more complex character than that role is usually allowed.  Also notable are Danny Glover, who as Pearson’s uncle opens the door to his nephew’s crisis of faith, and Keith Stanfield as the church organist, who has his own deeply personal reasons for needing to feel that his religion will save him.  Quietly inspiring and earnest, Come Sunday is a film of ideas that is also a compelling story of character.

BLINDSPOTTING (Lionsgate):  At Sundance, often one doesn’t seek perfection so much as promise, and there’s plenty of the latter in Blindspotting, written by its stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal.  They have a lot on their minds, from the gentrification of Oakland to police shootings of unarmed black men to the dynamics of interracial male friendship, and it may fairly be said that it’s more than they can comfortably handle–the film’s climax will seem inspired to some, but for me it was gimmicky and forced.  At times the script draws pictures, circles them, then points so that no one in the audience can possibly miss their message.  Still, at its best Blindspotting practically bursts off the screen, accommodating both hilarity and deadly tension.  The basic components of the bond between Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) are familiar from as far back as Mean Streets and beyond:  the one pal trying to go straight, and the other a troublemaker who might pull him down.  But Diggs and Casal, along with first-time director Carlos Lopez Estrada, give almost every scene a bounce of humor or oddness.  Like their characters, as writers Diggs and Casal need to work on their rough edges.  Blindspotting is nevertheless a fine calling card that suggests there’s better work to come.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (no distrib):  Sarah Colangelo’s adaptation of an Israeli drama gives Maggie Gyllenhaal the opportunity to take center stage for an intense character study.  She plays Lisa Spinelli, a New York public school teacher who discovers that Jimmy, an often inexpressive 5-year old in her class, may be a poetry prodigy, a veritable Mozart able to summon powerful form and imagery seemingly out of nothing.  Lisa packs all of her yearnings and dissatisfactions with her own life into Jimmy, in increasingly damaging and obsessive ways.  The Kindergarten Teacher is a very tiny film that isn’t likely to find much audience interest, and plot developments late in the story become unconvincingly contrived.  Jimmy, as well, is conceived as such a blank slate that he’s more a premise than a person.  But Lisa is a full-blooded, complicated creation, and Gyllenhaal plays her to the hilt, emotionally comprehensible even as the character veers toward self-destruction and heartbreak.

BURDEN (no distrib):  An extremely earnest (and lengthy, at 129 minutes) yet somewhat effective true story, which won the Festival’s Dramatic Audience award.  Andrew Heckler’s writing/directing debut recounts the life of Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), more or less adopted as a child by local KKK leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), and brought up very much in the fold of racial hatred.  As an adult, just as he’s working with Griffin to open a Klan museum and gift shop, he falls for single mom Judy (Andrea Riseborough), and her more open-minded view of the world brings him into the orbit of the town’s Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), which changes Mike’s life.  Burden‘s arc is straightforward:  the Reverend is all but a saint, and Griffin is a veritable demon, who sets out to destroy Mike and Judy’s lives the first time Mike crosses him.  (Griffin’s day job is running a repo company that operates under the name Plantation, so subtlety isn’t a feature here.)  There’s still plenty of power to the tale.  The four leads give compelling performances even if their roles mostly lack shading, and there’s an immensely satisfying plot development when Mike realizes the best way to vanquish Griffin and his Klan.  Burden is probably too labored and simplistic to find a wide audience, and it suffers from its “white savior” structure, but it would be a worthy pick-up for a streaming service.

PUZZLE (Sony Classics):  Mark Turtletaub’s film seems strangely determined to be less enjoyable than its seemingly irresistible premise would suggest:  Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a disaffected middle-aged housewife, discovers that she has a innate genius for jigsaw puzzles, and she teams up with Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy and lovelorn Indian inventor, to secretly enter the world of competitive jigsaw contests, leading a double life so her family won’t find out.  Far from the eccentrically empowering comedy that one might reasonably expect, Puzzle is traditional Sundance, a sober and low-key piece about dysfunction and quiet misery.  That all sounds rather unpromising, but actually Puzzle is quite high-quality for the most part, beautifully acted, and sensitively written by Oren Moverman (adapted from a 2010 Argentine film), with lots of well-realized moments between the characters and even a few laughs.  It’s frustrating, though, because an original and enticing idea is put to service for very familiar indie movie ends.  Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman), although drawn and played with compassion, checks off every obvious box of the Insensitive Jerk, and while her sons are more sympathetically presented, they don’t have much substance either.  There was a terrific movie to be made here, one that included Agnes’s journey of self-realization but also found space for the potentially fascinating world of jigsaw mastery, but that’s not the film Turtletaub and his collaborators decided to make.  It’s wonderful to see Macdonald at the center of a movie, and her scenes with Khan are triumphs of strange chemistry.  Puzzle, though, puts its pieces together in a way that doesn’t match the picture on its box.

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT (Amazon):  Despite some Christopher Nolan-esque splintering of time, Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is one of his more conventional films.  Van Sant wrote the script himself, after years of development (originally, Robin Williams was to be the star) that resulted in story credit being shared with three other writers, one of them being John Callahan, the quadriplegic Oregon cartoonist whose true story this is, and whose memoir provides the source material.  Callahan (ultimately portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) had a troubled life that began with his being abandoned by his birth mother and adopted.  He became a barely-functioning alcoholic, a condition that continued even after he got into a car driven by another drunk, Dexter (Jack Black), who slammed the vehicle into a light pole, leaving Callahan in a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands.  Eventually, Callahan found AA, where through the care of his counselor and sponsor Donnie (Jonah Hill), he began to recover from his addiction and found not just inner peace and his calling as a politically incorrect newspaper cartoonist, but true love with the gorgeous Swedish air hostess Annu (Rooney Mara).  Although Callahan’s physical condition is of course a major part of the story, Van Sant’s interest is really in Callahan’s journey to a place of humility and self-knowledge, where Callahan could tame his inner demons and forgive the people in his life and eventually himself.  In other words, it’s not all that dissimilar from other tales of alcoholism and addiction we’ve seen through the years, and although Van Sant brings emotional delicacy to many of its moments, and elicits powerful performances from his cast, he hasn’t found a way to make its arc less predictable.  This is also one of Joaquin Phoenix’s more straightforward roles, which will please a lot of people who have been put off by his immersive weirdness in recent years.  The transformational performance here is from Jonah Hill, who portrays a mellow gay trust fund child (he calls his higher power “Chuckie”) who has his own tragedies, without ever turning the character into a joke or a schtick.  Jack Black is called upon to do his Jack Black thing in the pre-accident scenes as Dexter, but he’s impressive in his later sequence.  Mara’s character, however accurate she may be to real life, comes across as such an idealized figure that I wasn’t sure for a while whether she might be one of Callahan’s hallucinations.  Van Sant’s reorganization of the film’s alphabet doesn’t completely obscure the fact that it works its way tidily from A to Z.

MONSTER (no distrib):  There’s less than meets the eye in Anthony Mandler’s Monster.  Based by Colen C. Wiley, Radha Black and Janece Shaffer on Walter Dean Myers’ novel, it seems like it’s going to be a saga of social injustice, dealing as it does with a young black New York honor student (Steve Harmon, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr) arrested for complicity in a robbery that turned into a murder.  (Harrison, in fact, is also one of the stars of Sundance’s Monsters and Men, another tale of the violently adversarial relationship between NY cops and the African-American community.)  But Monster reveals itself to be more of a potboiler with a postmodern twist and a meta spin.  Steve hasn’t been arrested due to police racism, but because a pair of the criminals have identified him as a participant, and the script toys with the audience’s expectations by drawing out its retelling of the events of that day.  In addition, Steve is himself an aspiring filmmaker, and Monster trickily mixes his projects with the story of his life, complete with explicit references to Rashomon to let us know that truth is slippery.  It culminates in a double-twist ending that invokes another crime classic.  Mendler, previously a music-video director, handles all of this slickly, and there are fine performances not just from Harrison, but from Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as his parents, Paul Ben Victor and Jennifer Ehle as Steve’s prosecutor and defense attorney, and John David Washington as a co-defendant.  The cinematography by David Devlin is filled with fancy combinations of visual styles, and Joe Klotz’s editing smoothly cuts the various elements together.  In the end, though, Monster has less substance than flash, and the way it uses complex issues for shallow ends is a bit troublesome.

STUDIO 54 (no distrib):  Matt Tynauer’s documentary covers all the bases of the disco that defined nightlife for a surprisingly brief time in the late 1970s, from the club’s construction on the site of an old CBS TV studio, to its “no bridge and tunnel” door policy (even though co-owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, born in Brooklyn, were once bridge and tunnel themselves), to the vast hordes of celebrities who flocked there and in some cases seemingly took up residence, to the club’s purported social significance, to the drugs, to the corruption, to the destruction of the whole thing with both owners in prison.  Tynauer’s coup was in landing what appears to be the first full-scale interview with Schrager, who provides the film with a narrative spine and some fascinating insights, although Tynauer doesn’t push him too hard on some issues.  There’s nothing innovative about the style of Studio 54, which intercuts its talking head interviews with vintage footage and photos from the club.  The entire story being crammed into 98 minutes means that none of the topics are explored with great depth.  Nevertheless, it’s a fun ride, and a document among other things of what pop culture and celebrity gossip looked like before social media took over the world.

OPHELIA (no distrib):  Claire McCarthy’s film, written by Semi Chellas from Lisa Klein’s novel, dampens the fun of its own concept.  The idea is to re-tell Hamlet through the eyes of Shakespeare’s ill-fated Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) in a somewhat feminist way, and unlike other Bard marginalia like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” Ophelia meddles in meaningful ways with the actual plot of Hamlet.  But having made that jump, the filmmakers replace Hamlet‘s plot mechanics with… Romeo & Juliet?  It’s a weird choice that makes Ophelia feel much less inventive than it could have been.  Up to that point, Opheliais something of a mixed bag anyway:  Ridley is an enjoyably spunky–and rather Rey-like–Ophelia, and Naomi Watts is both lofty and sympathetic as Gertrude, but Clive Owen never seems to get a handle on his Claudius, and when we see Watts again in another context, it’s a bit much.  Most damagingly, there’s no chemistry at all between Ridley’s Ophelia and George Mackay’s Hamlet, which this version of events requires even more than Shakespeare’s did.  There are nice touches throughout, especially in David Warren’s witty production design, and one never stops being interested in seeing where the film will go next, but the angles of Ophelia aren’t often a substitute for their source.

MONSTERS AND MEN (Neon):  Reinaldo Marcus Green’s first feature is about an unjustified police shooting (in Bed-Stuy), and he approaches the subject in a solemn and straightforward manner.  Monsters and Men tells its story as three vignettes about men affected by the killing:  the guy who captured the events on his cellphone camera (Anthony Ramos), a black cop with divided loyalties (John David Washington), and a promising young local athlete (Kelvin Harrison Jr).  All three are torn apart by what’s happened in their neighborhood, and each must decide what his moral duty is.  The lead actors are excellent, and moments in each tale are moving and provocative.  But the format, squeezing all three stories into 100 minutes, doesn’t allow for a great deal of depth beyond each character’s point of view about the central event, and Green doesn’t seem to have been interested in introducing much variation in style among the episodes.  The result is worthy, but memorable less for its filmmaking than for its seriousness of purpose.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (Amazon):  Writer/director Lynne Ramsay’s entire career is built on film festival appearances, with difficult but critically praised works like her debut Ratcatcher and We Need To Talk About Kevin to her credit.  You Were Never Really Here is a purportedly more of an entertainment, her first foray into the violent action genre, but it’s still pitched more toward academics than audiences.  (The film won Best Actor and Screenplay awards at Cannes.)  Its outline (Ramsay adapted Jonathan Ames’s novel) is somewhat indebted to Taxi Driver:  protagonist Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, at his most impenetrable) is a hit man whose weapon of choice is a ballpeen hammer.  He’s hired to rescue young Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a child brothel, and when those who abducted her both attempt to get her back and attack Joe’s few loved ones, the bodies quickly stack up, as Joe slaughters everyone in his path.  Without Taxi Driver‘s dark humor and depth of character, it’s a B movie plotline, but Ramsay aestheticizes the bloodshed until it’s nearly abstract, while minimizing any link between the characters and recognizable human speech or behavior.  Some of this is stylish, with memorable images from cinematographer Thomas Townend and use of music (both needle-drops and an original score by Jonny Greenwood), but stylish gore isn’t really a distinction in these post-Tarantino days, and Ramsay seems to want to slum her way to popular success while convincing herself she’s still making high art.  You Were Never Really Here doesn’t get her to either place.

I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW (no distrib):  Pop culture seems to have an endless fascination with the post-apocalypse, and I Think We’re Alone Now has plenty of pedigree, hailing from Handmaid’s Tale pilot director Reed Morano, and with Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning as seemingly the last people on Earth.  Nevertheless, it’s a misfire, lugubrious at the start and then pulled by screenwriter Mike Makowsky into increasingly silly directions.  Dinklage’s Del is a mix of the Burgess Meredith role from the old post-apocalypse Twilight Zone episode, with his own breakout performance in The Station Agent, a grim loner content to spend the end of the world working in an upstate New York library, cleaning up the town’s mess of corpses and having more contact with his neighbors after their deaths than he did while they were alive.  His settled, insular existence is overturned by the arrival of Fanning’s Grace, whose spontaneity annoys and then charms him.  The opening hour, moodily shot by Morano herself, follows their relationship as it moves along that predictable path, until a third-act twist introduces a much more overt sci-fi element, and shakes the story up in ways that make as much sense as a typical season of Z Nation.  Dinklage and Fanning are pleasant to watch, and Makowsky’s script shows sparks of imagination now and then, but for the most part I Think We’re Alone Now charts the distance between obvious and jarring.

DAMSEL (no distrib):  A hipster representation of comedy rather than anything comic itself.  Written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner, whose previous work includes the similarly film festival-targeted Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (they also appear in the film, David in a leading role), Damsel initially presents itself as the tall tale of Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who turns up in an indeterminate Old West town with a dwarf horse and the professed intention of proposing to his love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), gathering a local parson (David Zellner) to accompany him.  No one and nothing as it as seems, in a variety of random ways that begin with a reveal that Penelope may need to be rescued from a kidnapper (or not).  The Zellners invoke any number of western tropes in order to undermine them, but with no clear purpose, even a satiric one.  Damsel could be seen as slightly feminist, in that Penelope is the only one on screen who seems to have any functioning brain cells, but mostly it comes off as arbitrary for the sake of arbitrariness, composed of scenes that go on painfully long (the film itself is a lengthy 113 minutes) until they reach abrupt reversals.  Pattinson probably welcomed the chance to subvert his own romantic lead image, and Wasikowska gets to be the one semi-level-headed person on screen, but none of that makes Damsel worth experiencing.  By the time it’s over, the audience are the ones who need rescuing.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."