Now Playing: ‘Night Moves’

Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard in 'Night Moves' (Cinedigm)

Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard in ‘Night Moves’ (Cinedigm)

nightmoves-posterA trio of environmental conspirators try to blow up a Pacific Northwest dam in Kelly Reichardt’s superbly quiet but tension-laced new film, Night Moves, which is playing now in limited release.

My review is at Film Racket:

The green activists plotting to blow up a dam in Kelly Reichardt’s sublimely nervy new film don’t talk about why they’re doing it. By the time the film catches up with them, the trio has already set their minds on a plan of action. They talk shop here and there, one grousing about all the golf courses being built in a dry climate, another about how the oceans will be dead from pollution by 2048. But there’s no deeper investigation into the why of what they’re about to do or whether they should do it. They just know that the dam, that hulking concrete symbol of humanity domineering nature, must come down. “It wants to come down,” one says dreamily. The introspection comes afterward, with a vengeance…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The Immigrant’

Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Immigrant' (Weinstein Company)

Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix in ‘The Immigrant’ (Weinstein Company)

theimmigrant-posterThe newest lovesick melodrama from James Gray is a gorgeously-shot period piece about an immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) caught between two dueling performers (Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) as she desperately tries to free her sister from quarantine on Ellis Island.

The Immigrant is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

James Gray’s relentlessly, intoxicatingly melodramatic period love triangle The Immigrant starts on a passenger ship docking at Ellis Island in 1921 and never gets much further than the teeming tenements and seamy fleshpots of Lower East Side. It’s a claustrophobic story, appropriate to the heated-up emotions at play and the specter of a poisoned, dangerous Old World waiting for the heroine should she fail to find a place in the New. Like Gray’s other New York potboilers like We Own the Night and The YardsThe Immigrant is a stubbornly old-fashioned lovesick tale in which the bonds of passion and family are stretched to their snapping point…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Citizen Koch’

Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers' political campaigns. (Variance Films)

Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers’ political campaigns. (Variance Films)

citizenkoch-posterYou would think that a hit-job documentary about the Koch brothers—billionaire conservative villains par excellence—would have been something of a slam-dunk. But Citizen Koch, for all the surrounding it for having been supposedly yanked from PBS (which receives a lot of money from David Koch), is a disappointingly toothless thing.

Citizen Koch is playing now in limited release; not on PBS. My review is at Film Journal International:

Citizen Koch has passion aplenty, but it begins as a well-starched and solidly structured argument about the dismantling of campaign-finance reform. It’s smartly and entertainingly told in the by-now standard format of attack documentaries: stringing together television news footage for a pulse-pounding narrative and cutting away to talking-head interviews for context. Instead of jumping all over the Kochs from the start, the filmmakers lay out out how the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for increased corporate donations to political advocacy groups. Former Wisconsin senator and campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold calls the decision a “huge power grab” by corporations, who were now freer to support or attack politicians of their choosing…

You can check out the trailer here:

New in Film: ‘The Double’

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in 'The Double' (image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in ‘The Double’ (image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

In Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel The Double, a St. Petersburg bureaucrat encounters an identical version of himself, who proceeds to take over his life. In Richard Ayoade’s hallucinogenic, picaresque adaptation, Jesse Eisenberg plays both halves of the office-drone doppleganger—one an ignored sad sack who can’t get the girl and the other a life-of-the-party predator who can get any girl. Frustration results.

The Double is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

If Wes Anderson immersed himself in Orwell, Kafka, and other high priests of chilly, bureaucratic horror, the result might look something like Richard Ayoade’s metaphysical nightmare The Double. That would never happen, of course, as Anderson is an optimist and fabulist who believes in the happy ending, warted though it might be. Ayoade is a colder fish, as he showed in his first film, Submarine, which had a little too much fun reveling in its young protagonist’s studied quirk for its own sake. But that directorial remove, coupled with a lack of desire to pretend that a character’s suffering in any way automatically creates nobility, helps make Avi Korine’s adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella into a bracing, darkly crystalline film that isn’t easily shaken off. If there were ever such a thing as the nightmare comedy, this is it…

You can see the trailer here:

Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Dispatch: ‘Zero Motivation’ and ‘Gueros’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Two of the award-winning narrative films at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival didn’t quite fit the fest’s usual mold. Neither Zero Motivation (which won for best narrative feature) or Gueros (best cinematography) were the usual small, tightly-focused chamber-piece dramas. Both had large ambitions that might have outstripped their abilities, but were thrilling nonetheless.

My review for PopMatters is here.

Zero Motivation is a deft Israeli comedy set in a military post’s administrative office that’s most easily described as a mash-up of M*A*S*H* and Office Space, with a little surrealism thrown into the mix:

Sullen whiner Daffi is so resistant to doing anything of value that she’s been designated “Paper Shredding NCO;” a position at which she fails miserably. All she cares about is transferring to cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which holds an exalted a position in her mind. The kibbutz-raised Zohar doesn’t understand Daffi’s desire, and finds her own distractions, channeling her energy into desperately trying to lose her virginity. They kill more time with an epic staple-gunfight and general slackness. In other words, these are barely soldiers you would trust to carry live ammunition, much less defend a nation’s borders…

The Mexican film Gueros is a sprawling, black-and-white, French New Wave-inspired ramble through Mexico City:

Even with its striking compositions and embrace of visual disorder, Güeros gets hung up on its own cleverness. The longer it ambles on, the more it takes on the feel of a string of short films mashed together. A midpoint breaching of the fourth wall (we see a clapper, and one actor talks out of character regarding his opinions on the screenplay so far) doesn’t serve much purpose. Neither does Sombra’s declamation on the state of Mexican film: “They grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black and white and think they’re making art movies.” Enough moments like that, and the film begins to take on an unfortunate tone of self-satisfaction. There’s beauty here, though, that portends greater things in Ruizpalacios’s future…

Hopefully these wins will lead to both films getting at least a limited American release and enlivening what’s been a fairly limited slate of foreign films that made it to these shores so far this year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part III: ‘Match’ and ‘1971’

Two common Tribeca tropes in this pair of reviews: an interesting but underwhelming drama with name performers doing their level best and a solid historical documentary that’s practically required viewing. My most recent dispatch from the Tribeca Film Festival is here.

The drama is Stephen Belber’s Match, a three-performer melodrama about a high-strung, Wildean dance instructor (Patrick Stewart) who gets an unwelcome blast from his wild past:

Match is a tight, comically uncomfortable little box of a story about selfishness and pasts that refuse to die. It features enough salty turns of phrase and violently clashing expectations to generate a reasonably entertaining evening in its company. But essential it isn’t…

1971_Keith

‘1971’: Picking the FBI’s locks

Highly essential is 1971, a pitch-perfect historical thriller about antiwar activists whose burglary told the country what hippies had thought all along: the Feds are spying on us:

Johanna Hamilton’s sharp film looks back on the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, a meticulously organized protest cell who brainstormed possibly the single most significant act of illegal political protest in US history. Perhaps most remarkably, they were never caught. The film describes not just how these eight Philadelphia-area activists came to break into an FBI office and helped expose the heretofore unknown COINTELPRO, but also why they risked everything to do it…

Both films should probably get some kind of release later in the year.

Tribeca Film Festival, Part II: ‘All About Ann’ and ‘Art and Craft’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

In the last weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival, a strong slate of documentaries showed that covered things southern, eccentric art forgers and brassy politicos. My second dispatch runs today at PopMatters, here.

First is All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State. Befitting its once-in-a-lifetime subject, this clearly worshipful documentary is big-hearted and loud-mouthed, but gets by on the strength of sheer personality. It’s also screening tonight on HBO:

Ann Richards seems a perfect subject for a documentary. The beloved Texan progressive wore her hair in a signature bouffant and power-lunch suits, and was well known for her remarkable comic timing. Her knack for bringing crowds to their feet recalled a long-ago era, especially when she embarked on stemwinders skewering the traditions that kept women and minorities in their place (and her state in the 19th century), while also pointing the way forward. As her old buddy Bill Clinton—who is about the only Democrat of recent years to have come close to her facility with humor and language—notes in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, you can get a lot more people to listen to what you have to say if you’re funny…

Next up we’ve got Art and Craft, a taut story about a spindly little criminal who may not actually have broken any laws, just infuriated museum staffers across the south who have been taken in by his forgeries:

Already the subject of numerous news stories and magazine profiles, Mark Landis is a square peg in a round hole figure, the sort that raises questions about the “art world” every so often. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker’s film shows an appreciation for Landis’ oddities, not just personal but also professional. Landis is an art forger and a schizophrenic, but he doesn’t forge for money. He just likes to create fake pieces of art and give them away to museums and other institutions under false pretenses. As he puts it, “I went on philanthropic binges.”

Art and Craft was already picked up by Oscilloscope for a release later this year; keep your eyes peeled.

Screening Room, Tribeca Film Fest Edition: ‘An Honest Liar’ and ‘In Order of Disappearance’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Getting to the Tribeca Film Festival only in its final weekend, but better late to the festival than never. My coverage will be running in pairs at PopMatters over the next few days, usually a documentary along with a narrative film that has little to no relation to the other. Hopefully the randomness of the pairings will help replicate the festival experience, only without the long lines and well-meaning volunteers.

The initial dispatch runs today, here.

First up is An Honest Liar, all about the magician and professional debunker James “The Amazing” Randi, still as spritely and snarky as ever, like a miniature Gandalf for the forces of logic:

Disturbed to the point of distraction by the sight of mystics and faith healers fleecing the vulnerable, even if they weren’t technically harming anyone, Randi became committed to telling the truth. According to Randi, it’s okay for magicians to entertain their audiences, as long as they’re honest that this is what they’re doing. As he puts it, it’s fine “to fool people as long as you’re doing it to teach them a lesson.” This crusade that he calls “my battle” makes for a great tale, particularly when Randi literally follows the patently fake mystic Uri Geller from one TV show to the next…

Stellan Skarsgard in 'In Order of Disappearance (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)

Stellan Skarsgard in ‘In Order of Disappearance’ (image courtesy of TrustNordisk)

Then there’s In Order of Disappearance, a black comedy from Norway with Stellan Skarsgard as an obsessed dad getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his son. Very Coen brothers by way of a third-rate Martin McDonagh impersonation:

Beyond this hard-boiled revenge tale, In Order of Disappearance introduces some distractions, beginning with “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen), the prissy gangster who is Nils’ ultimate target. A vegan who hides his cocaine trade behind a line of cupcake bakeries and lathers his home with punchline-bad modern art, the Count is all bluster and rage as his minions are picked off one after the other. This gets old fast…

Nevertheless, due to the audience-friendly mix of ultraviolence and low humor, it’s likely to get a full release later in the year.

Now Playing: ‘The Unknown Known’

Don Rumsfeld faces the past (or not) in 'The Unknown Known'

Don Rumsfeld faces the past (or not) in ‘The Unknown Known’

Late last year, possibly in an attempt to garner an Oscar nomination, the Weinsteins’ Radius-TWC outfit gave Errol Morris’ newest documentary The Unknown Known a short pre-holiday run. Now, this riveting, feature-length interview with the Bush era’s greatest poetic dissembler, Donald Rumsfeld, is getting a proper release.

The Unknown Known is playing in limited release again starting this week. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Morris’s documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Now Playing: ‘Anita’

anita-poster1In 1991, the first of the decade’s great, somewhat shameful, televised scandal melodramas was broadcast: Anita Hill’s grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee over her allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas. Then, as now, Hill is a dignified figure who chooses her words carefully and keeps emotion in check. Although the society at large has, surprisingly, moved on from this watershed moment, Hill finally gets her overdue consideration in a thoughtful, if not exactly thrilling documentary.

Anita is playing now in a few theaters and should be on DVD and VOD soon. My review is at Film Racket:

Anita is a functional film about an astounding person who faced the whirlwind and didn’t blink. It doesn’t do meaningful service to the larger story of persecution and discrimination and never scratches the surface of the poisonous vituperation that swirled around it. None of these things may have been necessary, though. Director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) may have simply wanted to tell the story of one brave, famous, and yet surprisingly disregarded American hero. If so, she succeeds, but somewhat wanly…

Here’s the trailer: