Screening Room: ‘Donbass’

My review of the new Ukraine-set black comedy Donbass, which opens next week, is at The Playlist:

Winner of the 2018 Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but only getting released in the United States now, “Donbass” makes for eerie viewing coming just weeks after the Russo-Ukrainian war entered a new phase following the Russian invasion of late February 2022. Set at some unspecified time after Russian-backed separatists carved off the Donbass region of southeast Ukraine in early 2014, the film provides a glimpse of what life is like in (as the on-screen titles term it) “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine.” From what we see here, day-to-day life appears to be some combination of Cossack ”Mad Max” cosplay, throwback Soviet-era corruption, smashmouth nationalism, and gangster’s paradise…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ema’

My review of Ema, opening this week in limited release, is at PopMatters:

A burning, jolting firecracker of a film, Pablo Larraín’s Ema is filled with a surplus of passion that could surprise fans of the filmmaker’s more bottled-up work like Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). It does, however, share those films’ hypnotic and sinuous flow of sight and sound, delivered here with a more modernistic punchy antagonism. There is also frequent deployment of a flamethrower, generally a worthy addition to just about any film…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Wild Goose Lake’

The latest movie from Yi’nan Diao (Black Coal, Thin Ice), The Wild Goose Lake is a spectacularly cinematic story that sets a massive manhunt for a gangster in a “lawless” part of China.

It opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sometimes you just know within a few minutes. At the start of Yi’nan Diao’s rapturously beautiful and darkly entertaining The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui) two lean and beautiful people with the look of the hunted in their eyes circle around each other at a train station. Cigarettes are lit in the glimmering darkness. The man, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), has a large scar on his face and carries a bag that must contain cash…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Les Miserables’

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(Amazon Studios)

French director Ladj Ly’s scorching new movie, Les Misérables, is set in the same poverty-stricken outer neighborhood of Paris as Victor Hugo’s novel and involves many of the same themes of systemic oppression, but the story is Ly’s own.

Les Misérables is opening this week and will be available later on Amazon Prime. My review is at Slant Magazine:

The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting. A black kid dashes with his friends onto the Paris Metro, flying over turnstiles like a superhero as they rush to a crowded bar to watch France compete in the World Cup. They roar along as their team wins and pours out into the streets to join the crowds in front of the Arc de Triomphe. One of the boys wears a tricolor flag like a cape, joining what looks like a unifying wave of national pride. Several minutes later, Ly makes it clear that this sense of comity is little more than a bad joke…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Non-Fiction’

In Non-Fiction, the newest movie from Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), a clutch of Parisian intellectuals have affairs, drink wine, and talk about the state of publishing and reading in the modern era. One of them is Juliette Binoche, who always makes things better.

My review is at PopMatters:

“Fewer readers, more books.” “I reject this materialistic society.” “These are narcissistic times.” Those are just a few of the cheery bon mots being lobbed around in the opening minutes of Olivier Assayas’s argumentative but thin wannabe literary salon of a movie…

Screening Room: ‘Woman at War’

In the new Icelandic movie Woman at War, a Reykjavik choir director wages a secret one-person eco-sabotage campaign against the forces of polluting industrialization, taking down one power line at a time with her trusty bow.

Woman at War is playing now. My review is at PopMatters:

This is a movie where the line between real and unreal is as porous as a Greek comedy, so a little bit of tweaking from [director Benedikt] Erlingsson and his co-writer Olafur Egilsson isn’t unwelcome if it gives the heroine some more time on the loose…

Screening Room: ‘Ash is Purest White’

(Cohen Media Group)

The latest release from the great director Jia Zhang-Ke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) is an ambitious modern-day Chinese crime epic.

Ash is Purest White opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

When Qiao (the everyday elegant Tao Zhao) sweeps into the grey and smoky mahjong parlor at the start of Jia Zhang-Ke’s downbeat epic Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) she’s greeted by the thronged kibitzers and gamblers as both a being apart and yet just one of the guys…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Transit’

An adaptation by Christian Petzold (Barbara) of Anna Seghars’ novel about refugees fleeing the Nazis somewhat roughly and surreally adapted to modern times, the romantic, disturbing drama Transit opens this week in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

It’s a sign of the times, maybe, that when one of the characters says at the start of Christian Petzold’s Transit, “Paris is being sealed off,” the first thought is not of war but of terror…

Screening Room: ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, Roma, is playing now in limited release and on Netflix. If at all possible, see it on the big screen.

My review is at PopMatters:

You could argue that Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeously imagined and intimate epic Roma invokes politics when convenient for dramatic impact but ignores their context in order to move forward with the family melodrama at its core. Why, for instance, does nobody talk about why the students are protesting in the massive street demonstration that some of the characters are shocked to be caught up in?…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Museo’

In the latest movie from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios, Gael Garcia Bernal plays Juan, a slacker in 1980s Mexico who comes up with a spectacularly bad idea: to rip off antiques from the National Museum of Anthropology.

A heist comedy with melancholy and bite, Museo is playing now. My review is at Film Journal International:

Juan is a layabout sluggard wasting his days in the staid 1980s confines of Satellite City while occasionally attending veterinary school w. Ruizpalacios loops his movie around a few times before getting to the crux of the matter, rhythmically tracking life with a grinning world-weariness evoking the artfully composed New Wave ironies of his last feature, Güeros. When it becomes clear that Juan wants to rob the museum when it’s closed for renovations over the holidays, the movie doesn’t spend too much time on the machinations because the end result is obvious…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Joy’ at the Venice Film Festival

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Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, which screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is a harrowing story about a Nigerian woman trapped in a cycle of dependency as a sex worker in Austria.

My review is at The Playlist:

At the start of Sudadeh Mortezai’s downbeat trafficking tragedy “Joy” there’s some reason to think that one is about to see a story of power and independence. A young Nigerian woman sits in the hut of a juju man while he wrings the blood from a chicken’s slashed neck over an altar and leads her in the recitation of charms. “Protect her from the living and the dead,” he says about her upcoming trip to Europe. “No man will harm me!” He has her shout like a young warrior heading off to battle…

You can check out the trailer here.

Screening Room: ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t’

A new restoration of Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t from 1977 is in limited release now. Check it out while you have the chance. There’s absolutely nothing else like it playing at any theater anywhere near you.

My review is at The Playlist:

When Agnès Varda’s delightfully gonzo song-studded paean to sisterhood “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” opened the 1977 New York Film Festival, it landed in the middle of a differently fraught world for women’s rights issues. Abortion, which is a recurring theme in this newly restored and re-released classic, had only been legal in the United States for five years and in Varda’s native France, for just two. The campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was grinding to a halt in the face of conservative opposition. Female directors were still essentially unheard of in the movie industry. Expectations were high…