Screening Room: ‘Foxtrot’

The new Israeli movie Foxtrot is a masterfully surrealist black comedy that is as confounding as it is fascinating. Calling it a Catch-22 for the era of eternal warfare isn’t far off the mark.

Foxtrot is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

There’s no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Commune’

In the 1970s, communal living was all the rage in parts of Scandinavia. That’s the backdrop for The Commune, a drama about the ensuing entanglements and confusions from Danish director and Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt).

The Commune opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

I’m bored,” Anna (the superb Trine Dyrholm) says to her husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen). “I need to hear someone else speak.” There are subtler ways to communicate middle-aged ennui to one’s husband, but that’s how the characters tend to speak in The Commune; if they’re not repressing themselves, they’re erupting. The movie follows what happens after Anna’s spur-of-the-moment declaration. Things go sideways, of course, but not in the ways one might imagine…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘After the Storm’

The newest movie from Hirokazu Kore-eda, After the Storm, opened this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

When is success or hunting for it a trap? Is it better to have dreamed of great things and fallen short or to have never had ambitions at all? Those are a couple of the questions that Hirokazu Kore-eda’s TV-like melodrama about wayward fathers and disappointed women After the Storm tangles with. Fortunately for the viewer, Kore-eda leaves those questions mostly hanging in the air and not verbalized, leaving the screen to a group of characters who are less like a family than a house of cards just waiting to be blown down by the typhoon everybody is waiting for to strike…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Personal Shopper’

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Equal parts behind-the-scenes fashion narrative, thriller, and improbable ghost story, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is one of more curious and rewarding movies of the spring.

After playing a few festivals last year, it’s opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The year is young still, but you probably won’t see a wiser, more headlong dive into the world of high fashion and celebrity than Olivier Assayas’ slippery, darkly glamorous Personal Shopper. With a cool and yet intimate approach, Assayas shows a deeper awareness of the seductive, boundary- and identity-blurring compromises than other more surface-sailing chroniclers of the beautiful life like Nicolas Winding Refn or Sofia Coppola. He also manages to string a taut thread of tension through the unlikeliest of narratives for this generally straightforward filmmaker to tackle: a ghost story…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Neruda’

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In the newest film from Pablo Larrain (whose Jackie just opened), Gael Garcia Bernal plays a cop hot on the heels of the titular Chilean poet.

Neruda is opening this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Pablo Larraín has said flat-out that he didn’t want to make a biopic of Chile’s hero poet Pablo Neruda. And that’s a wise decision. Compressing Neruda’s incident-packed life, which whipsawed from writing yearning and experimental poetry to traveling the world in the diplomatic service to pursuing a career in domestic politics and spending years on the run as a political exile, into a single film would have produced fatigue, confusion, or at the very least severe neck injuries…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Things to Come’

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Isabelle Huppert plays a philosophy teacher whose life gets thrown for a loop in Mia Hansen-Love’s brilliant new drama.

Things to Come is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

After taking a detour into the vagabond world of dance-music DJs with the disappointingly blah Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve returns fantastically to form with Things to Come. It’s the kind of urbane, Éric Rohmer-inflected drama that the still-young writer-director has been turning out for a few years now and hopefully will continue to make for decades to come. There are any number of filmmakers who can make stories about Parisians with matters of the world and the heart weighing them down. But few approach them with the kind of questing emotional honesty that Hansen-Løve specializes in…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Don’t Call Me Son’

Don’t Call Me Son, the newest film from Anna Muylaert (last year’s incredible The Second Mother), is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The routine for 17-year-old Pierre (Naomi Nero) appear fixed as Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call Me Son (Mãe Só Há Uma) begins. Each day, shark-like, he fulfills one urge and then the next, dozing through school, ignoring his mother’s motor-mouthed manias, jamming with an amateur garage band, going out to dance, and hooking up with girls. It’s a familiar set-up in stories about adolescents. However, Muylaert breaks up expectations by dropping a provocative twist into the opening scene where, as Pierre has sex with a girl in a nightclub bathroom, the camera makes a point of noticing the garters he’s wearing…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Handmaiden’

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This Halloween, skip Madea and check out The Handmaiden. It’s playing now in limited release and is just about the best chance out there for a good time at the theater: chills, shocks, romance, secret perversions, period outfits, it’s got it all.

My review is at PopMatters:

Nothing is as it seems in The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi). Park Chan-wook’s victorious return to the Korean filmmaking scene after his American debut, 2013’s Stoker, is rife with pungent physicality and nearly overwhelmingly aesthetic surfaces. We saw Park pay that same level of attention to each detail in Stoker, all those burning glances and insect closeups laid over a stifling plot. This time, he has a story that more than justifies his flagrantly overripe style…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Aquarius’

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In the newest film from Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds), Sonia Braga plays a retired writer trying to fight off the developers who want to demolish her cozy beachside building and all the memories it contains.

Aquarius, which was part of the just-concluded New York Film Festival, is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The heroine of Aquarius sees the whole world as a stage for her to command. It’s a testament to Sonia Braga’s control that she doesn’t turn this character into a domineering bore, even as she’s at the center of an overly spacious and repetitive narrative with too little to occupy herself…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Touch of Zen’

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In 1971, former martial-arts director King Hu embarked on an epic reimagination of what the genre would look like. The three-hour A Touch of Zen was magical, weird, and breathtaking, often in the same scene. It was mostly ignored in its butchered release, except for some brief acclaim after finally getting a proper showing at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.

touchofzen-dvdSince then, the film—which deeply influenced Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—has been mostly confined to obscurity. Thankfully, Janus Films gave it a proper release earlier this year, and now there’s also a beautiful new Criterion DVD edition.

My review is at PopMatters:

The film’s second third comes as a relief after the deliberate mannerisms and fussy perfectionism of the first third. Here, A Touch of Zen pivots from quiet pastoral with supernatural elements to more John Sturges Western. As villainous forces marshal against Yang and the two fugitive generals who came to her aid, Ku uses his study of classic works of strategy to plan their defense. The set-piece battle in which the small army of guards are lured into the supposedly haunted fort for a spectacular night-time ambush is a marvel of geometric precision and subterfuge…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’

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MirbeauChambermaidDiaryIn Octave Mirbeau’s scandalous 1900 novel, Diary of a Chambermaid, he uses the exploits of a canny maid unencumbered by bourgeois morality to satirize the hypocrisies and power games of French society. It’s been filmed a couple times, most famously by Luis Bunuel with Jeanne Moreau in the title role.

Benoît Jacquot’s new version stars Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) and is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The loathsomeness of humanity is so thickly painted in this latest adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s satirical novel that by the time anti-Semitism and murder rear their head, they almost can’t bring the film’s opinion of its characters any lower. That isn’t to say that director BenoîtJacquot doesn’t relish watching his players scheme and plot their way around hard work or simple decency. In this world, fin de siècle French society is a rigged game. Those not born to its few crucial advantages of money or place have to do what they can to survive. Of course, many don’t put as much into that struggle as his manipulative heroine Célestine (Léa Seydoux), who hasn’t met a corner she didn’t cut or an angle she didn’t play…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Wait’

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In L’Atessa (The Wait), a grieving mother played by Juliette Binoche meets her son’s girlfriend for the first time after a funeral that’s left her emotionally devastated. Emotional gamesmanship ensues.

The Wait is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Holding the center of Piero Messina’s dark oil painting of a story is Juliette Binoche, deftly submarined as Anna, the mother in mourning, with a grief-etched countenance as striking as worn granite. Unable to come to grips with her loss, she waits in a grand, remote Sicilian estate where the mirrors are covered in black shrouds and appears uninhabited even by the people who live there. Anna’s dark watch is interrupted by the arrival of Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the pert French girlfriend of her son Giuseppe, whom she has never met. Invited by Giuseppe to spend the days before Easter at his house, Jeanne shows up in the funeral’s aftermath to find that he’s not there to greet her. Anna is welcoming but formal, distant and evasive…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mountains May Depart’

mountainsmaydepart1Now that the Chinese stock market is whipsawing from highs to lows and the permanent growth cycle appears to be broken, it’s probably the perfect time for a state-of-the-nation drama from one of the great modern Chinese directors: Jia Zhangke.

mountainsmaydepart-poster1Mountains May Depart is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Whatever is left of China at the start of Jia Zhangke’s epic triptych Mountains May Depart, it isn’t a place for which anyone will feel nostalgic. The first scene, set in 1999 in the small northern city of Fenyang, seems shrouded in grey. The crumbling brick buildings and bare landscape denote the only work that seems on offer here, at a coal mine.

Still, this is a time of economic boom, when China is transforming into an industrial powerhouse the likes of which had never been seen before. The film goes on to reveal the costs of that era’s sky-high promises of prosperity and accompanying irrational exuberance…

You can see my review of Jia Zhangke’s last masterpiece, A Touch of Sin, here.

Here’s the trailer for Mountains May Depart:

Screening Room: ‘Mustang’

The sisters of 'Mustang' (Cohen Media Group)
The sisters of ‘Mustang’ (Cohen Media Group)

In Mustang, France’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards, five sisters living in a remote Turkish village strain against the prison-like limits put on them by a local male culture terrified of allowing them even the slightest hint of freedom.

Wild, exuberant, and altogether masterful, Mustang is playing now in limited release; make sure to seek it out. My review is at PopMatters:

The view from the family home of five sisters living in a remote Turkish village on the Black Sea is the kind of vista for which wealthy travelers pay dearly. Nearby mountains are covered in lush forests and the ocean slaps musically into sandy beaches below.

This panorama is also a taunt, because the sisters will never be allowed anywhere near it unless a male guardian accompanies them. Even then, they won’t be allowed to play and run and laugh, but instead will be expected to follow like docile sheep in shapeless dresses…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Secret in Their Eyes’

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman in 'Secret in Their Eyes' (STX Entertainment)
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman in ‘Secret in Their Eyes’ (STX Entertainment)

Based on the Oscar-winning 2009 Argentinian film of the same name, Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes follows what happens when a police woman’s daughter is murdered and neither she nor her fellow cops can quite let go of it.

Secret in Their Eyes opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

After making Shattered Glass, one of the modern era’s greatest journalism films, one would have hoped that writer-director Billy Ray would have absorbed the cardinal rule: Don’t bury the lead. Yet that is exactly what he keeps doing all throughout Secret in Their Eyes, his strained and surprisingly star-heavy remake of Juan JoséCampanella’s morally complicated potboiler that was also the 2010 Foreign-Language Oscar winner. Initially a procedural about a retired FBI agent who can’t let go of a cold case, Ray’s version sidles into a buried romance and a commentary on post-9/11 security-state excesses without ever quite getting a bead on any of the many elements it’s juggling…

Here’s the trailer: