Screening Room: ‘Hold Your Fire’

Prior to 1973, there was not a lot of nuance in how the police handled hostage situations. At some point they would lose patience and storm in. As Attica and other tragedies showed, hostages frequently did not survive. The new documentary Hold Your Fire describes a little-remembered siege in Brooklyn from 1973 where the art of hostage negotiation might have been invented.

Hold Your Fire opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

With little preamble, Hold Your Fire drops us into the heat of the robbery, then flicks through the resulting drama. Talking-head interviews with Schlossberg, police officers, and some of the robbers and their hostages are interspersed with archival images and video footage captured by news outlets. The footage—of the rattling volleys of gunfire, the rumbling arrival of a police armored personnel carrier, and crowds pressing against barricades and cheering for the robbers—lends a wartime aesthetic of sorts to an urban crime narrative. Through it all, Jonathan Sanford’s squealing jazz-inflected score underlines the chaos of the situation…

Here is the trailer:

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: ‘After Yang’

In After Yang, the new film from Kogonada (Columbus), a couple living in the near future has to confront a host of unexpected issues ranging from grief to questioning what it means to be human when their android Yang, purchased as a companion for their daughter, malfunctions.

My review of After Yang is at PopMatters:

Kogonada’s latest is a stately tea ceremony of a film that imagines an artfully designed future many would love to inhabit and others would find enervating. After Yang uses a dreamy and empathetic strain of science fiction to explore the idea that its extremely human-seeming android has a greater appreciation for the life it has been given than its owners and creators do of their own. This is not an especially original insight but it is at least thoughtfully and beautifully rendered…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Italian Studies’

In the latest movie from the director Adam Leon (Gimme the Loot), a writer catches amnesia and goes looking for clues through a cacophonous pre-COVID New York.

Italian Studies opens this week. My review is at Slant:

As depicted in writer-director Adam Leon’s Italian Studies, a successful author’s (Vanessa Kirby) haphazard journey through Manhattan after she suddenly loses her memory has little of the urgency often seen in mysteries about recovering one’s identity. What Leon is presenting here is more of a free-associative, impressionistic portrait of a pre-pandemic city awash in noise, crowds, and serendipitous encounters. To the extent that this dreamy and at times tiresome film succeeds at all, it’s due to the crackling energy of the people who Kirby’s Alina Reynolds falls in with over the course of her wanderings…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘The First Wave’

A new documentary from the director of the great Cartel Land depicts the first four months of the pandemic and what it did to one hospital in Queen.

The First Wave is playing as the closing night film for this year’s DOC NYC film festival. My review is at Slant:

Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is a turbulent and grueling documentary about a time of panic and pathos, and it comes to us about a year and a half after the events that it depicts. To cover the first onslaught of Covid-19 in New York City from March to June 2020, Heineman embedded his crew at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. The footage they captured reveals not just the haggling over personal protective equipment or availability of beds that dominated national news coverage, but the close-up immediacy of nurses and doctors fighting to save patients from a disease that they didn’t fully understand…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’

Back in the early 1980s, documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide decided to make a documentary about his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. He shot some footage, the two men hit it off, and soon they were good friends. But the closer Weide (who went on to create Curb Your Enthusiasm) got to Vonnegut, the harder it became to finish his movie.

Decades later, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is finally finished, and opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

More a student of comedy than practitioner, Weide has a nerdy on-camera persona that balances well with what he shows of Vonnegut. A cherubic, tipsy-on-his-own-jokes presence, the author is represented here in interviews that Weide shot with him starting in the early 1980s, as well as in clips from talk shows and public speaking engagements. Weide and [his co-director Don] Argott could have easily settled for a film about Vonnegut’s comedic instincts, his ease with irreverent one-liners being one of the reasons that his books are so beloved by a certain kind of puckish adolescent. But they make a worthy effort to pull back the veil on the man and show how a gloomy dissatisfaction brooded underneath his quippy surface personality…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ratcatcher’

The debut movie from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is a bracing combination of unflinching poverty and expressionist imagery.

My review of the new Criterion Blu-ray edition of 1999’s Ratcatcher is at PopMatters:

Living in tumbledown council housing blocks, many of the families pine for the day their number comes up on the list of people being moved across town to brand-new houses with yards. But even though this is a dream that seems destined to fall apart, Ramsay is more engaged by the nit and grit of these people’s lives – the actual sensation of cramped apartments with flickering TVs (a surreal mix of Tom Jones and news reports on rat infestation) and lurking rent collectors – than any desire to rub viewers’ noses in the pornographic poverty of it all…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Bergman Island’

In Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, a filmmaker couple plans a vacation to the island of Faro, writing their next movies in Ingmar Bergman’s old house. His shadow looms large while their imaginations start to overtake their quiet domestic squabbles.

Bergman Island opens this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

The island’s serene vistas of breeze-ruffled trees and the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea suggest a relaxing hideout from the world. But the ghost of its most famous resident, the four-times-married Ingmar Bergman, looms large. As the housekeeper at Bergman’s estate (which has a private cinema stocked with 35mm prints of his work) half-jokes about showing them 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, the film that “made millions of people divorce” …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Duke’

In 1961, a semi-retired cabbie from the north of England got sick of retirees and war veterans having to pay a tax to watch the BBC. Then he was charged with stealing a Goya portrait from the National Gallery. The Duke is the charming if somewhat thin story about what happened next.

My review ran at Slant:

The Duke starts with Kempton on trail at the Old Bailey and then spools back six months to lay out the fumbling crime and lackadaisical cover-up that led him to court. The planning of the theft itself, involving a ladder and an unlatched bathroom window, is almost incidental to the story and played more for comedy than thrills (in a too-good-to-be-true moment, a shot of the Goya painting being nipped reveals that the inestimably more valuable The Scream was hanging right near it). The screenplay, by Young Marx playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, is more attentive to the particulars of Kempton’s against-the-grain populism…

Here’s 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: ‘Final Account’

Shot in 2008 in an attempt to capture the voices of the last living Germans who grew up under the Nazis, Final Account is in part a documentary about what happens you find out that, yes, normal-looking senior citizens who took part in a shattering atrocity are perfectly willing to avoid any culpability. It’s harrowing but worth every minute.

My review of Final Account is at Slant:

Holland begins Final Account by intercutting his interviews with color footage of giddy children at play and studying anti-Semitic books. While it can be squirm-inducing to watch ex-Nazis wax rhapsodically about the fun times they had at eugenics-indoctrination classes, it’s also clear that many believe they were at first just going along with it as a way of getting out of the house. In scenes like this, Final Account is particularly effective at showing how the all-encompassing nature of Nazism in 1930s Germany created a propaganda-covered pipeline that funneled these children from fun outings right into the killing machine…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Epicentro’

In Hubert Sauper’s new documentary Epicentro, he explores the in-between world of Cuba, where utopian dreams meet cinematic propaganda amidst rotting infrastructure and tourist fantasia. It makes for a fascinating mix, even if the result is more essay than movie.

My review is at Slant:

Epicentro explores some of the filmmaker’s favorite topics, particularly colonialism, apocalypse, and the law of unintended consequences. But while some of his previous films, most notably Darwin’s Nightmare, showed a developing world careering toward catastrophe, this one illustrates something closer to a feedback loop. Although the Cuba he shows here is actively embracing a tourist economy that seems antithetical to the ideals of the 26th of July Movement, that pivot appears to signal less a capitalist future than a return to the island nation’s colonized past…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Babyteeth’

Babyteeth

Shannon Murphy’s stylized melodrama captures a terminally ill teenager raging against the dying of the light.

Babyteeth opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Babyteeth neatly threads the needle between tragedy and comedy. The film follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage cancer patient who’s mostly given up on life when Moses (Toby Wallace), a slightly older drug dealer, bumps into her on a train platform. For her, it’s deep crushing love at first swoon and a reason to keep getting up in the morning. For him, it’s having an adoring fan to goof around with—especially when he discovers that her father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist who happens to have lots of pharmaceuticals lying around…

Screening Room: ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’

In 1973, director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) and Peter Sellers set off to Cyprus to shoot the rollicking pirate comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Everything fell apart and the movie only limped onto home video over a decade later to widespread derision.

Decades later, Medak returns to the scene of the crime to describe what happened. The Ghost of Peter Sellers is opening next week for online screening.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is a highly personal and somewhat airless account from Medak about an event that happened over 40 years ago whose painful memory he still seems unable to process. Walking through London and the shooting locations in Cyprus with a rotating cast of friends and former colleagues, Medak acts the part of self-investigator. He’s like a self-flagellating version of John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Spaceship Earth’

Spaceship Earth Doc

The new documentary Spaceship Earth opens digitally (like everything else has to now) tomorrow. My review is at The Playlist:

Matching jumpsuits. Soaring white geodesic Fuller domes. Desert setting. Beaming smiles from people who appear not unfamiliar with things like EST seminars and primal scream therapy. Grainy film footage. The sense of embarking on a mission that is technically Earth-bound but holds within it the potential for cosmic transcendence. In other words, the story that lies at the core of Matt Wolf’s documentary “Spaceship Earth” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dharma Initiative in “Lost”…

Here’s the trailer: