Film

Tracking Shots: This Week in Film

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The Wall
Directed by Doug Liman
Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
Opens May 12

America is going to hate this movie. Doug Liman’s The Wall is a mean little thriller set in our desert wars, and its only American soldiers are a dope and a weaselly atheist with a secret. These two spend most of the running time under fire, pinned down and outfoxed, their occasional efforts at movie-style heroism only making things worse. We never see their lives back home or photos of their sweethearts, never hear a word about what they’re fighting for. And I defy you to spot one American flag. When our boys’ tormentor, a sniper hiding someplace in a remote Iraqi construction site, asks Isaac (a grimed-over Aaron Taylor-Johnson) why he’s in-country, our hero can’t think of an answer, not even a quip about kicking ass or leaving no man behind. Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) builds to a grim climax that his movie can’t afford to show you — not that seeing it would salve our annoyance at what it actually depicts. Isaac speaks like a real dude, pants like a real dude, grates on the nerves like a real dude. Taylor-Johnson honors real dudeness by daring never to be any more arresting a presence than any real dude would be while hunkered down and bleeding in the sand behind a crumbling stone wall. We’re not encouraged to like Isaac; only a final-act backstory revelation allows us to find him compelling. Liman, for all his action, struggles to make holing up exciting, although, between the colloquies between killer and soldier, he manages some tense sequences. Alan Scherstuhl

The Wedding Plan

Directed by Rama Burshtein
Roadside Attractions
Opens May 12, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinema

The Wedding Plan. Still single at 32, Michal (Noa Koler) doesn’t feel fully integrated into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community she has joined, so she visits a spiritual adviser. Burshtein guides this familiar rom-com discussion (a woman wrestling with independence and commitment) into a religious context where a single woman, no matter how devoted, isn’t valued. The American-born Israeli writer-director walks a fine line, potentially alienating women who view marriage as a choice, not a requirement. What makes the film work is Koler’s magnetic performance as Michal, who has screwball energy and a mind of her own. She wants to belong but isn’t a conformist, and finding love is as important to Michal as gaining social acceptance. So when her much hoped-for fiancé walks away a month before their wedding, she books the venue anyway and asks God to provide her with a groom by the last day of Hanukkah. The Wedding Plan (previously known as Through the Wall) is much choppier than Burshtein’s assured Fill the Void, her first made-for-outsiders film about Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, with jumpy editing that doesn’t provide a sense of how much time has passed — a big problem when counting down to a specific moment. Still, as Michal swings from euphoria to despair on her journey to the altar, Koler makes this fantastical premise feel as real as the emotions rippling across her face. Serena Donadoni

Hounds of Love

Written and directed by Ben Young
Gunpowder & Sky
Opens May 12, Maysles Documentary Center

In his debut feature, Hounds of Love, Ben Young stirs uneasiness from the opening sequence. A slow-motion pan across what looks like a pleasant portrait of suburban adolescence quickly becomes corrupted, the lens seeming to leer, the shot lingering too attentively on the body parts of teenage girls. But this is not Young’s own male gaze, and he makes that clear by taking us out of the close-up to the eyes of those actually watching: John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth), a serial-killer couple in 1980s Perth, Australia, who stalk, torture, and murder girls. The story focuses on the abduction of Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), who finds the wrong ride on the way to a party after a fight with her recently divorced mother. When approached by the killers, Vicki hesitates, but the ruse is too good, and the presence of a woman eases her wariness. She falls right into their trap. While Vicki’s screams are unnerving enough to spawn nightmares, Young spares us both the exploitations of torture-porn cinema and the formulaic nature of a procedural — the police are in fact almost in denial that such menace lies beneath the hazy idyll of Perth, which is captured in effectively stark contrast. Hounds may be predictable in plot, but it succeeds in making a psychological web of this troubled threesome. Chained to a bed, Vicki quickly catches on to John and Evelyn’s unstable dynamic and realizes she’s not the only victim in the house. Watching Booth’s Evelyn teeter between the roles of the sadistic abuser and the abused woman with maternal instincts is the real thrill here. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

The Last Shaman

Directed by Raz Degan
Abramorama
Opens May 12, Landmark Sunshine

The wearying metaphor of a physical journey as a healing odyssey into the self gets tested in this documentary of a spiritual quest. For James Freeman, a young American whose mind has been seized by suicidal thoughts, it’s not enough to brave a trip deep into the Amazon rainforest, which here is filmed not as a terrifying wonderland but as a knowable, inhabited (and gorgeously verdant) river country. He seeks a shaman and the reputed restorative powers of the potent — sometimes fatal — ayahuasca plant, which some tribes administer in ceremonies that involve being buried alive. Once upriver, given shelter by a local tribe, Freeman video-journals the months-long detox he must undergo before his own ceremony; in rapid montage, he grows skinnier before our eyes, and by Day 100 he’s speaking of visions. On occasion, director Degan attempts to capture the plant’s power via psychedelic montage, layering colors over jungle footage and Freeman’s home movies, but more fascinating are the details of the rituals, the river-trek photography, Freeman’s frankness about his struggles with depression, and Degan’s quick portraits of the people Freeman meets along his way — none of whom gets enough screen time. That’s especially true of the wizened American Freeman meets in Peru, a would-be shaman himself, who declares, “Every one of us foreigners here is exploiting these people.” One way to lessen the suspicion that the filmmakers are themselves so implicated would have been for them to dig deeper into the lore and the lives they encountered. Alan Scherstuhl

Whisky Galore!

Directed by Gillies Mackinnon
Arrow Films
Opens May 12, Cinema Village

When originally released in 1949, Whisky Galore! — a sly British comedy about residents of a remote Scottish island “mourning for a spirit” when their supply runs out — the memory of World War II was fresh and the United Kingdom was still rationing food. Alexander Mackendrick’s directorial debut may not have had the satirical bite of his best known Ealing Studios films, The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, or the corrosive allure of Sweet Smell of Success, but it captures the effects of privation and institutional control with sharp immediacy. In their cozy remake, director Gillies Mackinnon and screenwriter Peter McDougall take a less screwball approach to the source material: Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel and the real wartime wreck that inspired it (a ship carrying a load of scotch whisky ran aground in the Outer Hebrides and islanders salvaged, then stashed, thousands of bottles). Mackinnon establishes a battle of wits between crafty Scottish townsfolk and officious British bureaucrats, led respectively by shrewd postmaster Joseph Macroon (Gregor Fisher) and plodding Captain Wagget (Eddie Izzard), head of the Home Guard. Domestic concerns are at the fore in this nostalgic vision, and events revolve around Macroon’s strong-willed daughters, Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battick), both recently engaged. Mackinnon is more interested in ensuring women’s happiness than in quenching men’s thirst, and the fortuitous wreck on their shores helps the sisters to secure their future. Instead of glorifying the amber liquid, Whisky Galore! is a love letter to an isolated community trapped in amber. Serena Donadoni

Tracktown

Written and directed by Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas
Samuel Goldwyn Films & Orion Pictures
Opens May 12, Village East Cinema

Along with her significant other, Jeremy Teicher, professional track star Alexi Pappas has basically made her own 8 Mile with Tracktown, another somewhat-autobiographical story about a dedicated, talented loner with an unstable mom, whose journey to be the best gets sidetracked by love. Set in the cheery track-and-field epicenter that is Eugene, Oregon, Tracktown is far sunnier than the grungy, Detroit-set 8 Mile, of course. Pappas is Plumb Marigold, a young, quote-spouting long-distance runner who, of course, aspires to compete in the Olympics. When she’s forced to take a day off from training, after overexerting herself in a race, Marigold discovers that, as determined as she is about racing, she’s awkward as hell when it comes to everything else. (With the way she bluntly interacts with people, ol’ girl has to be on the spectrum.) During her off-hours, she clumsily has a fling with a bohemian bakery employee (Chase Offerle) she has a crush on. She also attempts to reconcile with her mom (Rachel Dratch), who left her and her dad after having an emotional breakdown. The quirky world Pappas co-creates in Tracktown revolves around her, as the people who hinder our heroine’s mission of obtaining that sweet Olympic gold unfortunately get left in the dust. Although Tracktown presents itself as adorably, harmlessly twee, I wished Pappas had tapped deeper into the dark side she hints at — the side that makes her protagonist more concerned about being a winner than about being a person. Craig D. Lindsey

Folk Hero & Funny Guy

Directed by Jeff Grace
Gravitas Ventures
Opens May 12

Alex Karpovsky is a gem as Ray on Girls, projecting his anxieties through a deadpan stoicism that makes him a great foil to the other characters. In Folk Hero & Funny Guy, that trait serves him well as depressed dude Paul, a stand-up comic who, despite being smart and talented, is enduring a lengthy onstage bombing spell. To help Paul rediscover his creative impulse, his childhood best friend, Jason (Wyatt Russell), a fast-rising folk singer, books him as the opening act for an Eastern Seaboard tour — because there’s nothing music fans love more than a comedian opener. In addition to being tall, handsome, and possessed of lumberjack charisma, Jason also cracks up audiences with his stage patter, outshining Paul. When Paul flirts with women after shows, scruffy Jason inadvertently beard-blocks him; on the road, Paul crushes on singer-songwriter Bryn (Meredith Hagner) but feels inadequately manly in the dazzling glare of his friend’s charm. Paul’s stunted creative growth is symbolized by the notebook of aging jokes he clings to, even as its references to Myspace and flat-screen TVs grow fuzzy layers of mold. A couple of times, he actually manages to warm up the crowd with a minute of slightly more personal material, which makes it even more frustrating when he inevitably busts out “What’s the deal with these Evites?” Well-written and inoffensively directed by Jeff Grace, the film suffers from an overall brown color. That’s partly attributable to its many scenes in dive bars, but even sunny outdoor shots seem gloomy. Largely a series of conversations between characters, the film is livelier when Jason chases Paul through the woods, shouting rude exclamations to ruin a phone interview for a marketing job, or when the two are pressured into an uncomfortable three-way by a fan with a selfie stick. Chris Packham

Dead Awake

Directed by Phillip Guzman
FilmRise
Opens May 12, Village East Cinema

At a graveside, a woman is approached by a fringe scientist, who suggests that her loved one’s death was not as cut-and-dried as the medical establishment claims. Online, she finds scattered webpages that seem to back up the quack’s theories. She makes printouts and urges the people around her to “do the research,” throwing herself into the fight. It sounds like an anti-vaxxer origin story, but this is the scaffolding that props up scores of internet-era horror movies. In Dead Awake, the problem is sleep paralysis (a real and by all accounts terrifying medical phenomenon in which a person wakes up — or is convinced they’ve awoken — and briefly is unable to move or speak), but its secret cause isn’t vaccines but rather a spectral hag sitting on your chest and strangling you (itself a common feature of this form of parasomnia). What are you going to believe — that the human nervous system is complex and sometimes misfires, or that there are ghost hags? Under the direction of Phillip Guzman, the whole affair plods along in by-the-numbers fashion, and the characters are all types, displaying little evidence of interior lives. Dead Awake rehashes A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s sleep-equals-death dilemma, but it lacks that film’s visual panache and never inspires as much panic as the malady that animates it. No wonder everyone keeps nodding off. Rob Staeger

The Drowning

Directed by Bette Gordon
Paladin
Opens May 10, IFC Center

The line between a film about confusion and a merely confused work is thin indeed in Bette Gordon’s The Drowning. Much of the confusion stems from Danny Miller (Avan Jogia), a young man recently released from prison after being convicted as a teen for a murder, thanks in large part to the expert-witness testimony of child psychologist Tom Seymour (Josh Charles). Danny continues to claim his innocence, but the sociopathic way he insinuates himself back into Tom’s life, while convincing everyone around him he’s sincere about moving on, suggests some remaining loose screws. Still, Danny’s unsettling presence draws Tom into reinvestigating the old murder, leading him to reassess not just Danny’s guilt but also his own life and morality. At least, that’s the exploration for which Gordon seems to have been aiming. But the deeper Tom wades into this psychological morass, the more Danny’s volatile behavior seems dictated by the screenwriters’ convenience rather than by any plausible depiction of a tortured mind. And a last-minute attempt to couch the tug-of-war between the two as a case of Danny forcing Tom to reckon with his privileged detachment from his patients’ mental struggles seems like a desperate play for significance. Gordon’s 1983 debut, Variety, charted a similar animalistic awakening in a repressed woman’s sexual liberation, but there she managed to render the arc as evocatively visceral as well as intellectually stimulating. The Drowning, by contrast, never makes it past the notional stage. Kenji Fujishima