Film

Tracking Shots: This Week in Film

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The Village Voice reviews most movies opening in New York. Here’s some you may have missed.

 

The Incomparable Rose Hartman

Directed by Otis Mass

The Artists Company

Opens June 2, Quad Cinema

The Incomparable Rose Hartman is a gorgeously shot, sharply edited portrait of photographer Hartman, who in the 1970s and ’80s haunted Studio 54, A-list New York parties, and fashion designers’ ateliers, perfecting what fashionista and writer Simon Doonan calls “impulsive portraiture.” Filmmaker Otis Mass is sometimes affectionate and sometimes combative as he draws out the real Rose, a feisty East Village native, who is still working at eighty and has no qualms about throwing elbows to take her shot: “Maybe that’s true because I had to move so quickly — because otherwise, you would give me your posed face,” she says. “I don’t want that ever.” Starting with her now iconic 1977 black-and-white photo of Bianca Jagger astride a white horse in the famed nightclub on West 54th Street, Hartman made a career of capturing fashion designers, models, musicians, and movie stars in half-guarded moments, somewhere between unaware and aping for the lens, long before the Instagram era. Mass interviews her friends and colleagues (and at least one apparent enemy) and explores darker, thornier aspects of her life, in an effort to explain her drive to connect with her subjects, if only for an instant. An instant is all it took, though that connection, time and again, required alacrity, art and craft in composition, and a ticket to the scene, which she grabbed through force of will. “I want Jerry Hall’s soul, even for a moment,” Hartman says. “I wanted to penetrate that wall of fame and preparedness.” Daphne Howland

 

Churchill

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

Distributed by Cohen Media Group

Opens June 2

There will always be, it’s become clear, one more Winston Churchill story to tell: one more slant on a weekend, a summer, a year in the life of the twentieth century’s most formidable leader, a man whose history includes two world wars and speeches so glorious that future dramatizations were all but inevitable. But what happens when the story being told feels emotionally false and factually bogus? Churchill, a new drama starring the great Brian Cox, is so full of movie clichés and high melodrama that it’s sometimes hard not to giggle — and one should never laugh at the prime minister. It is early summer, 1944. The Allies’ June 6 D-day invasion of Normandy is days away, and Churchill is determined to stop it in its tracks. Standing on an English beach in the opening scene, the great man literally sees the sea foam turning red. Churchill scoffs when presented the D-day plans by Eisenhower (John Slattery). Conventional wisdom tells us these plans were years in the making, but the script suggests that Churchill is seeing them for the first time. Movie critics are not historians, but it’s hard not to doubt a film that depicts Churchill bad-mouthing the D-day invasion three days out. And who knew that the prime minister’s wife (Miranda Richardson) felt so neglected in her marriage that, even with the invasion clock ticking, she packs her bags to leave? Or that it took a speech by a secretary (Ella Purnell) with a soldier fiancé to shame the clinically depressed leader into getting off his duff and doing his job? Chuck Wilson

 

 

The Exception

Directed by David Leveaux

A24

Opens June 2

Available on demand

In David Leveaux’s engrossing historical-fiction adaptation, The Exception, Christopher Plummer imbues the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II — known to be humorless — with a twinkly-eyed prankishness. It’s a truly mercurial performance: This levity often transforms capriciously into blind rage. In May 1940, a disgraced young German captain (Jai Courtney) is appointed to Wilhelm’s military guard in Holland, just after the Nazis have invaded. The kaiser — Germany’s last emperor, still vilified by the Nazis for the country’s post–Great War malaise — is living in exile there. Despite their animosity, the Nazis claim they want to spare from harm this key figure in the fatherland’s history, whom they believe is a prime target for British and Dutch spies. The movie never delves too deep into Wilhelm’s complex opinions of the Reich — he, too, held Jews accountable for the downfall of Germany, yet he publicly decried the “shirted gangster” violence of the pogroms. But Plummer makes him fascinating and even sympathetic, a proud monarchist incapable of grasping, even in his twilight years, that he’s living hopelessly in the past. Whenever Plummer is onscreen, The Exception is scintillating entertainment. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down in the rather lukewarm romance between the captain and a British, secretly Jewish spy (Lily James) posing as the kaiser’s maid, and on whether she will assassinate Wilhelm or defy orders and kill the far more deserving Heinrich Himmler instead. This storyline is never quite compelling, though the climactic chase scene is invigorating. And Eddie Marsan nearly steals the show as Himmler, who talks with relish — and a mouth full of food — of the practical reasons for exterminating children. Sam Weisberg

 

Radio Dreams

Directed by Babak Jalali

Matson Films

Opens June 2, Village East Cinema

Babak Jalali’s soulful expat broadcast comedy, Radio Dreams, starts low-key, all gray-blue tints and amusingly glum poetry, and ends someplace even lower, with one primary character’s thoughts turning, as thoughts too often do in San Francisco, to the possibility of leaping off the Golden Gate. But there’s life in between, and some laughs, in this one-day-in-time narrative of the goings-on at a Farsi-language radio station in the Bay Area. We see events mostly through the eyes of frustrated program manager Hamid (Mohsen Namjoo), an acclaimed novelist stuck handling obstreperous on-air talent and dopey commercial breaks that are performed live in the studio. Making this day unique: Metallica have agreed to come to the studio at an undetermined time and sit in with an Afghan metal trio. Hamid, then, is in full Waiting for Lars mode, and more curt than usual about the station’s usual incongruities. The morning host elects to regale his listeners with dour verse — “Roque Dalton said that poetry, like bread, is for everyone” — which is followed by a chipper, chiming keyboard jingle and a spot for Baba Jean Pizza. Later, he’s not at all eager to interview the winner of a Miss Iran beauty contest; he wonders, reasonably, why that title would be chosen by judges in the States. He rouses only during his own on-air segments, in which he shares the stories of Iranian lives in America; some of these he reads with tenderness or coaxes out of an in-studio guest. The film examines, with wit and patience, the hard work of community-building — and the toll on someone far from home, doing work that’s not his calling. Alan Scherstuhl

 

Handsome Devil

Written and directed by John Butler

Breaking Glass Pictures

Opens June 2, Cinema Village

The Ireland of the teen comedy Handsome Devil is a place where young lads are encouraged to do only one thing: play rugby. If rugby isn’t your thing, or if you dig things that aren’t rugby-related, you’re immediately dismissed as gay. That’s unfortunately the case for our protagonist and narrator — ginger-haired smartass Ned (Fionn O’Shea) — and his all-male boarding school, where he’s constantly targeted for not being as rugby-obsessed as everyone else. When his new roommate (Nicholas Galitzine) just happens to be the school team’s new star kicker, Ned assumes the kid will be another narrow-minded lunkhead. But it turns out his new pal is a gentle soul who’s keeping a big secret from his team. If you haven’t guessed already, Devil is more about coming out than coming of age. Writer-director John Butler keeps things safe and lighthearted, making sure not to turn off insecure viewers ready to run for the hills if two guys so much as look at each other for too long. I wish Butler had dared a few button-pushing moments. As the flick teeters between feel-good message movie and a burlesque of gay panic, the director scratches the surface in order to show how people rarely look beyond the surface of others. It all builds to a predictably triumphant climax (set to a Rufus Wainwright song, by the way), suggesting that Butler believes those still leery of LGBTQ folk are just one sweet drop goal away from getting it through their heads that, goddamnit, they’re people, too. Craig Lindsey

 

Vincent N Roxxy

Written and directed by Gary Michael Schultz

Vertical Entertainment

Opens June 2, Village East Cinema

“You don’t want to get mixed up with me,” warns Roxxy (Zoë Kravitz), a punkish young woman from what movies used to call “the wrong side of the tracks,” early in Vincent N Roxxy. It’s a line that’s been spoken in countless crime films, and, of course, Vincent (Emile Hirsch) does become mixed up with Roxxy, after he attempts to save her from a vicious attack in broad daylight and the two end up on the run. It’s easy to see why (besides the demands of the story) Vincent falls under Roxxy’s spell. Kravitz, who recently displayed her acting chops in her small but pivotal role in Big Little Lies, possesses an appealing combination of calm and intensity. Vincent, played by Hirsch with a stoic scowl, isn’t nearly as compelling a character, and both are given thinly sketched but traumatic backstories. While it’s predictable that Vincent and Roxxy end up developing feelings for each other (the N in the title connotes an ironic strain of puppy love), what’s at least somewhat surprising is that the film takes a gory turn. There’s a torture scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie, and in the final act, Roxxy goes to seek bloody revenge on the men responsible for her brother’s death. As the bloodshed reaches near-Tarantino levels, it’s a jolt: Not long before, Vincent and Roxxy were eating ice cream in a montage scored to the deadpan charm of Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best.” By the end, the point-blank murders might make you queasy, but Kravitz still manages to project composure, even when her face is covered in blood. All through, she’s battered but defiant. Abbey Bender

 

Past Life

Directed by Avi Nesher

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Opens June 2, Landmark Sunshine

Although Past Life is based on real events, Avi Nesher’s latest film plays unapologetically like melodrama — a bit too much so at times. Its insistence that guilt-ridden Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory) can recite to his daughters, Sephi (Joy Rieger) and Nana (Nelly Tagar), more than thirty years later, every single word he wrote in a notebook while hiding from the Nazis in Poland during World War II strains credulity. Nesher isn’t above head-slappingly obvious symbolism, either, as in the malignant tumor Nana develops, which she believes is punishment for her father’s sins, or the nosebleed that Baruch’s wife, Lusia (Evgenia Dodina), suffers at conveniently stressful moments in the plot. Still, Past Life does add up to more than the sum of its heavy-handed miscalculations. It’s in part a mystery procedural, as Nana and Sephi unearth a secret about their father’s past that he has tried to keep under wraps for decades. But Nesher’s film also works as character drama. Both daughters are still psychologically paying for their father’s sins, so the quest to solve this mystery doubles as a familial catharsis. Sephi is also a musical prodigy with aspirations of becoming a composer — a much-discouraged career prospect in Israel’s patriarchal society in the late 1970s. These threads are occasionally buried under the film’s desire to satisfy mystery-thriller requirements, but Nesher allows the complex emotions they inspire to peek through just enough for an inspirational finale to play more effectively than it deserves. Kenji Fujishima

 

Letters From Baghdad: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Gertrude Bell

Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl

Vitagraph Films

Opens June 2, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center

Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl’s documentary takes exquisite advantage of a treasure trove of letters, documents, and footage of the British Empire in the Middle East around the time of World War I. Its subject, Gertrude Bell, was a wealthy, Oxford-educated woman who began as a tourist and, thanks to her eventual fluency in Arabic and knack for connecting with locals, eventually became a British officer. She resisted some of that global power’s policies and was dedicated to preserving treasured antiquities (eventually establishing the National Museum of Iraq, which was looted during and after the 2003 U.S. invasion), but she was, ultimately, a colonial operator. Tilda Swinton lends heft to the film as the voice of Bell, though the potency of some onscreen acting — with performers as Bell’s contemporaries in scenes shot in black-and-white to complement the archival materials — is mixed. The film implies that Bell should be exalted even above her compatriot T.E. Lawrence, but that case remains unsubstantiated. Letters From Baghdad details Bell’s private life (including her doomed love affairs), unveils her personality through her lively writing, and shows how her idiosyncrasies (including a penchant for nice clothes) and her sometimes prickly personality affected her personally and professionally. Unfortunately, the doc is devoid of any real context, including how work such as Bell’s helped lead to the quagmire that has unsettled the region for decades. Daphne Howland

 

Finding Kim

Directed by Aaron Bear

Tugg

Playing June 1, AMC Loews 19th Street East 6

One hopes that Finding Kim proves enlightening or therapeutic for Kim, the subject of Aaron Bear’s documentary, which follows his transition from female to male over the course of three years. It’s a well-meaning portrait, with heartfelt moments — especially as Kim recounts childhood hardships — but it’s often muddled, especially in its selection of talking heads. Alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Carmen Carrera, transsexual adult film star Buck Angel, and several others, the sex columnist Dan Savage appears as an expert voice on trans and gender identity. “Where are we on trans rights?” he says. “We’re still having the conversation.” Finding Kim is, in fact, too many conversations, though many of them beat the same point over and over again, or circle the same topic without really illuminating it. You may forget at times that the point of the documentary is about, well, finding Kim. In the latter half, Bear becomes too invested in the medical aspects — including a graphic surgical procedure — and the physical starts to overshadow the spiritual. By film’s end, I still didn’t really know Kim at all, except that he likes to dance. We never hear from the family members to whom Kim is afraid of revealing his true self, or see whether that situation resolves in any way. The film also fails to address some important contexts — that Kim lives in a progressive city (Seattle), for one, which makes his experience different from that of others, or the unique challenge that comes with transitioning later in life. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

 

God of War

Directed by Gordon Chan

Well Go USA

Opens June 2, AMC Empire 25

One benefit of China’s rise as a global film power has been that bigger budgets and larger audiences are now devoted to productions of stories from the country’s expansive history. Films set during China’s imperial-dynasty era have been around for decades, but only recently have they rivaled in scope high-dollar Hollywood efforts. The latest of these, God of War (from Fist of Legend director Gordon Chan), is a sweeping war epic that on occasion veers into oddly personal territory. The year is 1557, and Japanese pirates (known as wokou) raid China’s coast with impunity. The Ming dynasty’s attempts to dislodge them have failed, until a young general, Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao), takes over the campaign, introducing new tactics and recruiting soldiers with a personal stake in the fight. Referred to as a “god of war” for his successes, Qi isn’t merely a skilled battlefield tactician; he’s also a legitimate inspiration to his troops. For this reason (and, you know, because he rid China of pirates), he would become a national hero. God of War’s political machinations become a bit hazy (one key early character simply disappears), and the bureaucratic intrigues drag somewhat. But the battles are wonderfully dynamic: They showcase all manner of weapons and fighting styles, and Chan gives them an extravagantly epic scope and an often startling intimacy. Zhao, a national wushu title holder in China, is understandably the focus of most of the kung fu fighting, but the legendary Sammo Hung (as Qi’s superior, General Yu Dayou) gets to show his stuff in a scene with Zhao that serves as both a literal and a metaphorical passing of the torch. The athleticism on display shames much of Western action cinema’s quick-cut hand-to-hand editing, and the final swordfight between Qi and Japanese general Kumasawa (Shaw Brothers mainstay Yasuaki Kurata) ranks as high as any in recent memory. Pete Vonder Haar

 

Band Aid

Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

IFC Films

Opens June 2, IFC Center

If Zoe Lister-Jones wrote, produced, and directed her new film, Band Aid, to finally give herself a standout role, she succeeded. As the uptight, grieving-in-all-the-wrong-ways Anna, she delivers many laugh lines followed by moments of compelling vulnerability. And unlike many female characters in indies, Anna is every bit the equal of her male co-star, played by Adam Pally, who’s tender but believably caustic as Anna’s lazy designer husband, Ben. The story follows this couple as they act out their frustrations — sniping about the dishes, the bills, the incessant drip in the sink — until they find they can shove all those unwieldy emotions into the songs they write, with choruses such as I love you, but I don’t wanna fuck you. Ditched by their therapist, adrift in a sea of their friends’ babies, the childless thirtysomethings smoke joint after joint to deal with a miscarriage — they can’t bring themselves to say the word. Anna has a “failed book deal” behind her and drives for Uber to pay the bills, while Ben eats pizza in his underwear and stares at a blank notebook. Despite their arguments, these two are funnier than they are annoying. When creepy sex-addict neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen) joins their band as a drummer, the film’s tone misses a beat. I’m sure it’s probably difficult to look at the dailies and see Armisen doing his ten-yard stares and weirdo shtick and not want to include those scenes. But Armisen’s comedy plays against the realism, competing for attention. I like this couple. And their songs aren’t bad! Not so the gender-binary Mars-Venus mumbo jumbo that dominates the resolution. Still, these are quibbles with an otherwise charming and honest marriage story. April Wolfe