Film

Tracking Shots: This Week in Film

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

 

California Typewriter
Directed by Doug Nichol
Gravitas Ventures
Opens August 18, Metrograph

Swiftly evolving technology has made mincemeat of plenty of economic models and machines, but few have been displaced so thoroughly as the typewriter. In California Typewriter (also the name of a retail and repair shop in Oakland that is ostensibly this film’s focus), documentary maker Doug Nichol makes a strong if meandering case that the American invention, in its day a paradigm-smasher in its own right, facilitates a connection to the subconscious that no other device can. Pulitzer Prize winners David McCullough and the late Sam Shepard, along with Grammy-winning musician John Mayer, testify. “I realized the reason that I was able to come alive on a typewriter, where I wasn’t using a computer or even a pen, was that you’re at sort of a safe distance, where you can express yourself openly without having to edit yourself at the same time,” Mayer says. Tom Hanks, a collector, weighs in, as does sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who takes apart defunct typewriters from all eras to create steampunk sculptures of animals, people, mandalas, and lotus flowers. The artist enjoys a symbiotic relationship with California Typewriter: The shop, opened in 1981 by former IBM Selectric serviceman Herbert L. Permillion, trades its excess machines for his rare parts. Nichol covers a lot of ground — the machine’s history is seen mostly through collectors’ obsessive travels — and the film rambles a bit. But it’s a compelling look at a valuable contraption that’s slipping through our grasp, and will send many viewers to flea markets and eBay for one of their own. Daphne Howland

 

Sidemen: Long Road to Glory
Directed by Scott Rosenbaum
Abramorama
Opens August 18, Landmark Sunshine

Sidemen: Long Road to Glory hits the familiar notes of Standing in the Shadows of Motown and 20 Feet from Stardom, documentaries focused on unappreciated musicians (like session players and background singers) who’ve made important contributions to pop history. In this reverent documentary, Hubert Sumlin (guitar player for Howlin’ Wolf), “Pinetop” Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (pianist and drummer, respectively, with Muddy Waters), esteemed by other musicians but overlooked by most listeners (save blues scholars and diligent readers of liner notes), receive some long-overdue recognition. Director Scott Rosenbaum top-loads his first documentary with adoring testimonials from white blues musicians; coupled with Marc Maron’s emphatic narration, Sidemen seems at first like a didactic cultural corrective. It’s only when Rosenbaum digs into the trio’s life stories that their historic impact becomes clear: They grew up with the rural music of sharecroppers in Mississippi and Arkansas, helped electrify the sound in Chicago, and lived to see the blues rumble around the world. What’s not mentioned is the documentary’s origins in Rosenbaum’s debut feature, The Perfect Age of Rock ’n’ Roll (2009), when Sumlin, Perkins, and Smith were brought together for a fictional blues supergroup that clicked so well that they regrouped in real life. (Sidemen is stitched together from interviews with the musicians on a subsequent tour.) Rosenbaum plays down each man’s long solo career in favor of their formative years as supporting players to blues founding fathers, but his affectionate portrait has the urgency of a fan who realizes that the indomitable spirit of American roots music resides in mortal musicians. Serena Donadoni

 

Walk With Me
Directed by Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh
Gathr Films and Kino Lorber
Opens August 18, Rubin Museum of Art

The beginning of Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh’s Walk With Me — the new documentary about Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village, the religious community he founded in France — is the cinematic equivalent of a Pinterest page on mindfulness and Buddhism. Do we see beautiful shots of trees, fields, and sky while hearing the dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch reading not terribly enlightening passages from one of Nhat Hanh’s early books? You betcha! Does a lovely, beaming nun counsel a layperson, “A smile can be a beautiful sound?” Yes, indeed. Do people cry or relax into radiance as they listen to Nhat Hanh speak? Of course they do. But near the midway point, when a little girl (Plum Village is one of the few Buddhist retreats that lets parents bring their children) says of the death of her dog, “I don’t know how to be not so sad,” Walk With Me (save for a few patronizing shots of nuns and monks with toys or in an amusement park) becomes a moving examination of mortality and life choices. During Nhat Hanh’s tour of the U.S. (in 2013), one of the few black nuns visits her ailing father in a nursing home. He sobs when he recognizes her, as she explains that she gets to visit only once every two years, and both seem to know they might not see each other again. She then guides him through a mindfulness exercise — which he turns into a Christian prayer. Ren Jender

 

The Queen of Spain
Directed by Fernando Trueba
Myriad Pictures
Opens August 18, Quad Cinema

Penélope Cruz and The Girl of Your Dreams gang are back — but, sadly, the shenanigans in writer-director Fernando Trueba’s sequel, The Queen of Spain, seem like they were more fun to film than they are to watch. Reprising her 1998 role as Macarena Granada, Cruz is luminous as an actress returning to 1950s Spain after becoming a Hollywood star. Years after director Blas Fontiveros (Antonio Resines) propelled her to fame, Granada’s playing Queen Isabella in a big-budget American film featuring a cast filled out by her raucous Dreams cohorts. Fontiveros, meanwhile, has emerged from hiding after doing time in a concentration camp. But before long, he’s sent off to perform forced labor for Franco, and the boisterous crew members attempt high-stakes hijinks to rescue their once-fearless leader. While Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin fill out small supporting roles (as a hammy, predatory leading man and a commie screenwriter, respectively), a Princess Bride reunion this isn’t. In fact, it’s hard to place The Queen at all. Is it a serious social critique of Franco’s dictatorship? A silly escape flick? A paean to the Golden Age of celluloid? Or is it a just-because reunion? The Queen may be a treat for those familiar with Dreams, but this uneven film glosses over too much — and runs too long. Sumptuous production and costume design coupled with José Luis Alcaine’s expert cinematography make it a feast for the eyes…but there’s not much more substance. Tatiana Craine

 

Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey
Directed by Terry Sanders
Ocean Releasing
Opens August 18, Cinema Village

The coming-of-age movie is the go-to genre for directors in their twenties and thirties still feeling the reverberations of those excitable years. But an octogenarian? Terry Sanders embraces naïve wisdom in the wispy drama Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey, where idealized youth takes the form of a composed fifteen-year-old who determines her own sexual awakening. Sanders’s experience as a documentary director and producer (winning an Oscar for Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision with his wife, director Freida Lee Mock) influences his debut feature, which follows Liza (Mikey Madison) and boyfriend Brett (Sean H. Scully) as they ride a Triumph motorcycle on the winding Pacific Coast Highway, encountering freaks and weirdos. Sanders locates the couple in the social and political upheavals of 1966 without invoking any of the decade’s cinematic verve. These privileged teens’ casual fatalism is attributed to fears of nuclear annihilation and the looming Vietnam War, along with parental strife, but Sanders doesn’t feel fully invested. His youthful conflict was Korea, explored in 1962’s War Hunt (produced by Terry and directed by his brother Denis). Even the title, a line from the 1929 jazz standard “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away),” belongs to a different era. But as writer, producer, editor, and director, Sanders is deeply committed to this love story of free-spirited pragmatists, with an impossibly guileless Madison ideally paired with the forthright Scully. Smitten with his characters, Sanders takes the elements of teen exploitation films and fashions a simple, placid return to innocence. Serena Donadoni

 

Shot Caller
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Lionsgate
Opens August 18

Had Airplane! been set in the present day, Captain Oveur might have asked Joey if he preferred prison movies to those about gladiators. The rise of the incarceration industry has seen a spike in films about burly men alternately bonding with/beating each other up behind bars, and Ric Roman Waugh’s Shot Caller is a pitiless yet unusually forthright genre entry. Like Waugh’s recent efforts (Felon, Snitch), Shot Caller finds an Everydad running afoul of the criminal justice system. A DUI manslaughter conviction sends stockbroker Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to prison for seven years, where his introduction to life behind bars is about as pleasant as expected. After witnessing the fate awaiting the unaffiliated, Harlon joins the Aryan Brotherhood. Soon he’s dabbling in drug-running and murder, earning the name “Money” and a trip to maximum lockup to meet Aryan grand pooh-bah “The Beast” (Holt McCallany). Flashing back and forth between Harlon’s prison rebirth and a present-day plot that finds a paroled “Money” setting up an arms deal with the Mexican Mafia, Shot Caller depicts its world with the matter-of-fact brutality of The Shield or End of Watch, only (mostly) from the criminals’ perspective. A strong supporting cast includes Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, and Jon Bernthal, continuing his streak of portraying slightly unhinged badasses with a knack for betrayal. But Shot Caller is Coster-Waldau’s show, and he’s up to the task. Harlon’s transition is a depressingly plausible one, as his new cost-benefit analysis forces him to distance himself from wife and son. And perhaps the most chilling aspect of Waugh’s film is how suited the former white-collar bro is to the ’banger life. Pete Vonder Haar

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