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.

The Unknown Girl
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Sundance Selects
Opens September 8, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Paving the way for acteurism, the great critic Boyd McDonald, in a 1984 hymn to Richard Widmark, said that the performer “demonstrates the importance of the movie star over the movie and thus the importance of star reviews over mere movie reviews, with their constant complaints about plot.” I have many complaints about The Unknown Girl, the latest study of secular sainthood by the Dardenne brothers, whose austere films have increasingly become gear-grinding exercises in uplift. But Adèle Haenel, the phenomenal actress who appears in nearly every frame of the movie, proves McDonald’s epigram. Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a stalwart physician driven to uncover the circumstances surrounding a Gabonese immigrant’s death, Jenny’s guilty conscience motors this monomaniacal quest: After a long day at the clinic and eager to leave, the doctor tells her intern not to answer the door; the young woman who buzzed will soon be found dead at a construction site. When not auscultating or applying bandages to a diabetic patient’s foot, Jenny becomes a P.I., showing a surveillance-camera photo of the deceased to house-call patients, cybercafé habitués, nursing-home residents. With each encounter, the narrative is advanced by histrionic outbursts, bizarre reversals, ludicrous confessions — the stuff of creaky melodrama, a genre that also sunk the Dardennes’ previous movie, Two Days, One Night (2014). But as we watch Haenel — whose piercing gaze is only one aspect of her luminosity — stride through these overdetermined scenes, clutching a medical bag to her side, we are reminded that even the most timeworn of conventions can be made electric and alive. Melissa Anderson

 

Motherland
Directed by Ramona S. Diaz
The Film Collaborative
Opens September 8, Cinema Village

Motherland opens with a 24-year-old woman already on her fifth pregnancy — just one of many such cases that director Ramona S. Diaz reveals in the vérité-style documentary, which recalls the observational techniques and insights of the films of Frederick Wiseman. Diaz reveals life at the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, Philippines, known as the world’s busiest maternity ward (averaging 60 deliveries a day, and sometimes as many as 100). The hospital looks something like an overcrowded storage space, with many bodies shoved into small rooms and sometimes two nursing mothers to a single bed. Because of a lack of equipment, mothers (and visiting fathers) get turned into human incubators, with tube-like garments fashioned to secure babies born prematurely to their warm bodies. But the Philippines can reach broiling temperatures, and as these women fan themselves with cardboard, viewers can feel the overpopulated country’s tropical climate. Diaz’s cinematographers (Nadia Hallgren and Clarissa de los Reyes) move around the hospital beds with such ease that no patient or professional’s candid moment seems to go unnoticed. Though there’s always a sense of chaos, with women giving birth and breastfeeding at every turn, Diaz never loses sight of the truth that these are all individuals, not just statistics. While mothers wait wearily for their families to show up, nurses urge them to get IUDs, but many of the patients resist. (The majority of the population’s being Catholic may explain the pushback against birth control.) But with so many raising children in impoverished circumstances, it’s an increasingly necessary conversation. Motherland is one place to start it. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

 

School Life
Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin
Magnolia Pictures
Opens September 8, IFC Center

Neasa Ní Chianáin’s hundred-minute documentary School Life, which encompasses a year of emotional and scholastic activity at the pretty Headfort School in Ireland, comes bookended with bittersweet tears. In the beginning, it’s the nervous weeping of children being separated from parents; in the end, it’s the sobbing of classmates parting ways after months of fitful bonding. In between, Ní Chianáin recruits as tour guides teachers John and Amanda Leyden, who met at Headfort in the Seventies and, since marrying in ‘72, have continued to work at the institution and share a life together on the grounds nearby. The couple’s warm domestic regimen gets quickly sketched at the movie’s start: There are dogs panting beneath well-worn tables; clouds of steam rising from cups of coffee or tea; and sofas into which John sinks as he puffs on cigarettes. (Amanda also smokes, and there are a few lovely interludes in which the two — shot from behind by Ní Chianáin, doing double duty as cinematographer — share a smoke break near an upstairs window.) This character groundwork proves crucial later on, as School Life, on the whole, treats its student subjects with less ease and consistency; how the viewer reacts to a given pupil is often cued by the editing patterns (by Mirjam Strugalla), which tend to drop in on the youngsters at junctures of cute vulnerability (as when John, leading band class, fields a barrage of tone-deaf auditions). But the central couple’s unforced benevolence is hard to resist; the bespectacled John, in particular, exhibits remarkable comfort in front of the camera, his frizzy white hair and knowing reaction shots lending him a kind of quizzical charisma throughout. Danny King

 

Rebel in the Rye
Directed by Danny Strong
IFC Films
Opens September 8, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Too few biopics of larger-than-life artists have found the techniques — such as the radically kaleidoscopic storytelling of Todd Haynes’s Dylan rumination, I’m Not There — to penetrate their subjects’ mythic personas and unknowable creative impulses. In a seemingly Sisyphean endeavor, the directorial debut of Danny Strong (co-creator of TV’s Empire) adapts Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger, a figure nearly as famous for penning The Catcher in the Rye as for his intense penchant for privacy. The handsomely staged results are as weakly conventional as Salinger’s work was not, with reenactments of milestones connected by, to quote one character, “dime-store Freud” observations. In 1939, unpublished young smartass “Jerry” (Nicholas Hoult, respectably sympathetic) is temporarily blown off by Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona (Zoey Deutch) at a Manhattan jazz club, while his own father proves an on-the-nose scold: “How do you possibly believe you can be a professional writer?” Through the next decade-plus, Jerry finds a mentor in literary-magazine editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey, given room to chew scenery), an agent who cares (Sarah Paulson), the inspiration to craft one of the Great American Novels as an enlisted man facing WWII horrors, and finally, a yogi (Bernard White) who relieves him of his PTSD and writer’s block. Our reluctant literary antihero eventually retreats to the countryside, away from interviewers, stalking obsessives and more typewriting-with-voiceover montages. This thanklessly watchable film, recut since its mixed Sundance premiere, may not warrant Holden Caulfield’s trademark judgment of phoniness — but, like any clichéd writing, deserves rejection. Aaron Hillis

 

White Sun
Directed by Deepak Rauniyar
KimStim Films
Opens September 6, Museum of Modern Art

The atmosphere of mourning in Deepak Rauniyar’s wistful White Sun isn’t just the result of the sudden death of the revered former leader of a remote mountain village. Nepal, as the remaining elders once knew it, died when the monarchy was overthrown after a decade of civil war. Fallout from deadly earthquakes in the spring of 2015 then toppled a teetering coalition government. That September, the villagers of White Sun (a symbol on Nepal’s flag) anxiously awaited the announcement of a new constitution. Rauniyar (Highway) and co-screenwriter David Barker deftly show how recent Nepalese history affects its most isolated citizens, and cinematographer Mark O’Fearghail’s unobtrusive naturalism captures the region’s punishing poverty and exquisite beauty. Adopting the philosophy of neorealism, Rauniyar reveals the overarching forces (religion, caste, patriarchy) that forge Nepali communities, but his characters are also profoundly shaped by individual decisions. Returning from Kathmandu, Chandra (Dayahang Rai) climbs the narrow mountain roads weighed down by his possessions and a heavier malaise. Joining the Maoist forces distanced him from loyalist family members, and the party’s postwar compromises left Chandra disenchanted and defensive. His estranged wife Durga (Asha Magrati) only looks ahead, preparing a move to the city and embracing the promise of sweeping social change. Durga’s daughter Pooja (Sumi Malla) and Badri (Amrit Pariyar), the orphan who follows Chandra home, embody Rauniyar’s hesitant optimism. Burdened with the past, adults stumble and halt, while the resourceful, precocious children of wartime charge forward. Their questioning voices and haunted stares are a rebuke to stagnation and restrictive tradition. Serena Donadoni

 

Year by the Sea
Directed by Alexander Janko
Real Women Make Waves
Opens September 8, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Alexander Janko’s adaptation of Joan Anderson’s lyrical finding-herself memoir A Year by the Sea stiffs as drama but it might serve as a welcome holiday. The acting is sometimes spotty, everyone says things you can’t believe a person would say, the scenes go where you expect them to, there’s far too many montage sequences of Cape Cod flora and fauna set to strummy folk pop, and the insights (“we’re all as unfinished as the shoreline along the beach”) come barnacled over in uncertain sea metaphors. “I feel a bit like a boat — adrift, with nothing to steady me,” the film’s Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) says, and everyone’s nice enough not to tell her about rudders and anchors. For all that, as it charts its familiar course, the film has soothing, even therapeutic value. It’s less the story of a woman taking a year off from city life and her husband than it is a pleasant revue of sketches and scenarios on that topic. So, we get Allen rowing her dinghy through sea fog or staring at seagulls or wading with seals. Her delight at the wildlife plays like the reaction of a friend you’re hiking with, not like an actor’s; her smile splits her face, and it might split yours, too. The low-key aimlessness makes up for the occasional pratfall. Allen’s character takes up weaving, finds employment in a fish shop, haunts a rambling old house, enlists friends (S. Epatha Merkerson and Celia Imrie) to dash through town and leap into cold water for one of those “polar bear” dives, and proclaims, atop a lighthouse, “This would be a great place for a vision quest!” Alan Scherstuhl

 

The Limehouse Golem
Directed by Juan Carlos Medina
Lionsgate
Opens September 8, Village East Cinema

A certain romanticism pervades stories built around the exploits of old Scotland Yard, which center on the heroic deeds and superior intellects of the detectives and police officers prowling the streets of gaslight London. The Limehouse Golem, a capable thriller based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, is one of these nostalgic tales. Set in Victorian London, it follows Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a detective haunted by scandal and assigned to investigate a series of grisly slayings. Olivia Cooke plays Elizabeth Cree, a woman on trial for fatally poisoning her husband, who may be the only one who can help Kildare identify the killer, known as the Limehouse Golem. Nighy exudes nobility as Kildare; he is a man of principal, even as those around him wallow in corruption. He’s also racked by refreshing doubts — Sherlock Holmes, he isn’t. Director Juan Carlos Medina depicts a grim city perpetually shrouded in fog the color and consistency of pea soup. He makes the murders appropriately gory, but not over the top. Yet a storyline involving anti-Semitism threatens to upend the compelling detective tale. The murderer names himself after the Golem of Jewish folklore and even terrorizes a Jewish scholar, but Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman don’t have anything interesting to say about the subject. As neo-Nazis speak with renewed confidence across the U.S. and new waves of anti-Semitism roil Europe, it’s hard to justify using that kind of hatred as a mere plot device. It’s a fatal flaw that mars an otherwise engrossing thriller. Brian Marks

 

Man in Red Bandana
Written and directed by Matthew Weiss
Verdi Productions and Magna Entertainment
Opens September 8, AMC Loews 19th Street

Man in Red Bandana details the heroism of Welles Crowther, a young equities trader who perished in the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks, though not before systematically and audaciously conducting a rescue within the South Tower that may have saved more than a dozen lives. His grieving parents learned of his actions — enabled by his volunteer firefighter training — because survivors recalled the red bandana that he’d carried for luck as an athlete, later in his Wall Street job and ever since his dad had given it to him when Crowther was 6. Gwyneth Paltrow somberly, painstakingly and bloodlessly narrates the documentary details. The planes’ approaches, the pilots’ realities, Crowther’s mother’s discovery of the offhand detail of the bandanna in the New York Times, the gratitude of the survivors who believe they were helped by him that day, and, finally, the charities and tributes inspired by his example. Unsurprisingly, this worthy story has circulated widely, told by President Barack Obama and columnist Peggy Noonan, and in an award-winning thirteen-minute ESPN story broadcast in 2014. Based on a book by ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi (who also wrote the script), that TV feature is more vivid than this doc attempt in nearly every way — including its lush camerawork, deft editing and writing, and the uplift and awe in actor Ed Burns’s narration. The short-subject treatment serves as a challenge that, in eighty minutes, writer-director Matthew Weiss doesn’t meet. Daphne Howland

 

The Good Catholic
Written and directed by Paul Shoulberg
Broad Green & Pigasus Pictures
Opens September 8, AMC Empire 25

Priest meets girl. Priest falls in love. Priest has crisis of faith. It’s a tale as old as dogma, and with The Good Catholic, writer-director Paul Shoulberg doesn’t try to reinvent it for the here and now. Daniel (Zachary Spicer) is a young, idealistic priest recovering from his father’s recent death. He works and lives with two other men of the cloth, the humorless Father Victor (Danny Glover) and the carb-loving, chain-smoking Franciscan monk Ollie (John C. McGinley). As the youngest of the trio, Daniel gets stuck with a late-night confessional shift where he meets Jane (Wrenn Schmidt). At first, Daniel resists her manic-pixie confessional girl allure — but there are plenty of other reasons he’s having second thoughts about his devotion to the Lord.

Like little shoulder-bound angels, Victor and Ollie attempt to lead Daniel away from temptation. Although Glover and McGinley play these men of God with relish (McGinley’s irreverent yet sincere monk is a treat), it’s too bad they’ve been saddled with scripture-spewing stock characters.

Despite the good will that Glover and McGinley bring, cinematographer Justin Montgomery’s incessant shaky cam makes The Good Catholic look like a sermon shot on some found-footage horror film’s iPhone — and from the front pew, no less. And with no less than three homilies, the film ends up feeling like an overlong, disjointed mass. Tatiana Craine

 

Rememory
Directed by Mark Palansky
Lionsgate Premiere
Opens AMC Empire 25
Available on Google Play

Rememory makes a compelling argument that Peter Dinklage should be a goddamn movie star already. The man has been killing it for years as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, racking up both awards and a loyal fan base, and he proved ages ago he could carry an entire movie with Tom McCarthy’s debut The Station Agent.

He does it again in this heady whodunit from Canadian filmmaker Mark Palansky (Penelope), which has Dinklage as a haunted, mysterious figure who launches an investigation into the death of a powerful man (Martin Donovan) who he claims saved his life. This man was also about to drop a flawed but revolutionary machine that can extract your favorite memories for your viewing pleasure. The suspect list is crowded, with the deceased’s wife (Julia Ormond), his mistress (Evelyne Brochu), his shady business partner (Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick), and a disturbed test patient (Anton Yelchin, in one of his last film roles).

Yes, the movie sounds like someone merged Brainstorm with a straight-to-video thriller from the ’90s. Thankfully, Palansky had the good sense to let the performances elevate the material, never letting this turn into another cheesy, predictably twisty yarn. Of course, at front and center, we have Dinklage, playing a guy who, throughout the whole movie, you don’t know if he’s a nutjob or a noble knight. Nevertheless, he conveys enough charisma and emotion to have you rooting for him right up to the final minutes. Rememory proves that Peter Dinklage is ready for his close-up. When is Hollywood gonna be ready? Craig D. Lindsey

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