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.

Dina
Directed by Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini
The Orchard
Opens October 6, Quad Cinema

On the surface, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’s documentary Dina is a simple story about a middle-aged woman with Asperger’s syndrome who’s built a community with her neurodiverse pals and is about to celebrate her upcoming wedding. But as the directors trail Dina and her fiancé, Scott, to the beach and the store and the local Putt-Putt, a nuanced portrait about desire, disappointment, and betrayal emerges, revealing that the sweet Dina yearns for a deeper physical and emotional connection than Scott may be able to provide.

At the beach, Dina tries gifting Scott The Joy of Sex. The two haven’t had sex — they’ve barely kissed — so she’s eager to share her thoughts and fantasies with him. Though she’s off at a million words per minute, we see her showing remarkable patience as she reads about removing semen stains from clothing to her confused but not disinterested fiancé. She wants and needs him to understand intercourse, and though the scene of cleaning instructions could seem a little silly, Dina’s openness is kind of stirring.

We hear the groom’s side of the story as he shoots the shit in his pal’s car. Needing his own physical space is just part of his “Aspy” life, so her intimacy pushes his limits, but he’s also fearful of doing something wrong and hurting Dina. That fear comes off at first as an inexperienced man’s irrational thoughts. But the more snippets we see of Dina’s past, including her previous romances, the more we understand his fears. It’s a wonder that this woman is so passionately ready to jump into love again. Dina is a story about resilience and a woman’s indomitable will to seek out her best life. April Wolfe


Trafficked

Directed by Will Wallace
Epic Pictures
Opens October 6, Anthology Film Archives

The makers of Trafficked walk a fine line, embedding their advocacy in an action film and conveying the horror of sexual slavery without edging into exploitation. Director Will Wallace (Red Wing) achieves this balance by emphasizing the inner lives of enslaved women even as the men who peddle them see them as meat.

Trafficked isn’t subtle: A discussion of women’s bodies as marketable flesh takes place in an abattoir while butchers carve animal carcasses. Screenwriter Siddharth Kara is more interested in exposing the global enterprise that exploits vulnerable teenagers and women than in creating nuanced characters, and uses details from his 2009 nonfiction book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, to create representative predators and victims.

Young Nigerian mother Mali (Jessica Obilom) takes the migrant route to Europe, hoping to send wages back to her family. A daughter of an affluent Indian family, Amba (Alpa Banker) is planning to attend MIT when she’s kidnapped by a scorned suitor. Aging out of foster care, Sara (Kelly Washington) leaves a younger sister with the nun (Anne Archer) who cared for them and is sold to a cartel by her trusted social worker (Ashley Judd).

Kara adds more deal-making specifics when the trio arrives at the Texas brothel owned by a corrupt politician (Patrick Duffy) and run by a rancher (Sean Patrick Flanery), who masks slavery as indentured servitude. With less cursing and nudity than basic cable, Trafficked still manages to illustrate the sexual, physical, and mental abuse that human traffickers inflict on victims to make them feel less than human. Serena Donadoni

 

 

 

Paradise
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Film Movement
Opens October 6, Lincoln Plaza Cinema

Paradise is a quiet, assured, elegantly shot drama of one of history’s darkest moments. This World War II picture from Andrei Konchalovsky centers on the intermingled stories of Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian member of the French Resistance, Jules (Philippe Duquesne) a French Nazi collaborator investigating her case and Helmut (Christian Clauss), a German SS officer who once loved Olga and encounters her again at a concentration camp. The film alternates between flashbacks of various points during the war and confessional scenes of the characters in close-up, recalling directly to the camera the horrors they’ve seen — and in some cases contributed to. There have, of course, been countless cinematic portrayals of this war, but Konchalovsky sets Paradise apart with his compelling combination of stark close-ups and measured shots framed through doors and windows that feel simultaneously distancing and intimate. Vysotskaya’s performance is particularly intense — when we see her relaying her memories in close-up, her head is shaved and her face is gaunt — her gaze practically penetrates the screen. Olga is the heart of the story, and it’s tough to watch Helmut’s forthright outlining of Nazi beliefs. At times, Paradise feels a bit too mannered — the aesthetic borders on clinical, which can make finding a foothold in the thorny narrative somewhat difficult.  Paradise is most interesting for what it doesn’t include: There aren’t battle scenes or a melodramatic score. It’s one of the most understated depictions of World War II in recent memory, and understatement here is both a gift and a curse. Paradise looks great while being emotionally opaque. Abbey Bender.


Mark Felt

Written and directed by Peter Landesman
Sony Pictures Classics
Now playing, Regal Union Square; City Cinemas 1,2,3; Lincoln Plaza Cinema

Curiously drab and airless, tinted to a distracting bluish miasma that suggests an advertisement for antidepressants, Peter Landesman’s Mark Felt is the wrong movie at the right time. Here’s the story of Deep Throat himself, the career FBI man who, disgusted at a corrupt and obstructionist White House, leaked the truth about Watergate to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Since the films share a couple of key scenes in a parking garage, Mark Felt must suffer the fate of being forever compared to All the President’s Men. That shoe-leather classic tracked its reporters as they uncovered the truths that brought down Richard Nixon — there’s drama in discovery. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), by contrast, has Tricky Dick’s number some twenty minutes in. Once we see Felt, the bureau’s deputy detective, get a rundown on who the Watergate burglars were, all we have left to discover is just what pressure or slights will inspire Felt to leak. Neeson broods well, and is certainly commanding, but the character is a brick wall, a thing we watch get slowly weathered rather than, like, make an interesting decision. At his low point, the hero orders illegal break-ins of the homes of members of the Weather Underground, but his precise reasoning for this outrage languishes undramatized. Diane Lane, as Felt’s wife, gets to give a not-bad speech and then just turns up on occasion to look exasperated or concerned. Intrigue among the agents and lackeys at the bureau seems meant to simmer beneath it all, but it’s all so lukewarm you might wonder if someone forgot to even turn the stove on. Nice D.C. establishing shots, though — but too many of them. Alan Scherstuhl


Architects of Denial

Directed by David Lee George
Dada Films
Opens October 6, Village East Cinema
Available on demand

The blunt, insistent documentary Architects of Denial is built upon a central thesis: The refusal of Turkey’s government (and its ally the United States) to acknowledge the systematic elimination of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide has led to countless other deaths and continued persecution. Director David Lee George and fellow producers Dean Cain and Montel Williams conceived of the film as an introduction to genocide, an opportunity to show how ethnic cleansing reverberates across generations. Recognition of the Armenian genocide isn’t framed as simply righting a historical wrong; they argue that denial emboldens more violence, especially in Azerbaijan, where Armenians face dehumanizing discrimination and coordinated attacks.

Architects of Denial uses the framework of a television newsmagazine, blending talking heads and shocking footage with incessant music underscoring every scene. Its eyewitness accounts of barbarism and harrowing recollections of rape survivors (the United Nations considers sexual violence “a constitutive act with respect to genocide”) are more effective than its use of exploitative gotcha interviews and conspiracy theories. Also, Julian Assange is presented as a voice of moral authority, with no mention of rape charges, leaking the personal information of vulnerable people, or his role in the U.S. presidential election.

The filmmakers’ broader assertion that denying this genocide emboldened other perpetrators like Pol Pot and Radovan Karadzic isn’t as well-reasoned an argument, but by uniting the measured voices of human rights advocates and impassioned pleas from the Armenian diaspora, they lay out the importance of a few words in the long quest for justice. Serena Donadoni

 

AlphaGo
Directed by Greg Kohs
Moxie Pictures

Now playing, Village East Cinema

The horror film of 2017 is AlphaGo, a documentary about an artificial intelligence program designed to play Go – the oldest and most complex board game in the world – that feels like it’s sounding the alarm for the human race’s impending extinction. It takes almost an hour before someone onscreen mentions The Terminator’s A.I.-fostered doomsday scenario, but such notions come to mind almost immediately while watching Greg Kohs’s nonfiction work, which details the efforts of Demis Hassabis’s DeepMind firm to not only design AlphaGo, but also to pit it against organic competitors. After handily felling European champ Fan Hui, its main challenge arrives in the form of eighteen-time world champion Lee Sedol. Though much talking-head commentary is peppered throughout the film, it’s AlphaGo’s 2016 five-game match with Sedol that provides the majority of the material’s thrills — and chills. Literally learning how to improve its performance via probability calculations and countless games against itself, AlphaGo is a testament to its creators’ ingenuity, and Kohs depicts its triumphs as having the potential to expose people to new ways of thinking, and understanding, the world. No matter how hard the filmmakers try to shirk the issue, however, AlphaGo — a portrait of a computerized neural network that no one thought would evolve this fast for another decade, at least — is far more frightening than inspiring, given the possible, cataclysmic dangers made possible by the program’s existence, and the only-addressed-as-an-afterthought controls being put in place to prevent future murderous-robot nightmares from becoming real. Nick Schager


Take My Nose…Please!

Directed by Joan Kron
Parvenu Ventures LLC
Opens October 6, Village East Cinemas

Take My Nose…Please! rescues plastic surgery from Hollywood’s “did they or didn’t they?” gossip and reality television’s odious voyeurism with a nuanced, empathetic (and often funny) introduction to a few women, mostly comedians, who’ve had work done or are considering it. Director Joan Kron covered the topic for Allure magazine for 25 years, and her doc is steeped in research, analysis, and firsthand knowledge — the 89-year-old is open about it herself.

The crux of Kron’s take is that female comedians are more frank than other stars about their physical alterations, starting with vaudevillian Fanny Brice — who in 1923 had her nose “bobbed” in a publicity stunt she hoped would get her into movies (famously portrayed in Funny Girl by Barbra Streisand, who has said she herself resisted the procedure to protect her pipes). For decades, in their acts and in interviews, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers freely joked about it. More poignantly, Kron accompanies two working comedians on their medical consultations and understandably nervous deliberations as they contemplate surgeries; the physicians are kind and prudent, though the scenes of agonized decision-making at points could use a snip.

Kron’s thesis is mostly persuasive, and it’s delicious when she seems to catch a couple of her sources fudging about their own cosmetic histories. Her focus on comedy, though, denies some potentially potent discussion, like whether Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey really does regret a nose job that rendered her looks less striking — another wrinkle in a complicated subject. Daphne Howland


Surviving Peace

Directed by Josef Avesar
Dancing Owl Media
Opens October 6, Cinema Village

As amateurish as its 1990-grade VHS title graphics, Surviving Peace is possibly the clunkiest — and most one-sided — film ever made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lawyer-turned-director Josef Avesar spends the first half of his documentary asking left-leaning Israelis and Palestinians pointed questions designed to prove his contention that, because “Jewishness” can’t be properly defined (is it religious? cultural? national?), Israel’s status as a Jewish state is entirely illegitimate, and should end. His opining is accompanied by blatantly misleading history lessons about the country’s inception and evolution, as well as constant commentary about its history of terrorism, warmongering, and discrimination (along with attendant imagery). The resultant portrait — which also includes depicting Palestinians (and Yasser Arafat!) only as innocent victims eager to negotiate — is slanderously biased to the point of being anti-Semitic. Moreover, the film is incessantly repetitive, as Avesar badgers interviewees about the same few issues (receiving identical answers) in a vain effort to convince them of his rightness — thus turning himself into the material’s true subject.

That situation becomes even more pronounced when he suggests his own peace plan: to have the Israeli and Palestinian governments overseen by a confederation that their citizens will jointly elect. Regardless of the fact that one Israeli official eventually subscribes to this idea, it’s an impractical, nonsensical, and roundly rejected proposal best countered by one dismissive man who, in asking how such a magical coalition might come into existence, asks Avesar, “What, are you going to set up a Facebook page?” Nick Schager


Super Dark Times

Directed by Kevin Phillips
The Orchard
Now Playing, Village East Cinema

In his remarkable debut feature, director Kevin Phillips returns to the pre-internet, pre-smartphone 1990s, when suburban teenage boys biked around for hours because there was nothing else to do. It’s on one such outing that lifelong friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) and a kid from another school (Sawyer Barth) become involved in the violent, accidental death of a fourth boy (Max Talisman), whose body they hide in the woods. Zach tries to return to normal life, which holds the promise of romance with the perfect girl (Elizabeth Cappucino), but he’s seeing the dead boy in his dreams, and Josh, who’s always been a little weird, has all but disappeared, even as news arrives of a second death.

Both a thriller and meditation on the loss of innocence, Super Dark Times is rich with the minutiae of a bygone era — Walkmans, bad paneling, and scrambled cable porn — but Phillips and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski press hard against the instinct for nostalgia. At the high school, in the background, more than one geeky student erupts and lashes out in terror and anger, events Zach notices but doesn’t fully acknowledge, just as he doesn’t quite see that his pal Josh could easily be one of those kids. Any given day of teen life, this gorgeous, disturbing film reminds, is like walking across a beautiful field laden with mines — you never see it coming. Chuck Wilson


Assholes

Written and directed by Peter Vack
Breaking Glass Pictures
Opens October 6, Cinema Village

For a film about two people turning, literally, into assholes, Assholes has brief flashes of cleverness that you might not expect. Take, for instance, its wordplay: One character decides out of the blue to become an analyst; at another point, the word arsenal gets strategically deployed. But in large part, filmmaker Peter Vack and family (yes, much of the cast is his actual family) lean heavily on gross-out humor, which yields diminishing returns after the disgusting midpoint. (How do you top someone shitting out a demon in a kiddie pool? And not just any demon, but Mephistopheles, played by horror vet Eileen Dietz, who stood in for Linda Blair when she went full-on Captain Howdy in The Exorcist?)

Earlier scenes, however, have a can’t-look quality Vack seems to be shooting for, as a-holes Adah and Aaron (Betsey Brown and Jack Dunphy) hook up after meeting at their shared therapist’s office. Soon they’re riddled with VD and sporting crusty, brown cold sores on their mouths and noses as they get deeper and deeper into butt play and poppers-fueled public rampages. What begins as revolting and off the rails peters out into a weak-sauce final payoff presented as an intervention-themed reality show, so tired and quaintly stupid it no longer offends. Rob Staeger


Brawl in Cell Block 99

Directed by S. Craig Zahler
RLJE Films
Opens October 6, Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers

It takes director S. Craig Zahler a full 45 minutes to get Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) into prison, and even longer to arrive at the violent confrontation promised in the title of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like his feature debut, the talky, bloody horror western Bone Tomahawk, this film is unusually slow-paced for its genre, but Zahler’s screenplay is driven by a solid central character and dialogue that might have made Elmore Leonard sit up straight.

Thomas is laconic when people leave him alone, and fast with snappy rejoinders when they don’t. Vaughn lends the character a soulful stoicism that brightens only when he’s talking to his wife about their child. A narcotics courier with a working moral compass, Thomas is ultimately arrested when, during a shootout, he turns on his violent partners to save the lives of the police.

But once he’s locked up in a medium-security prison, the leader of a Mexican cartel kidnaps his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and orders him to kill a prisoner in a separate maximum security prison — so Thomas, a man Zahler showed earlier ripping a car apart with his hands, begins assaulting guards in order to get transferred.

Cell block 99 itself is a cartoonishly grim prison sub-basement with broken glass–strewn floors where prisoners are tortured with electrified belts by a villainous, black-clad warden (Don Johnson). The director’s storytelling sensibility recalls gritty, right-wing crime thrillers of the 1970s like Death Wish and Dirty Harry, revenge-driven narratives with high body counts. But Zahler approaches the violence as a horror director, crunching bones, smashing brains, and ripping faces from skulls; it’s definitely a memorable climax for a lengthy series of conversations. Chris Packham


The Osiris Child

Directed by Shane Abbess
RLJ Entertainment
Opens October 6, Cinema Village

Maybe it was a misreading of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or a misguided fondness for ABC’s Lost, but at some point, screenwriters made up a shitty narrative rule that says that if something interesting is about to happen, hard cut to a flashback. Such is the case of The Osiris Child, a series of scenes that cut away from interesting developments to flashbacks with a vengeance, as though “interesting developments” killed director Shane Abbess’s dog.

A prison riot leads to the release of genetically engineered monsters on a distant planet, and spaceman Kane Sommerville (not the film’s most ridiculous name) must break a quarantine to save his young daughter, assisted by escaped convict Sy Lombrok (there you go). The story is cut into “chapters” with breaks occurring the instant before a scene can achieve some kind of emotional or narrative beat.

The exasperating villains, including Rachel Griffiths as a space bureaucrat and Temuera Morrison as the space warden of space prison, give a lot of cold, indifferent speeches about evolution, perseverance, and survival at all costs — bad-guy word salad like, “Don’t fight it, don’t fear it. Allow yourself to be the manifestation of the monster that I know lives inside your soul.” Sweet Jesus, this movie.

But if there’s one thing aspiring filmmakers can take away from The Osiris Child, it’s this: Jules and Vincent talked about the quarter pounders of Amsterdam 23 goddamn years ago. We’ve been milking narrative nonlinearity for basically a quarter-century, and now its withered old teats are dry and squirting dust into the bucket. In 2017, telling a story contiguously from beginning to end would be edgy as fuck, the absolute spearhead of avant-garde cinema. Chris Packham


Earth: One Amazing Day

Directed by Richard Dale and Pete Webber
BBC Earth Films
Opens October 6, AMC Bay Plaza Cinema 13 (New Jersey), AMC Clifton Commons (New Jersey)

“It’s easy for us to forget our connection to the natural world,” Robert Redford intones late in Earth: One Amazing Day, a charming if simplistic documentary that works strictly in the feel-good mode. Watching a variety of animals across the world over the course of a single day, you might wonder just how much longer all these species and environments will last. Redford’s narration is comforting and assured, and it’s pleasant to soak in the tableaus, none of which feature people (until the final minutes). This is the type of lightly educational, aesthetically appealing, big-hearted nature film that makes for ideal family viewing, as pretty much everyone can appreciate the sight of pandas. The most striking moments are panoramas of animals en masse — a shot of the Arctic covered with hundreds of penguins and a later one of a cave filled with glowworms that look like something out of science fiction. More explicit consideration of the issues affecting these environments would have given the documentary more depth, and at times it moves too quickly from one landscape to another — the “one amazing day” angle may be a tad ambitious for a documentary that runs around 90 minutes. The film works best as a collection of cleansing images to meditate on — it’s a welcome respite from the awfulness of the developed world, though the dangers of climate change and extinction are glossed over by design. There may not be a political agenda here, but the sweeping onscreen landscapes, pristine as a screensaver, inevitably stir some guilt over how poorly our Earth has been treated. Abbey Bender

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