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.

For Ahkeem
Directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest
Vitagraph Films
Opens October 13, BAM and Village East Cinema

Much of Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest’s documentary, For Ahkeem, which follows the St. Louis–based seventeen-year-old Daje “Boonie” Shelton as she strives to earn her high-school diploma against scores of pressures both personal (a pregnancy) and legal (a court-mandated move to an alternative academy), plays out in close quarters. An early conversation between Daje and her boyfriend, Antonio Shumpert, about the violence faced by black men in their city (“I might die at a young age, you hear me?” Antonio offers) is made all the more emotionally unbearable by the intimacy of the framing — when the two come together to embrace, resting their heads for a second on each other’s arms, the bobbing camera catches them in a tender two-shot, Antonio’s unshirted shoulder and bent-forward neck jutting in the foreground. Many such bracingly personal moments throughout For Ahkeem accumulate into a rich, inspiring, and at times infuriating evocation of Daje’s inner life. Though the filmmakers sometimes seem to strain for drama — a late sequence involving Daje’s final exams is paced unconvincingly like a race-against-the-clock thriller — Levine and Van Soest (who are both white) deserve credit for eliding or treating obliquely a number of seemingly obvious narrative beats. In fact, the movie’s most strikingly handled sequence leaves people offscreen entirely, asserting its points instead through a furious pictorial juxtaposition: Over a grave exchange on the soundtrack between Antonio and a judge regarding stolen-car charges — “How do you plead?” “Guilty.” — the directors present a series of postcard-still images of the impeccable statues and structures lining the courthouse, followed by a tracking shot that reveals what looks to be an entire street of abandoned lots. Danny King

 

Thy Father’s Chair
Directed by Antonio Tibaldi and Àlex Lora
Indie Strategy
Opens October 13, Village East Cinema

This immersive, richly detailed snapshot of hoarders undergoing a mandated apartment cleaning is equal parts horror film and existential howl. We first meet Abraham (pronounced Avram), a defensive man who nervously stammers as workers in protective plastic toss junk from closets and vacuum up rodent droppings. He speaks in hushed tones about his irritable brother, Shraga. Thanks to smart editing, it’s only after the twenty-minute mark that we realize we’ve already seen him.

Avram and Shraga are identical twins, and once that shock wears off, you can keep them straight by the shape of their beards. They are orthodox Jews who inherited their Brooklyn home when their parents died. (Let’s call this Vey Gardens?) They sustain themselves off rent from an upstairs tenant, but he is refusing to pay unless the quagmire of kitty litter, old newspapers, and sadness is swept away. Both brothers are perfectly self-aware. They would like their lives to change, but are desperate for guidance and direction. Shraga has the added problem of alcoholism. The cleaning men and fly-on-the-wall camera crew are likely the first outsiders they’ve met in years, and the most heartbreaking thing here is seeing the brothers try to establish connections.

Thy Father’s Chair is an extremely difficult film to watch. Not just because it is repulsive — the eventual reveal of the toilet rivals Steven Spielberg’s restraint with the shark in Jaws — but because hoarderism is such a relatable type of madness. These are men literally trapped by their memories and immobilized by the concept of letting go. Directors Antonio Tibaldi and Àlex Lora could have made a film that gawked; instead this is a portrait of understanding. Jordan Hoffman

 

B&B
Written and directed by Joe Ahearne
Breaking Glass Pictures
Opens October 13, Cinema Village

“Do you want to change his mind, or just make him eat shit?” That’s what Fred (Sean Teale) asks his husband, Marc (Tom Bateman), soon after they return to a remote English bed and breakfast they successfully sued for discrimination after the religious owner, Josh (Paul McGann), denied them accommodations a year earlier. Marc’s motivations aren’t the only ones in question in Joe Ahearne’s gripping new thriller B&B — their return visit was publicized online, and the house’s other guest, an intimidating Russian played by James Tratas, might be there just for them. Marc thinks he’s also gay; Fred has seen his gang tattoos, and is convinced he’s a gay basher sizing them up. Their bigoted host is no help, even if his son (Callum Woodhouse) seems sympathetic; the legal fees from the couple’s lawsuit have nearly driven him out of business. The cast brings a lived-in humanity to their roles, and the antagonists connect with each other in surprising, small ways — reaching out, finding common ground, being rebuffed. Yet the film never dawdles: Ahearne deftly builds the suspense, raising the stakes before steering the story into surprising new directions. Despite its modern premise, B&B feels classic — a Hitchcockian nail-biter without a platinum blonde in sight. Rob Staeger


Sylvio
Directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley
Factory 25
Opens October 12, Nitehawk Cinema

A work of gentle whimsy and surprising pathos, Sylvio proposes a buddy-comedy scenario involving a most unlikely screen pair: Al Reynolds (Kentucker Audley), the meek host of a middling daytime talk show that he stages in his basement, and Sylvio (Albert Birney), a mild-mannered Baltimore gorilla holding down a job at a debt-collection agency. (He’s literally a gorilla, with Birney wearing a gorilla suit beneath his clothes.) Al’s program, and Sylvio himself — a character that Birney, who co-directed the movie with Audley, originated on the short-video platform Vine — gain brief notoriety after an accidental cameo spurs a widespread demand for segments featuring Sylvio destroying household objects. (One clever tangent finds a local chandelier company initiating a sponsorship.) But Sylvio’s true dreams as a creative are much more tranquil: His passion project is a series of hundreds of episodic shorts, presented under the name “The Quiet Times With Herbert Herpels,” in which Sylvio shows the humble-looking hand puppet of the title enacting mundane tasks, like making toast. Birney and Audley have an impressive visual sense — the smart framing and thrifty, ingenious production design (by Peter Davis) at times suggest a Wes Anderson–directed installment of Between Two Ferns — and also the good sense to lean on Birney’s nuanced physical performance. Two generous shots lasting around 90 seconds depict Sylvio unwrapping a “Beefy-Boy” TV dinner and then attempting to switch on a light bulb, and are emblematic of the movie’s modest appeal: Birney plays the turn of the scene — Sylvio throwing the lamp to the floor after the replacement bulb dies — not as over-the-top absurdity but as a relatable expression of the strain of even the most boring aspects of everyday living. Danny King


Monogamish
Directed by Tao Ruspoli
Abramorama
Opens October 13, Roxy Cinema Tribeca

In his documentary Monogamish, filmmaker Tao Ruspoli sets out to answer the question: Is it natural to be with one person for the rest of your life? After having recently divorced actress Olivia Wilde, Ruspoli is grappling here, he says, with the death of romance in his life. He meets with relationship experts of all types: a family law attorney, a marriage therapist and plenty of writers, including Dan Savage and John Perry Barlow. But the most fascinating of the people he mines for advice turn out to be his own family. As part of Rome’s ancient Ruspoli clan, his ancestors were no strangers to polyamory after having married for money or power. (Ruspoli doesn’t even have to look far: He shows us an old newspaper photo of his father posing with a wife, a son and a girlfriend — who was pregnant with Tao.)

Trying to understand how honeymoon periods can devolve into estrangement, Ruspoli and the experts analyze the makeup and social impact of traditional Leave It to Beaver marriages versus polyamorous relationships. (Sadly, Ruspoli’s doc is pretty fixated on cisgender, heterosexual relationships most of the time.) But instead of finding one answer to his question, Ruspoli takes the film’s title to heart, ending Monogamish on a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Tatiana Craine


Te Ata
Directed by Nathan Frankowski
The Chickasaw Nation & Paladin
Opens October 13, AMC Empire 25

Te Ata is a well-meaning, if surface-level, tribute to a Native American performer and storyteller, charting her rise to fame in the early 20th century. Q’orianka Kilcher delivers a determined, earnest performance as Te Ata, nee Mary Frances Thompson. She carries the film, and Te Ata’s many tales, with a warm, measured mien. But not everyone’s eager to hear her stories: Gil Birmingham serves up tough love as Te Ata’s long-suffering father who just wants his daughter to settle down.

There’s no grit or subtlety here; at one point, a white politician tells the Chickasaw governor: “Let your people pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Instead, Te Ata delivers a healthy dose of girl power and Chickasaw pride in the face of racism. Te Ata attends university with a horde of “sugar cookie” white women — most of whom side-eye her, and a handful who see her spark of conviction and talent. It’s there that she pursues performance, never takes “no” for an answer and eventually works her way up to Broadway and the White House.

This near-mythic portrayal of a young woman embracing her heritage and stamping out ignorance isn’t for already-jaded hearts. But while Nathan Frankowski’s biopic has the saccharine, deliberate feel of a Hallmark movie, that doesn’t make the woman at its center any less inspirational. Tatiana Craine


Wasted! The Story of Food Waste
Directed by Anna Chai and Nari Kye
Super LTD
Opens October 13
Available on VOD

Anyone who’s worked in food service will attest to the copious amount of waste generated at every meal. Directors Anna Chai and Nari Kye begin their debut documentary with some bad news: That’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce, as an obscene amount of produce never even makes it to a plate. They open with the dire scope of the problem, and then spend the rest of the eager and encouraging Wasted! offering creative solutions.

Chai and Kye worked on culinary television shows (including The Mind of a Chef and Parts Unknown) with Anthony Bourdain, and when that churlish chef first appears onscreen, he disparages being cast as an activist. That balances the evangelical zeal of other featured chefs like Dan Barber and Massimo Bottura (yes, they’re in the film), and establishes Wasted!’s tone of breezy advocacy. As with many recent environmental documentaries, the filmmakers’ call to action is simple and upbeat: This isn’t so hard, people, we can do it if we try!

Wasted! primarily examines the use of vegetables, grains and fruit, with the more contentious issues surrounding dairy and meat production tucked into stories of innovative technology (a Tennessee yoghurt plant uses excess whey to generate electricity; a Japanese company turns farm and grocery rejects into nutritious pig feed).

What doesn’t get fully addressed is our hunger for abundance: the overstuffed buffets and tightly packed supermarket shelves projecting plenty. Full refrigerators and teeming pantries are as American as apple pie, and it will take an inspired food philosopher to shift our ingrained view that too much is just right. Serena Donadoni

 

 

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