For nine years now, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinemaFest has been one of the most important dates on the New York film lover’s calendar – a can’t miss slate of forthcoming indies, many gathered from the spring festivals for their NYC premieres. We saw several of them at Sundance and SXSW (and endorse most): tonight’s Opening Night movie Gemini, Spotlight selection Landline, Closing Night title Golden Exits, The Incredible Jessica James, Wind River, Most Beautiful Island, Marjorie Prime, The Big Sick, Lemon, and Ingrid Goes West. And we were lucky enough to get an early peek at eight more cinemaFest titles, which we heartily recommend as well.
An ignored housewife has a sudden breakdown and transforms herself into a terrifying, feral dog in the latest from Good Dick writer/director/star Marianna Palka, which sounds like a high-concept late-‘90s Jim Carrey movie, but is shot as domestic horror and played as social satire. She takes on the role of said housewife/dog, and it’s an intensely physical (to put it mildly) performance – but also a decidedly supporting one. The star here is Jason Ritter as her utterly ill-equipped workaholic husband, whose total panic at having to do any of the child-rearing himself, and total ineptitude at accomplishing even the simplest of related tasks, is both funny and painful to watch. It’s a bizarre movie, and not always successful. But it’s certainly an arresting little item.
The camera holds on the face of Lezley McSpadden when the district attorney announces a grand jury will not indict Officer Darren Wilson, as her mask of strength folds into one of pain and disbelief. The horror of the moment is unimaginable, but understandable – her son was Michael Brown Jr., the unarmed black teen shot to death in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Those streets became a focal point for a nationwide movement of protest in the days and weeks after, and Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s sharp, thought-provoking documentary captures some of the immediacy and intensity of that period, as activists work out the tactics and strategies of their action, while police seem hell-bent on mirroring the troubling optics of earlier civil rights movements (German Shepherds? Really?), and news networks tell the version of the story that allows them to sit in comfortable judgment. This is a powerful, important film that lets no one off the hook – not even the African-American president, whose high-minded talk of “rule of law” is illustrated by images of cops and guardsmen gassing and terrorizing peaceful protestors. Rule of law, indeed.
There’s a tiny, great moment early in this low-key character drama from writer/director Kogonada that tells you everything about his storytelling style. Our heroine, Cassie (the wonderful Haley Lu Richardson) is trying to start her car, and it’s a process, requiring several tries and a bit of prayer. She finally does — and then she spots Jin (John Cho, very good), a fascinating young traveller she met the day before, and she immediately shuts off the car to chase him down. It’s a scene that tells us everything we need to know about her interest in him, but does so entirely in action and silence, a guiding principle that runs throughout this very special film; it begins as two seemingly disconnected stories, bound by a feeling of aimlessness, which then intersect and bounce around each other. And as they do, Kogonada carefully chooses what to leave out and what to keep in, remembering that there are moments when we know what happens next, and don’t have to be told. It’s a hard film to describe or even invoke, as it has such a deadpan perspective and specificity of rhythm. But it’s wonderful in the same way Lost in Translation was, capturing the whirlwind intensity of a short-term attraction, well aware that the people we see for just a few days once upon a time can often change our lives completely.
Director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter, Marjorie Prime) takes his sense of formal experimentation into the documentary realm to tell the story of Hampton Fancher, a sort of Forest Gump figure in the last gasp of Hollywood’s studio age, and beyond: a supporting player on film and television (his name usually appeared among a list that followed the worth “with” or “also”) who married Sue Lyon, dated Terri Garr and Barbara Hershey, and wrote the Blade Runner screenplay. With that kind of access and experience, it’s not surprising that he’s a raconteur, full of wonderful and wonderfully odd stories, which Almereyda illustrates with archival footage – mostly of films and shows he appeared in, manipulated to match his narratives. As an exercise in reappropriation and recontextualization of existing elements, it’s quite compelling; if the results are amateurish (there’s a decidedly YouTube video feel to this thing), it somehow seems both intentional and appropriate.
cinemaFest doesn’t do a lot of revivals, but kudos for spotlighting this undiscovered gem from 2000, now notable (among many reasons) as the film debut of one Kerry Washington, already displaying her charisma and ease onscreen. Set during one Crown Heights summer, as three teenage friends imperceptibly begin to drift apart, it has a semi-documentary authenticity – handheld camera, amateur actors, and naturalistic dialogue that almost sounds like eavesdropping. “O-o-h Child” is their song, even when its optimism seems out of reach; at these moments in their lives, it’s hard to image that things are gonna get easier, or be brighter. But its honesty doesn’t undermine its warmth, or the novelty of the fact that it’s just a film about regular teenagers who live in the projects – not dealing, not using, just struggling and striving, and even (if they allow themselves) dreaming.
Where is Kyra?
Here’s a puzzle: how is it that a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland premiered at Sundance, all the way back in January, and still somehow hasn’t been picked up for domestic distribution? Turns out, it has nothing to do with the quality of the film – a tricky and agonizing portrait of grief and financial desperation – than with the general timidity of the theatrical distribution model, whose representatives presumably see Where is Kyra? as unclassifiable, and thus unmarketable. And to be clear, it’s not an easy movie, setting a morally flexible Pfeiffer into a cold, hard, unyielding New York on a humiliating search for gainful employment as debts pile around her, which she attempts to keep at bay with a scheme that is bound to eventually fail. But this is a film of high craft (director Andrew Dosunmu has a gift for sustaining a mood of everyday anxiety), which finds an actor of considerable fame taking real risks in a difficult role. And that matters.
A Ghost Story
The most striking element of director David Lowery’s experimental supernatural story is the sheer stillness of this thing; he holds his images (boxed in to a claustrophobic 1.37:1), letting the scenes play a beat longer, too long almost, in a way that makes you anxious. What exactly is he up to here? It turns out, he’s telling a story in aftermath rather than incident, lingering on details, weird noises, and characters merely observing each other. It’s so muted it’d be inert in the hands of lesser filmmakers and actors than these, and that’s part of what makes it so memorable – it’s the kind of movie that’s so quiet, you lean in, lest you miss something revelatory.
Twice a year, Folsom State Prison expands its weekly group therapy sessions into a four-day intensive session with therapists, convicts, and volunteers from the public. As one of those cons puts it, “For four days, let’s be what we could be.” This extraordinary documentary by Jairus McLeary captures that process beautifully, as guards are let down and tears are allowed to flow. The film’s subjects come from cultures and neighborhoods where feeling like these, and displays of emotion, are interpreted as weakness, and the impulses that drive their behaviors and attitudes are so deeply ingrained, they’re borderline unshakable. These sessions nevertheless try to shake them, resulting in moments that are charged, angry, difficult, and staggeringly affecting. “This is work,” one of them explains. “This is ugly-ass shit.” It is that – and unspeakably beautiful too.
BAMcinemaFest runs tonight through June 25. Tickets and more information available on their website.