Well folks, spring has sprung, and it’s a slow enough season at the multiplex that you’ll finally get to see some of the movies that worked us up on the festival circuit last year – two from Tribeca (Hondros and Flower), one from SXSW (Gemini), and three from Toronto (Lean on Pete, The Death of Stalin, and Outside In). So, y’know, maybe it’s like a little film festival every time you go to the art house? Maybe not, what do I know, I’m tired. On to the capsules!
RELEASE DATE: March 2
DIRECTOR: Greg Campbell
Here’s unflappable for you: in the opening sequence of this biographical documentary, war photographer Chris Hondros takes a phone call while in the middle of a terrifying fire fight, assuring the caller that “things are fine” and just requesting, “Lemme give you a call back in about a half hour?” It gives you an idea of the discipline and calm of the man at this film’s center, who said of war photography, “There’s absolutely no way to do it from a distance. You have to be close.” Hondros looks at what it took to get that close – the drive, the artistry, the balance required to stay sane while seeing so much bloodshed and despair. It’s a scary film and a moving one, particularly at the conclusion, in which Hondros reflects on the moments of humanity and generosity he’s captured – it’s catch-in-the-throat stuff, with, of course, powerful illustrations.
The Death of Stalin
RELEASE DATE: March 9
DIRECTOR: Armando Iannucci
CAST: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs
Veep and The Thick of It creator Ianucci visits mid-20th century Moscow and discovers that hey, whaddaya know, stupidity and back-stabbing in government translates into period pieces as well. Assembling a rogue’s gallery of terrific American and British characters actors as all the General Secretary’s men(and encouraging to keep their native accents), Ianucci crafts a four-course meal of black comedy, wacky wordplay, creative insults (of course). and broad slapstick. The results are fabulously funny and more than a little tart, while the dramatizations of authoritarian kowtowing are perhaps more stinging than initially anticipated.
RELEASE DATE: March 16
DIRECTOR: Max Winkler
CAST: Zoey Deutch, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott
The narrative and tonal turns of this jet-black comedy can land more than a little abruptly, and its final turn and ending are, to put it mildly, a stretch. But there’s a lot to like here, particularly the quotable, razor-sharp script and the interplay between the performers; none of these relationships are easy or predictable, yet they’re all grounded and believable (particularly the delightfully candid back-and-forth between protagonist Deutch and Hahn as her “wild woman settling down with the bland nice guy” mom). The whole thing is a little hard to swallow, but there are moments, details, and dialogue here and there that ricochet with truth.
Lean on Pete
RELEASE DATE: March 30
DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh
CAST: Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi
The new drama from writer/director Haigh is nothing you’d expect from either Weekend or 45 Years, aside from the fact that it’s vividly drawn and elegantly executed. Plummer stars as 15-year-old Charlie, who falls in with an aging, “broker than he used to be” cowboy (Buscemi again), which begins a journey of both emotional growth and human desperation. He is, after all, just a kid, and when bad turns come his way, they’re sudden and scary. Haigh colors in his journey with beautiful Northwestern locations and finely-drawn supporting characters, building a little world for his protagonist to inhabit, and (we suspect) transcend. What a lovely, introspective movie this is.
RELEASE DATE: March 30
DIRECTOR: Aaron Katz
CAST: Lola Kirke, Zoë Kravitz, John Cho
Before anything even happens in this modest murder mystery from writer/director Katz (Quiet City, Land Ho!), you’ll likely find yourself digging the mellow vibe of the music and photography; Katz creates an intoxicating mood, and his filmmaking is so open, we feel like we could just poke around in this world for a while. And it’s set in the world of movies, so it’s one he knows too; there’s a whole lifestyle truth in a throwaway line like “I know you and I kind of hate each other, but I actually quite like you.” Yet he manages not to get too cutsily self-referential, or lay on the L.A.-as-hollow-she’ll metaphors too thickly – this is mostly a character study, fascinated by the dynamic between the movie star and the assistant who is also her friend. As said star, Kravitz is as incandescent as ever, while Lola Kirke continues to impress as the assistant; there’s real power, for example, in the moment when she discovers the dead body, and in the beat he gives her to grieve after. Scenes like that are a reminder of the dividends paid when low-budget filmmakers like Katz bring their gifts to what can easily sound like simple genre exercises. Gemini is anything but.
RELEASE DATE: March 30
DIRECTOR: Lynn Shelton
CAST: Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, Kaitlyn Dever
The latest from the insightful Shelton (Laggies, Touchy Feely) concerns an ex-con (Duplass) and his relationship with the former teacher (Falco) who helped get him out of a jail, and even with regards to that plot set-up, it toys with our sympathies – taking its time explaining what, exactly, he was in there for. It was a “wrong place in the wrong time” situation, of course, so we can share with him the happiness and freedom of just riding a damn bicycle, and the injustice of having to check the “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box on a job application, and the heartbreak of discovering that he and that teacher may not fall in love and live happily ever. Shelton and co-scripter Duplass capture the rhythms and repetition of everyday conversation (which are harder to create than you’d think), and the perpetual rains of its Pacific Northwest settings are particularly appropriate for this drizzly story. It’s not Shelton’s best work – she has a specific comic style that’s not really called upon this time – but kudos for trying something more serious, and landing it.