In the indie house as in the multiplex, the calendar year takes some time to get going. But here we are in the full swing of spring movie season, and this month’s art-house offerings are particularly strong, spanning performance films to dark comedies to ghost stories to comic documentaries, and everything in between.
Release Date: March 1 Directors: Bill Ross, Turner Ross Cast: Documentary
The Ross brothers (Western) document a remarkable show at Barclay Center in summer 2015, in which David Byrne – newly appreciative of the combination of dance, cheerleading, twirling, and high-school halftime show known as color guard – assembled ten of the continent’s best color guard teams, and paired them with ten musical artists armed with original songs. The Rosses capture much of that spectacular performance, as well as the goings-on backstage (which is a choreography of its own). The routines are remarkable and the big names deliver – Ira Glass, for example, comes up with exactly the “song” you’d expect from Ira Glass – but it’s ultimately the story of these teenagers, many of them outcasts of one kind or another, who (like those in band or drama or debate) form makeshift extracurricular families. Their routines pulse with that camaraderie and emotion, and so does this marvelous film.
Release Date: March 3 Director: Kris Avedisian Cast: Kris Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman, Louisa Krause
Writer/director/co-star Avedisian seems, at first, to be making just another cringe comedy – a good one, admittedly, pointedly capturing the strain of conversation between two people, once friends, who’ve outgrown each other in every way. More accurately, one has outgrown the other; Peter (Wakeman) is back in his hometown for one night to deal with the particulars of his grandmother’s death, and finds himself in the company of his high school best friend, who hasn’t matured a single day since they were teenagers. Their conversations and interactions with others are both funny and hard to watch, but Donald Cried has more momentum than that – it takes an almost chilling turn, subtly switching our perceptions as it becomes clear what kind of guy/friend Peter is. Donald is insufferable, but at least you know what you’re getting; his desperation is ultimately horrifying, but so is the callowness of his supposed pal. It’s a feel-bad comedy, and one that hauls an awful lot of truth.
The Last Laugh
Release Date: March 3 Director: Ferne Perlstein Cast: Documentary
Heinrich Mann once wrote, “Whoever has cried enough, laughs,” and this thoughtful and entertaining documentary works that idea through to its widest possible margins. The specific topic is comedy and the Holocaust – whether the topic is taboo, and if not, who has the right to joke about it, and what kind of jokes they can make. But director Perlstein also frames that question within ongoing debates about political correctness, taboos, and tragedy, and if she ultimately loads the film’s plate with more topics than it can consume, there’s plenty of food for thought. The main draw is, unsurprisingly, the interviews, with thoughtful (and sometimes unexpected) perspectives from the likes of Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, Harry Shearer, and Mel Brooks; these are smart, funny people, and at its best, Perlstein’s film resonates with those same qualities.
Release Date: March 10 Director: Olivier Assayas Cast: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz
All throughout Clouds of Sils Maria director Assayas’s latest, there are calm, quiet scenes where sensible people discuss the most incredible matters. That’s the key to his approach to the material, which is on one hand a very human story about feeling loss and being lost, and on the other, a supernatural story of hauntings, mediums, and murder. Even more than usual, Assayas either bottles your kind of wine, or he doesn’t; the wildly divisive responses to the picture thus far should sound warning bells for those with less experimental inclinations. But for those who take the risk, and are willing to tune in to this intelligent director and marvelous actor‘s specific, modest wavelength, the payoff is something else.
Release Date: March 10 Director: Julia Ducournau Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
If you go in to this French-Belgian co-production cold, you’re in for a fake-out. It seems, initially, like just another collegiate drama, the story of the fresh-faced introvert whose eyes are opened by all the drinking and debauchery, and eventually gets in over her head: partying, hook-ups, slipping grades, embarrassing videos. But there’s a twist. Our heroine, Justine (Marillier) is a no-exceptions vegetarian who is forced to taste meat as part of a freshman hazing ritual, and finds she has a taste for it – human meat, specifically. Director Ducournau telegraphs where she’s going just enough to make us woozy, and by the time she’s twawling on the loud organ music as Justine succumbs to the temptation of a human finger, eventually going at it like a damn chicken wing, it’s clear we’re in for a sui generis experience. What follows is, by turns, gross, sexy, disturbing, and funny, and by its end (oddly enough), it’s a tribute to the power of sibling protection and acceptance. (Yes, really.) It’s not for wobbly viewers – I watched a fair amount of it in flashes while glancing up from my notebook – but if you’ve got the stomach for it, there’s some very clever stuff happening here.
My Scientology Movie
Release Date: March 10 Director: John Dower Cast: Documentary
Satirist and BBC presenter Louis Theroux came up with an ingenious solution to the Church of Scientology’s customary reluctance to sit for interviews: he works with former members to cast and script dramatizations and recreations, mining considerable humor from the casting and staging of earlier speeches, interviews, and closed-door “training” sessions. That’s just the framework, though; while his essentially humorous approach separates this film from something like Going Clear , he’s also delving into much the same territory, although even his recreations can’t hold a candle to the nuttiness of the Church’s own bonkers videos and galas. And there’s a bit more complexity and personality than the typical exposé, as Theroux logs more time with the organization’s outcasts, and starts to ask tough questions about responsibility and complicity. Again, this is familiar territory, but Theroux and director Dower give it enough of a new spin to warrant a look.
Betting on Zero
Release Date: March 10 Director: Ted Braun Cast: Documentary
One of the most refreshing things about both The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short is their explicit acknowledgment that one of the ways the game is rigged is by complication – these criminals know you don’t understand this shit, so they can get away with anything. One of the highest compliments I can pay this documentary exposé is that after spending nearly two hours with it, I almost understood how shorting works. He’s telling the story of Bill Ackman, the divisive hedge fund manager who spent three years (and counting) on a personal mission to devalue the stock – and thus end – Herbalife. Ackman is convinced, and director Baun backs up, that the direct-to-consumer nutritional supplement company is a pyramid scheme, targeting low-income communities and people vulnerable to its rags-to-riches narrative. Zero tells some of those stories, and if the execution is occasionally heavy-handed (the score is particularly clumsy in its button-pushing), the investigation is thorough, meticulous, and persuasive.
I Called Him Morgan
Release Date: March 24 Director: Kasper Collin Cast: Documentary
Lee Morgan was something of a prodigy in jazz circles, playing with the greats before he could drink at the bars where they were gigging, and one of the most exciting qualities of Kasper Collin’s documentary is how he snapshots that scene, puts across what it took for a young kid to rise in it, and casually notes the way drugs worked their way into that life. Morgan was at his lowest point when he met future wife Helen, who propped him back up, took care of him, got him working, and, a few years later, caught him stepping out on her after a gig and shot him dead. Collin takes his cues from the music, moving sideways through this strange story with the help of friends and collaborators, terrific archival footage and recordings, and old interviews that sound like ghosts telling their scary stories.
Karl Marx City
Release Date: March 29 Directors: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker Cast: Documentary
When the wall came down separating East and West Germany in 1989, a people’s way of life was inalterably changed – and suddenly questions sprang forth anew. This stylish documentary shines those questions, of reconstruction, recovery, and secrecy, through a personal prism: Epperlein’s father committed suicide years later, and in investigating and exploring his death, she found herself investigating his life, his past, and his rumored involvement in the German Stasi. Combining her own new interviews (in crisp, striking black and white) with declassified surveillance tapes and German propaganda films and state TV broadcasts, the filmmakers construct a meticulous inquiry into not only the logistics of this surveillance state, but the mindset that motivated it.
All This Panic
Release Date: March 31 Director: Jenny Gage Cast: Documentary
“I don’t wanna age,” Ginger says. “I think that’s the scariest thing in the world.” It sounds hilarious coming out of the mouth of a high-school junior, particularly at the beginning of a documentary that tracks that very process, following Ginger and six other young New York women out of their teenage years and into young adulthood. Some are best friends, who fight and make up and will never shake each other; others are casual acquaintances, who float in every once in a while for a scene or two, like they do in your life. Director Gage regards them casually, capturing their interactions and solitude, their wit and (perhaps premature) sophistication. By the end, you can see how far they’ve come, these remarkable women, and marvel a bit at where they could go.
David Lynch: The Art Life
Release Date: March 31 Directors: John Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm Cast: Documentary
The Art Life opens with a long, medium wide shot of its subject, just sitting and thinking, followed by images of his menacing artwork. It establishes, right off the bat, the appropriate tone and impressionistic style – you can’t just make a conventional documentary about an artist this unconventional. The masterstroke here is not to tell the stories we all know; in fact, his first explorations of film don’t come until more than an hour in (clips from The Alphabet, already showcasing a worldview that’s creepy and unique). Instead, the filmmakers focus on Lynch’s early years, and his ongoing explorations of visual art – challenging work that is nasty, funny, and provocative. We see him in his studio, painting, sculpting, listening to music, hanging out with his tiny daughter. And over those images, he tells stories (filled, needless to say, with colorful colloquialisms like “They got along like Mike and Ike”), of his desire to create, of his attempts to fit into a scene, of his awareness that he would have to do a lot of bad work before he created anything that was either good or his. And they conclude with the production of Eraserhead – i.e., it’s a movie that goes right up to where most of us become aware of Mr. Lynch. But by traveling this less-trod path, we understand how he arrived there, and how filmmaking became the culmination of everything he was trying to achieve.