Spring is a strange time at the art house – we’re past awards season and not yet into full-on summer counter-programming mode, which means we often end up with movies distributors can’t figure out what to do with. And sometimes (like this month), that means we’re getting the really interesting stuff.
Release Date: April 7 Director: Nacho Vigalondo Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens
About halfway into Colossal, I jotted down the following note: “What on earth is happening?” Part of that bewilderment is lack of preparation, as the precise plot of the latest from writer/director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is being kept thankfully quiet – let’s just say it involves a flailing young woman (Hathaway) who returns to her hometown, and a giant monster terrorizing Seoul at the same time. But beyond its genre trappings and clever turns, it’s very much a film about broken people. Hathaway’s Gloria is a close cousin to her Kim in Rachel Getting Married, and she’s not winking at the film or the genre; she’s acting the shit outta this role. The film keeps pace, flirting with real darkness in its closing passages, and the kind of human implications rarely considered in a movie with a giant monster in it. It’s a strange picture, and you’re never quite sure exactly what it’s doing. How refreshing is that?
Release Date: April 7 Director: Lone Scherfig Stars: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jake Lacy
Gemma Arterton is top-notch as a writer brought in to pen “the slop” (sneering slang for women’s dialogue) in WWII-era British propaganda pictures in this period drama from director Lone Scherfig (An Education). Movie buffs will get a kick out the making-the-sausage stuff, as well as the affectionate yet ribbing portrayals of said films; Jake Lacy is particularly funny as the talentless American service hero who’s brought in for international interest, while Bill Nighy is uproarious and unexpectedly touching as a past-his-prime, vainglorious screen star. It takes a bad turn in the third act – too clumsily melodramatic, too conveniently timed – but that complaint aside, it’s a brisk and engaging little movie.
Release Date: April 7 Director: Cristian Mungiu Stars: Adrian Titieni, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Rares Andrici
A life precariously balanced can crash apart rather loudly, and that’s exactly what happens in this powerful domestic drama from writer/director Cristian Mungiu (Beyond the Hills), in which the veneer of respectability covering a Romanian doctor’s life cracks and falls away. When his teenage daughter is assaulted and her scholarship exams are jeopardized, Romeo (Titieni) ends up drawn into a dizzying world of favors exchanged and debts forwarded; Mungiu is fascinated by the way this world works, and conveys its specificity to this region, while underlining that it’s not exclusive to it. That push-pull between how things are done and how things should be becomes the picture’s implicit subject; good people tell each other “I don’t do such things,” but really, they’re telling themselves. And when the good doctor finds himself (in a tight two-shot) trapped in a cramped bathroom with his daughter and her questions, he – and we – have nowhere to hide. Emotionally devastating and endlessly thought-provoking.
Release Date: April 14 Director: Rob Meyer Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Janeane Garafalo, Christine Taylor
This story of an interracial family’s move from New York City to suburban Washington state, and its focus on how their presence is seen by their neighbors primarily as a cool novelty, has been playing the festival circuit for a year and seems like something of a remnant of the Obama era (you could make a very different movie right now). But it captures quite a lot of small truths: the culture shock for their biracial son (particularly at a very tricky moment of adolescence); how familial tension most often manifests itself in quiet, uncomfortable moments; the way bored, comfortable people tend to just end up drinking and drinking and drinking. Melanie Lynskey is perfection as the mother (nobody does “muddling through” as well as she does), while an unrecognizable Nelsan Ellis (aka “Lafayette” from True Blood) is well-matched as the father. Writer Annie J. Howell and director Rob Meyer stack up their woes without making them feel contrived, so when the breakdown comes, it’s real, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s a slender movie (81 minutes without end credits), but it has the richness of a miniseries.
Release Date: April 14 Director: John Scheinfeld Stars: Documentary
Perhaps due to his relative normalcy, perhaps to his very early death (only 40 years old), John Coltrane’s personality never really seeped into the public consciousness the way that, say, his contemporaries Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie’s did. That makes this authorized documentary portrait from director John Scheinfeld that much more valuable – you feel not only closer to the man (whose own words are brought to life by Denzel Washington’s voice) but to his art. With the help of recordings, performance footage, and interviews with family and experts (some you’d expect, like Wynton Marsalis and Ben Ratliff, and some you might not, like Cornell West and Bill Clinton), Scheinfeld patiently works through Coltrane’s process and evolution. He didn’t start out great (as the experts carefully note about his first recordings, and they’re not wrong); he got great by working hard, and collaborating with people who could make him better. In retracing those steps, Scheinfeld’s film does the hardest thing for a bio-doc to do: it gets what’s great about the artist, and moves you in the same ways their art does. Structurally inventive and masterfully edited (with cutting that tunes in to the rhythms of the original music), while offering up plenty of the greatest gift: rare footage of Coltrane playing, so powerful, so passionate, so transcendent.
The Lost City of Z
Release Date: April 14 Director: James Gray Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
The latest epic period drama from director Gray (The Immigrant) vibrates with the aftershocks of Herzog, Apocalypse Now, and even 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, and while it never quite escapes those intimidating shadows, it’s an engaging picture nonetheless – and a gorgeous one, its overwhelming images (lensed by the great Darius Khondji) blessed with the grace of a ballet and the period resonance of tintype photos. Charlie Hunnam comes up short in the lead – his general stiffness works early on, but leaves the picture wanting in the clutch – but Robert Pattinson is terrific as his right-hand man, and Sienna Miller does well with rather an empty supportive wife role. The elegant cutting and handsome staging match the pretty pictures, and if the film never quite finds comparable emotional intensity, well, as one character puts it, “to look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”
A Quiet Passion
Release Date: April 14 Director: Terence Davies Stars: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff
The great Terence Davies helms this somewhat fictionalized biography of Emily Dickinson that, according to our own Sarah Seltzer, transforms “from witty New England family drama and poet’s coming-of-age to a study of claustrophobia, illness, death and anger” that “gets at the core paradox of Dickinson’s work, and what we understand of her life…. This contrast between inner life and outer claustrophobia seeps through each frame of A Quiet Passion, which manages to both grasp at the essence of this strange poet while also allowing space for the mystery of her genius to remain a mystery.”
Free Fire Release Date: April 21 Director: Ben Wheatley Stars: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor
Co-writer/director Wheatley’s latest hits the ground running, with a dirty, fast rock track accompanying credits and introductory scene that whiz by so quickly, it’s clear the director is antsy to get to the good stuff. Said good stuff, in this case, is a gun buy that goes awry, leading to, for all intents and purposes, an hour-long shoot-out sequence, played out in real time. It sounds monotonous and exhausting, and for some audiences, it would be. But Wheatley clearly takes this as some kind of a personal filmmaking challenge, searching out ways to vary his shots, his sound, his movements, and his tempo. And his A-plus ensemble is clearly game, carving out character beats where they can find them, and having a great time shooting, punching, bleeding, and grunting. Those looking for substance will come up wanting, but if you’re in the market for non-stop action, you can do a helluva lot worse.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Release Date: April 21 Director: Matt Tyrnauer Stars: Documentary
What is a city? Who is it for? Whose interests should it serve? And who makes those decisions? These are the questions posed by Matt Tyrnauer’s excellent examination of the ‘60s-era New York City planning and development battles waged by urban renewal czar Robert Moses (power broker, “modernist,” capitalist) and journalist Jane Jacobs (outsider, populist, and bomb thrower, at a time when women were, to put it mildly, not welcomed into these conversations). It’s not hard to tell whose side the film is on – see the title – though to be fair, she was right. In fact, some of the film’s smartest sequences are those that visualize her big ideas, theories, and examples, to the point that it’s as much an adaptation of her work as a bio-doc (and a sharp mini-history of modern New York to boot). But it also does the latter job well, telling a thrilling David vs. Goliath story with high (and clearly stated) stakes. It’s not just about either of these fascinating people, either; it’s about the problems and questions that plague our cities to this day, and the battles that are still being fought there.
Release Date: April 28 Director: J.D. Dillard Stars: Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Dulé Hill
Making magic look cool is no easy job, so credit where due to director/co-writer J.D. Dillard and charismatic star Jacob Latimore; thanks to his easy charisma and Ed Wu’s moody camerawork, they just about pull it off, as Latimore’s “Bo” uses his street magic to float cards, blow minds, and pull the occasional phone number. But he can’t support himself and his sister with tips from tourists, so he hustles weed and molly for a seemingly easy-going dealer (Hill), before findiong himself sliding down a slippery slope, getting in deep with, and soon on the wrong side of, his dangerous boss. It’s a spot he can’t steal or lie his way out of – so he has to think his way out of it. In its broad strokes, it’s similar to Boaz Yakin’s unsung Fresh, though Dillard’s sleek style makes it his own, particularly when he breaks out the big guns for his electrifying climax.