As ever, the aftermath of the monthly barrage leaves us with a shorter stock of new arrivals, though this time among them many gems lie. It’s the usual crop of independent titles and foreign imports, with a nice focus on newer releases, most of which saw the light of day for the first time only this year. It’s a week in which romances rule the roost, so prepare to lay your sensitive side bare and embrace the love.
Driven from the get-go far more by its characters than most similar independent horrors, Absentia takes its time to introduce us to the pregnant Tricia and her sister Callie ever before it even attempts to scare. Familiar with their personalities and their dynamic, we are more predisposed to understand their feelings when Tricia’s husband—missing for the last seven years—suddenly reappears with no memory of where he has been. In dramatic terms, Absentia makes the most of an intriguing story, writer/director Mike Flanagan drawing great work from talented leads and establishing an engrossing mystery we’re genuinely curious to see solved. The film’s efforts at horror are a good deal less successful, unfortunately, relying on the audience’s willingness to accept a frankly silly series of plot hole-ridden revelations that undermine the realism of the characters. It’s a sad shame to see such good work go down the drain; alas, Flanagan’s real horror is wasting such promise. SO-SO.
Claiming in its opening credits to have its feet firmly set in reality, Apart nonetheless seems to take a liberty or two in its portrayal of induced delusional disorder, a condition whereby one person’s psychotic episodes begin to manifest themselves in another’s mind too. Awakening from a coma incurred in the midst of the fire that killed his father, Noah struggles to discover the truth behind his tragedy and the identity of a mysterious girl to whom his mind repeatedly flashes back. An interesting concept given solid treatment in Aaron Rottinghaus’ execution, Apart is less psychological thriller than straight romance, using its convoluted plot device only as a means by which to explore the impact and implications of young love. Aided by the palpable chemistry of leads Olesya Rulin and Josh Danziger, this is a mature and measured character study that makes intelligent usage of a strange phenomenon which a lesser filmmaker would have attributed far more focus to. RECOMMENDED.
If ever there were a film accurately summated by its title, it was this. Interviewing a handful of gay men who enjoyed the New York scene in the years before AIDs broke out, Gay Sex in the ‘70s profiles the prolific promiscuity of the city’s newly liberated homosexual community. While there’s something nice about seeing these men happily recalling their younger years, the film struggles to find anything of substance to say, less an insightful look at gay life than a blissful catalogue of romantic reminiscences. Compared to something like We Were Here—which fulfilled the same role for the San Francisco gay community while rooting it all in something of much greater importance—Gay Sex in the ‘70s seems just a shallow and inconsequential exercise, particularly when it limply turns an eye toward AIDs in its final ten minutes. Robbed of wider relevance, this is little more than a sequence of random sex stories. SO-SO.
Returning to the characters he established in his controversial black comedy breakthrough Happiness, Todd Solondz casts new actors in each role for this strangely experimental sequel. Perhaps to diminish pre-existing sympathies; perhaps to physically express the passage of time; perhaps simply because no actor would willingly appear in two child molestation comedies: whatever Solondz’s casting rationales, the outcome is a bizarre experience for those who well remember the original film. The loss of Dylan Baker as Bill—a convicted paedophile released from prison as the film begins—is sorely felt, though Ciarán Hinds does well to fill his shoes as best as possible. It’s a film of even darker humour than Happiness, if that’s possible, finding things to laugh at in some remarkably tragic human circumstances. It might not have the same jarring challenge to the sympathies as its predecessor, but Life During Wartime is a worthy follow-up, a film just as terrifically twisted and trying. RECOMMENDED.
Harrelson’s character is a familiar one, inhabiting essentially the same shoes as De Niro in Taxi Driver, more closely Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, but Moverman does enough differently with him to establish his own identity and allow the film to exist on its own merits. There are early issues in certain directorial choices, most memorably the brain-numbing decision to shoot a scene with a roundabout camera swing that just undermines the meaning of the sequence. It’s this and other aesthetic problems that are serious enough to take away from the viewing experience and threaten the impressive power of the story itself, but fortunately the finale is so perfectly true to the character that it wraps as a searing and impactful character study. It falls prey to the familiarity of certain plot contortions and stock characters, but here we have a character driven crime-thriller with a great lead and the kind of abrasive and edgy tone that draws us into his world. RECOMMENDED.
Black and brooding like the best of Irish comedy, Tom Hall’s Sensation takes as it subject prostitution, focusing on the fortunes of a young man who invests the inheritance from his recently deceased father in setting up an escort service for lonely rural farmers. Amusing as the setup is, Hall plays much of the film surprisingly straight, letting protagonist Donal’s burgeoning relationship with business co-founder Kim occupy the spotlight. That’s not to say it’s an ineffective comedy—expect socially awkward chuckles aplenty—rather that these are characters who significantly impress. Never building to a particularly satisfying climax, the film runs out of steam in the final third, but by then the central relationship has earned enough intrigue to not suffer too significantly. Showcasing much of the same skill as his famous father, Domhnall Gleeson is a compelling lead, his astute comic talent as invaluable as his deadpan dramatic delivery. WORTH WATCHING.
A look at the inner workings of production design might seem an interesting topic to only the most hardened cinephile, yet Daniel Raim’s documentary is far more than an attempt to present a comprehensive job description. Centred on industry legend Robert Boyle and his colleagues Henry Bumstead and Albert Nozaki, Something’s Gonna Live sees the trio recall their work for Hitchcock and others in Hollywood’s golden age, elucidating the undervalued importance of their craft. Considerations of living on through their films lead to deeper ruminations on life and death, and among the endearing banter of these three true gents we gain an unexpectedly profound perspective on the impression we leave on the world. Made all the more meaningful by the fact that just one of the six craftsman featured—Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, and Harold Michelson also appear—lived to see its release, this is a funny, touching, and illuminating movie experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A strong cast is the prime attraction in Brady Kiernan’s independent drama, featuring Sam Rosen and Zoe Lister Jones as two old school friends who reunite by chance one night in Minneapolis. Together they journey from party to party with rueful angst, each tormented by personal strife. She is the jilted mistress of her college professor, he is a recently orphaned soldier due to return to Afghanistan in the morning. Both leads inhabit their characters with the right balance of pathos and passion, embodying the two with the realism required of a film that features their relationship in every scene. Michael Imperioli’s turn as the professor adds a dash of esteem to proceedings, though he and all secondary characters prove little more than distractions from what we really want to see. Though it never hits the emotional heights it strives for, Stuck Between Stations is a solemn story of people alone in the world, striving for a little connection. WORTH WATCHING.
The debut feature of Valérie Donzelli, whose Declaration of War was France’s 2011 submission to the Oscars, The Queen of Hearts is less sophisticated than that later film, both in its character depth and its technical merits. Starring Donzelli as broken-hearted Adèle, it’s a quirky comedy that casts Jérémie Elkaïm as not only Adèle’s ex, but also as three suitors she meets in the months following her break-up. Benefitting from some well-written comedy and the appealingly frenetic performance of Donzelli, it’s a film not without its charm, but so bogged down by aggravating issues as to be unable to channel that into something more successful. Periodic bursts into song and dance are entirely unearned and abundantly annoying, as are the unending wailings of the unhappy Adèle. Elkaïm’s quadruple role is a stroke of genius in its approximation of obsession, but it’s just not enough to salvage a sinking ship of cloyingly quirky humour. SO-SO.
A quiet examination of the intricacy of gender as seen through the eyes of a child, Tomboy stars a magnificent Zoé Héran as the young girl who decides to assume the name Mikael and present herself as a boy to the kids of her new neighbourhood. Writer/director Céline Sciamma, whose 2007 film Water Lilies was just as powerful and affecting a treatise on sexual identity, manages with her youthful protagonist to simplify the issue as a basis from which to explore its potent social complexity. The gender divides which appear so early in life are scrutinised against the backdrop of childhood gaiety and merriment, contrasting the free innocence of young life with the iron-cast constraints of adult society. It’s impossible not to be taken in by the magic of Mikael’s budding romance with the sweet Lisa, nor to nervously watch as the façade inevitably crumbles. As sweetly charming as it is astutely political, Tomboy is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.