Last Days in the Desert (2015)
Dir. Rodrigo García
Reverential, respectful, minus the overt sermonizing and pontificating all too typical of New Testament-based or Biblical dramas, Rodrigo Garcia’s (Albert Dobbs, Mother and Child, Nine Lives) latest film, Last Days in the Desert, gives us a human Jesus (Ewan McGregor) – or as he’s called here, Yeshua – doubtful of himself, of his relationship with God, even of his voice. Not yet fully formed as the teacher of parables or the healer of the sick and the poor, the Jesus we initially meet in Last Days in the Desert stumbles and hesitates with his words, openly admonishing himself for an awkward phrase or a seemingly unhelpful comment. He’s lost both spiritually and non-metaphorically, eager for word, any word from God. Instead, the Devil (or a hallucination) appears, hoping to drive a wedge between Jesus and his Father. Jesus repeatedly resists, but never strongly. A chance encounter with a desert dwelling family, a father (Ciaran Hinds), his ailing wife (Ayelet Zurer), and their son (Ty Sheridan), loosely mirrors Jesus’ relationship with his father (or fathers) and mother. Where the son wants to break free from tradition and find his own path in life, possibly in Jerusalem, his father wants him to remain with his family, follow in his footsteps as a nomadic goat-herder. The conflict between filial duty and obligation on the one hand and the freedom and liberty to find your path gives Last Days in the Desert not just an emotional resonance, but a universal one beyond a particular set of religious beliefs. A succession of striking visual images, courtesy of Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, The Tree of Life), help to elevate an already elevated script, as do unsurprisingly rounded, nuanced performances from the entire cast.
The Tribe (2014)
Dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
A sadomasochistic endurance test for some, a provocative, controversy-courting, wholly unique, revelatory experience for others, Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s drama, The Tribe, unfolds without dialogue or subtitles. Set at a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf students, The Tribe has more in common with Lindsay Anderson’s If… or Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange, than anything else. With its emphasis on capturing events in real-time through a mix of static, unedited takes or fluid tracking shots, Slaboshpitsky’s filmmaking style owes a great deal to European Art Cinema, but the decision not to provide moviegoers with subtitles or voiceover narration admittedly makes for difficult, challenging viewing, but Slaboshpitsky’s decision pays repeated dividends. The Tribe forces moviegoers into a state of constant awareness, of constantly scanning each shot, each scene, for visual clues. Each clue proves vital to discerning everything from the spatial dimensions of the deaf school and its dormitory, to the subtlety changing relationships between the central character, a mid-year transfer student, and his almost immediate immersion in the school’s rigid, tightly enforced hierarchy, a hierarchy that closely mirrors a criminal enterprise or crime gang, from the older, ruthless ringleader, to the senior boys who “jump in” the central character as part of gang initiation, to petty thefts (e.g., mugging an older man for his groceries, sneaking onto to trains to steal wallets and personal belongings), and to the two deaf girls who the gang regularly sell for the night to lonely truckers. The central character’s descent into brutal, violent criminality is both tragic and inevitable. Admittedly, Slaboshpitsky’s uncompromising direction and formal rigor isn’t for everyone, but that’s exactly why adventurous moviegoers should seek out The Tribe at the first opportunity and see for themselves.
Dir. Michael Almereyda
Practically every “Intro to Psychology” class eventually covers Stanley Milgram’s famous (some would say infamous) in obedience to authority. In Experimenter, Michael Almereyda’s (Anarchy, Hamlet, Nadja) unconventional biopic, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) emerges as more than just an obsessive researcher into human behavior. Driven, even haunted, by the Holocaust, Milgram wanted to find out why so many Germans (and their allies), presumably of good moral standing and ethically grounded, actively participated in the Holocaust. For Miligram, the question wasn’t simply academic or institutional. Milgram was, in his way, a social crusader. Milgram’s critics, however, pointed to the murky ethics surrounding the conditions of the experiment. Subjects were informed they were participants in an experiment, but never the actual subjects. Milgram’s test involved the subjects gradually increasing electric shocks for wrong answers to another participant (actually an actor). Most subjects completed the experiment, their reluctance overcome by another researcher in their room. He agreed to absolve them of responsibility or accountability. Few, however, wanted to heed Milgram’s warnings: Institutional authority, personified or not, was often enough to overcome an individual’s moral or ethical code. While that experiment and its subsequent aftermath remains the center of Experimenter, Almereyda attempts, with mixed success, to give viewers a fuller, more balanced perspective on Milgram, letting Milgram (or rather Sarsgaard) repeatedly break the fourth wall to narrate his own life story as it unfolds. Almereyda also plays with visual conventions, inserting obviously fake backgrounds into multiple scenes, injecting a dose of “question everything” (up to including Milgram’s narration/POV) anti-realist theatricality into the mix.
Cop Car (2015)
Dir. Jon Watts
A not completely unwelcome break from the self-consciously serious indie fare typical of film festivals, writer-director Jon Witt’s film, Cop Car, unfolds – and occasionally unravels – like a throwback to ‘70s exploitation fare. Kevin Bacon (he also produced) stars as a corrupt local sheriff, Kretzer. Kretzer loses the title cop car, a police cruiser, while on decidedly non-police business. He loses his car to two preteen boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford). They claim they’re running away from their respective homes, but all evidence suggests a one-day lark. Until, that is, they find the aforementioned cop car apparently abandoned in the middle of nowhere. In short order, they’re driving like pros (thanks to Mario Kart) and discover a bloodied, bruised man (Shea Whigham) in the trunk of the car. They turn out to be more resourceful than most 10-year-olds, but they’re also far less resourceful than Kretzer, a man who’s managed to hide his criminal activities from everyone else in the sheriff’s department. Witt handles the third-act standoff with the skill of better genre filmmakers, though an underwritten script short on memorable or convincing dialogue, often fails him. That Witt elicits mostly persuasive performances from his preteen actors also deserves credit, though there again, we have to judge their performances on a ready-made curve. When it comes to unambitious exploitation fare like Cop Car, judging on a curve is exactly what we should do.