(above: Sam Harkness in “Sam Now”)
My critical output has been hampered recently by my paying gigs and personal writing projects so here are capsule reviews of many worthy films I’ve seen in the past few weeks.
“Sam Now” is a remarkable documentary about abandonment, nurturing and creativity. Director Reed Harkness had already been making home movies with his younger brother Sam when Sam’s mother Jois left Seattle without a word, disappearing in 2000. It would be three years later before Reed and Sam located her and another twelve years until Jois revisited the Harness family.
The deeply moving account of the pain caused by the disappearance and the restoration of relations is made hugely entertaining by the the many short films the two brothers make to illustrate the narrative. The shorts (filmed using a variety of cameras and formats) made me think of the ones in Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans”–charming and imaginative owing to their no-budget, amateur inventiveness.
The film also has a good score (Roger Neill) and many of the films within the film are accompanied by songs that work well with the footage: “Strychnine” by The Sonics and “Rock Bottom Riser” by Smog.
Listen to Adam Schartoff’s interview with director Reed Harkness on his Filmwax Radio Podcast.
“A Woman Kills” is a one of a kind crime thriller that has been restored for DVD by Radiance Films. Jean-Denis Bonan’s controversial 1968 film was never released but is now available in a deluxe blu-ray edition with a wealth of extras. The short feature is an odd mix of police procedural, new wave narrative form and surrealist visuals. Radiance is an interesting distributor, too, re-releasing enhanced packages of hard to find films like Altman’s “O.C. Stiggs” and the 1976 French road movie, “fill ‘er up with super.” Some of these are in limited editions of only 2000 copies!
Two films from the MOMI First Look festival:
With “Tori & Lokita” Belgium’s Dardenne brothers return with a film that is both an entertaining thriller and a powerful commentary on immigration policy. Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Joely Mbundu) are two young African immigrants struggling to survive in a Belgian city by delivering drugs for a thuggish restaurant owner. In return for help getting a work visa, she agrees to be locked up in a cannabis factory. The amazingly resourceful Tori goes searching for her in this exciting and tragic indictment of the continuing exploitation of the victims of colonialization.
“Tori & Lokita” is still screening at MOMI. Go here for dates and ticket info.
There is a strong Lena Dunham vibe in “New Strains,” a pandemic comedy by actor-director duo Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan. They play a couple staying in a relative’s New York apartment when the pandemic strikes. Isolation and fear of “new strains” wreaks havoc in their relationship. They are both very neurotic to begin with and they gradually regress to infantile behavior, made more funny by being shot on an old Hi-8 camcorder. The short feature mainly serves as a showcase of their acting and filmmaking skills and it is good enough to make me want to see more of their work.
Three films from Lincoln Center’s “Rendezvous With French Cinema” festival:
Winner of the Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival “The Worse Ones” is a terrifically entertaining and unique exploration of the representation of poverty in media. A first-time director (Johan Heldenbergh) casts several non-actor local youths in a poor neighborhood of Boulogne-Sur-Mer to lend authenticity to his film. The title refers to the concern of the local residents that these juvenile delinquents will further damage the reputation of their ‘hood. While the film delights in skewering the liberal director’s preconceptions about growing up in poverty it also tries to correct them in scenes of the young amateur actors off set as they deal with their unstable family situations. Two of them, Esther Archambault and Timéo Mahault, give unforgettable performances. Co-directed by Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, this must-see film made me think of Truffaut’s wonderful features about troubled youths.
In “5 Devils” Adèle Exarchopoulos (“Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Zero Fucks Given”) plays a one-time champion gymnast who now teaches swim aerobics in a small French town. Her daughter has an uncanny sense of smell that allows her to revisit her mother’s earlier life. A visit from her aunt leads to scary revelations that tears the family apart. French writer/director Léa Mysius’s second feature is a crackerjack supernatural thriller with great cinematography by co-screenwriter Paul Guilhaume. Exarchopoulos gives yet another sharp, compelling performance.
“Other People’s Children” is a beautifully observed drama about a childless 40-year-old French woman (Virginie Efira, in a radiant performance). Her gynaecologist (a surprise cameo by documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman!) confirms that her chances of becoming pregnant are dimming. When she starts a relationship with divorced Ali (Roschdy Zem) she enthusiastically embraces the role of stepmother to his young daughter. A good jazz score, great cinematography by George Lechaptois and some curious use of silent movie-era vignettes enhance this emotionally heartfelt rom-com that is more genuinely romantic than comedic. Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski.
“Other People’s Children” opens on Friday, April 21 in New York (Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Film Center), Los Angeles (Laemmle Royal) and Chicago (Music Box).