Light snow, misty fog, and falling ash blend in the opening scenes of David Lowery’s magnificent “The Green Knight,” setting a surreal tone for what’s to come. You can feel the chill and smell the air. Immediately, you feel outside yourself, far from daily concerns, set for an experience that's unlike anything else in nearby theaters. That feeling won't subside for over two hours.
Lowery has adapted the 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into one of the most memorable films of the year, a fascinating swirl of masculinity, temptation, heroism, and religion. Arthurian experts may quibble with some of Lowery’s decisions and it is certainly a film that challenges traditional expectations of stories about heroic knights for modern audiences, but fans will be drawn to this mesmerizing journey guided by Lowery’s incredibly poetic eye, career-best work from Dev Patel, and an artistic sensibility that transports audiences to another world. It’s a film that embeds the concept of storytelling and performance into its narrative—whether it’s a King asking for a heroic tale or children watching a puppet show—while also weaving its own enchanting spell on audiences. More than any movie in a long time, I would have immediately watched it again, but it’s also a film that really strengthens in memory, swirling around your brain like the falling flakes of the opening scenes.
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), and the son of Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), accused by some in the village of witchcraft. After a brief opening scene with his lover (Alicia Vikander) and mother, Gawain is off to a lavish Christmas banquet with the King and Queen, at which he is surprised to be asked to sit by their side. Arthur speaks to him of taking young Gawain for granted, and immediately Patel conveys depth with his striking eyes, relaying both the emotional pride that comes with finally feeling seen. (He does so much throughout the film in terms of physical performance, using his eyes and body to find emotion without dialogue.) Long, deliberately slow exchanges between Gawain and Arthur set the tone: This is not an action film. Arthur asks to hear a tale.
One unfolds in front of their eyes. The doors to the hall burst open and the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters. Half-man, half-tree, he casts an imposing figure, and he wants to play “The Christmas Game.” He offers a deal. He challenges any of Arthur’s knights to strike him. If they can, the knight will get his imposing weapon in exchange. But there’s a cost. A year hence, the knight must come to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight will return the exact strike given him a year earlier. Gawain steps forward, and despite being reminded that this is a game by Arthur, beheads the Green Knight. The mythical creature picks up his head, which doesn’t seem too concerned about its detachment, and laughs as it rides off. Gawain is about to have a long year.
This is all really prologue to “The Green Knight,” the bulk of which consists of Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel to meet his fate. Along the way, he meets a scavenger played by Barry Keoghan, a mysterious young woman played by Erin Kellyman, and a Lord played by Joel Edgerton. Lowery’s script deftly matches the poetic structure of its source, circling back to themes like the rhyming structure of a poem, and unfolding his story in what almost feel like cinematic stanzas that repeat and comment on each other. Gawain’s journey becomes a spiral, feeling more and more like a dream, as if he never really left that banquet with the Green Knight to begin with, and the film gains momentum through a cumulative sense of disorientation. It becomes not so much a story of a physical journey but a mental and emotional one, a series of challenges before a young man faces his ultimate fate.
With its loose storytelling structure, the tech elements of “The Green Knight” become even more essential to its success. Lowery has brought his remarkable team, including regular composer Daniel Hart and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. (He edits the film himself, and reportedly re-cut it dramatically from the version that was supposed to premiere at SXSW in March of 2020.) The fluid cinematography alternates between dreamlike and something deeply connected to Mother Nature. “The Green Knight” is about many things—and some of the best film writing of this year will unpack its themes in more depth—but a sense of man’s relatively minor role in the grand scope of history and nature is essential, and Palermo beautifully captures the lush greens of the world around Gawain, as if the Knight himself is already everywhere. Vikander gets a phenomenal speech about how much we all return to the earth and Gawain is constantly being reminded of his insignificance and fragility. If The Green Knight doesn’t get him, something else will.
While it may be his most ambitious film, Lowery has played with complex themes before in projects like “A Ghost Story,” and this reflects that film’s questioning of meaning in the relatively small window of a human existence. Once again, Lowery leaves just enough open to interpretation and yet never lacks in confidence. That’s the incredibly fine line that great films often walk—when a work can feel both assured in the voices of its creators and yet open enough to spark conversation. “The Green Knight” is one of those films. One never questions that Lowery knows exactly what he’s doing, and yet people will walk away with very different readings of “The Green Knight.” Again, that’s akin to a great poem that means something unique to each person that reads it, and some of those readings may even surprise the original author.
“The Green Knight” asks a lot of its viewers—to stay engaged with what could be called its slow pace, to consider its themes without them being underlined for easy consumption, to be willing to see a film about famous knight that contains very little in the way of traditional heroism. It is scary, sexy, and strange in ways that American films are rarely allowed to be, culminating in a sequence that cast the whole film in a new light for this viewer. We're all just sitting in that banquet hall, listening to the story requested by King Arthur, told by a master storyteller.
In the pantheon of Disney movies based on Disney theme park rides, "Jungle Cruise" is pretty good—leagues better than dreck like "Haunted Mansion," though not quite as satisfying as the original "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The most pleasant surprise is that director Jaume Collet-Serra ("The Shallows") and a credited team of five, count 'em, writers have largely jettisoned the ride's mid-century American colonial snarkiness and casual racism (a tradition only recently eliminated). Setting the revamp squarely in the wheelhouse of blockbuster franchise-starters like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Romancing the Stone" and "The Mummy," and pushing the fantastical elements to the point where the story barely seems to be taking place in our universe, it's a knowingly goofy romp, anchored to the banter between its leads, an English feminist and adventurer played by Emily Blunt and a riverboat captain/adventurer played by Dwayne Johnson.
Notably, however, even though the stars' costumes (and a waterfall sequence) evoke the classic "The African Queen"—John Huston's comic romance/action film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn; worth looking up if you've never watched it—the sexual chemistry between the two is nonexistent, save for a few fleeting moments, like when Frank picks up the heroine‘s hand-cranked silent film camera and captures affectionate images of her. At times the leads seem more like a brother and sister needling each other than a will they/won’t they bantering couple. Lack of sexual heat is often (strangely) a bug, or perhaps a feature, in films starring Johnson, the four-quadrant blockbuster king (though not on Johnson’s HBO drama "Ballers"). Blunt keeps putting out more than enough flinty looks of interest to sell a romance, but her leading man rarely reflects it back at her. Fortunately, the film's tight construction and prolific action scenes carry it, and Blunt and Johnson do the irresistible force/immovable object dynamic well enough, swapping energies as the story demands.
Blunt's character, Lily Houghton, is a well-pedigreed adventurer who gathers up maps belonging to her legendary father and travels to the Amazon circa 1916 to find the Tears of the Moon, petals from a "Tree of Life"-type of fauna that can heal all infirmities. She and her snooty, pampered brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) hire Frank "Skipper" Wolff (Johnson) to bring them to their destination. The only notable concession to the original theme park ride comes here: Wolff's day job is taking tourists upriver and making cheesy jokes in the spirit of "hosts" on Disney Jungle Cruise rides of yore. On the mission, Johnson immediately settles into a cranky but funny old sourpuss vibe, a la John Wayne or Harrison Ford, and inhabits it amiably enough, even though buoyant, almost childlike optimism comes more naturally to him than world-weary gruffness.
The supporting cast is stacked with overqualified character players. Paul Giamatti plays a gold-toothed, sunburned, cartoonishly “Italian” harbor master who delights at keeping Frank in debt. Edgar Ramirez is creepy and scary as a conquistador whose curse from centuries ago has trapped him in the jungle. Jesse Plemons plays the main baddie, Prince Joachim, who wants to filch the power of the petals for the Kaiser back in Germany (he's Belloq to the stars' Indy and Marion, trying to swipe the Ark). Unsurprisingly, given his track record, Plemons steals the film right out from under its leads.
Collet-Serra keeps the action moving along, pursuing a more classical style than is commonplace in recent live-action Disney product (by which I mean, the blocking and editing have a bit of elegance, and you always know where characters are in relation to each other). The editing errs on the side of briskness to such an extent that affecting, beautiful, or spectacular images never get to linger long enough to become iconic. The CGI is dicey, particularly on the larger jungle animals—was the production rushed, or were the artists just overworked?—and there are moments when everything seems so rubbery/plasticky that you seem to be watching the first film that was actually shot on location at Disney World.
But the staging and execution of the chases and fights compensates. Derivative of films that were themselves highly derivative, "Jungle Cruise" has the look and feel of a paycheck gig for all involved, but everyone seems to be having a great time, including the filmmakers.
In theaters and on Disney+ for a premium charge starting Friday, July 30th.
Beneath the weathered baseball cap and bushy goatee, the parade of plaid shirts and the polite replies of “Yes, ma’am,” there’s a whole lot more to Bill Baker. Sure, he listens to old-school country in his pickup truck while driving between manual labor gigs and he never fails to pray before a meal, even if it’s tater tots and a cherry limeade from Sonic. It seems perfectly natural to him to keep a couple of guns in his run-down Oklahoma home, and he never misses an opportunity to watch his favorite college football team.
But there’s something simmering within this collection of red-state stereotypes, and “Stillwater” is at its best when it explores those complexities and contradictions. Beefed-up and sad-eyed, Matt Damon brings great subtlety and pathos to the role, especially when he cracks his stoic character open ever so gently and allows warmth, vulnerability, and even hope to shine through on his road to redemption. But Bill’s tale of hard-earned second chances is one of many stories director Tom McCarthy is telling in “Stillwater,” and while it’s the most compelling, it also gets swallowed up almost entirely during the film’s insane third act.
The script, which McCarthy co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain, Marcus Hinchey, and Noe Debre, loosely takes its inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox, the American college student convicted in 2007 of killing her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. Eight years later, Knox was acquitted. “Stillwater” moves the action to the French port city of Marseilles and introduces us to Bill’s daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), after she’s already served five years of a nine-year prison sentence for the murder of her lover, a young Muslim woman.
Allison insists she’s innocent; Bill resolutely believes her. And so “Stillwater” is also the story of a father and daughter trying to mend their strained relationship as he makes frequent visits to chat and do her laundry and she pretends to care as he prattles on about Oklahoma State football. (The college campus is in—that’s right—Stillwater, Bill and Allison’s hometown. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, the title refers to our hero’s demeanor, as well.) “Life is brutal,” each of them says at one point, and one of the more intriguing elements of “Stillwater” is the notion that being a screw-up is hereditary, which pushes against its feel-good, Hollywood-ending urges.
But wait, there’s more—so much more. Because the primary driving narrative here is the possibility that Allison can prove her innocence based on jailhouse hearsay about an elusive, young Arab man. Here, “Stillwater” becomes a procedural reminiscent of McCarthy’s Oscar best-picture winner “Spotlight,” as Bill knocks on doors and follows one lead after another, talking to people who either help him or don’t in his efforts to exonerate his only child. In this vein, it’s also about the racial tensions and socioeconomic disparities that exist in both France and the United States, and the blindly confident swagger with which some Americans carry themselves overseas—even someone like Bill who is, to borrow from the Tim McGraw song, humble and kind.
And for a big chunk of its midsection, it’s about a middle-aged man forming an unexpected friendship—and then a makeshift family—with a single mom and her little girl. Virginie (a vibrant and charismatic Camille Cottin) and her daughter, Maya (an adorable and steely Lilou Siauvaud), give the widowed Bill a shot at righting the wrongs of his past. Virginie and Bill initially connect when she offers to help him in his investigation by making calls, translating and generally serving as his guide through an ancient city he’s barely gotten to know. The relationship makes zero sense on paper—she’s a bohemian actress, he’s an oil-rig worker—but the small kindnesses they show each other allow them to forge a bond, and allow Bill to reveal more about himself and his tortured history, piece by piece. It sounds cheesy, but surprisingly, it works.
This is far and away the strongest section of “Stillwater,” and if the majority of this film had focused on this understated dynamic and the quiet hope of better days to come, it would have been more than satisfying. The performances here are lovely, and Damon enjoys distinctly sweet connections with both Cottin and Siauvaud. But then it takes a significant turn into darker territory toward the end, with twists predicated on major coincidences and reckless decisions. “Stillwater” also becomes a far less interesting film as it slogs through its overlong running time. While it’s fascinating to consider Bill’s self-destructive streak rearing its head once again, even after it seems he’s finally found some peace, the way it plays out is so wild and implausible, it feels like it was ripped from an entirely different movie and grafted on here. Within this eventful stretch, there’s also a suicide attempt that’s tossed in almost as a baffling afterthought, as it’s never mentioned again.
Ultimately, the cacophony of all these plot lines converging and the weight of the messaging being conveyed is almost too much to bear. Details get spelled out and characters explain their motivations when maintaining an overall air of mystery would have been far more effective. Whether or not Allison is guilty isn’t the point; enjoying a moment of stillness and solitude in the afternoon sunshine is, even if it's fleeting.
Now playing in theaters.
“Lorelei” is clumsy and heartfelt in equal measure, not unlike its protagonists, two people just young enough to remember the dreams they had as teenagers and just old enough to realize they’re not coming true. Anchored by powerful performances by two deeply underrated actors, “Lorelei” is a heartfelt drama that succumbs to some thin dialogue and set-ups but feels like it truly loves its outsider characters, and that empathy allows us to root for them too.
Sabrina Doyle’s film opens with the release of Wayland (Pablo Schreiber) after more than a dozen years behind bars. He parties with his motorcycle gang buddies, setting up a drama that seems like it’s about to be an ex-con getting sucked back into a criminal lifestyle, but “Lorelei” is, refreshingly, not that movie. It develops into a story of people living on the edge of homelessness, how many in this country struggle to put food on the table every single day, working menial jobs as their dreams of success get further and further away.
When he spots Dolores (Jena Malone) in a single mother’s meeting in the church in which he’s living, it’s basically akin to time travel for Wayland. After all, the two were teenage sweethearts, talking about the lives of wonder set out in front of them. Lola even has Wayland’s name tattooed on her body, which must have been a conversation starter for the fathers of her three children: Dodger (Chancellor Perry), Denim (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard), and Periwinkle (Amelia Borgerding). She works as a maid at a cheap motel during the day and Wayland gets a low-paying job too before moving in with Dolores. The two struggle to maintain their thin economic stability; a centerpiece scene shows how Peri’s birthday isn’t everything she wants it to be, and it sends Dolores into an emotional tailspin. Like so many Americans, these are people who are one bad day from homelessness, trying to keep it together while also somehow being good parents at the same time.
Schreiber and Malone invest their characters with true depth, making up for some cliched plotting and dialogue (particularly when it comes to the three children, too often rendered in ways that feel melodramatic). Schreiber uses his massive size in an interesting way in that he’s such an imposing figure but he allows himself to also be fascinatingly vulnerable at the same time. I've always liked Schreiber and wish more directors would use him this well. He has remarkable range. He understands that Wayland is a little more cynically realistic than Lola, but he’s also a kind soul, someone who wants to do the right thing. He just knows that doing that right thing isn’t going to guarantee you anything in this world. It's a subtle piece of work in a film that could have been nothing but melodrama.
The equally-underrated Malone matches him with a more emotionally raw performance. If she gave up on happiness years ago, the sparks from reuniting with Wayland almost breaks her. It’s as if he reminds her of what she never became. After all, the last time she saw the ocean it was with him. So while he’s everything she wants now, he’s also everything she never had then. Malone nails this complexity. They’re both fantastic—reason alone to see “Lorelei.”
Even the beats of “Lorelei” that feel manufactured connect because of the tenderness of the filmmaking and performances. It may not be a drama that one could always call “genuine,” but the leads push through the tropes to find the real beating hearts of their characters without ever being showy or exploitative. They are deeply empathetic to people like Wayland and Lola, the thousands of people out there who right now may be putting one dream away as they try to come to terms with the present they never expected to have.
Now playing in select theaters and available on demand.
If you didn't know that "Nine Days" was the feature debut of director Edson Oda, you would assume Oda had many films under his belt. He presents his bold vision with confidence (he also wrote the script), and he's courageous enough to have at the center of his first film the eternal issues of the human condition: What does it mean to be alive? How do we appreciate life while we are here? Is it even possible? Oda does not shy away from these crucial questions, and finds a format to address them with a minimum of hokum, and a minimum of New-Age bromides. "Nine Days" got raves when it premiered at Sundance last year. It's such an exciting debut.
There's a moment early on that shows Oda's sensitivity at accumulating small everyday moments in service to the story being told. He grounds the otherworldly world in the familiar. In a small clapboard house, surrounded by forbidding desert, co-workers Will (Winston Duke) and Kyo (Benedict Wong) watch a video recording of a violin prodigy's concerto, playing on one of the screens in the wall of vintage televisions, each one connected to an old-school rickety VCR. Will and Kyo are dressed up for the concert. Will put on a bowtie. They stand at attention, staring at the small screen. They look like proud fathers.
What this all means becomes clear in the well-crafted opening sequences, with their deliberate pacing, and disinclination to rush or over-explain. Will is in charge of evaluating all unborn souls, choosing which ones get to move on, and enter the world as new life. He puts them through a rigorous nine-day process. Will himself was alive once. He was once "chosen" by a figure just like himself. And so he understands the world, he understands humanity. He comes at this process with a stern and inflexible command. He must choose the most suitable soul. He cannot get too involved. The violin prodigy was one of Will's picks, and he watches over her life on the television screen with almost unbearable emotion. She is "his." He keeps meticulous file folders on all of his "picks," storing away carefully labeled VHS tapes of every moment of their lives.
New candidates walk across the stretch of desert and knock on his door. Played by Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, Arianna Ortiz, David Rysdahl and Zazie Beetz, these candidates arrive with different personalities and sensibilities, and diverse attitudes towards the process. Will explains that once they are born on earth, they will forget all that has happened, but "you will still be you" (the implication being that we arrive on this earth with essences already in place). Right before the new batch of candidates show up, Will was horrified at footage of Amanda, the violinist, crashing her car on the way to a concert (the television screen switches to color bars and then goes black). Will cannot understand. He searches his files for a clue to her state of mind. Did he miss something? How could this happen? He takes the loss hard. Meanwhile, he works with each candidate, putting them through their paces. But something is "off" in Will. His equilibrium is shattered. Duke does a wonderful job at establishing Will's normal character so we can instantly perceive that something has changed.
The strength of "Nine Days" is not so much the scenario (although that is imaginative and well-constructed) but the mood Oda sets, the clarity with which he establishes this world, how it operates, its rules and traditions. There is a score by Antonio Pinto but it drops out for long stretches. When music shows up, it has great resonance and power. Oda's script is filled with talk. The scenes are long and often deal in very difficult metaphysical and ethical questions. It's common to hear people repeat, ad nauseum, that "show, not tell" is an important rule. But there are plenty of very "talky" films that are riveting. Rules are made to be broken, and Oda's script does. The actors help in this, approaching the material with vulnerability and intelligence.
Each scene shows the process unfolding. Every detail is important. One of the candidates, Emma (Beetz), is different than the others. She can't play by the rules of Will's questionnaire. She asks questions about his questions. When presented with a hypothetical scenario and asked what she would do, she sometimes says, "I don't know." Unheard of. Will is frustrated by her and yet is strangely drawn to her, too. Beetz, with her transparent face, her beautiful emotional openness, embodies receptivity. She takes it all in. She may be a new soul, but she can't help but look at Will and sense his unfinished business. She asks him why his experience as a living human was so painful, and Will refuses her requests for more information. He shuts the filing cabinet on his own story.
There are other films that stroll into this metaphysical almost spiritual territory, Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life" perhaps the most obvious example. In "Defending Your Life," the recently-dead are sent to a Purgatory-type resort, where they are judged on whether or not they are ready to "move on," presumably to Heaven. Brooks approached this material with humor, and achieved a profound result. "Nine Days," however, has a yearning bittersweet quality, generated from Will's unhappy awareness of the pain awaiting the unborn souls when they leave his care. There's also the question of whether or not life is worth living, even in the face of all that pain, and the eventuality of death.
Although Kurosawa's "Ikiru" does not have a supernatural or sci-fi element, its concerns are similar. Is it possible to be totally aware of life as you are living it? Does the awareness of death change how we live? We always think we have a little more time. We waste the time we have sweating the small stuff. The famous final scene of "Ikiru" is echoed in "Nine Days," in the moments when Will gives the rejected candidate a chance to experience a moment of life that they've observed on the television screens. Not surprisingly, the candidates choose the fleeting moments, the moments of small sensory joys: riding a bike, playing in the waves. In the final scene of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily, who has been given the chance to re-live one day of her life, cuts the exercise short because it's painful, life moves by too quickly. When she says goodbye to the earth, it's the small everyday things she will miss:
"Goodbye to clocks ticking ... and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?"
This is the territory "Nine Days" inhabits. It's daunting territory and the pitfalls—of sentimentality, of over-simplification, of pushed emotions accompanied by sweeping strings—are everywhere. "Nine Days" doesn't avoid all those pitfalls. There are a couple of moments that feel not so much pushed as over-determined. Will's journey—and Emma's pushing of Will to open up about his pain—trembles on the brink of a cliché, like the moment Robin Williams makes Matt Damon cry in "Good Will Hunting." However, Oda's touch is extremely controlled, and the actors are so connected to what they are doing, that the film doesn't feel manipulative. The catharsis, when it comes, is exhilarating.
It's easy to sweep an audience away with emotion. What is not so easy is to create a film that asks Emily's question: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" and ask it honestly. "Nine Days" not only asks the question over and over, but allows space for the answer to reveal itself.
Now playing in select theaters.
There is so much earth-shattering bravery on display in the miraculous “Sabaya” that you wonder how the Swedish-Kurdish director Hogir Hirori managed to pull off a documentary that avoids showy, predictable notes of brouhaha throughout. Rounding off a non-fiction trilogy of sorts after 2016’s “The Girl Who Saved My Life” and 2017’s “The Deminer”—all concerning the wartime plight and cruel abuse of the Yazidis, a religious minority in Northern Iraq—Hirori smartly favors something quiet and reflective instead. With boundless humanism, he chronicles an unremitting rescue mission here—one that unfolds amid unspeakable evil and boldly confronts it.
To grasp the magnitude of the malice depicted in “Sabaya,” one needs to start with the meaning of the word that gives the film its title. There’s no sugarcoating it—sabaya is the name ISIS (or Daesh in its Arabic acronym) has given to countless Yazidi women they have abducted five years ago from the Sinjar province of Iraq (after murdering the men of the population in thousands) and turned into sex slaves. These girls and young women—some, devastatingly, are still children—were sold, raped, and tortured by Daesh ever since under the sham guise of marriage. Most of them, as we learn, are still being kept by Daesh in northeastern Syria’s notoriously dangerous Al-Hol Camp, a settlement that holds nearly 73,000 locked-up Daesh supporters in derelict tents and is guarded by Kurdish forces. In “Sabaya,” Hirori follows Mahmud and Ziyad, two heroic men who volunteer out of the nearby Yazidi Home Center to rescue the sabaya at great personal risk. The pair are supported and enabled by Mahmud’s wife Siham, his mother Zahra, and a group of female infiltrators (some of them, former sabaya) who secretly and selflessly plant themselves into the camp to find Yazidi women that they could help escape through unthinkable nerve and strength.
Picking up a tirelessly ringing phone day in and day out and speaking with desperate Yazidi families looking for their missing kin, Mahmud and Ziyad embark on numerous missions during the film, many of which are bound to end with disappointment and heartbreak. But what a colossal difference the two make on the lives of those they are able to bring back and unite with their forlorn families in Iraq. With the nurturing help of Siham and Zahra and the comforting presence of Mahmud’s young son, the liberated but shell-shocked victims slowly settle under the protective wing of the family, and try to transition to the world on the other side of their now-removed niqabs.
What we perceive in the process is a blend of love, patience, and sympathy as well as a million acts kindness towards these girls and women (some, understandably suicidal) who question their worth and future, wondering how a god that’s supposed to be all benevolent could let this happen. One says, “I hate this world. Everything is black.” Another one soul-crushingly speaks of how she was sold to 15 different men and constantly beaten, retaining destroyed teeth and a hole in her head in the aftermath. Remarkably, Mahmud’s family doesn’t only offer these former sex slaves physical safety—in unison, they provide the girls a path towards psychological healing, too. An example of this is a simple act that symbolizes rebirth—on various nights, Siham burns the sabayas’ former clothes in her home’s courtyard. Her young son spiritedly prays: “I hope God will eliminate these clothes!” As the viewer, you might tearily nod alongside the kid and perhaps even mutter a similarly hopeful wish.
Also the editor and cinematographer here, Hirori remains respectfully observational in “Sabaya.” There are times you wish to hear more from the rescued women and even engage with the heroic female infiltrators further—but perhaps due to understandable safety concerns, Hirori keeps these interactions at a bare minimum. Still, this shortage doesn’t necessarily impede the emotional impact of his film, as Hirori channels a sense of visceral sway through other details: the unfussy domestic rhythms of the Yazidi Home Center, a dog’s bark, close-ups of hands, feet and teardrops lingering on a young woman’s proud face, the faded “Titanic” poster someone optimistically taped up on the closet where Mahmud keeps his gun… Elsewhere, when Hirori’s camera follows the rescuers into the camp, his tone carefully sidesteps thriller-esque indulgences in keeping with the documentary’s overall unobtrusiveness and subtlety. In that regard, what you see in “Sabaya” feels frightening not because of manipulative filmmaking techniques, but because of the undiluted reality Hirori allows you to perceive like a fly on the wall.
With simple title cards at the end, Hirori lays bare some basic stats, both heartening and traumatic. To this day, over 206 women were saved by the Yazidi Home Center. Fifty-two of those gave birth to children. And there are still more than 2,000 abducted Yazidi girls and women missing. Thanks to the fearless “Sabaya,” that last line will become a permanent part of your moral consciousness.
Now playing in select theaters.
Sonia Kennebeck’s “Enemies of the State” spirals and swirls in a way that’s meant to enhance the “isn’t this crazy” aspect of its true story, but its filmmaking tricks have become cliched in the era of True Crime obsession. In the end, what’s true and what’s not about the case of Matt DeHart gets hazier with each subsequent revelation in this too-often cluttered film, one that leans into conspiracy theories in order to make itself more entertaining. Instead of peeling back layers of this interesting story, Kennebeck weighs it down with overheated filmmaking, soundbites that sound scripted, and a lack of true confidence in the story that’s being told. Was Matt DeHart a pedophile or a hacker who stumbled onto government secrets so intense that they framed him in order to keep him quiet? What if both could be true?
In 2009, Matt DeHart was arrested for possessing child pornography, but he almost immediately accused the government of framing him for his involvement with WikiLeaks and the hacker group known as Anonymous. With his parents Paul and Leann serving as essentially his spokespeople, a narrative was built that placed DeHart in the same breath as someone like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden. He discovered the truth about something the government couldn’t allow out and so they trumped up charges, threw him in jail, and even tortured him.
Kennebeck does uncover some remarkable documents that support DeHart's allegations against the government, including a fascinating document in which he signed away “Consent to Assume Online Identity,” giving agents not only access to his web data but tacit approval to pretend to be him. At this point in the film, it’s presumed this incredible document that I didn't know was even possible is to entrap more couriers in the Wikileaks universe, but couldn’t it just as easily have been to entrap those involved in the child pornography that DeHart was accused of possessing? “Enemies of the State” regularly plays in this gray area where we’re meant to be uncertain about not only Matt DeHart’s guilt but how much his parents played a role in crafting his narrative. They worked overtime to build the narrative that people were watching all three of the DeHarts, and continue to do so.
They also undeniably tried to help him escape justice, first getting Matt to a Russian embassy, where he may have at least attempted to trade state secrets, and then to Canada, where his public persona as a prosecuted hero of the Snowden era was really built. Imagine if none of it is true and then consider the victims of DeHart watching his face be put on t-shirts. It’s stomach-churning. And there’s a fascinating story to be told about someone who very likely was a predator finding a way through the internet era to turn himself into an icon.
However, “Enemies of the State” isn’t quite that movie. Kennebeck never finds the right throughline and chooses a structure of exaggerated revelations over insight. A better film would have put it all on the table early and then asked viewers to unpack not only what they think about DeHart but what his story says about our government and internet culture. She gets there, but it’s after a trudging collection of overheated soundbites like “Secrets and shadows were everywhere in this story.” A very little bit of that goes a long way, and a lot of the set-ups in "Enemies of the State" feel as forced as that quip. For example, when Matt's mom pulled a Guy Fawkes mask out of her son's bureau, I felt like I was being used, and I wasn't sure if it was by mom or the filmmaker. (Or both.) And there are a few too many recreations here for my taste. While it’s smart of Kennebeck to use the real audio, a few of them start to feel exploitative, especially in the final act when an incriminating phone call is unearthed. Why use an actress there? Feels a little ghoulish.
What is the true story of Matt DeHart? Only he will ever fully know. He undeniably tried to alter the narrative after getting on the radar of the authorities, but did he do so because he was hiding his evil nature or running from a government who was trying to silence him? And how would we know the difference? It’s a fascinating story. I only wish I felt like “Enemies of the State” knew how to tell it.
Now playing in theaters and available on demand.
"The Evening Hour," directed by Braden King, based on a novel by Carter Sickels, takes place in a small Kentucky town, where the mine has closed, leaving its population adrift, forgotten, and ravaged by poverty and the opioid epidemic. There are no social services, and the drug dealers, profiting on the sickness of nearly every member of the population, fight over scraps of territory. It's a potent subject matter, and directly relevant to the current crisis, a drug epidemic overshadowing all others, so much so that it's a national emergency, particularly in the Appalachian area. Unfortunately, "The Evening Hour" falls back on clichés, telling its story with a palpable sense of distance from the characters, from their struggles, and from the world they inhabit.
Cole (Philip Ettinger) is first seen traveling around town, visiting elderly people, bringing them supplies, treating everyone with gentleness and respect. He visits his grandmother (the great Tess Harper), giving her an envelope of cash. He's excited about his new girlfriend, Charlotte (Stacy Martin). Cole is damn near saintly! But a dark truth hovers over this kindness. Cole deals in opiates, scarfing them from the nursing home where he works as an aide, as well as picking them up from an ex-con friend Reese (Michael Trotter). When Terry (Cosmo Jarvis), an old high school friend, returns to town, hoping to "diversify" the drug trade by cooking meth, he clashes with not only Cole, but with Everett, the drug kingpin in town (Marc Menchaca). Cole begs Terry to be careful.
There are added emotional melodramas. Cole's mother (Lili Taylor) skipped town a long time ago, and returns for a family funeral. Cole is hesitant to forgive her. Charlotte gravitates towards Terry, attracted by his ambition. A pretty bartender (Kerry Bishé) is thrown into the mix.
It's almost unforgivable to put great actors like Tess Harper and Lili Taylor in your movie and give them next to nothing to do. Most of the performances are either cliched or indistinct, with Cosmo Jarvis the most notable exception. He oozes energy, charisma, aggression, seduction. Many of the actors struggle to portray themselves as having grown up in this downtrodden hard-scrabble world. Not Jarvis. He seems like he actually lives there. Every time he shows up, the film sparks to life.
One of the things "The Evening Hour" does well is show how Oxy has affected pretty much every single person in the town. They're either addicts, recovering from being addicts, or dealing drugs. Oxy has seeped so much into the town's culture that it is the town culture. But once the film focuses in on the territory clash between the various drug dealers, "The Evening Hour" loses what interest it might have had. Taylor and Harper vanish from the movie. Cole is too vague a character to hold the center.
Most distressing, the pacing is inert, the tone muted. When explosive moments come, they are forced and inauthentic. The cliched dialogue stands out. The Appalachian scenery, captured by cinematographer Declan Quinn, is stunning: mist collecting in the valleys, autumn foliage covering the slopes, sunrise on lonely empty roads, all of that beauty in direct contrast with the economic devastation of the mining town in its midst. But the world of "The Evening Hour" is viewed from the perspective of an outsider, one who's already got a plane ticket out of there after the movie shoot.
A comparison with a recent film: "Holler," which came out earlier this year, takes place in a similar economically devastated environment, among people on the margins of mainstream life, where a safety net is non-existent, and where people have to do what they must to survive in a world totally bereft of prospects or possibility. Unlike "The Evening Hour," "Holler" thrums with urgency and high stakes; the scrap-yard business, and the characters involved in it, is so intimately observed the film often feels like a documentary. "Holler"'s talented director, Nicole Riegel, grew up in that world. She knows what it's like. She's been there, and this shows in her film in every frame. "Holler" is viewed from the inside. "The Evening Hour" is poverty tourism.
Now playing in select theaters.
No force is more powerful, and easier to use against someone, than faith. In this case, “Pray Away” focuses on a slew of Christian messengers who used to preach and embody gay conversion therapy ideals, leading various organizations with their destructive, heteronormative idea of family, faith, and freedom. Hundreds of thousands of people have embraced this thinking that looks at homosexual urges as part of a psychological problem, a result of some trauma, a leftover from some bad relationship with a parent. Many of the people interviewed in this somber documentary bought into this teaching while facing their own backstories of self-loathing; "Pray Away" is about giving them screen-time to affirm how all of it is a painful lie.
Director Kristen Stolakis profiles a handful of people who experienced this horrific, traumatic journey, and acted as advocates to make people "ex-gay." John was a major public figure for gay conversion—he even appeared on Newsweek with his wife Anne, an ex-lesbian—and reveals here just how much of it was a lie, including how he couldn’t admit any ongoing struggles once the spotlight was put on him. It was all about the lie, and people like John had their public lives and speeches constructed from their supposed feats against their homosexuality. Meanwhile, Michael talks with great regret about creating Exodus, the first gay conversion organization in the late 1970s, and the success it had. It is so incredibly sad to see a pamphlet for Exodus, with its rows and rows of smiling young men and women, the picture placed above the motto, “Join the Movement!”
“Pray Away” also focuses on the story of Julie, who became a type of public speaker as a young woman, with her stories about being pushed away from her original feelings as a lesbian. She did not lose the faith after ditching the toxicity of her former leaders. Clutching the hand of her fianceé, she’s seen in B-roll preparing for a wedding that would have been previously unthinkable.
Stolakis jumps between the many life stories in this tragedy with little focus, and lets them matter-of-fact. "Pray Away" is exactly the kind of documentary it appears to be from the beginning, and that's part of the disappointing problem, even if it makes clear the harrowing details within. Slathered with a score that makes the sadness of each passage unmistakable, "Pray Away" narrows its purpose to be simply informative; it is too artistically flat to have the emotional peaks that would give its own otherwise vital message some dynamic, or make it more impactful beyond its very subject matter. The nuance mostly comes here from the empathy it asks of the audience to accept the former messengers, in part because the documentary is not going to challenge them beyond making them recall their pain.
There’s a larger context to this story of people being forced to obey, and turned into PR devices for vacant causes, one's that preach preaching judgment and prey upon self-loathing. These institutions want the power over the sufferings' souls, and also their votes. Stolakis goes a little bit into the bigger picture about how these individual experiences are part of a larger conservative supremacy that affects politics and constituencies, but it feels like that could have been a larger focus without losing the point of how harmful gay conversion therapy is.
Threaded throughout the doc’s slightly too slow and steady pacing is the story of Jeffrey. In modern times, he preaches about his experience of going from transgender back to heteronormativity, and leads his group named with the intentional political/religious vagueness of “Freedom March.” Stolakis’ character films him as he meets random people in a shopping plaza, and later as he holds an assembly in the streets of Washington D.C., realizing that he needs to take this message to the larger public. Jeffrey’s story is the most matter-of-fact focus of the whole doc; it does not comment, but show. At the most, he does provide a type of sobering reality check, that for the numerous stories in "Pray Away" that show the destructive nature of gay conversion therapy, there will always be someone trying to harness its toxic power. All in the name of even larger powers that be who, if they truly loved him, would not be poisoning him.
Now playing on Netflix.
Much like last week’s “How It Ends,” “Ride the Eagle” demonstrates that it is indeed possible to make a feature film under strict COVID-19 protocols, but doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of how to make a good one under those circumstances. “Ride the Eagle” feels like everyone involved was more interested in the logistics of the production than the story that they were telling. The end result is a film that will only spark curiosity because of the circumstances surrounding its existence rather than anything about the story itself, unless there's hunger out there for rehashes of “Garden State.”
Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Trent O’Donnell, plays Leif, an oddball character who, as the film opens, gets word that his mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon) has recently passed away. The news is not exactly heartbreaking to him—he has been estranged from her since she abandoned him at the age of 12 to join a cult and had rebuffed recent efforts by her to reach out to him. Now she has made one last effort to mend fences with him with the inducement of leaving him her spiffy cabin in Yosemite as his inheritance. However, in tried and true quirky indie movie tradition, there is a catch—he has to go up to the cabin and perform a series of tasks explained to him via a videocassette recorded by Honey before her passing or he gets nothing.
After Leif and his faithful canine companion Nora arrive at the cabin, he finds the cassette and gets to work at the tasks at hand. At first, there's the distinct suspicion on his part (and ours) that Honey is just screwing with him again—one request is to row across a lake and sneak into a house in order to drop off a kiss-off note and another charges him with catching a fish for his dinner using only his bare hands. On the other hand, another request is for him to call “the one that got away” and apologize for his mistakes and this leads him to reestablish contact with former girlfriend Audrey (D’Arcy Carden). It turns out that there are still a few sparks between them, even over the phone, but Audrey is hesitant to do anything about them because she's still reeling from a bad breakup. Some of the additional tasks are more serious in nature and force the admittedly resentful Leif to at long last reconsider both his own life and his troubled relationship with his mother.
The basic problem with “Ride the Eagle” is that none of it is especially interesting. Watching yet another bland guy in the throes of a seemingly endless adolescence, working through his personal issues and coming to terms with things, is just not quite as compelling as it might have been once upon a time and Johnson and O’Donnell (who previously worked together on the long-running sitcom “New Girl”) don’t really bring anything new to the table. The stabs at quirky humor—such as the conceit that Leif ekes out a living by playing bongos in a band—are just a little too forced to be funny. The film is also pretty thin from a dramatic standpoint, and by the time that Leif—Spoiler Alert!—has his big epiphanies in the final stretch, they don’t really demonstrate the kind of emotional power they were clearly meant to have because it is hard to care about any of them.
Johnson, Carden, and Sarandon are all good actors and do as much as they can with the material at hand but they too often seem to be coasting, seemingly more relieved to be able to get out and do something than into making their characters into convincingly three-dimensional people. The only one who does manage to pull this off is J.K. Simmons, who turns up late in the game and breathes some life into the proceedings, but that's almost entirely due to his ability to make practically every scene he plays feel absolutely authentic, no matter what he is working with. I take that back—the dog that plays Nora is also pretty impressive and I am not normally one susceptible to the charms of canine actors. Put it this way—there is one long stretch in the film where Nora takes off on her own and after a while, I found myself wishing that the film had chosen to follow her and leave her less interesting owner behind.
“Ride the Eagle” isn’t terrible, I suppose—it is too blah to inspire that kind of an emotional response. Its biggest crime is that the whole thing, in the end, is just kind of pointless, and doesn’t offer viewers anything that they haven’t already seen before and it's never as amusing or thought-provoking as it would like to be. Although I suppose that some interest can be derived from observing the lengths that it goes to follow COVID protocols (such as including very few scenes featuring more than one character in the same frame at any given time), whatever appeal that might hold quickly dissipates and leaves you with nothing.
Now playing in theaters, and available on demand and on digital platforms.