Nina Forever (2015)

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Rob is having a hard time getting over his girlfriend, Nina. Not just because she’s dead—she went through the windscreen of a Triumph Spitfire—but because she refuses to stay dead. Nina pops up every time Rob starts making out with his new girlfriend. “Pops” is not quite right… Oozes up is more like it, bleeding up from beneath the bed sheets while Rob and Holly are having it off. Holly is a checkout girl at the supermarket where Rob stocks shelves, but she’s also a paramedic-in-training, so she’s not squeamish when it comes to blood. That’s just as well, since Nina leaves a lot of it on the sheets (trips to the “Washtub” are a regular feature of Rob’s dreary days).
     How does Rob feel about all this? Well, he loves Holly, but it’s hard to start a new relationship when your dead ex keeps giving you grief every time you try to consummate it. Nina snarkily defines Holly as “Florence Nightingale job-sharing with Linda Lovelace.”
     The chiefly Brit. horror-comedy-romance Nina Forever imagines this amusingly macabre scenario with Cian Barry and Abigail Hardingham as the challenged new lovers and Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the very jealous and possessive ex.
     Traumatized by his first love’s death, Rob takes an intentional spill on his Moto Guzzi but suffers little more than a few abrasions. More suicidal, perhaps, is the unhealthy relationship he forms with Nina’s Sutton-based parents (the London suburb is pronounced by dropping both Ts); he pops over every Sunday regular as clockwork. “Pops” is quite right here.
     The film is surprisingly well done, skillfully juggling ickiness (cue Nina) and humor (a scene on a bus is particularly memorable), yet still finding time for some serious sentiment. In addition, the effective soundtrack features an eclectic mix of song styles and everything is nicely photographed to boot—the filmmaking pairing of Ben and Chris Blaine likes to show our protagonists’ feet, especially.
     After Holly’s first encounter with Nina, Rob doesn’t hear from her for a while. He keeps checking his texts. NO MESSAGES. Then finally he does get one: “PIZZA DEVIL: 🙂 WE MISS YOU! BUY 1 GET 1 FREE ALL WEEKEND!” If you’re looking for a hot date this weekend, consider taking your significant other (or ex, but preferably live one) to see Nina Forever. It’s sick and it’s sexy and it’s stylish… and it makes a perfect choice for Valentine’s Day.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

JeruZalem (2015)

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The biblical apocalypse horror flick JeruZalem begins by informing us that “…there are three gates to hell. One in the desert, one in the ocean, and one in Jerusalem… —Jeremiah 19, talmud.”
     That’s a tad unfortunate, since perky American gal pals Rachel (Jane the Virgin’s Yael Grobglas) and Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) are about to head to Tel Aviv, one hour southeast of the holy city, for a little R&R; Sarah, especially, needs some time and space to recuperate after her brother’s untimely death. Accompanied by a handsome party animal they meet on the flight over (Justin Timberlake clone Yon Tumarkin), our hapless heroines pick the Absolute Worst Time for a side jaunt to the Old City, as hell hath no fury like a biblical prophecy unleashed on Yom Kippur’s Eve (to mangle at least one metaphor).
     The gimmick here is that the film is shot almost exclusively from Sarah’s point of view, who’s wearing her father’s “Smart Glass” technology—GPS, facial recognition, built-in camera, and other handy voice-activated apps are all available to her as we move around the city. So what we’ve got in JeruZalem is, essentially, a mobile-friendly version of Unfriended meets Hostel meets Cloverfield meets REC meets a myriad of other hand-held POV horror films.
     This one does give the proceedings an authentic-feeling anthropological slant with Hebrew-narrated documentary-type footage purporting to show bizarro post-death resurrections. Also (spoiler alert), the demons themselves are kind of neat, similar to The Descent’s creepy Crawlers—but with retractable wings! And the actors are mostly solid. Otherwise the whole jumpy, blurry, one-trick pony affair, mostly shot at night or in dimly-lit subterranean caverns to mask the limitations of the budget, feels inordinately derivative.
     Written and directed by Israeli filmmakers Doron and Yoav Paz—it’s the Paz Brothers!—JeruZalem could have done with a few more of its classy undead to justify the change in case and color of its middle letter on the promo art (a la World War Z). Instead, what we’re left with is mostly snoreZzzzz.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Brooklyn (2015)

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Ever since novelist Nick Hornby secured a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for An Education in 2010, he’s seemed bent on giving it another go. Last year he adapted Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail for the Reese Witherspoon outdoors-y drama Wild, and now he’s penned the script for Brooklyn, based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name. Hornby is no stranger to the movies, of course; his books Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy, A Long Way Down, and—for the purist—his short story “Not a Star” have all made it to the screen in some shape or form (the last as a little-seen Italian-language film from 2012).
     Hornby—think Hot Tub Time Machine’s Rob Corddry with a funny accent—has said he likes the creative challenge of writing for film. “Once you get to a certain point in your novelistic career, unless you screw up very badly the book is going to come out. With a screenplay there are all these hurdles that seem to have some kind of objectivity to them. The screenplay has to work and I love that,” he told Francine Stock earlier this year as part of BAFTA’s Screenwriter’s Lecture Series. Brooklyn’s screenplay does work, and it’s centered by an outstanding performance by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) as the young Irish lass who emigrates to New York in the early 1950s for a chance at a better life, leaving her younger sister to care for their mother back in Ireland.
     The niceties of Hornby’s script allow the homesick Eilis first to find work, then love with Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines), eminently loveable as the affable Italian American who wins her heart. Rich period detail, genuine poignancy, and some frothy boarding house humor (courtesy Julie Walters’s Mrs. Kehoe) are all on display in Brooklyn, efficiently directed by John Crowley.
     Hornby might well get a second Academy Award nod for his fine work on the film and Ronan, who dominates virtually every scene she’s in with a maturity well beyond her years, is well on track for one too, having just been nominated for the Best Actress Golden Globe.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Room (2015)

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Irish-born playwright Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room was unusual and contained, a book inspired in part by the infamous Fritzl case that hit the headlines two years earlier. Now Donoghue’s story—a five-year-old boy and his mother who have been held captive in a small room for years—has been made into a movie starring Jacob Tremblay as Jack and Brie Larson as Ma. And the film is every bit as unusual and contained as its source material. The casting proves significant, as both Larson (Short Term 12) and Tremblay (he lent his voice to Blue in the disposable ’Smurfs 2) are excellent, as they needed to be for this two-person drama to work. I remember liking the book, but being disappointed by a dramatic shift in fortune about midway through the story. That plot point remains in the film, of course, but it’s handled well and gives Act Two plenty to chew on. For a two-hour movie, Room rarely feels contrived or stagy, a testament to its acting talent and director Lenny Abrahamson, who keeps things fluid within room’s rigid four walls. Old pros Joan Allen and William H. Macy show up after the half-time break, but Room doesn’t really need the clout they bring to the table. Instead, the film makes more room for Larson and Tremblay to shine and it’s their film all the way.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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Just when you thought the vampire genre had been bled dry, up jumps A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a killer Iranian thriller that’s part Middle Eastern spaghetti western, part bloodsucking freakshow, and all original. The debut feature of writer/director Amir Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the kind of film that makes you sit up and take notice from the very first frame.
     Bad things, we fear, are about to go down in Bad City.
     Arash (Arash Marandi, James Dean-buff and sleeveless) lives at home with his junkie father and a formidably fat cat (name undisclosed). Perpetually prostrate Dad owes a pimp but Arash hasn’t any cash, just a fancy ride he worked 2,191 days to buy. But the pimp, who has “sex” tattooed on his throat, is about to learn that grand-theft-auto-in-lieu doesn’t pay.
     Cloaked in her pitch-black chador (with fetching stripy top), The Girl (Sheila Vand) looks and drifts like a Pac-Man ghost, often on the periphery, unfocused, appearing out of nowhere, a blur. There’s a haunting, almost throwaway shot of her floating past a stylized wall on a skateboard abandoned by a punk kid street urchin that’s simultaneously creepy and beautiful.
     Arash meets The Girl under a streetlamp after a Halloween party and it’s a darling meet-cute. She skates him home to her ’80s-themed basement apartment with a Madonna poster on the wall and Persian-influenced rock (Farah, Federale, Radio Tehran) on the soundtrack. He approaches her in Amirpour’s signature, ever-so-slowly style while a mirror ball spins. Will she bite?
     Amirpour fashions her moody art-house piece with finely-crafted scenes like this which surprise you with their inventiveness. You’ll be wowed by the juxtaposition of the slow-moving sequences and the occasional jolt of The Girl’s brisk and vampiric need to feed.
     Everything screams instant classic—the city’s sole and colorful streetwalker, imposing oil rigs pumping endlessly, corpses tossed casually into an incidental culvert, the black and white photography. And there’s the cat and the car and Kiosk (singing over the opening credits), the charming tee and the neck ink—little touches that speak volumes and remind us that no genre is dead and gone with a talent this alive.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Suffragette (2015)

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For all its gritty realism, historical accuracy, and emotional sincerity, the feminist-focused drama Suffragette comes across as oddly perfunctory. It’s as though the filmmakers—director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan—were more invested in hitting all the right buttons than letting the story itself—the ongoing struggle for women’s voting rights in 1912 London—do the talking.
     Unequal working conditions? Check. Brutish laundry boss, shamed spouse? Check, and check. Blinkered politicians, inhumane prison practices, a catalytic act of martyrdom on the world stage? Check, check, and check!
     Also, you would be excused for thinking this film a biopic of British political activist Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) starring Oscar-winner Meryl Streep. Although among the top-billed, Streep’s contribution as Mrs. Pankhurst is a singular and extremely brief balcony speech before she’s quickly whisked away to avoid the authorities. Instead, it’s Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan in the recent ’Great Gatsby remake) who leads the charge as Maud Watts, a working-class mother who serendipitously becomes involved in the suffragette movement, with the reliable Helena Bonham Carter playing Maud’s ally and fellow “Pank,” Edith Ellyn. Both actresses bring a persuasive depth to their characters’ persuasive arguments.
     As an informative piece, the meat’s all there—the outrage and the inertia, the struggle and self-sacrifice, filmed in sepia-like browns and off-whites. But I had trouble connecting, perhaps due to having seen the (superior) HBO version of a very similar story, Katja von Garnier’s Iron Jawed Angels, fairly recently. That film does star Oscar-winner Hilary Swank (as suffragist Alice Stokes Paul) and at least her name above the credits is not simply a marketing ploy.
     Alternately matter-of-fact and manipulative—how many times do we need to see a child wrestled from its mother’s grasp to agree that That’s Not Right—Suffragette nevertheless reintroduces important social issues and reminds us how far we’ve come and how much we still take for granted. That said, it isn’t likely to win over those troglodytes who still prefer their women barefoot and pregnant.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971)

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Just now concluding its majestic 16-day, world theatrical premiere run at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music is the newly restored digitized print of Jacques Rivette’s monumental, colossal, staggering (and other superlatives) 1971 masterpiece Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, a film that many (myself included) never expected to see on the big screen. Not only did the film “disappear” shortly after its release, but it runs a posterior-numbing 12 hours and 55 minutes, so presenting the film in its entirety would be a daunting challenge to any but the most dedicated repertory arts venue (enter—and kudos to—BAM).
     Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, not to be confused with its condensed, 4 hours and 13 minute sister version from 1974, Out 1: Spectre, has been lovingly resurrected by Carlotta Films U.S., a process supervised and approved by the film’s original director of photography, Pierre-William Glenn. We mostly have to take Carlotta’s word for the comparative quality of the restoration, since few people saw the film on its initial and extremely limited go-round and theatrical screenings in the intervening 44 years have been virtually non-existent. But it looks great no matter how you slice it. A complete version does exist as a German language DVD box set, but we’re talking apples and oranges here.
     Rivette’s magnum opus, as it’s been called, showcases the former Cahiers du Cinema critic-turned-director’s free flowing, highly improvised style with an iconic cast that includes, among others, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Pierre Baillot, as well as Celine and Julie Go Boating cast members Juliet Berto, Bulle Ogier, and Barbet Schroeder (perhaps I should mention that Rivette’s Celine and Julie’ is one of my all-time favorite films). In what fellow French New Wave director Eric Rohmer calls “a cornerstone in the history of modern cinema” and The New York Times’ Dennis Lim dubs “the cinephile’s holy grail,” Out 1’ is staged around two theatrical troupes performing avant-garde interpretations of plays by Greek tragedian Aeschylus. Into the mix are woven a mysterious con artist (Berto) and a deaf-mute street musician (Leaud) in search of a secret society as, with its labyrinthine, overlapping structure, this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience paints a very real picture of the dashed dreams of world-weary Parisians following the civil unrest of May, 1968.
     As with any film of this length—Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz being the most obvious example—you don’t just watch it, you absorb it, settling into your familiar seat with a comfy pillow (or two), plenty of bottled water, and no other commitments for the foreseeable future.
     Can’t-miss cineaste events such as this are few and far between, so it’s to BAM’s credit that they conveniently—and kindly—scheduled the film’s eight “episodes” back-to-back, four on Saturday, four on Sunday, over two separate weekends this November in order for purists (or masochists) to immerse themselves in the complete cycle. If you did miss it, well… there’s always the 5-disc, Region 2-only version on the slightly smaller screen for the time being.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com