Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
The documentary Off the Rails tells the fascinating, frustrating story of Darius McCollum, an affable man with Asperger’s syndrome who since his teenage years in the 1980s has been commandeering MTA trains and buses. Darius has been arrested 32 times for his hobby, but he has never done any harm. While conducting a train when one isn’t a licensed operator is illegal, what Darius has done seems benign: he makes all the right stops, and does everything a conductor would do. As Darius says, he’s good with trains but not with people. Off the Rails succeeds in giving us a glimpse into a mind too easily labeled as “troubled” or “different” and paints Darius as a sympathetic figure following a passion that helps him relate to and understand the world. Without being didactic, the film raises provocative questions about the pitfalls of the prison system and how often it fails people of color, and how those with Asperger’s can hope to integrate themselves in society. We are left feeling sympathy for Darius and thinking about the often taken for granted subway system in a different light.
Longtime cinematic provocateur Paul Verhoeven’s first French film is one of the year’s trickiest releases. Starring a characteristically intense Isabelle Huppert, and beginning with a disturbing scene of assault, the film is about rape, but doesn’t go in the directions we may expect given this troubling and all too common narrative. Neither a cultish, male gaze-drenched rape revenge film nor a tearjerker, Elle is something decidedly thornier: a tale of a successful businesswoman who rejects the role of victim and eventually finds herself in a strange erotic power play with her attacker. Elle makes a strong case for the actress as auteur. Huppert’s character, Michèle, is the head of a videogame company, and much of the film’s deadpan humor comes from seeing how in a traditionally male industry all the men who work for her start to look totally inadequate. With tailored suits and an elegant home, Michèle seems the very picture of success, but Huppert’s withering stare and Mona Lisa smile suggest darkness beneath the surface. Elle may raise feminist debate, but it’s hard to deny that Huppert maintains a sly, consistently intriguing power throughout.
The Love Witch is an impressively stylized tale of female power and magic. Writer-producer-editor-director-production designer-costume designer Anna Biller shoots on 35mm (something all too rare these days) and makes every single onscreen detail count. It’s easy to assume, with the abundant bright colors, vintage-inspired dresses, and exaggerated eye makeup onscreen, that the film takes place in the 1960s, but Biller includes motifs (modern cars, computers) that bring it back to the present day. This film, then, exists not in the past but in a world that looks exactly the way its multi-hyphenate auteur wants it to look. It’s refreshing to watch a film that commits so boldly to a specific aesthetic, and even more so when that aesthetic is hyperfeminine. One of the most memorable settings is a tearoom completely decked out in pastel pink, where our supernatural heroine, Elaine, wears a Victorian-inspired pink dress and a wide-brimmed pink hat bedecked with flowers. Everything matches and creates an enveloping feminine fantasy. Elaine speaks of love magic and seduction, and Biller’s film has the same enchanting effect on the audience.
- The Edge of Seventeen
The Edge of Seventeen is the kind of modest, funny teen movie that we don’t see enough of these days. Hailee Steinfeld, in one of the best performances of the year, plays Nadine, a caustic high schooler whose father has died, and whose best (and only friend) she finds sleeping with her older, more popular brother early in the film. In other words, Nadine isn’t having a very good time, and Steinfeld conveys her character’s perpetual dissatisfaction with expertly timed eye brow raises and pouts. Even the way she fidgets with the Velcro strap on her sneaker or tosses a soda can in the trash conveys a piquant humor. One of Nadine’s few allies is Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), a teacher to whom she frequently vents. Harrelson brings a playful yet deadpan quality to a role that could in a lesser film become predictable or even unsavory. It’s easy for teen movies to fall into cliché, and while The Edge of Seventeen has its predictable moments, it never treats Nadine as an archetypal nerd or makes it seem that she must change who she is. The film is an auspicious debut for director Kelly Fremon Craig, and there’s no doubt that some of this refreshing quality of seeing a teenage girl portrayed with nuance comes from the film being written and directed by a young woman.
Taking place in a snow globe of a Massachusetts town, filled with peaceful blue water and quaint houses, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a poignant, evocative portrait of grief. Lee (Casey Affleck) is a handyman who unexpectedly becomes the legal guardian (or, more accurately in the film’s New England accents, “GAH-dian”) of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), when his brother dies. It’s a tear-jerking premise, but Lonergan directs it with subtlety, skillfully weaving in flashbacks that gradually reveal Lee’s emotional fragility. There’s no condescension or mockery in this depiction of the working class, and both the setting and the keenly observed emotional beats recall a Raymond Carver story. A film like this could lapse into self-seriousness but it finds moments of humor, particularly in Patrick’s attempts to negotiate his burgeoning love life while talking to his uncle. The dynamic between the two men fascinates, for much remains unspoken, and while Lee is technically Patrick’s father figure, neither really knows how to navigate this relationship. Manchester by the Sea is the kind of film where a character can say, “I don’t have anything big to say,” and we know they truly mean it.
Dud of the Month: Nocturnal Animals
Nocturnal Animals may not be the worst film of the month, but it’s the biggest disappointment. Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford made a memorable debut with A Single Man (2009), which presented gay life and depression in 1960s Los Angeles in warm, poetic tones. Ford has an obvious eye for style, but after crafting a cohesive and emotionally weighty debut, Nocturnal Animals—a film whose aesthetic shifts haltingly between Deliverance and Vogue photo shoot—feels muddled. The flimsy plot concerns Susan (Amy Adams), a wealthy, elegant gallerist who receives a troubling novel manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film makes use of frequent, jarring dramatizations of the novel, which tells the tale of a family road trip to Texas gone horribly awry and stars Gyllenhaal as the patriarch. While it’s understandable that Susan would be troubled by this manuscript, which is clearly meant to be about her and her family, every character has only the wispiest sketch of a psychological profile. The story-within-the-story is troubling, yes, but it almost feels like a parody of southern sleaze, with Brit Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing the bad guy with a ridiculously overdone accent. The art world is depicted with similar reliance on cliché—everyone is pretty but vapid, and all the art is cringingly obvious, from images of overweight dancing nude women that adorn the film’s opening credits to a huge painting that just says “REVENGE.” Nocturnal Animals wants to be provocative but its scattered parts all add up to something a bit silly.
Best New Old Movie: Amateur
Hal Hartley’s 1994 crime caper/comedy Amateur, which played as part of Metrograph’s Isabelle Huppert series, is a genuinely quirky delight. What’s not to like about a film that features Huppert as a former nun who starts writing porn, a brief appearance from a Sonic Youth shirt-clad Michael Imperioli, and not one but two extended dialogues on the merits of floppy disks? The film runs on this zippy 90s energy, and Huppert and frequent Hartley star Martin Donovan (as Thomas, a mysterious amnesiac) make for a charismatic onscreen pair. Isabelle (yes, that’s her character’s name) and Thomas try to piece together his past and end up being tracked by yuppie gangsters and facing off with a porn actress with fabulous goth style (Elina Löwensohn). The film, which takes some cues from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s pop art crime narratives, provides a showcase for Huppert’s range, as she goes from comparatively buttoned up to more outré, ultimately wearing black leather and wielding a drill. It’s a treat to see Huppert act in English, particularly hearing her say “make love to me” in her oh so elegant French accent. Amateur’s soundtrack features Liz Phair, My Bloody Valentine, and PJ Harvey, among other college rock icons, and as its characters run through downtown New York it feels like the platonic ideal of a playful 90s indie film.