The Witch ***1/2
Give me a few more days to mull over Robert Eggers' masterful debut and I might be ready to call it a flat-out masterpiece of theological horror, instead of just a really
good delivery system for bone-jarring dread. Set in early 17th-century New England, it follows a family of recent arrivals from England, outcast from their town for patriarch William's (Ralph Ineson) too-rigid brand of Puritanism. But the wilderness where they settle has its own threats, including one that steals their infant son out from under the watchful eye of adolescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Eggers' sense for combining unsettling sound design with stark compositions certainly earns the comparisons to Kubrick, and the commitment to period authenticity in everything from dialogue to lighting creates a thoroughly immersive world. But as scary as it is simply as a genre piece, it's also got something thorny and provocative to say about both the causes and effects of fervent fundamentalism. There's no question that evil exists in The Witch
's world; the only question—and the one which could take it to the next level—is whether an all-consuming focus on sin invites that evil, or is a perfectly rational response to it.
Z for Zachariah **
It's one thing to be understated in approaching the end of the world as a cinematic subject; it's another thing for it to feel that virtually nothing has been stated. Director Craig Zobel loosely adapts Richard C. O'Brien's novel, set in a Southern U.S. valley where Ann (Margot Robbie) believes she may be the only survivor of an unnamed nuclear disaster. But one day, an engineer named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wanders into the valley, offering the hope of human contact again—which is complicated when another survivor, Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives some time later. The adaptation stumbles out of the gate by not taking enough time to establish the lonely normalcy of Anne's pre-John existence, then recovers to find strong moments as the two survivors contemplate what their relationship will be. But it all collapses again once Pine shows up, briefly raising two potentially intriguing areas of inquiry—race, and faith vs. pragmatism in crisis—without doing anything substantive with either of them. Despite the solid performances by Robbie and Ejiofor in particular, it simply pokes along as a golden-toned Nicholas Sparks melodrama version of the apocalypse.
Cartel Land **1/2
Matthew Heineman attempts something resembling a two-part narrative in his exploration of vigilante justice against Mexican drug cartels, but instead winds up with something fragmented and frustrating. On the Mexican side of the border, Heineman profiles the “Autodefensas” groups in Michoacán—launched by physician José Mireles—on a town-to-town mission to root out the Knights Templar cartel; in the U.S., we see a self-styled patriot militia in Southern Arizona—led by military veteran Tim Foley—trying to catch smugglers. Heineman captures some terrific moments during the Autodefensas’ campaign, as their growing power leads to perhaps-inevitable corruption, mixed feelings by local citizens and internal rifts over strategy. But there’s nothing nearly as compelling going on with Foley’s group, nor does Heineman really explore interactions with “official” law enforcement in the same depth. At some point, he needed either to find a compelling reason to keep the American vigilantes in this film, or keep the focus entirely on the genuinely interesting material in Mexico and the far more complex protagonist in Mireles. If anything, he simply emphasizes that we in America are kidding ourselves if we think “cartel land” applies to us to the same degree.
James White ***1/2
Some character studies take you on arc that's almost too obviously from immaturity to adulthood; this one weaves back and forth across that path with refreshing honesty. Christopher Abbott plays the titular New York twentysomething, a would-be writer who's still living with his mother (Cynthia Nixon) and spending his nights clubbing and brawling. But he's also dealing with the recent death of his long-absent father, and serving as his mother's primary caretaker while she goes through cancer treatments. Writer/director Josh Mond never allows James to settle into any simple cliché of young adulthood, while also conveying the way an emotionally immature guy tries to rise to the occasion. And Abbott is terrific capturing both sides of that equation, proving equally convincing as the guy who'd head-butt you in a bar and the guy who nurses mom through a rough night. As James tries to comfort her at one point—spinning a tale of a happy future in which she's healthy and he has found stability—it's one of the most emotionally wrenching moments you'll find of watching someone become a man before your eyes. (SR)
Drawing on sources as varied as 1980s Spike Lee, 1990s Quentin Tarantino and Risky Business
is bound to result in something at least a little fragmented, but it's often a lot of fun watching those fragments drift and find their shape. Shameik Moore plays Malcolm, a geeky straight-A high-school senior trying to carve his own identity on the rough streets of Inglewood, Calif. But he stumbles into a situation where a load of drugs ends up in his backpack, making him first a target, then eventually an impromptu entrepreneur. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa digs deep into the smart dialogue of his 1990s hip-hop obsessed protagonists, including a few classic exchanges pivoting around everything from drone strikes, to who can and can't use the “n-word,” to the definition of a “slippery slope.” It's also a movie that tries to keep a whole lot of plates spinning, exploring African-American youth who don't fit the mold while it tries to make a romantic sub-plot work while it plays with social-media culture and so on and so forth. The lively performances and funky comic energy keep it hopping, even when it feels like a tighter pass through the editing process would result in something both funnier and more biting. (SR)
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution ***1/2
For his new documentary, Stanley Nelson pulls together information from many previous works, together with new interviews with former party members, all with the intent to create a fresh, nuanced take on the party's rise and fall. In the main he succeeds; although formally the film breaks no new ground, and the history presented is, again, all a matter of public record, Nelson's execution is nearly flawless. The film proceeds from a distinct point of view—one decidedly sympathetic to the Panthers—and makes a solid case for that as the only acceptable one. Midway through, there is a heartbreaking passage recounting the story of Chicago-based activist Fred Hampton, who was murdered in cold blood by the Chicago police as part of the FBI's COINTELPRO initiative, whose sole purpose was to destroy black activist organizations. It is as brief as Hampton's career turned out to be, featuring footage of his mesmerizing and inspiring oratory skills, and then, like his life, is abruptly and violently over. One cannot watch this sequence and sympathize in any way with FBI majordomo J. Edgar Hoover, the gangster who ordered Hampton's murder. Thus is the power of non-fiction filmmaking done well. (Danny Bowes)