You’ve never met a rapper like Patricia Dombrowski. Her best friend calls her Killa-P, while the haters call her Dumbo, but to us, she will always be “Patti Cake$,” an overweight white hip-hop artist who announces her force-of-nature personality from her very first song, “mylifesfuckinawesome.” While Patti’s one-of-a-kind, it’s easy to recognize the type: a cross between Dawn Weiner and Precious — both Sundance discoveries as well. Every few years, an indie character comes along who so perfectly captures what it’s like to be mocked and marginalized, even as she refuses to let the bullies and abusers have the last word. That’s the kind of person Patti Cake$ is, and that’s why she stands to become one of the year’s most endearing discoveries, via a film that launches an equally compelling new directing talent.

No doubt bound to become a household-name, Patti is the creation of first-time feature helmer Geremy Jasper, whose high-attitude heroine isn’t nearly as fictional as she might seem at first glance. Rather, she represents a cross between self-deprecating self-portrait — as a once-chubby, boom-bap-obsessed New Jersey native — and the strong women he admired growing up.

Patti’s the polar opposite of the skinny, practically-anorexic pop stars who dominate the music industry today, and that posed a special challenge in the search for the right person to portray her. Simply put, Jasper’s plus-size protagonist wouldn’t be nearly so compelling had he not landed on Australian émigré Danielle Macdonald, a raw young actress whose screen presence owes not to her size, but the way she engages the camera.

From the beginning, DP Federico Cesca pushes in close to Macdonald, alternately following her from behind or framing her dead-center and slightly from below. Either way, she looms large, like the star of her own music video. (When rapping alone, is she singing for herself or for our personal benefit? And is the way she swaggers down the middle of city streets and drugstore aisles for the benefit of unseen security cameras or the imaginary ones that just so happen to be telling her story?)

Raised on the iconography of MTV, Patti’s a dreamer who fancies herself a gangsta, even if ennui is the worst of her hardships. The film opens in the throes of one of her fantasies, suffocating the would-be emcee in smoke machines and fluorescent green light as star hip-hop producer O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) brings Patti to the stage for a massive concert. And then she wakes up, snapped back to reality by her alarm clock, in the shabby pig sty she shares with her drunken-wreck mom Barb (Bridget Everett) and wheelchair-bound Nana (Cathy Moriarty).

The hovel where Patti lives is more flophouse than home, and it’s easy to imagine why she’d be so eager to get out. But Patti’s boss refuses to give her extra hours at the bar, and besides, her mom drinks away most of what she earns anyway. Barb was once a promising musician in her own right, though she gave that all up when she fell pregnant with Patti. Given that personal history, one imagines she’d be supportive of her daughter’s music career, but the truth is, she doesn’t consider rap to be music.

But Patti isn’t looking to prove herself to anybody. At the encouragement of her biggest fan — and only friend — Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), she battles rivals in gas-station parking lots and schemes about how she and Hareesh might finally earn some stage time of their own. He’s a devoted friend, but not a romantic interest, which leaves room for Patti to imagine herself with the scuzzy drug dealer (Patrick Brana) who works at the local pizza parlor and/or a mad-at-the-world punk rocker (Mamoudou Athie) who calls himself the Antichrist. Stalking the latter to his shack behind the graveyard, Patti somehow convinces the asocial African-American musician to collaborate, resulting in one of those witnessing-something-special scenes in which Patti, Hareesh, and this black Marilyn Manson lookalike spontaneously create the signature song of their new group, PBNJ.

Once PBNJ has a few songs under their collective belt, they record a demo album, Hareesh starts to look for a venue where they can unleash their sound upon the world. The best he can manage is a “gentlemen’s club” called Cheeters — a dive no worse than the strip malls and roadside diners where they wile away the rest of their time. Though the gritty vision of New Jersey depicted in “Patti Cake$” won’t be luring many tourists, it feels authentic to the director’s experience, representing the socioeconomic quicksand both Jasper and Patti are determined to rise above.

Her ticket is her talent, and Macdonald sells the profane songs that Jasper has written for her. Our society has a tendency to underestimate big girls — to see them as lazy or unmotivated — and Patti’s here to prove otherwise, as the over-amped soundtrack boosts each of her songs to event status. This is the kind of movie where the energy builds to such levels, a packed-house audience can hardly resist bursting into applause when Patti raps — as well they should, considering that Macdonald manages to sell the Jasper’s irreverent lyrics while masking (nearly) all traces of her Australian accent.

Meanwhile, by casting bawdy cabaret phenom (and Amy Schumer amigo) Everett as Patti’s mother, Jasper brings a genuine singing sensation into the mix, allowing the film to alternate between hip-hop numbers and Barb-performed power ballads — which work their way up from pathetic karaoke-night Heart covers to the impromptu diva moment that sends the film’s finale into the stratosphere. In the end, it’s the ensemble’s collective attitude, plus the palpable chemistry between Patti and her friends, that defines the experience, not the stock desire to be discovered. Though if Patti Cake$ really did exist, this movie would make her star.

Sundance Film Review: 'Patti Cake$'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2017. Running time: 108 MIN.


A RT Features, Stay Gold, Maiden Voyage Pictures presentation, of a Department of Motion Pictures production. Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg Chris Columbus. Executive producers: Lourenço Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Eleanor Columbus, Josh Penn, Jonathan Bronfman, Lon Molnar, Fernando Fraiha, Bill Benenson. Co-producer: Jonathan Montepare.


Director, writer: Geremy Jasper. Camera (color): Federico Cesca. Editor: Brad Turner. Music: Jasper, Jason Binnick.


Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Patrick Brana, Sahr Ngaujah, MC Lyte.

For much of the 20th century, being a radical meant being left-wing. Starting in the ’80s, with the rise of the loaded-for-bear Christian right and then the 1994 Republican Revolution, being a radical started to mean being right-wing. Whoever’s out of fashion, in the minority, on the fringe is, by definition, radical. But that leaves out how sports, hip-hop, the consumer culture, and the Internet have all left their mark on radicalism. To be radical today isn’t merely to be left-wing or right-wing. Listening to the ultimate underground rap is radical. Getting the right tattoo is radical. Silicon Valley is radical. Anthony Bourdain is radical. Our solipsistic billionaire president is radical. Ryan Seacrest is radical. (Okay, Ryan Seacrest is not radical. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. But at some point he probably will be.) And the shrewd and, in many ways, reprehensible outlaw/guru weasels at the center of the intriguing, enraging documentary “The New Radical” are radical. Please, God save us from any more radicals.

The movie, which is very smartly directed by Adam Bhala Lough (“The Carter”), focuses on a pair of too-cool-for-school young men who have become self-styled generational icons of radical chic — though you could argue that spinning who they are into something larger is built into what this generation has been taught to do. Cody Wilson, born in 1988 in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the dude who invented the printable gun: that is, the gun you can download on a computer and print out, in waxy-looking white plastic, using a 3D printer. Amir Taaki, a British Iranian programmer, was one of the creators of Bitcoin, the digital currency that people like himself view as a threat to governments everywhere. Since then, he has put his skills to more scurrilous (excuse me, revolutionary) ends.

Lough follows both these guys, filming them as they spout their talky manifestos, watching them become friends and colleagues, yet all the while maintaining his distance. The great strength of “The New Radical” is that it’s not on its subjects’ side (or totally against them either). It’s the rare documentary that lets you decide.

Right after he created his printable gun (a mind-bogglingly ingenious invention), the government shut Cody Wilson down, but that hasn’t kept him from fighting back. He fancies himself a crypto-anarchist on the front lines of expression, and if that sounds a bit much, Wilson is quite literal about it: He believes that anyone has the right to print out a gun, that it’s a cut-and-dried First Amendment issue. At one point, a defender of his compares the situation to printing out a recipe for chocolate-chip cookies: If you restricted that, she says, it would be an obvious violation of freedom of speech. Therefore, the printable gun is a free-speech issue too.

If you have a problem with that logic (full disclosure: I have a major problem with it), you’ll probably be infuriated by Cody Wilson, who takes a page from the likes of Sean Fanning and Julian Assange, mixes it with a hipster version of Second Amendment fervor, and presents himself as a new paradigm of freedom fighter. Wilson has a compelling presence — he looks like a brainy, thick-featured Justin Timberlake — and he speaks in incendiary academic syllogisms that are provocative and articulate enough to leave you breathless. He’s very much a product of the moment in his view that all governments and corporations are lying, corrupt oppressors that need to be destroyed. Listening to some of his arguments against them, you may be tempted to agree, until you start to think: And you’re going to replace these with…? Wilson doesn’t care about the answer; he thinks that being the poster boy for tearing things down is enough of an answer. Which is why he’s the most off-putting kind of radical: the intelligent but reckless kind. Basically, he’s a gun salesman with a position paper — a high-minded huckster.

Amir Taaki, the film’s other subject, was once on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, but what made him a radical was his co-founding, along with Wilson, of Darkwallet, a peer-to-peer marketplace that, like the infamous on-line black market Silk Road, was used for illegal purposes but held up as a new model of free exchange that The Man didn’t want you to have. Taaki, like Wilson, is a charismatic spieler. He makes Bitcoin sound like the most liberating invention since the printing press (never mind that the real future of digital currency will likely reside with governments, who can use it to track the activities of citizens even more than they do now). And though Darkwallet advertised itself as a site that could be used for money laundering, Taaki’s reaction to that is something like: It’s on-line, it’s outside the establishment — so what right does anyone have to object? Taaki has a cuddly demeanor, but his “philosophy” boils down to a new-world defense of criminality.

It’s telling that the title of “The New Radical” isn’t plural, that it wasn’t called “The New Radicals.” That’s what a more conventional and less daring filmmaker would have called it. But Adam Bhala Lough has a perception, one that he’s captured in this fascinating movie: that the new radical isn’t a person, or even an idea — it’s a spirit, one that merges adolescent rebellion, on-line amorality, cool anarchy, and a fusion of right-wing and left-wing rage that’s a quintessential embodiment of the Trump era. Oh, it also includes one further element: the compulsion of the radical to glorify himself. Like I said: pure Trump.

Sundance Film Review: 'The New Radical'

Reviewed at Temple Theatre, Sundance Film Festival, January 23, 2017. Running time: 120 MIN.


An Alldayeveryday production. Producers: Lucy Summer, Alex Needles, Brent Stiefel. Executive producer: Greg Stewart.


Director, screenplay: Adam Bhala Lough. Camera (color, widescreen): Christopher Messina. Editors: Jay Rabinowitz, Alex Lee Moyer.


Cody Wilson, Amir Taaki.

Frankie, the oh-so-beautiful, oh-so-confused teenage protagonist of “Beach Rats,” isn’t much for answering questions. “I don’t know what I like,” he says curtly, if not dishonestly, to the various older men, sought in gay chat rooms, who want to know if they turn him on. And when a hesitantly acquired girlfriend asks him, twice, if he finds her pretty, he pointedly refuses to answer, bouncing the question back at her in a tone that’s both taunting and searching. Writer-director Eliza Hittman has a sensitive ear for the way adolescents reveal themselves through evasion: It’s a tension crucial to this anxious, tactile, profoundly sad study of a young man’s journey of sexual self-discovery and self-betrayal on the luridly faded boardwalks of Brooklyn.

Fully delivering on the promise of her rough-diamond debut “It Felt Like Love,” Hittman’s sophomore feature is unlikely to match the arthouse exposure of “Moonlight,” which it would nonetheless handsomely complement on a double bill dedicated to inchoate gay identity in the social margins. As with “Moonlight,” viewers might detect a certain European composure to its depiction of very American terrain — there are formal and tonal echoes here of auteurs ranging from Claire Denis to early Lynne Ramsay — though “Beach Rats” is more serrated than Barry Jenkins’ film in its visual style and editing rhythms. Frenchwoman Hélène Louvart, most celebrated for her documentary work with Wim Wenders (“Pina”) and Agnes Varda (“The Beaches of Agnes”), is an inspired choice of d.p. here, shooting predominantly in gorgeously grainy, low-lit 16mm. It’s not merely a fashionably distressed aesthetic choice, but one that enhances the film’s vividly dilapidated sense of place: As in her debut, Hittman shoots in and around the neglected streets, amusement arcades and beaches of far Brooklyn and Staten Island, an urban playground now left out of time.

Yet for 19-year-old Frankie (Harris Dickinson, a head-turning Brit making his feature debut), such crumbling pleasure palaces provide what little pleasure he’s known. “Why would we go all the way to the city when there’s plenty of good places here?” he incredulously asks the skeptical Simone (Madeline Weinstein) at the outset of their hesitant first date. Thus is the tiny perimeter of his world described: Jobless, carless, and out of school, Frankie’s whiling away the summer lifting weights, smoking weed, and aimlessly hanging out with fellow jocks whom he repeatedly, only half-jokingly insists aren’t his friends. It’s not the most stimulating social life, but it beats home, where his cancer-ridden dad is living out his last days in palliative care; his loving but emotionally depleted mother (an excellent Kate Hodge) barely has the energy to raise an eyebrow at the drugs and girls he brings home with scant concealment.

It’s a life that offers precious little in the way of the unknown, save for one new avenue of exploration: anonymous cruising on online gay chat rooms, where older men are only too eager to broaden the sculpted, rose-skinned young blonde’s horizons. Games of show-me-yours from the safe distance of a computer screen soon progress to discreet meets on the not-so-romantic sands of Brooklyn, as Frankie struggles to work out what exactly this fixation says about him — the answer never seeming so simple from within the closet as it does to those outside.

While teenage coming-out stories are thankfully no rarity in today’s independent cinema, it’s still unusual for one to pin a character’s arc so explicitly to direct sexual exploration as opposed to any suggestion of romantic interest — perhaps the only course available to a young man whose regular social life appears bereft even of incidental LGBT contact. Does Frankie court older men to forestall greater attraction on his part? Does he subscribe to outdated chat-room models, as opposed to the youth-oriented immediacy of apps like Grindr, out of denial or simple ignorance? Would downloading gay porn be a step too far in admitting his desires to himself? “Beach Rats” leaves such questions carefully open as it thoughtfully negotiates the maelstrom of clashing conditions and uncertainties in its protagonist’s psyche — culminating, in one breathtaking, tightly sewn sequence, in a misguided attempt to rationalize his bi-curiosity to his pals, with horrifying consequences.

This is achingly delicate psychological territory, heavily dependent on just the right actor to make flesh its scripted subtleties — and Hittman has found him in Dickinson, whose perfectly lazy outer NYC drawl and hunched dudebro swagger banish all thoughts of his London drama-school pedigree. His Frankie is at once maddeningly impenetrable and desperately vulnerable, snarling some responses and mumbling others as if in apology for his very existence; it’s a performance that nails typical teenage switchbacks and insecurities with an active, unshakable terror over who he might turn out to be. This is an ideally cast movie down the line — Weinstein, too, deserves applause for her deft, well-salted turn as Frankie’s more-perceptive-than-she-seems girlfriend. But it’s Dickinson whose face you take away from the film, his features arranged into a extraordinary, elusive puzzle, whether garishly tinted with shoreside fireworks or shaded by a hoodie in his online exploits. Hittman and Louvart don’t gaze upon it too lavishly, however, forever shooting that face at angles and in shadows that keep something hidden. “Do you think I’m pretty?” he asks. Even in mockery, it’s the question of a man who can’t, or won’t, see himself.

Sundance Film Review: 'Beach Rats'

Reviewed at UTA screening room, Los Angeles, Jan. 18, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — U.S. Dramatic Competition.) Running time: 97 MIN.


A Cinereach production. (International sales: Mongrel, Toronto.) Producers: Brad Becker-Parton, Drew Houpt, Paul Mezey, Andrew Goldman. Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Michael Raisler. Co-producer, Shrihari Sethe.


Director/writer: Eliza Hittman. Camera (color, 16mm): Hélène Louvart. Editors: Scott Cummings, Joe Murphy.


Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Nicole Flyus, Anton Selyaninov, Frank Hakaj, David Ivanov, Harrison Sheehan, Erik Potempa.

Walking into a movie at a film festival, without knowing anything about what you’re going to see, can feel like entering an entirely new world for the first time. “Brigsby Bear” is the rare festival movie where the main character is experiencing the exact same sensation, and that creates an exhilarating viewing experience that works in the film’s favor. Whether or not this collaboration between childhood friends Dave McCary, Kevin Costello, and Kyle Mooney will hold the same appeal after marketing campaigns reveal many of the quirkiest surprises is an open question. But the eccentric, heartfelt curio is sure to attract a cult following under any conditions.

It helps that co-writer and star Mooney is cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” where he frequently collaborates with first-time feature helmer McCary. Both are founding members of the sketch troupe Good Neighbor, whose viral videos have showcased a deadpan sensibility, love of 80s and ’90s pop culture, and knack for affectionately dismantling the dudebro lifestyle. That’s all present in “Brigsby,” which builds on the alternative comedy approach of “SNL” clips like “Miley Sex Tape” and “Inside SoCal” to deliver an utterly offbeat cinematic vision.

The less known about the plot the better, but certain details — all revealed within the opening 10 minutes or so — are necessary for the setup. Sharing a title with the favorite television show of 25-year-old James (Mooney), “Brigsby” opens with unsettling VHS footage from the show itself, which chronicles the ongoing adventures of a human-sized Teddy Ruxpin-type bear who teaches bizarre lessons like “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and “trust only the familial unit.”

After each episode ends, James dashes off to his primitive computer to post video blogs and peruse the “Brigsby Bear” fan forums. His only human company are his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who, we learn soon enough, are keeping him in an underground bunker away from the rest of the world. Otherwise a reasonably well adjusted young man with a talent for math, James wonders if he’ll ever see the outside — when a conveniently timed FBI raid answers his question.

James’ parents are carted off to jail and kindly Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) offers James a Coke and tells him he’s about to meet his real parents (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins). That’s when James’ sheltered life experience starts to clash with harsher realities of the everyday world, though it turns out the biggest adjustment of all is discovering there are no more “Brigsby Bear” episodes to watch. (The show was produced by James’ “father,” a successful toy inventor, as a brainwashing tool for an audience of one.)

From there, “Brigsby” spirals into an ode to acceptance and the creative process, as James struggles to connect with his biological family and becomes determined to produce his own “Brigsby Bear” movie. Helping him in his quest are sardonic sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) and aspiring animator Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who are both still in high school but far more experienced in the world than James.

Frequently cast as children on “SNL,” Mooney has perfected the sweet naiveté of youth, and his earnest portrayal of a man who grew up in isolation mines big laughs without any trace of condescension or cynicism. There’s a genuine sweetness to his performance, and the entire movie, that smartly wards off any accusations of ironic hipster posing. Rather than milking the outre premise for broad comedy, everyone involved strives to keep the characters and situations grounded and warm.

While Mooney has the most significantly fleshed out role, he and McCary have put together a terrific ensemble in which nearly every person gets a moment to shine. Standouts include Kinnear’s cop getting in touch with his inner actor, Lendeborg’s laidback buddy, Simpkins’ more weary sibling, and Kate Lyn Sheil’s diner waitress who played a key role in the “Brigsby” series.

From a crafts perspective, “Brigsby” is all aces, but special recognition should go to the art department and designers involved in creating both the world of the “Brigsby” show and the underground bunker where James grew up. Key elements from both spill over into the outside world, reinforcing the idea that even though James had a severely screwed-up childhood, the power to create remains a true gift.

Sundance Film Review: 'Brigsby Bear'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2017. Running time: 97 MIN


A 3311 Productions presentation of a YL Pictures production in association with Lonely Island and LM Films. Producers: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Billy Rosenberg, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Will Allegra, Mark Roberts, Al Di. Executive producers: Ross Jacobson, P. Jennifer Dana, Phil Hoelting, Lian Hua. Co-producer: Jason Zaro.


Director: Dave McCary. Writers: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney. Camera (color, HD): Christian Sprenger. Editor: Jacob Craycroft. Music: David Wingo.


Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Mark Hamill, Ryan Simpkins, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Claire Danes, Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil, Alexa Demie, Beck Bennett, Andy Samberg.

TOKYO — Megahit animation, “Your Name” reclaimed the top spot at the Japanese box office in its 22nd week on release. For the subdued Jan. 21-22 weekend the film grossed $1.53 million from 124,000 admissions, with Toho distributing.

Martin Scorsese’s Japan-set “Silence” grossed $1.7 million, but appears in fourth place in Japanese charts, which are ordered according to ticket sales. Distributed by Kadokawa, “Silence” sold 105,000 tickets.

“Your Name” has played continuously since August and returned to the top spot for the first time since mid-November. Its cumulative now stands at $207 million from 18.2 million admissions in Japan. Factoring in international grosses, “Your Name” has now earned $290 million from global theatrical markets, overtaking Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001), to be the highest earning anime film of all time.

“Honnoji Hotel” slipped to second place in the weekend chart according to ticket sales. Highest ranking among new releases, at number three, was Sony’s “Shinjuku Swan II” with $1.42 million. Like its predecessor, the film is directed by Sion Sono and stars Go Ayano as a scout, recruiting women for the Tokyo sex trade.


In case anyone needs a reminder, the fight against unjust policing in black communities long predates the cases that have dominated headlines in recent years, and Matt Ruskin’s film “Crown Heights” shines a spotlight on one particularly egregious injustice that stretched from the dawn of the 1980s all the way to the start of the current millennium. Essentially structured like a reverse “Law & Order” episode — in which we are first walked step-by-step through the legal travails of an innocent man, then see exactly how the crime was committed and investigated — the film sketches an effective, if ultimately somewhat schematic, picture of the legal system’s countless crevasses and sinkholes into which a blameless person can easily be shoved.

“Crown Heights” doesn’t break much new ground, and it takes a while to find its footing, but thanks to strong, unshowy performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha, the film does project the feelings of helplessness and frustration that come from fighting against such an immovable object. Adapted from a “This American Life” episode that detailed the case of Colin Warner (Stanfield), who spent 20 years behind bars for murder before being freed in 2001, the movie offers an interesting companion piece to Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” and ought to receive a look from festivals going forward.

As the film opens, we’re granted a brief sketch of Colin’s quiet Crown Heights existence before his life is abruptly upended. Colin is a teenage Trinidadian immigrant, studying to become a mechanic and occasionally stealing cars on the side. We’ve scarcely been introduced to him, however, when he’s snatched off of the Brooklyn streets by two detectives, whose questioning soon reveals that they suspect Colin not of grand theft auto, but rather of perpetrating a Flatbush murder that he’s entirely unaware of. Looped together with the actual murderer in a double trial, Colin is convicted despite a complete lack of motive, murder weapon, or physical evidence, all on the strength of testimony from a jittery 15-year-old (Skylan Brooks) who recants while on the stand.

As Colin painfully adjusts to life in prison – and begins a visiting-hours courtship with childhood friend Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who eventually becomes his wife – his dilemma becomes increasingly Kafka-esque. Though a sympathetic judge made sure to award him the shortest possible sentence (15 years to life), Colin can’t be considered for parole until he expresses remorse for the crime he didn’t commit, and hence he remains in prison long after the crime’s admitted perpetrator has been released. On the outside, his friend and fellow Trinidadian Carl King (Asomugha) knocks doors and fund-raises for Colin’s appeal.

As good as Stanfield is in the lead — the actor’s typical laidback demeanor proves an asset here, as he limns a very slow burn from dazed disorientation into focused anger — the film doesn’t really kicks into gear until in the later going, as Carl becomes the de facto protagonist. Through his eyes, we get to see just how stacked the deck is against the wrongfully accused, as Carl risks his marriage, changes careers, goes into debt, and sometimes wanders into perilous situations to try to buy his friend another shot at freedom, even after Colin himself has all but given up. A former member of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and a producer on the film, Asomugha really comes into his own as an actor in this role, dialing down the heroic aggrandizement and instead stressing the sheer weariness that such dedication enacts.

The film’s necessarily episodic structure occasionally works against it, however, and we spend so much time away from Colin in prison that the denouement doesn’t hit with quite the impact that the moment deserves. Nonetheless, director Ruskin makes a clever choice by demarcating the passing of time via footage of presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton reaching for applause lines with tough-on-crime rhetoric. When a despondent Colin asks Carl why he continues to fight the seemingly hopeless case, he responds: “This isn’t just about you; it’s bigger than that. It could have been me.” Until this point, race has more often been the elephant-sized subtext behind all of the legal wrangling.

Ruskin has a solid feel for the film’s bygone Brooklyn milieu, and supporting roles are uniformly well-cast, with Brooks and Bill Camp making particularly strong impressions.

Sundance Film Review: 'Crown Heights'

Reviewed at CAA, Century City, Jan. 12, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 96 MIN.


A Washington Square Films presentation in association with Black Maple Films of an Iam21 production. Producers: Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Galazka, Matt Ruskin. Executive producers, Jonathan Baker, Joshua Blum, Lila Yacoub, Anya Bourg, Troy Johnson, Avy Kaufman, Alissa Shipp.


Director/writer: Matt Ruskin, based on WBEZ Chicago’s “The American Life” episode “DIY” by Anya Bourg. Camera (color): Ben Kutchins. Editor: Paul Greenhouse.


Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Bill Camp.

The Dominican Republic’s first movie to screen at Sundance, José María Cabral’s penitentiary romance “Woodpeckers” comes with a strong buzz off December’s Ventana Sur, where it sparked a bidding war for world rights – a phenomenon seen rarely these days even at Cannes – won by Vicente Canales’ Film Factory, one of the top sales agents in the Spanish-speaking world. Distributors were beginning to queue for the title as Canales and director Jose Maria Cabral confirmed the deal to Variety.

Contending in Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition, “Woodpeckers” is an elegy to the resilience of the human spirit, based on Cabral’s spending nine months visiting the Dominican Republic’s Najayo penitentiary and other jail’s pretty much every day, and listening to its inmates.

“The inmates would tell me things, recreate them, I would give them the narrative style of the film, and ask them: ‘I need the character to do this, what would you do, how would you send this message, or make a woman fall in love wth you?’” Cabral has commented.

Fruit of one of the most singular writing room set-ups in World Cinema, the film has a mix of thriller concern from the get-go for the protagonist’s simply staying alive, mainstream romance, and arthouse social observance and bite.

“Woodpeckers” tracks Julian (Jean Jean), often literally, as he enters the Najayo men’s prison having been busted for a robbery. There he discovers its inmates have invented an intimate love sign-language, “woodpecking,’ to communicate with the prisoners in the women’s facility, more than 100 yards away, whom they can just about see but hardly talk to. He starts “woodpecking” for Bacano, a pathologically macho convict, with Yenelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez), who’s serving time in Najayo’s women’s facility. But Julian and Yenelly fall in love, and that’s when Julian’s real problem begin.

Written by Cabral, “Woodpecking” also testifies to trends in World Cinema. Powered in part by local movies, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico all posted all time box office records, in local currency terms at least, in 2016. But some of the most dramatic growth in Latin America last year came from smaller territories. “Woodpeckers” is Cabral’s fifth feature, the first four bowing after 2011. Four have been made made after the Dominican Republic’s Film Law of 2011 opening the door to tax-driven investment in local movies, which has raised production levels from an average of two-to-three movies a year to 24 in 2016.

Variety spoke to Cabral as “Woodpecking” world premieres at the Sundance Festival.

In an English-language video on YouTube, you take the viewer into Najayo prison’s men facility and film its inmates woodpecking to women inmates over 100 yards away. Was the creative key to “Woodpeckers” the combination of real-event observance feeding into a romantic thriller? 

Yes, observance and research were the keys to developing the story. It was all about getting the truth out of the prison and inmates. I was really focused on the way this movie was going to be told and specifically careful on where it was being told. Choosing to set a romantic drama in a prison gave me an contradictory, interesting contrast to work with. You would never imagine how a romantic relationship might develop between two inmates separated in two different prisons.

You don’t focus that much on Julian’s and Yanelly’s back story. It’s as if they come alive when their romance flowers. 

Yes, for me their backstory wasn’t that important. I wanted  people to experience and discover them through their own personalities and characters. Looking too much at their background could have ended up judging them, and that is not my job. Also, there is one thing every inmate agrees on: Once you get into prison is as if everything starts from zero.

How did you finance ‘Woodpeckers?”

“Woodpeckers” was financed with incentives approved by the Dominican Republic’s film law.

To what extent would you see ‘Woodpeckers” – and indeed your career – as a fruit of the Dominican Republic’s new film law of 2011?

It is indeed a fruit of the film law, we could not make this the film without it. The law permits you to explore different genres and take risks with different stories. That true not only of my career, but also those of my colleagues who are working on very interesting upcoming films set in the Dominican Republic.

You broke through with your first movie, 2011 kidnap thriller “Checkmate,’ the Dominican Republic’s 2012 Oscar entry, then made “Arroba,” released in 2013, a family-targeting time-travel comedy; sci-fi thriller “Despertar” and adventure comedy “Detective Willy” followed. One way or another, these are often genre movies. But “Woodpeckers” has an arthouse element in its description of prison conditions in the Dominican Republic. In your opinion, does that increase its foreign market potential? 

Yes, in this specific story it does, because I portray a new and different universe that people would want to see. I think sometimes it’s not only about genre, but also about the point of view that the story is being told from and “Woodpeckers” has that. Audiences will not only discover through our main character what it is like to live in a Dominican jail but also how to develop a new language to survive.

When you set out to direct “Woodpeckers,” what were you main guidelines as a director?  

Be truthful to the prison. Every choice, idea, element, scene and situation was part of something I saw or was told about in a responsible research. I wanted to make the movie as raw as possible so the audience can almost feel it was happening without any type of manipulation, which was often the case.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a new road trip drama screenplay based on another experience I lived in 2015. Following the premise of “Woodpeckers.” this new film will also be using, in a very different way, another type of language used to communicate through the island. And this type of language is one we know very well.


Netflix has acquired worldwide rights to Joe Piscatella’s documentary “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” which recently made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film, which is a June Pictures production, will launch globally later this year to Netflix’s 93 million members in 190 countries.

The film is set in Hong Kong as the Chinese Communist Party threatens its promise of autonomy to Hong Kong. Wong, who is now 20, became active in 2011 in the pro-democracy movement, rallying thousands of students to skip school and occupy the streets.

“’Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is a filmmaking triumph,” said Lisa Nishimura, Netflix VP of Original Documentaries. “Piscatella has woven together the complex and inspirational story of an unlikely activist, whose acts of bravery and conviction need to be seen around the world. In an era where we are witnessing heightened civic participation and freedom of expression, we are pleased to offer a global platform for audiences to engage on these issues.”

Piscatella said, “”The Netflix partnership will also allow us to reach millions of young people who will find inspiration in Joshua’s story.”

“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” is produced by Andrew Duncan, Matthew Torne and Mark Rinehart. Alex Saks is the executive producer.

“We could not be more thrilled to be in business with Netflix,” said Duncan, founder of June Pictures. “Their global platform will allow us to share Joshua’s message about the importance of due process of law and freedom of speech with a worldwide audience.”

It was the third Sundance deal announced Monday by Netflix following worldwide rights purchases for “The Incredible Jessica James” and “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press.”


Cesar Chavez remains the icon of U.S. agricultural labor rights, but his close colleague Dolores Huerta merits an equal place of reverence. Peter Bratt’s energetic, engaging “Dolores” argues that only basic sexism has denied her that rightful status, while celebrating the 86-year-old’s myriad accomplishments in a feature documentary whose running time necessarily condenses much of an exceptionally eventful, still-active life.

While Huerta may not yet get her full due in the history books (at least compared with the late Chavez), the fact that she is still regarded as a serious force by anti-union and other conservative forces was borne out a decade ago, when her observation that “Republicans hate Latinos” in a campus speech prompted her name to be banned from some public school curricula, among other enraged right-wing reactions. Huerta shrugged off the controversy, and indeed, one thing “Dolores” makes clear is that she doesn’t care about being liked, so long as she is working toward the larger good. That stubborn indifference to most outside criticism is, in fact, one of the most likable things about her.

Huerta has sacrificed a conventional private life in order to be a highly public advocate and agitator. The verbal attacks against her have been primarily personal — many of them hinging on her two divorces, 11 children with three spouses, and her rejection of taking a “stay-at-home mom” role to raise them. She is dismissive of such criticism because it doesn’t reflect her values and priorities: Asked in one vintage TV interview if she ever yearns for “what most women want,” i.e. having their nails done and so forth, she call such things “wastes of time.” She’s also aware that a man with a similar history as hers would never have been judged a moral failure for emphasizing work over domestic life.

Bratt’s fast-paced chronology charts Huerta’s rapid rise to positions then unprecedented for a Latina: At age 25, she was already writing proposed legislation as part of California’s progressive Community Service Organization; at 30, she co-founded the Agricultural Workers Assn., which would eventually become United Farm Workers. The attempt to unionize field laborers in California, then nationally — many of them Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants — was an exceptionally long, tortured, sometimes violent one that was vehemently opposed by most growers, who had police, the courts, and politicians on their side.

Aware of racial inequities from an early age, Huerta saw the often miserable labor conditions and pay for workers in agribusiness as a reflection of a racist power structure. She and Chavez “walked the walk” by living in the poor communities for which they advocated. While he was widely assumed to be the “true leader,” she was in fact the indefatigable architect of many attention-getting protest tactics.

Theirs was a stormy if highly productive relationship in which he, too, sometimes took umbrage at her unwillingness to take a deferential gender role. Decades later, that same tacit (and sometimes not-so-tacit) gender bias was probably the principal cause behind her not gaining the UFW presidency after Chavez’s death, eventually leaving the union altogether to pursue her own, more diverse, interests of advocacy .

Many of the events depicted in here unfolded amid the backdrop (and with the support of) other, interrelated social-justice movements of the ’60s and ’70s, most notably Chicano Power and Women’s Liberation. Though Huerta herself was a model of female empowerment — often to the irritation of foes, as well as to the regret of the husbands and children from whom she was frequently absent — she was curiously slow at first to embrace the cause of empowerment. A close friendship with Gloria Steinem, among other factors, soon changed her thinking.

“Dolores” crams a great deal of information, themes, and diverse archival materials into a sharp, cogent whole, tied together by latter-day interviews with Huerta, family members, and esteemed colleagues/supporters from Steinem to Hillary Clinton, Angela Davis, Luis Valdez and Art Torres. (Detractors are only heard in TV news clips.)

Yet it feels a bit inorganic when Bratt can’t restraint himself from a celebratory climactic montage of people dancing, based on the thin pretext that Huerta once dreamed of being a professional dancer. Still, you can forgive him for wanting to communicate a sense of joyful gratitude, even if the object of his thanks maintains a single-minded focus that’s pretty much all business, all the time.


Sundance Film Festival: 'Dolores'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition), Jan. 20, 2017. Running time: 96 MIN.


(Documentary) A Carlos Santana presentation in association with 5 Stick Films. (International sales: Ro*co Films, Sausalito, Calif.) Producers: Peter Bratt, Brian Benson. Executive producers: Carlos Santana, Regina K. Scully, Janet MacGillivray Wallace.


Director: Peter Bratt. Writers: Bratt, Jessica Congdon. Camera (color/B&W, HD): Jesse Dana. Editor: Congdon. Music: Mark Kilian.


Dolores Huerta, Curtis Acosta, Barbara Carrasco, Camila Chavez, Juana Chavez, Maria Elena Chavez, Ricardo S. Chavez, Hillary Clinton, Angela Davis, Lori de Leon, Wendy Greenfeld, Raul M. Grijalva, Ramona Holguin, Emilio Huerta, Roberto Lovato, Eloy Martinez, Eliseo Medina, Nancy Pelosi, Rick Rivas, Randy Shaw, Gloria Steinem, Art Torres, Luis Valdez.

I’ve been coming to the Sundance Film Festival since 1995, and if you asked me to pick the most audacious film I’ve ever seen here, it would probably be “Chuck & Buck,” the thrillingly twisted — but humane! — arrested-development stalker love story written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta. (White also starred in it.) It played here in 2000, and though other films grabbed bigger headlines, it was enough of a landmark that White and Arteta recognized what they’d brought out in each other and decided to team up again. Two years later, they were back with “The Good Girl,” a solid but much safer comedy (it starred Jennifer Aniston). Now, after 15 years, they’ve reunited for “Beatriz at Dinner,” a small-scale but elegantly deft squirmfest that features a luminous performance by Salma Hayek. It also has the distinction of being the first dramatic comedy that’s an explicit — and provocative — allegory of the Age of Trump.

Hayek plays Beatriz, a Los Angeles massage therapist and holistic healer enveloped in the hush of her own sad solitude. She’s saintly and girlish (even though Hayek is now 50), sort of like a nun, and she lives with her dogs and goats, one of which was recently strangled by her next-door neighbor. That sounds like a black-comic Mike White jape, but Beatriz is not a character with a sense of humor, and the movie never laughs at her. It does, however, look at her with a teasing sense of mystery. Hayek, in bangs and a plain blue shirt, makes Beatriz a gravely soulful presence, always staring into the middle distance, as if she had seen a vision. At first she doesn’t say much (that will change), but what’s going on with Beatriz — who she is, what she wants — is the film’s playfully suspenseful enigma.

After making her rounds at the Arendale Cancer Center, an alternative-medicine facility where she has an office, Beatriz drives her puttering old Volkswagen up to the palatial seaside mansion of one of her clients, Cathy (Connie Britton), whose teenage daughter she helped to care for when the girl was recovering from chemo. Beatriz is the help, but she’s also a “friend of the family,” so when the VW breaks down, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner. Even though it’s a business dinner. With a lot riding on it. In which Cathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), will be hosting the legendary real-estate mogul Doug Russten (John Lithgow).

Arteta, who has spent most of the years since “Chuck & Buck” working in television (though he did make the darkly clever Michael Cera comedy “Youth in Revolt”), has a gift for knowing how long to hold a shot, for when to keep the characters at a middle distance or draw them in close. Cathy and Grant’s guests start arriving, in their tacky splendor and vulgar conversation (with Jay Duplass as the biggest putz on hand), and as soon as Beatriz starts to greet each one of them with a Buddhist hug, we can tell where the movie is going: Beatriz, who has zero in common with these swells, is going to be spoiler, the fly in the ointment. Everyone is drinking, so she starts having glass after glass of white wine, and that’s enough to buzz her into becoming…

The Mike White pest! The “innocent” passive-aggressive wallflower who somehow finds a way to slam her ego into the center of things. As soon as she starts babbling at the dinner table, it’s awkward, but the real trouble arrives when she looks at Lithgow’s merciless tycoon and thinks that she knows him. But from where? Was he the one who built a luxury hotel in her Mexican village, chasing people out of their homes?

If so, the coincidence might seem contrived, but White’s script is cleverer than that. Russten is portrayed as a voracious pig who is all about acquiring, dominating, destroying, and taking pride in how little he could care about who gets hurt. You could say that he’s a satire of Trump, and you wouldn’t be wrong (you don’t introduce a character who’s a real-estate baron, and who talks about razing land before anyone can discover he’s done anything unconscionable, without expecting people to make the connection), but he’s really a takeoff on the spirit of Trump. Lithgow frees him from cliché by making him, beneath the greedy bluster, more reasonable than you’d expect: a titan who can afford to be polite, because he knows that he’s going to crush you anyway. This actor understands power from the inside; he doesn’t just act it — he chews on it and savors it. Beatriz, who’s got his number, is his opposite spirit: the immigrant who wants vengeance. It’s a situation wired for a showdown, and the movie is like a comic fuse that sizzles until it detonates.

Mike White broke through to audacity again in the HBO series “Enlightened,” but in his film scripts, it’s become a little too easy to make out the pattern, the crafted design. That was true even in “School of Rock” — though Jack Black and Richard Linklater, while remaining true to White’s rock-is-now-for-kids concept, made it shake, rattle, and roll. In “Beatriz at Dinner,” White and Arteta are an infectious team again, and they’ve created the kind of Trump-tweaking film that specialty audiences will surely want in 2017: one that says there are now two American destinies, and that we’ll have to choose between them. Hayek’s performance, by the end, grows unexpectedly moving. Yet “Beatriz at Dinner” is a little tidy. It seizes and charms without soaring.

Sundance Film Review: 'Beatriz at Dinner'

Reviewed at Eccles Theatre, Sundance Film Festival, January 23, 2017. Running time: 83 MIN.


A Killer Films, Bron Studios production. Producers: Pamela Koffler, Aaron L. Gilbert, David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon. Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Alan Simpson, Richard McConnell, Sander Shalinsky, Lewis M. Hendler, Jose Tamez, Brad Feinstein, Paul Tennyson.


Director: Miguel Arteta. Screenplay: Mike White. Camera (color, widescreen): Wyatt Garfield. Editor: Jay Deuby.


Salma Hayek, John Lithgow.

The election of Donald Trump has inspired Chelsea Handler to re-think her political affiliation.

The outspoken comedian sat down with Variety hours after leading the Women’s March at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday in Park City, Utah, for a wide-ranging interview, discussing everything from Trump to women’s rights to two-party politics.

Handler revealed that after the results of the 2016 election, she no longer considers herself a Democrat.

“Divisiveness is not the answer, and I think to get that message, we have to reach across party lines,” Handler said. “Forget your party. I’m registering as an independent. I’m not going to be a Democrat anymore because it’s too divisive. This isn’t working, this two-party system.”

Speaking with Variety‘s Elizabeth Wagmeister, Handler said that Trump’s victory influenced her immensely, causing her to have an agenda of educating herself and other people about politics, voting and human rights.

Handler’s biggest concern under Trump’s administration is racism, she says. And then reproductive issues.

“No one has any right to tell us what to do with our bodies. That is not okay. You get off of your religious bullsh-t soapbox. I am my own person. No man gets to tell me what I get to do with my body. No one. Not your husband, not your politician. Why would somebody I don’t know tell me what I can do? This is America. So that is a real issue,” she said. “Planned Parenthood helps so many women and men.”

When asked if she would ever interview Trump on her Netflix show, she bluntly said, “No.”

How about Melania Trump?

“No,” Handler said. “Melania? To talk about what? She can barely speak English.”

Though she does not want the president to come onto her show as a guest, Handler was asked what she would say to Trump if he were in her presence.

“F–k off. F–k off,” Handler said. “Gross. He is the grossest. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Those statues they made of him were accurate. I bet you that is what he looks like naked with a little grape in between his legs.”

Elaborating on the Trumps, Handler said, “I don’t respect either one of those people.”

Someone she does respect is Hillary Clinton. “It’s so shameful what’s transpired because because we had the most qualified candidate in history against the least qualified candidate in history, and then we had Russia interfering with our election,” Handler said. “There’s like a war. This is kind of war.”

Watch Chelsea Handler’s full interview with Variety here:

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Lily Collins stars as a young woman battling anorexia in the indie film “To The Bone,” and the actress has a personal connection to the subject matter.

Collins revealed on Saturday at Variety’s studio at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, that she formerly battled an eating disorder.

“This movie was really important to me to be a part of because, as a teenager, I suffered from eating disorders,” Collins said.

“This is the first time I’m talking about it. This is my moment of talking about it,” Collins shared. “It’s important. It’s really important. It’s something that a lot of young women go through and there’s no shame in it, and this movie is about that — it’s about embracing your past and about realizing it’s something that doesn’t define who you are, but it’s about your experiences, surrounding yourself with people that support you, and about surviving and getting through it.”

“The The Bone,” which is in the U.S. dramatic competition at the festival, is based off the real-life experiences of writer/director Marti Noxon, who also dealt with an eating disorder in her past. Keanu Reeves stars alongside Collins in the film, playing her character’s doctor.

Collins explained that she was immediately drawn to the project because of her common ground with Noxon.

“This was something that right away when I met Marti, I completely was like, oh my god, we have to work together,” Collins said. “We have to tell this story because it’s something I think that’s incredibly taboo with young men and women to talk about, especially in today’s day and age where it’s more and more prevalent.”

In prepping for the role, Collins looked back to her own experiences and Noxon’s. The Golden Globe nominee also met with experts in the field, plus others who have suffered from eating disorders.

“Marti was so nurturing right away to reference my experiences, but also…in a way, I’m playing Marti’s life, so I just talked to her about all her experiences and we shared a lot,” Collins said. “I talked to the head of the UCLA department for eating disorders and spoke to medical doctors about the facts, and we visited groups of young women and heard about their stories.”

Collins is one of many women in Hollywood who have spoken up about their past eating disorders, including Demi Lovato, Zoe Kravitz, Portia De Rossi, Candace Cameron Bure, “Girls” star Zosia Mamet and “Good Morning America’s” Ginger Zee.

Watch Variety’s full video with Lily Collins here:


A year ago, “Manchester by the Sea” debuted on the first Saturday of Sundance 2016. That same magic must have rubbed off on Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” an operatic drama about two families set in 1940s Mississippi Delta that premiered to the most enthusiastic standing ovation of this year’s Park City gathering so far.

The packed crowd at the Eccles Theatre included a number of moguls and heavyweights, among them Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, AMC chief Josh Sapan, Roadside Attractions’ co-founder Howard Cohen, Bleecker Street chief Andrew Karpen and Amazon Studios’ Ted Hope and Bob Berney.

Insiders predict that “Mudbound” is likely to land a deal in the eight-figure range, following a heated bidding war. That said, while the film is powerful, the subject matter and violence caused scattered walkouts toward the end of the picture. To work commercially, the film will need awards love and strong reviews.

The 2018 Academy Awards telecast is still 13 months away, but “Mudbound” kicked off the annual parlor game of trying to spot the Oscar contender in the batch of indies landing in Utah. And like “Manchester,” this carefully crafted story rests on exceptional performances.

Mary J. Blige, as the mother of the Jackson family, gives a transformative performance that will elevate the acting career of the R&B star. Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”), who plays her World War II veteran son Ronsel, is equally magnetic.

As members of the McAllan family, who relocate to a rural farmhouse, only to face an escalating series of hardships, Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund deliver some of the best turns of their careers.

But it is Reese, who came to Sundance with her first feature “Pariah” in 2011, who will likely receive the biggest boost from the rapturous reception. “I saw this as a being a story about two families,” she said in a post-screening Q&A, making the point that she employed a female-centric crew. “I saw this being a story of amazing women. I wanted to juxtapose the battle at home with the battle abroad.”

Reese told the audience that the story had a personal connection. Her grandmother’s parents were sharecroppers in the rural South, and both of her grandfathers fought in World War II. “This film is about the search for citizenship,” she said. “It’s about the impossibility of going home.”

Part of “Mudbound’s” power comes from its casting of two strong heroines and the connection they forge despite living in a segregated society. “As women we have a bond,” Blige said. “There’s this thing we all understand about each other. Don’t make me say it—menstrual cramps, labor pains. We understand each other, and that’s what make us connect and that’s where the chemistry comes from.”


Proof that classical genres are always ready to be retrofitted for the modern age, “The Nile Hilton Incident” transplants the dark, cynical heart of film noir to the streets of Cairo in the days leading up to the 2011 revolution that would eventually oust President Hosni Mubarak. Swedish writer-director Tarik Saleh’s crime drama about a cop investigating the murder of a beautiful singer is a paranoid portrait of individual and systemic corruption that leaves none of its characters unscarred. Blending procedural thrills with politicized commentary, this gripping import (based, in part, on a real-life 2008 case) should attract sizable domestic interest following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Millions of Egyptians began protesting Mubarak’s reign beginning on Jan. 25, 2011 – a date that serves as the climactic setting of “The Nile Hilton Incident.” Saleh’s film commences shortly before that momentous turn of events, with a young Sudanese girl named Salwa (Mari Malek) who, while working as a cleaning lady at the titular hotel, overhears an argument in a room, out of which two men, in relatively brief succession, leave, the second one after having killed a woman. Salwa escapes this assassin, and tidying up the mess is left to Noredin (Fares Fares), a cop who has few qualms about pilfering cash from the scene of the crime, but who nonetheless is compelled to figure out who’s behind this murder, even though his superiors, including his uncle, Kamal (Yasser Ali Maher), are eager to sweep it under the rug.

Noredin’s inquiry immediately points him toward Shafiq (Ahmed Seleem), a real-estate developer and parliament member. Shafiq denies responsibility for the death of the girl, a local singer and prostitute named Lalena, who it turns out worked with a sleazy pimp named Nagy (Hichem Yacoubi) to take compromising photos of her clients (including Shafiq) that could then be used as blackmail. The film’s intro sequences makes clear that Shafiq had another mystery man (Slimane Daze) actually do away with Lalena. And the fact that these would-be culprits are both in league with – and shielded by – the police and governmental bigwigs is obvious to everyone, including Noredin, who finds himself at every turn stymied by people, and institutions, more concerned with self-interest than the truth.

After chasing numerous avenues that culminate in dead ends (as well as ominous warnings about his own professional and personal safety), Noredin is informed by Shafiq, “There’s no justice here.” That reality is as inescapable as the smog is thick in Cairo, a city the movie presents as a fugue-like dystopian wasteland littered with the bodies of innocents and the broken shards of the laws intended to protect them. Director Saleh’s frequent cutaways to his metro skyline evoke a sense of “Chinatown”-by-way-of-“Blade Runner” bleakness, while his infrequent snippets of TV news footage create anticipation for a forthcoming revolutionary conflagration set to engulf everyone and everything in its path.

Stuck in the center of this cesspool, Noredin proves incapable of affecting anything resembling real change, and Fares’ performance – all world-weary resignation and desperate righteousness – captures a poignant sense of helplessness. That’s especially true when he decides to become involved with Gina (Hania Amar), a friend of Lalena’s who’s also engaged in the crooner-cum-working-girl trade. Still grieving over his dead wife, Noredin knows that his behavior will invariably compromise him (and his investigation). Still, he proceeds accordingly, desperate for a sliver of genuine human connection, and buoyed by his knowledge that any indiscretion can be washed away with a bribe.

By the time it arrives at its showdown amid Cairo’s burgeoning uprising, “The Nile Hilton Incident” has indulged in so many grim twists that it’s hard not to read it, and its downbeat ending, as a stinging commentary on the venality of the Mubarak era, as well as the futility of the forthcoming revolution to hold the nation’s actual villains accountable. Like the finest noir, what springs forth from Saleh’s film is the dreary belief that the bad sleep well while the rest are left to suffer in the streets.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Nile Hilton Incident'

Reviewed at Magno Screening Room, New York, Jan. 17, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — World Dramatic Competition.) Running time: 107 MIN.


(Sweden-Denmark-Germany) A Match Factory presentation in co-production with Ostlicht Filmproduktion, Final Cut for Real, Film Vast, Nordsvensk Filmunderhällning, Sveriges Television, Chimney, Scanbox and Copenhagen Film Fund with support from the Swedish Film Institute, Eurimages, Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung, the Danish Film Institute, West Danish Film Fund and Atmo. (International sales: The Match Factory, Germany.) Producer: Kristina Åberg. Executive producers, Fares Fares, Tom Persson, Mikael Ahlström, Lars Rodvaldr, Tarik Saleh, Kristina Åberg, Emil Wiklund, Jon Wigfield. Co-producers, Karim Debbagh, Monica Hellstrøm, Marcel Lenz, Signe Byrge Sørensen.


Director, writer: Tarik Saleh. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Pierre Aïm. Editor: Theis Schmidt.


Fares Fares, Mari Malek, Yasser Ali Maher, Slimane Daze, Ahmed Seleem, Mohamed Yousry, Hichem Yacoubi, Hania Amar. (Arabic dialogue)

If a 60-foot saguaro cactus could talk, it would almost certainly sound like Sam Elliott. At 72 years old, the lanky character actor has played his share of bikers, hippies, and cowboys, but never the hero — at least, never on the level of Lee Hayden, the faded-glory Western star he portrays in Brett Haley’s “The Hero.” This affectionately crafted project offers Elliott the most substantial big-screen role of his career, though sadly, that’s not saying an awful lot for an actor who was passed over to play Indiana Jones, and is instead best known for drawling such catchphrases as “The Dude abides” and “Beef: It’s what for dinner.”

Fortunately for Elliott, “The Hero” targets those old enough to remember his early roles (like the clean-shaven card sharp in the opening scene of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,”) and particularly memorable later ones (the silver-‘stashed seducer in Haley’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams”). As a follow-up to “Dreams,” this film is likely to earn Elliott the best reviews of his career, even if the character doesn’t feel much deeper than any other he’s played.

That’s because instead of fleshing out Lee’s backstory, Haley and co-writer Marc Basch treat Elliott like a star, encouraging him to flaunt the qualities that have defined him as a character actor — the wet-gravel voice, that slowest-draw-in-the-West kind of nonchalance — in much the same way Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson incorporate their signature personae into their performances. Trouble is, Elliott isn’t a star. He’s a “leave them wanting more” kind of screen presence, most memorable in supporting roles (like recent indie gem “Grandma”). Watching Elliott try to carry an entire film, you can’t help but wonder how much richer it might be in the hands of an actor like Gene Hackman, or Robert Duvall, or even Bruce Dern, who gnawed his way through a similar sunset role in “Nebraska” a few years back.

But Elliott isn’t the problem. In fact, he deserves better. Haley and Basch have mistaken what the AARP calls “movies for grownups” for a kind of mushy feel-good pablum, throwing together a handful of familiar clichés in the hope that Elliott’s charm will carry the day. In a scene that was likely inspired by Elliott’s own experiences, we meet Lee, an actor, in the recording booth, where a clueless sound engineer asks him to recite the advertising tagline, “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce, the perfect pardner for your chicken,” ad nauseum.

The final scene finds Lee back in the same booth, and it’s the movie’s simple-minded idea of irony: Though Hayden’s surly, stuck-in-his-ways character undergoes a satisfyingly transformative arc over the course of the film — including facing the potential death sentence of a cancer diagnosis and attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) — all of this personal progress finds him right back where he started.

But it’s all about the journey, and this relatively predictable one moves in slow-motion, between the already-protracted way Elliott saunters through dialogue and Haley’s decision to cast him as a melancholy old pothead. Instead of the usual page-per-minute of screen time, this film feels like a 30-page script stretched to 90-odd minutes.

Already self-medicating with marijuana, Lee is reluctant to seek treatment for his pancreatic cancer, the low survival rate of which forces him to confront all the unfinished business in his life — from emotional wounds left festering since he walked out on his family to the fact that he hasn’t made a movie he’s proud of in 40 years. His agent doesn’t have much work to offer, but there’s a lifetime achievement award from a small-time Western movie appreciation society, and Lee agrees to attend. When his daughter declines to be his “plus one,” he invites Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a sexy-looking stranger he met through his pot supplier — and only friend — Jeremy (Nick Offerman).

Does a relationship sparked at a drug dealer’s house offer real potential? Comedic potential, perhaps, though its romantic prospects aren’t so bright. On the limo ride to the award show, Charlotte sprinkles Ecstasy in the couple’s champagne flutes, and a short time later, the drugs kick in, leading to a scene that, while not especially funny in the present, becomes a viral sensation after someone uploads a recording to YouTube, briefly igniting fresh interest in Lee within the industry.

Out-of-touch movies frequently jump-start stalled-actor characters with such lame stunts (see “The Comedian” … or better yet, don’t see “The Comedian”), but real life doesn’t work that way. Nor do dreams unfold like deleted scenes from old movies, as they do here — representing the only moments that warrant a widescreen format otherwise at odds with Haley’s closeup-happy shooting style. It’s as if he believes that by getting close, he’ll penetrate some emotional level his stoic leading man so subtly underplays.

While not only capable of, but quite accustomed to, doing much with very little, Elliott deserves a showcase role — although it would be nice to see one that gives him more of an opportunity to stretch. In “The Hero,” he’s essentially playing the guy we all imagine him to be, sharing the screen with real-life wife Katharine Ross as the woman his character abandoned, and probably never deserved in the first place.

After all, it’s one thing to see a bona fide movie star self-deprecatingly play this kind of late-career malcontent, the way Michael Keaton did in “Birdman,” and quite another to watch someone most audiences think of as “that guy” — as in, “that guy who played Cher’s biker boyfriend in ‘Mask,’” or “ that guy who came to Patrick Swayze’s rescue in ‘Road House’” — trying to convince us he’s an icon in the James Coburn or Lee Marvin mold. Still, with that signature drawl, Elliott could coax errant tumbleweeds to a halt, and while this hero’s journey that isn’t nearly as poetic as it ought to be, the movie teases with the notion of how the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay might sound in his voice. We can always hope he agrees to read the tie-in audiobook.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Hero'

Reviewed at WME screening room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 12, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 96 MIN.


A Northern Lights Films, Park Pictures, Houston King Prods. presentation. (International sales: WME, Los Angeles.) Producers: Houston King, Sam Bisbee, Erik Rommesmo. Executive producers: Jeff Schlossman, Bill Wallwork, David Bunce, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord, Theodora Dunlap, Franklin Carson, Danny Rifkin, Frank Brenner. Co-producer: Amy Jarvela.


Director: Brett Haley. Screenplay: Haley, Marc Basch. Camera (color, widescreen): Rob C. Givens. Editor: Brett Haley. Music: Keegan Dewitt.


Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Patrika Darbo.
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