Five films, all the work of writer-directors, with many even putting on the producer cap!
The Half of It
dir/scr: Alice Wu
pr: Blair Breard / Anthony Bregman / Alice Wu
cin: Greta Zozula
In which an intelligent (and closeted) loner agrees to write love letters to the most beautiful girl in school on behalf of a nice jock, befriending the latter and falling for the former. A relief to see a movie that acknowledges how attraction and hormones informs who we want to get to know, but that the "happy ending" of that relationship does not have to be romantic. This is no spoiler - our protagonist says as much in the beginning - but it is still a surprise to see how it all plays out, how the interaction between these teens evolves from a barter system to mutual caring. And whether it last the rest of their lives is beside the point - this is about three people opening up and realizing they are not alone. Such a sweet movie.
We Are Little Zombies
dir/scr: Makoto Nagahisa
pr: Haruhiko Hasegawa / Shin'ichi Takahashi / Taihei Yamanishi / Haruko Yokoyama
cin: Hiroaki Takeda
In which four orphans meet at a crematorium and form a clique, then a rock band. A campy, colorful, imaginative ride that makes you think of multiple things at once (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, The Funeral, We Are the Best!!, The Apple), yet remains very much its own unique Thing. One thing it nails honestly - amid the hyperactive video game-inspired set-pieces and absurdly straight-faced black humor - is the powerlessness of childhood, that period in which are least in control of our destiny. Except for their decision to stick together and form their own weird family, the Little Zombies do not do; things happen to them, as others project their feelings and desires on to them, from protagonist Hikari being told he must be sad on the inside to fans the kids' desires based on a tossed-off line to the media trying to manipulate them to tears to the girl Ikuko being labeled a "femme fatale" and object of desire just by...existing. It's the most original vision I've seen all year, certainly. And it's got a terrific soundtrack!
dir/scr: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
pr: Jean-Pierre Dardenne / Luc Dardenne / Denis Freyd
cin: Benoît Dervaux
In which an adolescent boy's fervent faith leads him to violence. The Dardennes' observational style allows enough equal intimacy and remove to see the gears in Ahmed's head work wordlessly, yet never tries to make him a demon. Snatches of detail tell us of his vulnerability to the influence of his radical Imam, a direct man who knows how to stay out of trouble while steering his young disciples into a fanatical mindset. Every movement, religious or political or otherwise, has its internal conflicts regarding orthodoxy vs. reformation vs. fanaticism; here we see the most effective weapon is the boy becoming a man, searching for guidance.
dir/scr: Bertrand Bonello
pr: Bertrand Bonello / Judith Lou Lévy
cin: Yves Cape
In which we move between a man in 1960s Haiti as he's transformed into a zombie, and two schoolgirls in modern France - one white, one black. It's really the story of a filmmaker who can't quite decide whether to make a horror movie or a respectful fairy tale out of voodoo legends. I think Bonello has much he wants to say about how westerners perceive and exploit the religious practices of non-whites, about teenage priorities, about the dire financial situation of immigrants, but none of it really comes together. He's trapped himself by forcing a character to make an uncharacteristic decision to move the plot where it needs to go. Mind, such disappointment can only come when you've been enjoying the movie up to that point, and I sure was: the performances, the cinematography, the slow burn of the central relationship. I wish it didn't get so contrived.
The Last Full Measure
dir/scr: Todd Robinson
pr: Julian Adams / Michael Bassick / Timothy Scott Bogart / Nicholas Cafritz / Adi Cohen / Mark Damon / Pen Densham / Petr Jákl / Robert Reed Peterson / Jordi Rediu / Shaun Sanghani / Lauren Selig / Sidney Sherman / T.J. Steyn / John Watson
cin: Byron Werner
In which a Pentagon staffer looks into the posthumous awarding of the Medal of Honor to an airman killed in Vietnam 34 years earlier. Blown-out lighting, clunky dialogue, scored inappropriately. Sebastian Stan seems at sea with his dud of a character, but he's there - he knows he's there - to be on the other end of PERFORMANCES from an ensemble of heavyweights, and this often proves to be enough. Standouts are John Savage, as a vet who finds peace in the place where he lost it, and Samuel L. Jackson, best in show as a man who can't give voice to his guilt for over three decades. Uneven, but I was tearing up by the end.
Best of the Bunch: The Half of It, We Are Little Zombies