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“THE ROLE EVERETT WAS BORN TO PLAY.” -Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE
and monsters, but it’s not by coincidence that she encounters abuse, disease and the threat of trafficking, too. The animation that brings Liyana to life, created by Shofela Coker, is gorgeous, but the reason it resonates has everything to do with the way it’s woven into footage of the children telling Liyana’s story or going about their every- day business. The film never becomes ponderous, as other documentaries about the region can be. Though there are occasional interstitials citing specific statistics — infection rates in Swaziland’s AIDS epidemic, how that affects children — the filmmakers’ efforts are never heavy-handed, as they mostly let the children author their own sto- ries. If the rule is “show, don’t tell,” then Liyana is a success. (Karen Han)
THE SUPER “I was in The motherfucking Wire!” I imagine that thought was running through the head of Paul Ben-Victor as he grouched his way through The Super, director Stephan Rick’s aggre- gation of horror-movie clichés set in a Manhattan apartment building. Creepy clown toys, off-key music-box melodies, close-ups of hyper-sharp- ened pencils, partially obscured killer’s-eye-view shots: Rick stacks one overworked trope atop another so dutifully that you’d think he was brick- ing someone up in a basement. The basement, incidentally, is where widowed ex-cop Phil Lodge (Patrick John Flueger) moves in with his daugh- ters Violet (Taylor Richardson) and Rose (Mattea Conforti) after he takes a job as a building super- intendent. As tenants begin mysteriously dis- appearing — the murders are depicted onscreen but the bodies vanish before anyone finds them — Phil decides to investigate. His prime suspect is creepy fellow handyman Walter (Val Kilmer; yes, really), who whispers occult rituals down by the furnace and has taken an interest in young Rose. Naturally, not everything is what it seems; there are a couple of necessary untruths even in this plot synopsis. But the part where it seems like some excellent actors have been roped into propping up a hopelessly by-the-numbers horror movie? That’s totally on the level. (Rob Staeger)
TRANSFORMER Until 2015, Janae Marie Kroczaleski was known to the world as Matt Kroc, the U.S. Marine, bodybuilder and record-breaking male powerlifter. But as Kroc explains in Transformer,
a sunny, sympathetic doc from Michael Del Monte about the transition of Kroc from him to her, that hypermasculinity had been something of a secu- rity blanket for a man who never went five min- utes without yearning to be someone else. “The truth is it’s taking everything I’ve got as a man to become a woman,” Kroc says early in a film that will conclude with him traveling to South Korea for plastic surgery to reshape the face that appeared on many muscle magazines. Shot in 2015, the film finds Kroc splitting time between Matt and Janae and trying to sort out how his athletic life — the weight training the 40ish man relishes — will
fit into his existence as Janae. In tender family scenes, we see that Kroc’s young sons aren’t just comfortable with his transition — they’re proud. (“Thanks, guys,” Kroc says. “Make me cry and ruin my makeup.”) Less uplifting: The cameras capture the first meeting of Janae, in wig and women’s clothes, with Kroc’s Michigan mother, who speaks with quiet dismay of this for her being something like the death of her son. That’s a rare blot on the prevailing good cheer; the film might be more illuminating and instructive if it examined more reactions to Kroc’s flowering from within the lifting world. Overall, though, Del Monte crafts a
warm portrait of the birth of a woman from a man who found he had even more strength than he ever realized. (Alan Scherstuhl)
WHAT THEY HAD It’s clever, perhaps, of What They Had’s squabbling family to be no more engaging than most real people’s, but that makes the film
a tough sit. This brittle and cantankerous comic drama, written and directed by actress Elizabeth Chomko and boasting a top-shelf cast, zeroes in on wrenching choices millions of adults face as their parents age: how to care for them while still living a life. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon are siblings urging Dad (Robert Forster) to put his wife/their mother (Blythe Danner) into a nursing home for people with Alzheimer’s. A haze has settled over the mind of Ruth, Danner’s character; in scenes poised uneasily between tragic and comic, she forgets her husband’s name, calling him “my boyfriend,” and mistakes a stapler for the telephone. Dad is reluctant, of course, terri- fied at the thought of change, while the kids both could use some change of their own: Her mar- riage is stale, and he’s too surly and agitated to commit to anything except the Chicago bar that he owns. Curiously, paying for the nursing home never seems to be an issue. Instead, the sticking point is simply the father’s refusal, not just to up- end their life but even to discuss the possibility. Forster’s character shuts down every discussion of this with shouts, while Swank and Shannon’s characters bicker in circles, and Danner edges uncomfortably close to Harpo Marx territory. Swank is a sturdy, compelling lead, but she fares best in scenes not involving the family, like one awkward, desperate flirtation with a chap she knew way back when. But the family squabbles jangle the nerves while not hitting on insights or memorable emotion. (Alan Scherstuhl)
GO WILDLIFE“Tomorrowsomethingwillhap- pen to make things feel different,” a character declares early in the incisive domestic drama Wildlife, actor Paul Dano’s directing debut. Things suddenly becoming different is the promise of most contemporary movies, where the drabness of everyday life is forever being brightened up by surprise superpowers or opportunities for violent heroism. In Dano’s film, set in Montana in 1960, the thought is a fantasy. Nothing is going to make this small town or this family feel different, not even the unemployed father (Jake Gyllenhaal) lighting out to risk his life on a crew fighting wildfires
for the summer, much to the disgust of his wife, Jeanette (the superb Carey Mulligan). The couple has begun to discover that raw truth that, around 1960, American novelists and filmmakers were only starting to face in their art: That postwar dream of a little house and a little family might not be enough to ensure happiness. Gyllenhaal domi- nates the early scenes, playing a man too prideful to accept an offer to return to the caddie job
he’s been fired from. Then he’s gone, and Wildlife belongs to Mulligan, whose bold, ferocious per- formance as a woman recklessly searching for change herself stands among the best in recent memory. Mulligan reveals Jeanette’s conflicting impulses, her struggle to honor all the roles in which life has cast her but also her sense that she might have been given a second chance. She lunges for this in a lengthy, discomfiting sequence of transactional flirting at dinner
with a rich man (Bill Camp) and her teen son (Ed Oxenbould). Dano’s film is shrewd and exacting, composed with rigor yet alert to the rhythms of its performers. (Alan Scherstuhl)
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