The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015). I find it amusing and even endearing that Joel Edgerton bypassed any potential inclinations to establish himself as a serious cinematic artist with his feature directorial debut and instead crafted a lurid little thriller not unlike those that routinely slunk into cineplexes throughout the nineteen-nineties. In The Gift, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to Southern California because the former has taken a new job. While shopping for their new home, Simon and Rebecca bump into Gordo (Edgerton), an acquaintance from Simon’s high school days. Gordo insinuates himself into their lives — including the stealth delivery of gifts — so insistently that it begins to pick up an air of danger, and that’s before it’s clear that there’s a nasty secret to be unearthed. The film is basic but accomplished enough. Edgerton delivers a nice performance, keeping Gordo’s motivations teetering on the edge of uncertainty without ever cheating and maintaining a level of sympathy for the character. Bateman is shakier as his role becomes more demanding, though it’s interesting to see him playing against type, accentuating the nasty edge that’s present but buffered in many of his performances.
Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016). Occasionally, documentary filmmakers hit the jackpot. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg surely believed they were undertaking a fairly simple journalistic tracing of an attempted redemption political campaign for Anthony Weiner, running to become the Mayor of New York City a few years after a sexting scandal drove him from his place in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the midst of the mayoral campaign, however, a new, similar batch of online infractions emerged, at precisely the point Weiner’s campaign was on the upswing. Kriegman and Steinberg were then gifted with a public meltdown of astonishing proportions, which offered sharp insights to the dangers of a cavalier life lived in public, the broken political system, and the toxic narcissism that drives certain people. Given wide access to Weiner, the filmmakers capture amazing moments, such as the politician gleefully rewatching a combative interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s television program, utterly oblivious to how badly he comes across. The material is assembled well, though they occasionally prove themselves just as prone to distraction by the most salacious elements, as when they afford too much attention to one of Weiner’s most fame-hungry online partners, a woman with a name ludicrously spot-on for a sex scandal participant: Sydney Leathers.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2016). The agreeably low-key indie film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an eleven-year-old girl who regularly accompanies her older brother (Da’Sean Minor) to the local community center, where he is training as a boxer. Toni wanders off to a different gym and finds a group of girls training as members of a championship dance team. She musters up the courage to join the squad, and it seems the film is settling into a familiar pattern. Then writer-director Anna Rose Holmer delivers a surprising turn. One by one, girls on the team are falling prey to terrible fits, none of which can be explained. Holmer has a talent for striking, unique visuals that never become indulgent. She demonstrates an even more impressive command of tone, infusing the film with the creeping menace of a horror film. Hightower is warm and winning in the lead role, and there’s a dandy supporting performance by Alexis Neblett, playing a diminutive teammate with a couple Minnie Mouse buns atop her head and a vivid confidence.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016). The director of the Norwegian found footage horror film Troll Hunter makes his English-language debut with this grim and playful story of a father and son coroner team (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, respectively) who endure a stormy night with an especially perplexing cadaver (Olwen Kelly). Written by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, the film is at its best through its nice slow build, as every slice reveals something a little more troubling as the woman on the slab. Like a lot of horror films, it has trouble pivoting into its third act, defaulting to the usual heightening tactic of bringing on the cataclysm. Before that, it’s dark, dandy fun.
Sisters (Jason Moore, 2015). While Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, together and apart, are tremendous in many venues, the big screen continues to prove vexing. Working from a screenplay by longtime Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell, Fey and Poehler play the siblings of title. They journey back to their hometown of Orlando after news comes that their childhood home is being sold. Through slippery logic, they decide to have one big blowout party before the deal closes. Glumly unfunny mayhem ensues.