TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

Our Towns

*** When journalists Deborah and James Fallows conclude their new HBO documentary in Bend, the Central Oregon hub is held up as a beacon, having reinvented itself into a year-round tourist destination after weathering the 1980s timber crash. Evolving municipal identity runs through all eight profiles in Our Towns, based on the Fallowses’ 2018 book of the same name. While the film’s many drone-captured sweeps of marshes, highways and farmland are simultaneously majestic and too polished, the most useful takeaway from Our Towns is a psychological prophecy. The Fallowses note that although Americans are routinely intransigent when it comes to their national politics, they often believe their communities’ outlooks to be different. And with enough of that exceptionalism, cities can actually become positively idiosyncratic. California’s Inland Empire boxing gyms double as chess clubs. West Virginia public radio stations leap to the national stage. Small-town Maine newspapers stay robust against all odds. If Our Towns has a major shortfall, it too often employs industrial narratives as a crutch for town health and identity. Today’s innovations are framed as victories for locales like Bend, but the exit of the previous industry only shows how fickle and exploitative commercial definitions can be. Luckily though, the guiding principle here is classic, unassuming human interest—may it never decline, crash or outsource. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. HBO, HBO Max.

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Do Not Split

*** Frontline crisis journalism has long been a staple of the Oscars’ Best Documentary (Short Subject) category. Unmercifully, the world never quits offering new topics. While Portlander Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward would beat out the rest of the 2020 nominees for its sheer, don’t-look-away portraiture, Norwegian journalist Anders Hammer’s Do Not Split presents a more gripping reportage of Hong Kong’s past two years. Between February 2019 and last June, a bill was proposed to allow extradition of criminal suspects in Hong Kong to mainland China, and a controversial anti-sedition law was passed, which allows China to establish a national security agency in the former British colony. All of that time, Hammer’s camera is guided on a tear-gas tour of a region protesting for its soul. The police brutality, flash bangs and thousands of young activists risking their futures should look familiar to any American viewer. But it’s the earnest ingenuity of the Hong Kong protesters on increasingly treacherous political ground that renders Do Not Split a must-see, with its coordinated umbrella charges and rooftop escapes. Now, months after the film’s completion, and with Beijing having recently granted itself authority to simply veto Hong Kong elections, the doc stands as a tribute to how ruggedly civilians will fight for a region seemingly lost to their past while still living out their wildest hopes for the future. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Virtual Cinema.

The Letter Room

*** Short films (even the kind nominated for Oscars) are rarely the domain of big-name actors, let alone movie stars of Oscar Isaac’s caliber. But exceptions are often made for family, and director Elvira Lind casts her husband in a gentle, understated part in The Letter Room—one that runs counter to Isaac’s preternatural suave. In fact, Richard the prison guard has more in common with modest, disquieted Tony Shalhoub roles than Isaac’s X-Wing fighter pilots and folk singers. Obscured by a broom-bristle mustache and frumpy uniform, Isaac slowly unfurls the morbid curiosity resulting from Richard’s “promotion” to the prison’s communications department. Essentially, the new gig just means he surveils all correspondence leaving and entering the pen. Lind’s 30-minute short manages to subvert the guard-with-a-heart-of-gold setup in a few unexpected ways (watch for another well-placed cameo) as the power disparity between captors and captives shifts. In fact, confoundingly, the letter room may be the only carceral context in which the playing field levels. If everyone knows full well they’re either snooping or being snooped on, personal letters become fictions, then fan fictions, then forgeries. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime, Cinema 21, Hollywood, Living Room, Virtual Cinema.

Nina Wu

*** Nina Wu is a struggling actress living in Taipei. When her agent nabs her an audition for a plum role in a ’70s espionage thriller, she hesitates after learning it requires full-frontal nudity, though ultimately goes through with it. She earns the part, but discovers that the on-set environment is dangerous and brutal—the director is abusive in his quest to elicit Nina’s best performance, and the (mostly male) crew members do nothing to intervene. As Nina begins to unravel, repressed memories leak through the cracks, and she questions how she actually got the role in the first place. The answer is horrific, almost as horrific as the fact that Nina Wu is inspired by true events. Written by and starring Wu Ke-Xi in the titular role, this darkly surrealist character study takes inspiration from Satoshi Kon’s 1997 anime masterpiece Perfect Blue, and is a mesmerizing exploration of the myriad ways in which trauma completely alters one’s mental health, one’s identity, one’s entire world. As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” which is exactly the coping mechanism Nina chooses. Though the film is occasionally a tad unfocused, it still retains a serrated sharpness, leaving an unforgettable scar. NR. MIA VICINO. On Demand, Virtual Cinema.

Opera

*** This nine-minute short is the pinnacle of 2020′s Oscar-nominated animated shorts. But if Opera tells us anything, beware of pinnacles. Patient and haunting, Erick Oh’s conceptual film comprises one drooping pan down a pyramid-bound society, and then one pan back up. Resembling a pagoda in some areas and a spectral Richard Scarry illustration in others, the structure is populated by thousands of minuscule and identical beings, but their boundaries are clear: a ruling force at the top, undergirded by intellectual and professional strata, with laborers at the bottom. Best seen on a 100-foot screen or with your nose 6 inches from your TV, Opera is intensely allegorical, though it’s difficult to pin down for what exactly. The castes, exploitations and cyclical violence found in most every modern civilization? No answer seems too big. Whatever the inspiration, Opera is a technical stunner. A viewer could watch it 10 consecutive times and snatch some new fleck of detail from, say, the second box on the left, seven levels down. The macro-simplicity of countless stick figures milling around a triangle only enhances the themes as ambitious as Mother! and disturbed as Brazil. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21, Hollywood, Living Room, Virtual Cinema.

Clapboard Jungle

** Part diary, part guide, part sounding board for independent filmmakers, Clapboard Jungle is liable to make a critic self-conscious. Observing the five-year journey Canadian horror director Justin McConnell endured to make a feature film, any viewer is reminded that no matter your judgments when the credits roll, you’ve just implicitly watched years of rejection, sacrifice and growth synthesized on screen. McConnell (Lifechanger, Broken Mile) often speaks directly to his camera about “surviving” the industry, but he’s also candidly interviewed both friends and legends, including Guillermo del Toro, George Romero and Paul Schrader. That said, if it’s his prerogative to conflate the journey and destination, it’s the critic’s to separate them. Clapboard Jungle is saddled by the sheer, narrow tedium of McConnell’s projects’ constant fits and starts, amid a repetitive if enlightening deluge of filmmakers testifying to industry pitfalls. While its unbreakable focus on actualization and education could be the ideal go-get-’em for a frustrated artist, the project’s self-reflexive nature will always take for granted that we care as much as McConnell. Now, practicing empathy is part of the point, but the broader takeaway is that anyone who’d make movies for love alone is obsessed. They feel called to the odyssey of it all in a way this review could never alter. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Arrow, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.

Without Remorse

* Excluding dadcore classic The Hunt for Red October, the history of films based on Tom Clancy’s doorstop military tomes is as long, flat and drab as an aircraft carrier. The Michael B. Jordan-led Without Remorse only further squashes that reputation. Now decades divorced from the novel’s Cold War setting, the Amazon Prime revenge thriller is more indebted to tactical gear and clinical first-person shooter “realism” than the geopolitical intrigue that made Clancy the American military-industrial complex’s answer to John le Carré. Sicario: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima sees only muted pain and expert violence in the rampage of Navy SEAL John Clark (Jordan) against the anonymous Russians who upended his retirement. While a standout prison scene partially redeems Jordan’s performance, any Michael B. devotee can see that his post-Creed habit of choosing films based on acting experiences (read: muscle-training like a SEAL and appearing believable with automatic rifles) has superseded his desire for script quality. Jordan delivers most lines at trailer-exposition volume, simultaneously stiff but strained. It’s perhaps his weakest performance to date in an arms exercise so joyless and rote it makes The Sum of All Fears look like Dr. Strangelove. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime.