TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

Limbo

*** Syrian refugee Omar won’t pluck his oud (an 11-stringed Middle Eastern lute) outside his home country. It doesn’t sound right on Scottish soil, he says. Given the natural acoustics, who could blame him? Omnipresent in U.K. director Ben Sharrock’s spare comedy are the oppressive gusts and rumbling waves of this Scottish isle, creating a sensorial conundrum for asylum seekers like Omar awaiting their papers. The wild, whistling remoteness all around is a prison of freedom. All the while, Omar (Amir El-Masry) hauls his encased oud around “like a coffin for [his] soul,” teases flatmate Farhad (Vikash Bhai), exemplifying both the depth of Limbo’s central friendship and its obvious purgatorial themes. Sharrock’s patient wide shots and 4:3 aspect ratio cement the film’s sense of lost translation and wait-for-it humor within a stunted cultural exchange between wary refugees and a few myopic Scots. Even if Limbo is a wee bit wanting for character richness—laying bare certain plot devices—its unforced human comedy is remarkably shrewd yet innocent. Even more, El-Masry transforming Omar’s calm dignity into unshoulderable doubt is one of 2021′s best performances thus far. He’s a character unpacked but not reassembled by a geopolitical way station that is absurdly, unbearably fine. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Bridgeport, Living Room.

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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.

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.

Queen Marie of Romania

*** Queen Marie of Romania once wondered, “What can a woman do in a modern war?” In the wake of World War I, she showed what a woman could achieve in the aftermath of that conflict when she journeyed to Paris and unleashed her political prowess on the Treaty of Versailles, which led to Romania doubling in size. It didn’t hurt that the British-born monarch bedazzled the press—a talent that is captured perfectly by Roxana Lupu, the star of Queen Marie of Romania, an elegantly entertaining biopic directed by Alexis Sweet Cahill. Marie spends the film subtly outsmarting bloviators like Woodrow Wilson (Patrick Drury), but she has both the cleverness of a Jane Austen heroine and the steeliness of Ripley or Sarah Connor. When the domineering Lupu declares, “I am Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. Never forget that,” her voice crackles with the fervor of belief. Like many movies about pompous Europeans chatting in lovingly decorated rooms, Queen Marie of Romania can be claustrophobic, but Lupu keeps the film from becoming dry or drab. Whether you’re obsessed or repulsed by royalty, her performance will leave you in awe of the power of the crown when it is wielded by the right woman. NR. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. On Demand.

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.