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Sunny French Eco-Doc “Tomorrow” Explores Ways We Might Be Able to Turn This Whole Death-of-the-Planet Thing Around

The can-do optimism of Tomorrow (Demain) sets it apart from other documentaries about the environmental crisis. Prompted by a 2012 report in Nature, which predicted that the catastrophic effects of climate change will hit sooner than previously calculated, co-directors Mélanie Laurent (Breathe) and Cyril Dion sought out creative problem-solving around the world and in their native France, where their film won a César Award. Laurent and Dion don’t resort to eco-shaming anyone, but an unspoken plea underscores their utopian survey: Why can’t we all live like this?

Written by Dion, Tomorrow is constructed as a conversation between curious amateurs who prompt each other to further investigation. In four sections (agriculture, economy, education, democracy), the co-directors explore systems that impact our environment, and find local solutions to global problems. Some stories are familiar, like the French paper-mill owner who’s made every aspect of his business part of a recycling loop. Other segments reflect shifting attitudes, such as the one about the Finnish school whose principal uses every possible resource to help students develop into capable independent thinkers.

Completed in 2015, Tomorrow misses major recent events including Brexit, which could impact several of the English cities profiled, whose governments have issued alternate currency to stimulate regional investment. There’s also oversimplification: When discussing urban farming in abandoned areas of Detroit, the filmmakers cite the auto industry’s contraction, but ignore white flight to the suburbs. What Laurent and Dion do best is present pockets of progressive change as blueprints for idealism in action.

Tomorrow
Directed by Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion
Under the Milky Way
Opens April 21, Village East

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Oz Perkin’s ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’ Is an Unnerving (and Bloody) Horror Debut

The films of Osgood “Oz” Perkins stir that middle-of-the-night sense that something terrible might lurk just past the edges of your perception. The writer and director is adept at unsettling atmosphere (aided by scores from his brother, the musician Elvis Perkins) and at slow-burn horror entirely removed from the pat assumptions of genre moviemaking.

You know how, in most ghost stories, once the character knows what the ghost wants, everything will be OK? Perkins’ conception of the horrific is more interior and unfathomable: His characters (in the ghost tale I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, already streaming on Netflix, and in this new demon-possession thriller, actually completed first) never fully comprehend the forces that haunt them, even as they seem to know that those forces in some way reflect them.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter finds two boarding-school girls (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton) forced to winter together while a malevolent force — horned and fuzzy, in silhouette — takes an interest in them. Meanwhile, a grown-up (Emma Roberts) road-trips back to that school, for reasons Perkins allows you plenty of time to puzzle over. It’s all muted suggestion until, surprisingly, the third act turns bloody.

Perkins’ influences are more overtly displayed here than in I Am the Pretty Thing — in look and sound design, a creeptastic motel room is pretty much Isabella Rosselini’s apartment from Blue Velvet — and its conclusion less satisfying. But few horror debuts unnerve and fascinate as much as this one.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Written and directed by Oz Perkins
A24
Opens March 31, Village East Cinema and Brooklyn Drafthouse

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‘The Freedom to Marry’ Offers a Stirring Reminder That Change Can Be Slow but It Does Come

Though its legalities are often obscured by romantic filigree, wedlock is one of the most conservative institutions, legally and culturally, in human society — a codified set of limitations and rights reserved for two people willing to merge their fates and their property. For decades, lesbian and gay people, reviled by many for supposed deviance, have wanted in. In his documentary The Freedom to Marry, Eddie Rosenstein demonstrates just how long it’s been: The first time a same-sex couple applied for a marriage license in the U.S. was 1970.

Rosenstein introduces us to individuals key to the ensuing struggle, including the ordinary folk who bravely served as plaintiffs. But the film’s stars are two brilliant legal minds — uber-mensch Evan Wolfson (who wrote his 1983 Harvard Law thesis on marriage equality and forged a movement changing hearts and minds) and self-effacing legal pugilist Mary Bonauto of GLAAD (who argued Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case in which the Supreme Court finally declared state same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional).

Rosenstein makes this a suspenseful legal yarn and an essential history lesson. But it could also provide a blueprint for the continuing civil rights challenges of our time that, like marriage, represent conservative ideals being denied to friends, family, and neighbors. Intricately threaded through Wolfson and Bonauto’s disputations and activism is their belief in humanity — and their confidence that when people simply get to know each other, it makes all the difference, in court and in life.

The Freedom to Marry
Directed by Eddie Rosenstein
Argot Pictures
Opens March 3, Village East Cinema

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Suicide Road-Trip Comedy ‘Youth in Oregon’ Is an Effective Study in Dysfunction and Stubbornness

The family at the center of Youth in Oregon is a cranky lot. High atop the crank throne is Ray Engersol (Frank Langella), an 80-something curmudgeon and heart-attack survivor who chooses to travel to Oregon to be legally euthanized instead of going under the knife again for a valve replacement. Announcing this on his birthday obviously causes more drama within this stressed-out clan.

His doting daughter (Christina Applegate), with whom the old man has been living, gets her husband (Billy Crudup) to drive him across the country to Oregon in the hopes of convincing him not to go through with it. With Ray’s boozing/pill-popping wife (Mary Kay Place) in the backseat, the two men of course go on a very eventful road trip.

Directed with showy-but-soothing luminosity by actor Joel David Moore (Bones), Oregon is more than a bittersweet look at a man deciding to end his life before he’s too invalid to have a say in the matter: It’s a study of how plain ol’ stubbornness can keep a family forever brimming with dysfunction. Andrew Eisen’s screenplay has parents at constant odds with their offspring, with both parties steadfast in their belief that they’re doing what’s best and unwilling to back down.

In the end, Youth in Oregon reminds us how pointless that is once the inevitability of death comes into the picture. This is a movie likely to have people apologizing to family members afterwards about bullshit that has kept them apart for so long.

Youth in Oregon?

Directed by Joel David Moore?Samuel
Goldwyn Films?
Opens February 3, Village East Cinema

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‘Midsummer in Newtown’ Observes as the Families of Sandy Hook Find Life on the Stage

In the second summer after the 2012 mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary, residents put on a show starring local children and teens.

In the slightly uneven yet deeply affecting documentary Midsummer in Newtown, filmmaker Lloyd Kramer tracks the joy-filled auditions, rehearsals and opening night of A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Shakespeare-inspired musical staged by Broadway pros lending their time and talent.

The very mention of the Newtown tragedy, in which 20 first-graders and six teachers and administrators were gunned down, is overwhelming, but the sight of children discovering themselves through the magic of live theater can only bring smiles. Kramer quickly focuses on 11-year-old Sammie and 9-year-old Tain, who both have painful memories of “that day” and the friends they lost. These two are soulful, funny and articulate, but the film would benefit from other voices — particularly those of the older kids in the production.

Sandy Hook’s heroic music teacher, Maryrose Kristopik, fills in the backstory of that terrible day, and there’s wrenching testimony from the parents of 6-year-old Ana Márquez-Greene, who died in the attack. In the end, Midsummer in Newtown feels oddly underwritten, with Kramer neglecting to mention that the jazz album Jimmy Greene wrote as tribute to his daughter received two Grammy nominations, or that a summer musical at Newtown High is the town’s newest tradition — odd omissions in an otherwise moving, important film.

Midsummer in Newtown

Directed by Lloyd Kramer

Participant Media

Opens January 27, Village East Cinema

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‘The Sunshine Makers’ Offers a Breezy Trip Back in Time With the Kings of LSD

For a documentary about two men who were big-time drug dealers back in the day, The Sunshine Makers is a quaint, damn-near-adorable bit of nostalgia.

The two men are Tim Scully and Nick Sand, LSD enthusiasts who became such big fans of the drug during the Sixties that they eventually made and distributed the infamous “Orange Sunshine” pill. Unlike the subjects of most drug-dealer chronicles, these two say they weren’t out to figuratively or literally make a killing, acquire loads of money, and live the glamorous life while users got fucked-up off their product. They were instead on a mission to enlighten the world and stop all war, violence, and bad vibes. (Those noble intentions didn’t stop the Feds from cracking down on their asses, of course.)

Director Cosmo Feilding Mellen spends a lot of time with Scully and Sand, now aging hippies who practically live their lives off the grid. (Mellen even gives us scenes of Sand doing yoga butt-bald-nekkid, his bathing-suit area always hidden from the camera.)

Sunshine ably details the rise and fall of these men and their LSD empire, but it ultimately ends up a trip down memory lane for this psychedelic odd couple, as they visit lost loves and recall a time when they wanted everyone to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

The Sunshine Makers
Directed by Cosmo Feilding Mellen
FilmRise
Opens January 20, Village East Cinema

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Juvenile Offenders Get a Chance in Compassionate Doc ‘They Call Us Monsters’

In the opening of director Ben Lear’s heartbreaking and illuminating documentary They Call Us Monsters, screenwriter Gabriel Cowan sits at a table with four boys in a juvenile detention facility. For the next several weeks, Cowan will visit the boys and write a short screenplay with them that he’ll then direct. To start, Cowan teaches the boys how to play the “Yes, and…” game to collectively write a story, but as hard as he tries to end the narrative on a positive note, Jarad, 16, just won’t let it happen. “That’s not how it actually ends,” Jarad says. The brutal reality these boys face in a juvenile justice system that wishes to treat them as adults is encapsulated right here in this opening scene, where hope and joy turn quickly to inevitable pain.

Each boy infuses the characters of that screenplay with his own personal stories. Juan, 15, speaks shyly of being afraid of love and being in love with a girl named Abigail — a name then given to the protagonist’s friend. But as open as these boys are with emotions, they’re also master deflectors, often telling the stories of their own lives as though they were tales they’d overheard somewhere — Jarad says that a friend’s father tried to stab himself to death, but Lear’s interviews with the boy’s stepfather reveal it was Jarad who witnessed this, not a friend. Juan recounts the painful story of his friend stabbing another boy to join a gang, but that was really Juan himself.

What’s fascinating is how absolutely normal, hilarious and hyper-intelligent these kids are. In this structured environment, they treat one another like brothers, sharing food and offering encouragement. They respect their superiors, whom Lear often catches trying to hide fatherly smiles from them. At one point, Juan calls the real Abigail and finally tells her how he feels and that he wishes her a good life; the guard listening in on the phone giddily cheers him on, like a dad. Juxtaposed against archival footage of politicians calling kids like these unrepentant monsters, such scenes speak volumes. Lear doesn’t make the boys saints — there are interviews with their victims — but he does paint a complex portrait of underserved children seemingly destined to end up in prison for life for no better reason than that they had no support.

Lear, the son of TV pioneer Norman Lear, uses the production of the short film as the timeline. The result is a multilayered meta-narrative in which clips from Los, the short film made from the boys’ script, are edited in to illustrate these personal stories. One of the most bittersweet moments comes after Antonio, 14, is granted release unexpectedly. So hopeful at first, he’s almost immediately thrust into homelessness and turns to drugs. When Antonio shows up on set to watch the filming of Los, he’s visibly high and unhealthily skinny. Lear’s camera watches Antonio watching the movie version of himself get reprimanded for using drugs. Antonio shifts uncomfortably in his seat; in his real life, at just 14, there’s no such person there to keep him from falling. Yes, this film is important for its insistence that we see these boys as capable of rehabilitation in the right environment. But it’s the movie’s daring structure and humanity that make it worthy of the Lear name.

They Call Us Monsters
Directed by Ben Lear
BMP Films
Opens January 20, Village East Cinema

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Even the Actors Don’t Look All That Into Romantic Greek Drama Worlds Apart’s Love Stories

Cupid only occasionally hits his mark in the uneven Greek romantic drama Worlds Apart, a thematically linked trilogy of vignettes about three budding relationships in mid-economic-crisis Athens. Neophyte writer/director Christopher Papakaliatis eventually shows an affinity for filming two people in love, but his actors often lack the chemistry to make us believe that their bond transcends all socioeconomic boundaries.

The romance between Syrian refugee Farris (Tawfeek Barhom) and young Greek native Daphne (Niki Vakali) is especially hard to credit, as Barhom and Vakali’s listless performances deplete the energy of their characters’ flirty exchanges. When Barhom’s character bares his soul, telling her “I want you” in Greek, Vakali doesn’t even appear to be interested.

Unmoving acting likewise afflicts an affair between married Greek bureaucrat Giorgos (Papakaliatis) and his incoming Swedish boss Elise (Andrea Osvárt). Giorgos insists that she’s “cold” while he’s passionate, because she’s from Northern Europe and he’s from the South. The script sets Elise up to defy this uncharitable characterization when she and Giorgos make love for the first time, but Osvárt unintentionally undermines her character’s pre-coital excitement by looking as animated as a corpse.

Thanks to the expressive eyes and modest smiles of Maria Kavoyianni and J.K. Simmons, sparks fly between destitute Greek housewife Maria (Kavoyianni) and rich German historian Sebastian (Simmons). These two masterful performers convey a world of meaning just by looking at each other.

Worlds Apart
Written and directed by Christopher Papakaliatis
Cinema Libre
Opens January 13, Village East Cinema

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You Probably Know Already Whether You Want to See ‘One Piece Film: Gold’

Eiichiro Oda’s manga One Piece has run for 83 volumes since 1997, and has been made into four straight-to-video movies, a television series that recently completed its nineteenth season and a baker’s dozen anime theatrical films, the latest of which is Hiroaki Miyamoto’s One Piece Film: Gold.

The domestic distributor insists that this latest entry doesn’t demand prior knowledge of the multimedia series, and that’s largely true, but it’s still geared toward fans. Captain Luffy (Colleen Clinkenbeard) and his motley treasure-hunting crew known as the Straw Hat pirates happen upon the floating Vegas-like city of Gran Tesoro, a wicked hive of sin and debauchery ruled by power-obsessed alpha male Tesoro (Keith Silverstein), who surrounds himself with gold, demands fealty from his lessers and tends to put his name on stuff. (Thank goodness people like that don’t exist in real life!)

Our heroes are first thrilled by the abundant gold — they’re pirates, after all — but soon discover that such an ostentatious place can have downright Dickensian drawbacks. The picture is boisterous and shouty and frequently grotesque, and it features a preponderance of scantily clad, large-breasted women, including Straw Hat pirate Nami (Luci Christian), whose barely-there bikini top helpfully has the word “sexy” printed on it.

Only Yesterday it ain’t, and you probably already know whether One Piece Film: Gold will make you ecstatic or not.

One Piece Film: Gold
Directed by Hiroaki Miyamoto
Funimation Films
Opens January 10, Village East Cinema, Regal Union Square, and AMC Empire 25

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‘The Ardennes’ Offers a Familiar Crime Story, but You Can Still Get Lost in It

The Belgian crime drama The Ardennes is predictably tense and violent, but its aesthetic pleasures are also considerable. Director Robin Pront plays a lot of familiar notes, but with just enough verve and variation to keep things interesting. The film opens in the immediate aftermath of a botched robbery, as a masked man and a female getaway driver breathlessly flee the scene without the third member of their crew. The ones escaping are Dave (Jeroen Perceval) and Sylvie (Veerle Baetens); the one left behind is Kenny (Kevin Janssens), Dave’s older brother and Sylvie’s boyfriend. Kenny keeps his mouth shut about his accomplices, so only he gets sent to prison. Things have changed when he gets out on parole four years later: Dave is now diligently working a legit job at a car wash, while Sylvie is trying to clean herself up, attending group therapy sessions to kick her addiction. Oh, also Dave is now in love with Sylvie, and not only are they planning to move in together, they’re expecting a child. Needless to say, the duo don’t reveal that to Kenny, who kept a picture of Sylvie on his wall his whole time in prison.

Pront and his cast clearly know how to keep us watching. The director likes to shoot his scenes as moodily lit tableaux, the images like something out of a grisly storybook. The urban milieu here is gray and oppressive — the title refers to a forest that the brothers used to go to as children, during a more carefree time — but there’s a rough beauty in it. Meanwhile, each character seems to represent a specific attitude toward the world. Tough, aggressive Kenny is bursting with dark energy — he wants to return to things as they were when he left — and Dave and Sylvie differ in their responses to him: He’s pliant, while she turns away. Sylvie wants the younger brother to take a stand, show some guts, and tell Kenny about their relationship. Dave wants to wait till the time is right, but it turns out there’s never a good time to tell your psycho ex-con brother that you’re shtupping the woman he loves beyond all reason. And the ever-watchful and paranoid Kenny is already noticing things between them.

The “crime” part of this crime drama doesn’t really come until the final act. (Shocker: The Ardennes makes an appearance.) Until then, Pront has fun bouncing these characters off one another: a disastrous Christmas dinner here, a nightclub fight there. Little details acquire huge importance. Kenny notices that his mom doesn’t have any pictures of him on the wall. “Maybe you’re not photogenic” is her playfully snide response, and in their brief interaction you can feel a lifetime of pain for both mother and child.

Pront and his cast also use movement and behavior to set these people apart from your standard-issue crime-flick tough guys. Dave might look like a bruiser, but with his pinched face and almost concave stance, he’s no match physically for the restless, overpowering Kenny. The older brother is only a couple of inches taller, but he always seems to take up twice the space as his younger sibling and has way more vigor; you can see how Dave might have spent years in this man’s shadow, and you see him once again trying to keep up. Sylvie, on the other hand, is quick, nervous, angry — you feel her frustration with Dave, and you even suspect that, on some deeper level, she may still be drawn to Kenny’s alpha-male vitality. The way the film visually translates its fairly schematic scenario is interesting; there’s a subtle, dance-like quality to the characters’ interaction, and the spare settings and dimly lit spaces highlight the physicality of the actors.

Once things get a little more climactic, The Ardennes enters a strange and less interesting phase — a mixture of boilerplate neo-noir violence with occasional bursts of surrealism. The influence of the Coen brothers (and in particular films like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona) stamps the film, with its twisty confrontations and jolts of macabre humor. But what makes the Coens special is the mixture of film-nerd playfulness and fairytale sincerity they bring to even their darkest work — they’re loose in spirit, but exacting in form. Pront has the precision, but his story merely flirts with the bizarre; it never goes truly crazy. That’s why, in the end, for all the artistry on display, The Ardennes is more admirable than inspiring. It has style, and even suspense, but relatively little imagination.

The Ardennes
Directed by Robin Pront
Film Movement
Opens January 6, Village East Cinema