Movies Till Dawn: New Year, (Mostly) New Movies

Mid90s” (2018, Lionsgate) Confident directorial debut by actor Jonah Hill, who depicts, in granular detail, middle-schooler Sunny Suljic‘s attempts to find much-needed acceptance with a group of older skateboarders. Hill has the Clinton Era cultural details down pat (especially the soundtrack), but the film’s high points are the exchanges between the boys, which have the right mix of bravado, wrong-headed advice and nervous emotion, and an avoidance of anything resembling a moral or a character trajectory. Suljic and his co-stars, as well as Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston as his brute of a brother and unfocused mom, respectively, deliver these moments refreshing, unfiltered honesty. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and deleted scenes.

I am Not a Witch” (2017, Film Movement) Nine-year-old Shula (a remarkable performance by non-professional child actor Maggie Mulubwa) is accused of witchcraft in a small Zambian village, and shipped off to a “witch camp,” where she is gawked at by white tourists and forced to perform “magic” by an opportunistic government official (Henry B.J. Phiri). Jaw-dropping satire by Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni uses deadpan humor to levy pointed criticism at authority figures who use tradition to justify exploitation; the results are bitterly humorous and beautifully filmed, and earned Nyoni a well-deserved BAFTA Award. Film Movement’s DVD includes an interview with Nyoni and her 2011 short, “Mwansa the Great,” which touches on similar subjects from a child’s perspective.

Mind Game” (2004, GKIDS/Shout! Factory) Hapless dreamer Nishi’s unrequited affection for a former classmate gets him killed (unpleasantly) by a hot-tempered gangster and then whisked through a dizzying array of alternate realities and dream states in which he struggles to rework the past in his favor. Head-spinning, award-winning Japanese anime from Masaaki Yuasa, based on the manga by Robin Nishi, pairs hand-drawn animation and live-action footage in surreal and profane couplets that occasionally riff amusingly on religion and the afterlife (a cranky God, a yakuza trapped in the psychedelic belly of a whale). The GKIDS/Shout Blu-ray includes detailed, scene-specific commentary by Yuasa, production art galleries and a hard-to-see film animatic.

Bad Reputation” (2018, Magnolia Home Entertainment) Well-produced but skin-deep documentary confirms what most people already believe about Joan Jett – a four-on-the-floor rocker of the purest pedigree – and corrals a lot of famous people to testify to that assertion, but doesn’t dig too deeply into how she achieved that status beyond pure hard work. Footage from various stages of Jett’s career – with the Runaways and solo – will go far in convincing newcomers and skeptics about the ferocity and singularity of her take on rock and roll, and some interviews make the case for Jett’s trailblazing role as a female bandleader in a male-dominated, trend-centric industry. But director Kevin Kerslake doesn’t dig deeper on that subject or any other, which leaves the performance clips as its key attraction. Magnolia’s DVD includes live performances of the title track and “Fresh Start,” as well a look backstage at Jett’s induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)” (2013, Film Movement) A secret romance between a law student (Wajma Bahar) and an Iranian waiter (Mustafa Habibi) in Kabul goes sour when it’s revealed that she’s pregnant; the news incurs the wrath of her father (Haji Gul), though it’s Bahar, not Habibi – who has rejected her – that suffers the consequences. The performances are crucial in selling the documentary-style approach of this intense and intimate drama, reportedly drawn from real events, from writer-producer-director Barmak Akram; the interplay between the two leads, who seem believably in love, and the mix of fury and disappointment from Gul drive home the pain and disillusionment inherent to enforcing outdated traditions.

Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days” (2018, Well Go USA) To secure their own reincarnations, a trio of nattily-dressed “guardians” – a sort of heavenly public defender – must successfully try the case of a former soldier turned angry ghost. But to win, they must first retrieve an elderly man whose life has been extended by his household god (Ma Dong-seok from “Train to Busan”). Sequel to the record-shattering South Korean fantasy “Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds” is overstuffed with story and CGI effects – the most outrageous of which involves dinosaurs – and writer-director Kim Young-hwa‘s penchant for soggy sentimentality can be a hurdle, but Ma is amusing as the irascible deity and the production design creates some remarkable otherworldly visuals. Well Go’s Blu-ray includes a making-of doc.

And: the doc “Revolution: New Art for a New World” (2016, Film Movement) explores the rise and fall of the Russian avant-garde movement and its chief proponents in the early 20th century, as well as their brutal treatment at the hands of Josef Stalin’s regime. A host of actors read the artists and politicians’ words,  including Tom Holland and Matthew MacFadyen, who voice   Kandinsky and Lenin, respectively. “Ice Mother” (2017, FilmRise) is a quiet but effective (and briefly, quite bawdy) Czech comedy-drama about a widow who finds respite from her indentured servitude to her boorish sons in a burly senior who enjoys swimming in frigid waters (make your own conclusions about that metaphor).

Also from FilmRise: “Women Who Kill” (2016), with writer-director Ingrid Jungermann as a podcaster whose expertise on serial killers doesn’t prevent her from missing abundant red flags that encircle a mysterious new love interest (Sheila Vand). Jungermann transitions smoothly from satirizing the complex social and romantic rituals of upwardly mobile New Yorkers (gay and straight) to chills – not an easy feat. And the timely “Good Postman” (FilmRise, 2017) examines the immigrant crisis through the prism of a tiny town on the Bulgarian/Turkish border, where the local postman – one of 38 mostly elderly residents – bucks his neighbors’ ingrained xenophobia and decides to run for mayor on a platform of welcoming Syrian refugees.


About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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