It’s worth remembering that gifted artists come from somewhere, that the first 18 years of their lives follow a familiar cycle of school years. In The English Teacher, a prodigiously talented playwright returns to his hometown and reconnects with his former teacher, who becomes determined to stage a school production of his latest—and incredibly violent—work while flirting with the idea of having an affair with him. This is a good premise, especially since there are a number of interesting ways for it develop: a biting satire like Election? Or enjoyably light like Hamlet 2? Unfortunately, despite some interesting stylistic choices—like a voiceover narrator who becomes inexplicably hostile—it opts for a conventional story that’s amusing enough but oh-so safe. Julianne Moore is quite good in the role, unsurprisingly, but since she could handle a much more challenging character, it’s almost unsatisfying that she doesn’t get to. Frankly, dramatic stakes are difficult to come by when the story’s antagonists are clearly right: theater full of suicides and shootings may not be the most appropriate for a high school. Ryan Vlastelica
Screens tonight, Saturday and Sunday. More info here.
A sort of a Notorious for the modern day, this movie relies on a plot point that it spends almost no time making credible. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to accept that the two handsome stars can fall in love apropos of nothing, then you’re left with a spy flick with some genuine thrills and clever moments, and a welcome correction to the more action-based entries in the genre. Jean Dujardin (of The Artist) stars as a spy supporting a beautiful mole in Russian billionaire Tim Roth’s shifty organization. As the two fall in love—just, ‘cause—Dujardin attempts to keep his personal involvement secret from the at least three nations with vested interests in the proceedings. Hitchcock could’ve told this story, and director Eric Rochant milks his suspense sequences—many of which involve simple elements, like phones ringings when they are least welcome or conversations that have to mean different things to different people at the same time—with a masterful hand. There’s real old-fashioned pleasure to be had in watching glamorous people in beautiful locations navigate their ways through double-crosses of their countries and triple-crosses of their hearts. Ryan Vlastelica
Screens Saturday and Sunday. More info here.
Sam Rockwell has been all over the Tribeca Film Festival, logging supporting parts in A Case of You and Trust Me; A Single Shot brings him front and center, but without any of his customary dance moves. He's quiet and drawling with traces of silver in his hair as John Moon, a trailer-dweller perpetually drifting between work (though he protests that he's never had trouble finding it: he's had lots of jobs) whose wife has recently moved out, taking their young son with her. In the movie's first scene, he stalks a deer in the woods, illegally. Then, even less legally, he fires into some brush and accidentally kills a young woman.
This leads him to a sketchy campsite and some money, which he takes, eventually setting off a Simple Plan-ish chain of rural crime. The movie draws out the ordinary-folks-done-wrong narrative; at first, it seems as if there really aren't enough people around to close in on Moon. But screws do start to turn, and the movie, shot in dark, rich colors, makes you feel them digging in. Rockwell has toned down his showmanship and turned up his small-scale sadness before (as in Snow Angels, another movie with surprising echoes in other Tribeca movies), but his work here is nonetheless an impressive reminder of his range.
I can't assess the movie's backwoods-town portraiture—not just because I'm a snobby NYC writer, but also because I'm not sure what it's actually portraying. The novel it's based on is set in upstate New York, which squares with some stray dialogue about Cortland, but the movie was shot in Canada, and most of the characters speak with accents that sound distinctly southern (don't get me wrong: upstate has its hillbillies, and some distinctive accents—but not quite this pronounced, in my experience). It's also hard to tell whether the movie is set 10 or 20 years ago, or if William H. Macy's suits (as a cheap lawyer) and everyone's lack of a cell phone is just supposed to be sociological or whatever. I admire A Single Shot's spare approach to noir, but I'm not sure it earns its tortured-metaphor ending. Jesse Hassenger
Screens tonight, Saturday and Sunday. More info here.
In the middle of a night, in the middle of a snowstorm, a drunk man driving a snow plow hits and kills someone on a road. The alcohol makes what would otherwise be an unfortunate-but-understandable accident a crime, and the driver’s (Thomas Haden Church) first reaction is to cover his tracks. From here, Whitewash moves both forward and backward in time, depicting not just the aftermath of the death but also what built up to it, from both the driver’s and victim’s perspective. For a long time, too long, the film keeps its cards close to its chest, revealing the full extent of its structure only in the closing act. The result is a film that’s fluid but shapeless, sort of a Terrence Malick neo-noir, complete with some arresting imagery. But Whitewash is not as interesting as that description sounds; it's too opaque for its own good, with issues of guilt and remorse so far in the background that they hardly register even as the circumstances behind the case reveal themselves as ever more complex. The film needs more emotion, whether that emotion is fear or regret or anger. Set in the woods up north, this is the most Canadian noir ever made, polite to the point that it doesn’t want to offend anyone even when it should. Ryan Vlastelica