In last month’s column, I mentioned that March and April are the months in the cinematic calendar where gems are discovered. This, of course, still holds true, but so far it’s been a rather quiet and unremarkable year at the movies. Most of the strong works released are holdovers from 2014 festivals, and no great gems were uncovered last month. Is it just me, or do we need a very good movie soon?
Last year by this time, we already had “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that rode a wave of high praise and box office success all the way to Oscar glory. Even though that hasn’t happened yet this year, it’s for a good reason. Those kind of hits are rare. With that in mind, we just hope something really captures our fancy soon, as our top ten lists were already looking strong in April 2014. Even though that’s not exactly the case this year, there’s always plenty to be excited for. Here’s what we think is worth watching in April. Make sure to support your local arthouse, if you’ve got one nearby.
Synopsis: Oh, like it matters, but what the hell… A dead man’s brother seeks revenge on the Toretto gang. Cars, heists and other bro-tastic action ensues.
What You Need To Know: “The Fast and the Furious” franchise is something all movie lovers — even if you don’t care one iota about the films themselves — have to respect, if for no other reason than it’s the series that’s gotten more successful as it’s gone on, both critically and financially. That’s rare, if not potentially unprecedented. With that said, you either love these movies or hate them, and most likely for the same reasons. They’re big, loud, full of often thrilling action set pieces, and stocked with a refreshingly minority-heavy cast. This seventh edition sees director James Wan take the steering wheel, perhaps looking to dig his way out of the horror ghetto he’s been relegated to most his career, but one in which he’s had a lot of success (kicking off the “Saw” franchise, as well as “Insidious,” and making big waves with the very good “The Conjuring”). Our recent review out of SXSW was lukewarm, but did applaud the action, as well as the handling of Paul Walker’s unfortunate passing during the film’s production: “Cacophonous, gratuitous, and peppered with absolutely outstanding action sequences, ‘Furious 7’ finds the franchise at an unwanted crossroads, but it makes such a play for the diehard fans that it leaves everyone else at somewhat of a loss.”
Release Date: April 3
Synopsis: Henry and Fay’s son, Ned, sets out to find and kill his father for destroying his mother’s life. But his aims are frustrated by the troublesome Susan, whose connection to Henry predates even his arrival in the lives of the Grim family.
What You Need To Know: This Kickstarter-funded latest from indie stalwart, Hal Hartley, is his final film of a trilogy that started back with 1997’s “Henry Fool.” This one sees the return of most of the key cast members from those previous two (Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak), with Liam Aiken as the title character. We caught it at TIFF 2014, acknowledging in the opening sentence that, at this point, you’re either a fan or not of Hartley’s particular style. The film that started the trilogy gets our highest marks, but of course, “nine years later he returned with the sequel ‘Fay Grim,’ a far less successful effort (though one that’s actually underrated). And eight years on from that, Hartley closes the quirky saga with ‘Ned Rifle,’ which slightly improves on the predecessor but doesn’t come close to the freshness of the movie that started it all.” So while this may only be for the die-hards out there (several Playlisters fall in this camp), we do think you should consider it, even if “the mileage will vary, depending on how you’ve felt about the progression of the series so far, but if you’re even mildly curious to find out what awaits the outrageous and exasperating Henry Fool, ‘Ned Rifle’ is worth making some time for.”
Release Date: April 3
Synopsis: The mysterious disappearance of a kindergarten teacher during a picnic in the north of Iran is followed by a series of misadventures for her fellow travelers.
What You Need To Know: It’s more than a little disconcerting that, even with the many, varied outlets available to view movies, there are still a lot of films that never get distribution, essentially left orphaned with little hope of reaching any kind of real, impactful audience. Though every now and again these wrongs are righted, as appears to be the case with this, Iranian Oscar-winning writer/director Asghar Farhardi’s (“The Past”) 2009 effort that’s now been saved from obscurity by the good folks at Cinema Guild. It sometimes takes a breakout or two for a filmmaker’s earlier work to become more accessible, and there’s no better time to catch up with Farhadi’s particular brand of highly complex melodrama. His work always features air-tight scripting, strong performances and the kind of messy relationships and drama that’s awash in a multitude of grays. Only a few months ago we called his “A Separation” the very best film of this decade so far. Big praise indeed, but it’s deserved, and now’s your chance to catch up with the film he made right before. So what are you waiting for? View the trailer and poster here.
Release Date: April 8
Synopsis: A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
What You Need To Know: Ooh boy, does this one have us excited over here in Playlist land. Our very lucky UK writer, Oli Lyttelton, saw the film in January and reviewed it glowingly, stating, in no uncertain terms, that it was the first great film of 2015. “It’s extremely pleasurable to report that the picture is a triumph: it’s arguably [Alex] Garland’s tightest and most fascinating screenplay to date, brought to life with meticulous filmmaking and sensational performances.” Garland is making his directorial debut with this one, after a successful career as a screenwriter and novelist (he wrote the book that was adapted into “The Beach,” then joined up with Danny Boyle to write the screenplays for “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine,” both excellent and messy takes on their respective genres; he also scripted “Dredd” and “Never Let Me Go”). He’s an exciting voice, and we hope this is the great robot film that “Chappie” could’ve been if it hadn’t been so distracted. And also, Oscar Isaac. Need we say more?
Release Date: April 10
“Clouds Of Sils Maria”
Synopsis: A veteran actress comes face-to-face with an uncomfortable reflection of herself when she agrees to take part in a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years earlier.
What You Need To Know: Former critic turned director, Olivier Assayas (“Something in the Air,” “Summer Hours”), is an established name on the arthouse/festival circuit, and one of France’s preeminent modern auteurs. This latest is awash in meta industry in-jokes and asides (much like his 1996 “Irma Vep”), following a brief period in the life of a famous actress (the luminous Juliette Binoche) revisiting a play that made her career when she was younger. Now she’s being asked to play a different part, much to her chagrin. Our review from Cannes 2014 was tough on the film, stating “the ouroboros of Assayas’ film devours itself completely, leaving nothing behind. At best a handful of transitory pleasures, ‘Sils Maria’ threads through the peaks and valleys of weighty, interesting topics, but makes no lasting impression on them, insubstantial as a cloud.” There are pleasures to find in the film (Binoche! And believe it or not, Kristen Stewart does good work alongside her), though we agree it’s slight but still enjoyable, even if it falters a bit as it strains for profundity near the end.
Release Date: April 10
Synopsis: A single mother is swept into a dark underworld, while her teenage son discovers a road that leads him to a secret underwater town.
What You Need To Know: We’ve gotten plenty of shit at The Playlist by commmenters who argue that we have a huge bias towards Ryan Gosling and his favorite auteur, Nicolas Winding Refn. In reality, we just happen to really enjoy their work together. Now that Gosling has taken the directorial reins for himself with his highly personal “Lost River” (the production of which is briefly discussed in “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn”), we noted in our review out of Cannes last year that it’s precisely the kind of thing that paints a huge target on a star’s back. And it’s no surprise, really, that the critics brought out their knives and pretty much butchered it. We joined in mostly, saying it’s juvenile, empty and a little bit dumb, even though it “looks great [all-star Belgian DP Benoît Debie is a genius], it does sound great (the score, by “Drive” soundtrack contributor Johnny Jewel, is one of the film’s best elements), and can be fitfully interesting. Thus, it’s not a particularly auspicious debut for Gosling, but not one that suggests he should always stick to the day job, either.” So maybe a future cult oddity? Regardless, some of us are still excited to finally catch it and see what all the fuss is about.
Release Date: April 10
Synopsis: An Estonian man stays behind to harvest his crops of tangerines during the Georgian war of 1990. With a bloody conflict at his door, a wounded man is left behind, and he is forced to take him in.
What You Need To Know: “Tangerines” was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this past year, ultimately losing out to “Ida.” Other than that, the word around some critical circles is that it’s a good piece of work. We’ve yet to see it, but you can check out the trailer here. It does look to be another war-torn film that’s probably very bleak, serious and with an ending that doesn’t feel at all heartwarming. But we’re hoping the Academy saw something more than just a misery fest and/or some kind of strong political viewpoint, as opposed to it being, you know, a well-made film. Because we still can’t believe that “Force Majeure” was left out of the final five nominees. We’ll find out soon enough if “Tangerines” has the goods.
Release Date: April 17
Synopsis: A disgraced member of the military police investigates a series of nasty child murders during the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
What You Need To Know: As we stated in our post of this film’s latest trailer, sometimes a thriller is a just a thriller. No more, no less. That’s how we’re looking at “Child 44” now that it’s coming in April, as opposed to the fall festival and awards season some thought it would land in. The cast is stacked to the gills with A-list talent (Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Vincent Cassel, Charles Dance), and more than enough to justify buying a ticket. If nothing else, it should be fun to see a bunch of non-Russian actors attempting their own version of the accent. If successful, there’s even room for sequels, since this is adapted from the first novel in author Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy, featuring disgraced MGB Agent Leo Demidov investigating a series of gruesome child murders in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House,” “Easy Money” aka “Snabba Cash”) has, so far, done well navigating the Hollywood system he’s broken through, so we hope his talents can shine through here.
Release Date: April 17
Synopsis: This film tracks the relationship between journalist Michael Finkel and Christian Longo, an FBI Most Wanted List murderer who, for years, lived outside the U.S. under Finkel’s name.
What You Need To Know: We noted in our Sundance review how this film is especially well-timed, dealing with similar issues to Rolling Stone’s UVA debacle, the popular podcast, Serial, and now, HBO’s “The Jinx.” “Namely, questions of who to believe, what constitutes the truth and how to present the facts of a horrifying situation. These ideas drive ‘True Story,’ and the result is a chilling film that, despite its craft and best efforts, still struggles to overcome its star power.” The review also went on to credit co-writer/director Rupert Goold, in his debut feature, and his ability to capture the slipperiness of the truth involved in this true crime story. It features Jonah Hill as New York Times reporter, Mike Finkel, and James Franco playing accused murderer Christian Longo. The time is right for this film, with so much ink spilled of late over ethical issues in things like “The Jinx.” We just hope it’s better than most Franco Sundance entries recently, and the B+ grade on our review seems to promise that.
Release Date: April 17
Synopsis: A self-absorbed, failed entrepreneur moves in with his estranged sister and brother-in-law and becomes his three-year-old nephew’s nanny.
What You Need To Know: Director Ross Katz has already had a successful run as a producer (he was nominated for two Oscars for “Lost in Translation” and “In the Bedroom”), and now looks to be throwing his hat in as a director. Our B+ review out of TIFF last year opened by noting how adults that behave like children is an already firmly established cliche in movie comedies these days. Nevertheless, “Adult Beginners,” starring rising comic actor Nick Kroll, the always awesome Rose Byrne (who’s killing it of late in comedies) and the also always awesome Bobby Cannavale, appears to carve out its own path. “The list of comedies highlighting this is long, [but] it’s not every day a comedy comes along to use this motif as its central theme. Ross Katz’ heartfelt, hilarious, and holistic ‘Adult Beginners’ lives up to its title by doing just that.”
Release Date: April 24
Synopsis: A good policeman in London tries to deal with the Albanians and Turks taking over organized crime.
What You Need To Know: When we saw this rather small British crime tale at TIFF last year, we mentioned how, at such a massive festival, good but not completely amazing movies like “Hyena” can be drowned out by all the noise of awards prognosticators. Lucky for us, then, that we did make time for this one, which we gave a B grade and mentioned that it’s just the kind of thing that works like gangbusters for the Fantastic Fest crowd. So if you’re a fan of genre films, and the comparisons to Nicolas Winding Refn’s immortal “Pusher” trilogy gets you all excited (like it does for us), then you should seek it out. It stars several great Brit thespians we’ve followed for years (Stephen Graham, Peter Fernandino, Neill Maskell) in a gritty crime tale we called “seedy, unsettling and nightmarish.”
Release Date: Technically, “Hyena” doesn’t begin its limited theatrical release until May 1, but it arrives on VOD/iTunes early starting April 14.
Earlier in March, we lost the great documentarian Albert Maysles (“Grey Gardens,” “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter”), but as sad as that was, we can all appreciate his talents as he’s still got another film coming out this month in the form of a profile on New York fashion icon Iris Apfel, called “Iris.”
There’s also some new work to be found from fiercely independent animation auteur, Bill Plympton (“Idiots and Angels”). His latest is called “Cheatin’” and made up of a series of odd vignettes centered around a couple wherein the wife transforms into other women in hopes of keeping her husband from straying. Then there’s Peter Bogdonavich, who of course made several classics from the seventies (“The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon”), and is a member of our Indiewire blog network. His latest, “She’s Funny That Way,” sees the director going back to his love of the screwball comedy, with a star-studded cast including Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, to name a few.
Some actors have their narrative feature directorial debuts coming this month, with Russell Crowe’s “The Water Diviner” and Chris Messina’s “Alex of Venice.” Other films of varying interest include “Felix and Meira,” “Effie Gray, ” “Broken Horses” and “Soul Boys of the Western World.”