How do comic books work? M. Night Shyamalan knows, and he’d really like you to know. Not how comic books work; Shyamalan wants you to know that he knows how comic books work. It’s an important distinction (though I’m not sure why) but whatever it means to him, it’s just one of the many problems hampering his latest, and hopefully final, installment in the Eastrail 177 trilogy: Glass, a movie nineteen years in the making that could’ve benefitted from twenty.

Shyamalan’s backdoor trilogy began in 2000, back when comic book franchises were still just a whisper. Hot off the heels of his 1999 breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable took the comic book formula to heart and crafted an unusual superhero origin story where the superhero, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), isn’t all that super, and the villain, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), is the star of the show.

A quick refresher: Price, born with a rare genetic defect of extremely fragile bones, finds solace in comic books. But where others see escapist entertainment, Price believes he’s stumbled on to an alternative history. He theorizes that if he is made of glass — as the other kids teased him — then there must be another out there who was not. Someone unbreakable.

That man is Dunn, but the events leading up to Dunn’s discovery are less than satiable. Price is locked away in an institution for the criminally insane and Dunn lives out his superhero days in the shadows.

Back to reality: after a slate of critical and financial flops, Shyamalan’s 2016 movie, Split — about a man (James McAvoy) with 23 personalities and a predilection for kidnapping teenage girls — became both a surprise hit and a continuation of the Dunn/Price story. Naturally, a sequel was in the mix, one where all three characters would collide in some form of a superhero showdown.

Glass is that movie. Through a series of lackluster events and one half-hearted battle, Dunn and “The Hoard” — the collection of multiple personalities contained within McAvoy’s chiseled physique — are carted off to the same institution that houses Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass. The newcomer, psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), specializes in superhero-psychopathy and makes it her goal to convince all three men that they are not special and all of these “super” acts are delusions of grandeur.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to reveal that Dr. Staple is the villain of the piece — doctors and scientist rarely get to play hero in popcorn movies — but Shyamalan leans so heavily on the believer/non-believer tension that it shatters well before his argument devolves into a rote reworking of that old Randian argument. Essentially: We can’t have special people in the world because it makes the rest of us not special by default.

No doubt the objectivists are already sharpening their proverbial pencils for obnoxious treaties on Glass and the American suppression of the heroic being. But Glass is too much of a mess to hang any tried theory on. Even worse, Shyamalan is so in love with the form that he forgets to utilize it, choosing instead to have his characters scream out the movie’s plot points like football announcers calling the championship game.

There are other problems, myriads of them. While Unbreakable and Split took place mainly at night or in subterranean shadows, Glass exists primarily in the bright light of day, which doesn’t do the special effects, or the performances, any favors.

And then there are the side characters: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), from Split alongside Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard, working under a mountain of old age make-up) and Dunn’s son (Spencer Treat Clark) from Unbreakable, reprise their previous roles while, potentially, setting up the next installment in the franchise. In the 21st century, every movie’s ending is just another beginning — as long as there’s money to be made.

Sarah Paulson as Dr. Ellie Staple in Glass. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Charlayne Woodard, Spencer Treat Clark
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 129 minutes, Opens January 18, 2019
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Rumors of an English-language remake of The Intouchables began swirling soon after the 2011 movie became France’s second highest-grossing film. And despite the acclaim and praise garnered when the movie was released stateside in 2012, The Intouchables still felt like a movie a decade too late. Its heart was in the right place, but its sentiment was simplistic and saccharine. Neither of which have been improved by a seven-year lag and a scenery change from Paris to New York City.

Now titled The Upside, writer Jon Hartmere stays close to Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s Intouchables screenplay except for one rather notable change: the character of Driss (Omar Sy in The Intouchables) is no longer an African immigrant. His English counterpart, Dell (Kevin Hart), is just another New Yorker, making the other characters’ disdain for Dell’s presence all the more repugnant.

But first, the story: Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a filthy rich businessman who was crippled in a paragliding accident. Now he needs a live-in caregiver to help him with day-to-day activities. Enter Dell, an ex-con looking for job interview signatures. Thanks to a silly miscommunication, Dell ends up at Phillip’s penthouse and, with flimsy logic, is hired on the spot by Phillip. Not because Phillip likes Dell, but because Dell might be incompetent enough to let Phillip die while other caregivers would leap to the rescue.

But Phillip doesn’t die, nor is his death impulse much more than a frustration. Instead, Phillip and Dell’s relationship blossoms: Dell is introduced to opera and fine art and loves it. Dell returns the favor by getting Phillip high and taking him to Papaya King. And along the way, Dell helps Phillip see that the love of his life has been by his side this whole time. Cut, print, that’s a wrap.

The Upside is an insultingly simple story that occasionally veers into the conflicts between Phillip and Dell’s class, race, and physical abilities, but frustratingly pulls back at the mere suggestion of an uncomfortable moment. Much like The Intouchables, the aim here is to present a feel-good story, even if it means ignore all the aspects of life that are far from feeling good. All cloaked in that ever-malleable marketer: “Based on a true story.” The Upside wears those five words as a shield, and it is exhausting.

Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, and Kevin Hart in STX Entertainment’s The Upside

Directed by Neil Burger
Screenplay by Jon Hartmere
Based on Les Intouchables by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache
Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Golshifteh Farahani
STX Entertainment, Rated PG-13, Running time 125 minutes, Opens January 11, 2019
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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place in history is secure; it’s her story that seems to be in question. To borrow a line from the Bard: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And while Bader Ginsburg is those last two wrapped into one, a recent obsession with the U.S. Supreme Court justice has ignored the latter in interest to commodifying the former.

As a justice, Bader Ginsburg is impeachable; as a person of conviction, she is an inspiration. But a subject of inspiration does not an inspirational movie make. How odd that 2018 would see two celebratory movies about Bader Ginsburg: the documentary RBG and the narrative On the Basis of Sex. Though the former had too light a touch for a subject as potent as Bader Ginsburg, the latter’s sin is much more egregious. It would rather tell than show, rather shout than talk, and rather pander than intrigue.

Written by Daniel Stiepleman, directed by Mimi Leder, and starring Felicity Jones as the young Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex spans the years from Bader Ginsburg’s first day at Harvard Law School — a place where a woman is not made to feel welcome — to her first victory in Denver, Colorado, with the 10th Circuit Court ruling in her favor and overturning a tax dispute.

The dispute in question: a bachelor denied a caretaker tax incentive that would have been awarded to him if he were a woman or a widower. Bader Ginsburg’s argument is thus: penalizing a man for being a bachelor prescribes social roles based on a person’s gender, effectively discriminates a man because he is a man. Not exactly Bader Ginsburg’s primary motive, but she knows, as does the American Civil Liberties Union and the legal team former to oppose Bader Ginsburg, that if this decision is reversed in a court of law, a precedent will be set. A precedent that could to overturning hundreds of laws discriminating on the basis of sex — or gender as a typist assisting Bader Ginsburg suggest.

Unfortunately, On the Basis of Sex drives this point home for the movie’s entire 120-minute runtime. Characters debate the merits of gender roles in courtrooms, in chambers, in classrooms, in hallways, in offices, on street corners, and over plates of cheese and pâté.

Jones’ performance brings little more than indignant righteousness to the cause and as does the rest of the players. Bader Ginsburg’s eldest daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), is a constant reminder that the change isn’t coming; it’s already here, while Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) stands in for every last decent man. Sure, the ACLU’s Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) has his heart in the right place, but even he withers in the presence of the struggle before him. The other men — Stephen Root, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor, et al. — are so blatantly one-dimensional they come off like cartoons. In one scene, they heatedly discuss the importance of upholding the law — i.e., gender division — with fierce passion in front of their silent wives. One wonders what these women think, a pity neither Steipleman nor Leder offer them a voice.

On the Basis of Sex is the kind of insipid crowd pleaser that panders so obviously to an audience who refuses to open a history book. Ever sentence is underlined and finished with an exclamation point. It feels like a movie made specifically for now — which might point to its potential success at the box office — yet feels like a movie so out of step, even ten years ago it would have felt antiquated.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex. Still courtesy of Focus Features.

Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Jonathan King
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor
Focus Features, PG-13, Running time 120 minutes, Opens December 25, 2018
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The year is 1561, and Mary Stuart has returned to Scotland. Spending most of her childhood in France, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has decided to come home and claim her throne, the very one her half-brother, James (James McArdle) has been keeping warm in her absence. Maybe too warm, as Mary soon find out.

But this Scotland is not the Scotland Mary left all those years ago. In 1560, the Calvinist preacher, John Knox (David Tennant), brought the Reformation to Scotland, calling for riots in the streets and the end of Catholic rule. Down in England, the Protestants already control the throne thanks to Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). But the virgin queen has not yet produced an heir and should Mary beat her to the punch, her child will be next in line for both crowns.

To prevent a political catastrophe, the men who serve both queens hatch a plan to assuage Mary and control her from the bedchamber. Enter Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), a handsome and dashing fellow who seduces and weds Mary. But, when it is discovered Darnley is both gay and a drunk, he falls out of favor with Mary and his puppetmasters.

Intriguing, yes, but in Mary Queen of Scots, this is all window dressing. Director Josie Rourke and writer Beau Willimon have less interest in the backroom politics that drive two countries from war to unity to war again as they do the eternal battle of the sexes. It would not be lost on audiences that men can feel threatened by women in power, but neither Rourke nor Willimon are willing to take that chance. Never once do they allow the audience to forget that men disdain women in power. From a sneering Knox to conspiracies to usurp Mary to casual conversations between ancillary characters who aren’t happy with their station in life, Mary Queen of Scots wants to remind you, and remind you again, that men don’t take kindly to being told what to do by a woman.

In this regard, Mary Queen of Scots feels more like a movie about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign than a power-struggle between two cousins, two religions, and two islands 450 years ago. The movie even uses Knox as a stand-in for Trump: orating in churches and public squares, whipping the people into a frenzy, and leading them in mob chants. It’s not “Lock her up,” but you get the gist.

Worse yet, Mary Queen of Scots has the unfortunate timing of entering the multiplex alongside The Favourite, another English period piece where a country at war is run from the Queen’s bedchamber. Though The Favourite is much more exaggerated and flat-out funnier than Mary, The Favourite also comes across as a more accurate depiction of its era. Do the men in The Favourite resent having to serve women and take orders from them? Not really. Their difference is of politics and issues surrounding power dynamics, but they do not find the prospect of serving Her Highness as repugnant as every single man in Mary Queen of Scots does. And this constant hand-wringing is Mary Queen of Scots’ ultimate undoing: it’s too hung up on the present to focus on the past.

Courtesy of Focus Features.

Directed by Josie Rourke
Screenplay by Beau Willimon
Based on the book, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester
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Syrian documentarian Talal Derki has gained the trust of one Jihadist family and is allowed to document their life for two years. In those two years, Osama (13) and Ayman (12) will go from everyday children playing games of soccer and jacks to the next slate of Jihadist soldiers, whether they want to or not.

Not that Osama or Ayman voice any interest in life outside Jihad. Maybe they don’t have one — though we do learn in a late voiceover that Ayman is pursuing education instead of soldiering — or maybe Derki never asked. His main subject, Osama and Ayman’s father, seems capable of producing vast amounts of thoughts and feelings without being prodded. He is exactly who you might expect him to be: proud of the 9/11 attacks, devoted beyond words to the Caliphate, and existing within a world centered solely around him. Not one woman is seen on camera, and even discussions about them — a two-year-old who refuses to wear the hijab — take an air of oppression.

While this family does make for a fascinating subject, Of Fathers and Sons lacks balance or a sense of commentary that could elevate it from mere curiosity. Not that Derki need spell everything out, but as his camera watches these young boys, future terrorist all if their fathers have anything to say about it, it seems to watch them without any sense of loss — be it innocence or life — or any sense of admiration. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.

Of Fathers and Sons does provide a perspective into daily Jihadist life, a peek not easily obtained or easily forgotten. As Derki leaves this village to return to his family in Berlin, a pall comes over his voice. He’s lucky to be alive, but he’s sad others he’s come across are not. But he might be sadder still that a cycle of violence and terror are still firmly in place.

Of Fathers and Sons is in limited release and available on Kanopy.

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By the time Flynn McGarry was ten, he knew he wanted to be a chef. By twelve he was hosting a French Laundry-inspired supper club in his Studio City, California home. When he was fifteen, he made the cover of the New York Times Magazine for his pop-up dinners in New York, L.A., and San Francisco. Fame and fans came fast, as did his critics, but McGarry soldiered on. Without the distraction of high school, McGarry kept his goal singular: be the best chef he could. He relocated to New York City’s Lower East Side, and in 2018 McGarry opened Gem, a twelve to fifteen-course dinner restaurant that serves two seatings of 12 guests, five times a week. Chef Flynn has arrived.

Most of this is figures in Chef Flynn, the documentary from Cameron Yates. With an aspiring filmmaker for a mother (Meg McGarry) the young McGarry’s life is captured in exhaustive detail; many of the shots either open or close with McGarry asking his mom to put the camera down. How much footage Yates inherited from Mother McGarry isn’t entirely clear, but there is a sense that she should share a directing or writing credit for the doc.

Yet, while the footage of McGarry is extensive, there are still many questions left on the table. It’s obvious where McGarry learned to cook — through constant trial and error — but where did he learn to eat? To taste? How did he know these flavors would work? Intuition? Research? Science?

What is it like for his sous to work with him? Do they trust him? Do they despise him? As a tween, McGarry relies heavily on help from his friends for his home supper club. Were these kids also fascinated by food, or did they think they were playing house?

And what does the food taste like? These small portions on big white plates certainly do look stunning, but only in one pop-up dinner do we see a woman close her eyes in ecstasy when she takes a bite. Are all of McGarry’s dishes this good? If they are, why doesn’t Yates feature them more prominently?

McGarry is a fascinating subject, but Chef Flynn is too fascinated with him to paint a proper portrait. Then again, Flynn is only 19, and there are still decades of this story to be told. That makes Chef Flynn the starter course. Here’s hoping the main dish will be somewhat more substantial.

Chef Flynn is currently in limited release.

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The year is 1888, and Vincent van Gogh must leave Paris. There is nothing left for him here. Cafés won’t show his work, the artists’ collectives are more concerned with bureaucratic policies and money than painting, and van Gogh’s closest, and possibly only, friend, Paul Gauguin is leaving too. He is headed south, to Madagascar; a place where they have never even heard of painting. Where should I go, van Gogh asks. South, replies Gauguin.

And so he does. Down to Arles, a rural village of the Mediterranean coast where van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) will spend the next year opening up his canvas before seas of green grass, fields of yellow sunflowers, and brown trees as knobby and knotted as his mind. Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) joins him, brother Theo (Rupert Friend) finances his paintings, and van Gogh is allowed to pursue his art the only way he knows how. Yes, he will cut off his ear, he will be locked in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, and he will die penniless and mad from a gunshot wound — either self-inflicted or from a young boy dressed as Buffalo Bill. Either way, van Gogh will not see the age of 38.

This is At Eternity’s Gate, director Julian Schnabel’s two-hour master class in subjective storytelling. Working with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and editor Louise Kugelberg, Schnabel uses black frames, yellow frames, fade-outs, overlapping dialogue that reverberates and echoes through the chambers of van Gogh’s mind, saturated colors, and choppy editing to put us directly between van Gogh’s eyes and ears. Characters commonly address the camera as if we are van Gogh and van Gogh addresses us when he needs to rationalize events that defy rationalization. Clear-eyed and confused, van Gogh attempts to put the events that led him to this moment the way a drunk tries to assemble a timeline of last night’s events. The aftermath of the infamous ear-slicing is as confounding as the action, and when a character, a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), brings up the incident, he does so with the familiar apocryphal story:

I understand you cut off your ear and gave it to a prostitute. Is this true?
Yes. But she wasn’t a prostitute.

Though van Gogh is just as confused by his actions as everyone else, he never falters to grasp the emotions of the world. The reality of that emotion might be shrouded in mystery, but as van Gogh tells a barmaid, “I like a mystery.”

How van Gogh managed to grasp the emotion of seeing — the act of seeing, not what is being seen — is the true genius of his work. The same is true with At Eternity’s Gate, which recreates the impression of van Gogh’s sight for viewers. We see the world as he might have: bisected and jagged. In these scenes, the top of the frame is in perfect focus with the bottom slightly fuzzy. These two images jar against one another, overlapping into something refracted, something wholly unique to the subject.

Even better, At Eternity’s Gate is a movie designed to look like a painting. From the colors and textures of the everyday images to a scene at a museum where van Gogh muses about his influences. Here, the camera focuses on individual brushstrokes before pulling out and revealing the whole canvas. It’s not the art that’s important; it’s the creation — the human hands behind the work. That’s what makes van Gogh’s The Starry Night such a work of brilliance: it captures and immortalizes a singular moment when one soul looked out on to the world. To say At Eternity’s Gate is its equal would be blasphemy. But, it’s damn close.

Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) paints while a group of school children watches in At Eternity’s Gate. Image courtesy CBS Films.

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Produced by Jon Kilik
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric
CBS Films, Rated PG-13, Running time 111 minutes, Opens November 21, 2018
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Like most franchise movies of the past decade, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald begins en media res. And like most franchise movies of the past decade, the filmmakers aren’t interested in catching you up on who’s who, what’s at stake, or even what’s going on. It’s up to you to come to the cinema like good little Hermione Grangers with every book, movie, and Pottermore article fully digested and ready to be regurgitated at the drop of a hat. Not that it’s going to make Grindelwald any less boring, but at least you will know who is talking to whom and what in the world they are talking about.

It isn’t at all surprising that Warner Bros. continues to churn out Potter movies — or Wizarding World as WB calls the franchise — considering the worldwide phenomenon the books launched and the profitability of the nine films so far (more than $8.5 billion worldwide). What is surprising is the direction these past two movies have taken. 2016’s snoozer, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them took the oft-mentioned Hogwarts textbook and filled in the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in 1926 America — possibly to use leftover costumes and sets from Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Along for the ride: his well-meaning and portly sidekick, Jacob (Dan Fogler), the free-spirited Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Tina (Katherine Waterston), Queenie’s older sister, an Auror employed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, and Scamander’s love interest.

All four are back for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, but as this installment progresses, the four find themselves intruding on their own movie. With both Tina and Queenie sidelined for long sections of the film, and Jacob popping in and out of the plot, Grindelwald centers more on Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who is seeking atonement for a past transgression; Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who is aiming to enslave the Muggles; and Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who remains trapped in Hogwarts both in present and past tenses. This might explain the narrative need for Scamander as a central figure — he was a favorite pupil of Dumbledore at Hogwarts and remains a close ally. Or, for a thematic theme: Scamander exists in these movies to illustrate the need to choose a side when the fate of the world is at hand — a tortured side story between Scamander and his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), is flimsy in an already weak movie. Or he is there for no other reason than to receive this line: “Mr. Scamander, is there no monster that you couldn’t love?”

If there is any Rowling in Grindelwald, this line might be it; a simple plea for decency, humanity, and understanding in a very complicated world. Sadly, the sentiment is lost amidst the din of roaring beast, wizarding battles, convoluted lineages, weak allusions to historical events, and wooden acting. Redmayne does little more than stand in three-quarters profile for the entire movie and Waterston, a solid actress in other films, is downright dreadful. Granted, they are tasked with the unenviable proposition of standing next to green screens and reacting to nothing, but Waterston’s scenes with Redmayne — which uses a ridiculous screwball comedy trope to drive a wedge between them — feels as if Redmayne was also one of those green screen manifestations.

Grindelwald, like the previous installment, is penned by J.K. Rowling — with David Yates returning for another round of lackluster direction. You might expect that the author of seven of the most beloved and re-read novels of our time could come up with something a little more engaging, but alas it was not to be. Instead, Grindelwald is deadly dull and convoluted. And when a last-minute talisman is revealed, there’s a sense that Rowling’s tightly knit and expertly told saga might be drifting into George Lucas territory. Doesn’t exactly bode well for future installments.

Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald in Fantastic Beast: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling
Produced by David Heyman, Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling, Rick Senat
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Johnny Depp, Zoë Kravitz, Jude Law, Callum Turner
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 134 minutes, Opens November 16, 2018
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Laurențiu Ginghină wants to change how the game of soccer is played. Why? In 1987, Ginghină fractured his fibula during a match and could no longer play. A year later, the mis-healed fibula placed undue strain on his tibia, further handicapping him. Refusing to blame either himself or his opponent for the injury, Ginghină blamed the game. Surely there must be a safer way to play soccer.

His solution: tweak the playing field, lop off the corner and turn the rectangular field into an octagon. This would also increase the dynamics of the game, as players tend to run along the edge. With an octagon, no longer would they get stuck in a corner. But Ginghină isn’t finished. Dividing the teams twice, then thrice, carving the pitch into six sections with designated positions for each, Ginghină completely revisions the game to suit his theory. The less players move, Ginghină rations, the more the ball moves.

But is this really a safe way to play soccer? Or does it simply enhance the act of watching a match? Would the players enjoy playing the game more using Ginghină’s adjustments? Director Corneliu Porumboiu puts a few of these questions to Ginghină, but Ginghină is ready for them. Not to answer them per se, but to rationalize his process. His version of soccer is still a work in progress, a work that may never reach actuality. It may not need to. Not every problem requires a solution.

This makes Infinite Football sound intriguing, but Porumboiu’s documentary about Ginghină’s theory isn’t. The conversations with Ginghină are sluggish, and Porumboiu’s corollaries to Romanian bureaucracy don’t quite come together. Thirty-one years ago, a swift kick to the shin ended Ginghină’s soccer career. He’s been turning that moment over in his head ever since. Someday it will finish cooking. Today is not that day.

Infinite Football is in limited release from Grasshopper Films.

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DFF Review — BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Pájaros de verano)

Birds of Passage — from directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra — is a masterpiece. Set in Colombia and spanning the years 1969 to 1980, Birds is divided into five sections, songs really, that recount the tale of ancient rituals, tight-knit tribes, and the sudden and violent encroachment of capitalism thanks to the profitability of the drug trade.

Like most stories depicting the rise and fall of an empire, it begins with an attraction. Specifically, between the young Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and the bachelor Rapayet (José Acosta) at Zaida’s coming out ceremony. With a flurry of images, Gallego and Guerra invoke Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice in Vita Nuova: “Here is a God stronger than I who come to rule over me.” But Rapayet lacks the dowry necessary to wed Zaida, so he teams with Moises (Jhon Narváez) to hustle booze, then coffee and, finally, marijuana to the Americans so he can purchase the goats, cattle, and necklaces required for Zaida’s hand.

Once turned on, Rapayet and Moises find that the marijuana trade is like a fire hose out of control. Suddenly the hills and deserts of Columbia are flooded with money, money not easily turned off or controlled. Riches are accumulated fast, but violence is faster, and an empire built upon sand threatens to destroy millenniums worth of ritual and culture.

To reiterate, Birds of Passage is a masterpiece. It’s as if Gallego and Guerra managed to cram all of Godfather I and II into a two-hour movie, decorate it with surrealistic imagery, and infuse it with flavors so familiar they must be authentic. Sure, you’ve seen a hundred movies about crime families; you’ve probably even seen hundreds more about the perils of drug trafficking. But not like this. It’s like a song so familiar you swear you’ve heard it before. But you haven’t, and now you can’t forget it.

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