The moon is full over snowed water. The snow is dirtied by time. The red, bloodied by death. The scene begins the shocking, excellent film Wind River, named for Wyoming's only American Indian reservation. Before that scene settles, a marksman has found a teen-ager. She is dead on the landscape.

Cory Lambert, played stoically by Jeremy Renner, is a sniper for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He knows how to hunt, which means he knows how to track. Those credentials support him well when an FBI agent arrives to determine if the woman's death is a homicide on federal land. The case is low priority so Jane Banner, based in Las Vegas, is sent to decide who's going to investigate, the feds or the tribal authorities. She's barely dressed warmly.

Banner, played wide-eyed but steely by Elizabeth Olsen, seems to be too untried in the field to be effective. Not what she seems, she serves as the eyes of the newcomer through whom we, also new, see this mystery. As a newby, she needs Lambert. He is also not what he seems.

Wind River explores the deprivation of a reservation, the violence of a drug- and alcohol-infested world where women don't count. Literally: Native American women who go missing are not included in the records. 

In addition to the strength of Renner and Olsen is the acting of a largely Native American supporting cast, including Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham as the dead teen's father, and the evergreen Graham Greene as the wry tribal police officer.

Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the script for the marvelous Hell or High Water, produced a fine script for Wind River, but mumbling reduces it. He also directed the film, building from a meaty climax to a decent denouement. Wind River is violent and hard to watch, but gripping and telling with effective music.

 

Crises often reveal the character of all affected and the values thrust into conflict. When the women's balcony accidentally collapses at an orthodox Jerusalem synagogue during a bar mitzvah, that aftermath brings a host of confrontations and revelations. Titled The Women's Balcony for the event igniting this thought-provoking drama, the Sephardic Jewish community confronts several issues.  

The beloved Rabbi Menashe becomes incapacitated by the shock of his injured wife hospitalized in a coma. The young, ultraorthodox Rabbi David comes to the rescue, offering his services guiding the synagogue's restoration -- with the women's balcony replaced by a claustrophobic anteroom -- and with directions for the wives to wear headscarves to show their modesty. Determined to have a balcony, the women raise money that Rabbi David decides he'll use to purchase a Torah scroll. That just won't do.  

A handful of couples participate in the deliberations, masterfully interconnected with diverse personalities enlivening the action and reactions. The superb ensemble of veteran Israeli actors, singers and comedians gives bravura performances. It is a special delight to bask in the snappy dialogue delivered with perfect timing and nuanced humor. The judicious approach to traditions is cleverly and subtly presented. Little details convey respect for ritual as well as reasonable adaptation. Other elements of art direction further separate the dark, more claustrophobic men's world contrasted with the more brightly colored, uncluttered women's one. Cinematographer Ziv Berkovich enhances the visually arresting look of the film with several stunning overhead shots, especially one as women open their umbrellas as they exit a doorway. 

In press notes, screenwriter Shlomit Nehama states, "I wanted to tell the story of the moderate people who are forced to deal with growing religious extremism," adding "the film also offers comfort that religion can be different and can still provide a rational community with compassion and love." Director Emil Ben-Shimon affirms this, noting, "This is a film about brave, strong women . . . full of passion for life." "The Women's Balcony" captures the joy, the vitality, and the issue relevant to many. 

In Hebrew with English subtitles. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

To read of family dysfunction, an alcoholic father slapping his child, an artsy mom not feeding her bairn is one thing. To see it on the screen is so painful as to be avoided. That is the case with The Glass Castle, based on the 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls.

Rex Walls was charming, a talker and a dreamer. He was also a drinker. Rose Mary Walls was an artist, who'd rather paint than mother. He dreamed of building a glass castle for his children; she thought about him working so they could have indoor plumbing. Their four children could think of little else but surviving by holding each other against these loving but insupportable adults.

Jeannette Walls wrote about growing up like Topsy in Welch, West Virginia, in her memoir, but when Destin Daniel Cretton directed her story from his own co-written screenplay, he exploited the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse Walls described in her words. Unlike his earlier and more laudable film, Short Term 12, Cretton created "The Glass Castle" as little more than a battle ground. Yes, it seems that everything turns out okay, but enduring the road to that okay tortures the viewer.

Again, Cretton works with Brie Larson as he did in Short Term 12. Larson stars as the adult Jeannette, a gossip columnist, graduate of Barnard, and wife of a rich man. She embodies that Jeannette, especially when she confronts her manipulative father at her engagement party. The child Jeannette is portrayed so well by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head. 

Naomi Watts plays Walls' mother against Woody Harrelson as her dad. Neither actor looks as shop-worn as the real parents did. Watts fades into the background, but Harrelson has the vicious look needed for such a wrecked man. Anyone who has grown up with a man with that look knows it well.

The Glass Castle tortures more than graces.

 

In anticipation of the November 8, 1939, Nazi rally in Munich presided over by Adolph Hitler, Johann Georg Elser planted a bomb with a timer set to detonate the explosive during Hitler's address. As the title of director Oliver Hirschbiegel's 13 Minutes signals, Hitler left the building thirteen minutes before the explosion that killed eight people and injured sixty-two.

Quickly tracked down, Elser was arrested, tortured, and confessed after Nazis rounded up and threatened his ex-fiancé and relatives. His inquisitors and the Fuhrer refused to believe that Elser constructed and executed this event alone. 13 Minutes shows how and why he did, flashing back and forward, dramatizing the Nazis increasingly oppressive victimization of German citizens that prompted Elser, a musician, carpenter, and eventually steelworks employee, to devise and plant the bomb. It is here that the interest resides, watching events of the late 1930s in small German villages as the Nazis ruthlessly retaliate against any opposition. 

Ironically, one of the Nazi officers does come to believe Elser is the sole agent after Georg diagrams his invention. The German officer is overruled and also becomes a victim, showing the effect of the despotic Nazi culture on even its more reasonable participants who get caught up in repression of any reasoned responses. This officer is equally powerless, adding complexity to what is usually a monochromatic depiction. Similarly, Elser's love Elsa, married to an alcoholic brute, provides a subplot highlighting ways the Nazis enabled cruel citizens to indulge their malice.

Technically Hirschbiegel shows a keen eye for fresh, effective compositions that add tension and convey emotions. He moves the camera elegantly and sparingly, tracking in or retreating with authority. Similarly, he refrains from overuse of music and sound, adding such additions only when necessary. As Elser, Christian Friedel has a charismatic presence, often merely observing, inviting our identification with his outrage, an emotion easily summoned. Upsetting torture scenes confirm the Nazis inhumanity but, once established, the film doesn't wallow in the barbarity. 13 Minutes particularizes the inhumanity through one man's action. The narrowness of the focus brings into sharp relief the lead up to Hitler's mass murders to follow. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

The title's reference to a fading form of communication suggests the decade for Landline, that is, the Nineties. But it says nothing about the chief literary device, that of irony, which each of the characters has to deal with in the course of this multi-generational look at cheating.

Landline, which seems so much simpler  than it is, starts in 1995 on Labor Day. Well, it actually starts with sex in the woods, but once that's over to no one's satisfaction, we move on to the family that's leaving the summer home for the school year ahead in Manhattan. The family comprises Mother and Father and two daughters, the latter far enough apart to seem to have little in common besides judgment.

Ali is the younger sister, part eye-roll, part tempest. Dana is the older sister, wild yet protective. Mother is snarky, especially regarding Dad, and Dad is Dad, that is, until Ali discovers that he's having an affair. Dad?! That old man?! Should she tell him she knows? Should she tell her mom? She tells her sisters.

That titbit of info starts to bring them closer, and watching the two cleave unto one another is certainly sweet but not icky. Jenny Slate works the Dana role well, but she is well matched by Abby Quinn as Ali. Quinn is also in the upcoming Radium Girls, and Slate was so good in Obvious Child.

Landline is co-written and directed by Gillian Robbespierre, who also directed Obvious Child, a sleeper film from 2014. Robbespierre was not able to keep John Turturro from over-acting as the dad, at least, acting beyond what the rest of the cast does here, but she was able to direct Edie Falco as the crushed mother with a mouth on her.

Landline is not so clean-cut as "Obvious Child," and, partly, it seems to barely bear its own weight. But it's one of those movies that has something to say about cheating -- by cheaters.

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