What We Do Next

What We Do Next is small in scale but tackles wide-ranging issues such as familial trauma, social justice, and moral responsibility. The tense drama focuses on a young woman released from prison after 16 years for using funds donated by community activists to purchase a gun and kill her father. Writer/director Stephen Belber confronts the difficult question of who was responsible for the young girl and if it was wrong to provide her a pathway to crime.

Belber’s film uses an intimate theatrical structure to craft a strained atmosphere. Each scene only includes two or three actors often shot in tight close-ups, occurs in an enclosed space, and takes place in real-time. This filmmaking style amplifies the pressure the characters feel and the impact of the actors’ heated performances.

A pensive and determined Corey Stoll plays a liberal lawyer now doing corporate work who agrees to take the fall for loaning Elsa the money. Karen Pittman is powerful as the conflicted Sandy, an intelligent and ambitious politician who truly wants to help others but unwittingly aided a murder. Michelle Veintmilla deftly captures the pain and trauma that lies beneath Elsa’s blinding rage and manipulation. Elsa has a short fuse that frequently sets off and burns everything in its path. At times Ventmilla’s crackling energy is over the top, but it shows how Elsa is desperately clawing her into an acceptable future.

Despite its title, What We Do Next doesn’t offer any pat answers. Instead, the film challenges the audience to consider the harmful ramifications of political idealism. What We Do Next teaches us that solving the problems of inner-city youth is easier said than done, and there are no tangible solutions for an entire systemic issue. The film approaches such ideas with a thoughtful intensity.

MICerz

MICerz revolves around a hapless group of mostly male comedians trying to make it in Hollywood. Most of the comedy is derived from them roasting one another. If crass humor is not your style, this film may not appeal to you, especially because the acerbic jokes obnoxiously go on for the entirety of the film. The flat, dark visuals match the cynical tone of Omar Dzlieri’s screenplay.

Arnold is a down-on-his-luck comic who lives in a van. He agrees to help out Dave, the grouchy owner of a hole-in-the-wall club The Bomb Shelter, in exchange for parking nearby and practicing there. The best part of the film is Arnold’s dynamic with the other comics, despite a few stilted performances from some of the ensemble. Through their quick-witted sparring, Dzlieri authentically captures how they find humor in every situation and are constantly striving to perfect their craft.

The Bomb Shelter allows the group of comedians to test their sets on one another, and they call each other out when they bomb (hence the club’s name). While it is fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes of a comedian perfecting their set, the constant barrage of failed jokes starts to irritate the viewer.

MICerz is not a triumphant tale of upward mobility. Told with wry humor and a touch of cynicism, the film navigates the failures and flaws of people who are dedicated to finding the humor in those very same things. This is not a story of finding stardom but of exposing the underbelly of Hollywood. Not all viewers will be able to handle the boorish humor, but MICerz has a gritty outlook that makes the comedians’ quest for success compelling.

Facing Nolan

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Facing Nolan is a simple and sweet biography of famous baseball player Nolan Ryan. A cheeky, Southern-style narration opens and closes this earnest recollection of Ryan’s incredible accomplishments. At the core of this idyllic sports tale is Ryan’s relationship with his wife and high school sweetheart Ruth, and the strong family unit they raised. The documentary explores how Ryan deftly balanced his familial and professional duties.

Director Bradley Jackson skillfully interweaves past footage of games, vintage photographs, interview segments with other baseball players and Ryan’s family, and some reenactments. A playful period soundtrack including “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “The Heat is On” guides the viewer along Ryan’s journey—mostly his triumphs and the hard work it took for him to get where he is today.

Since the film is a family affair, with Nolan serving as an executive producer alongside his sons Reid and Reese, it is an aggressively positive portrait, but not too saccharine. Ryan has a deep love for the family he’s built and has had many stellar achievements, including setting 51 Major League Baseball records such as the most strikeouts, most no-hitters, and longest career that went through seven presidential administrations (LBJ to Clinton).

This uplifting documentary is crucial viewing for baseball fans, but Ryan’s awe-inspiring story has universal appeal. Anyone—even the most baseball-illiterate—can be moved and inspired by Ryan’s innate talent and dedication that made his dreams come true. Facing Nolan has a heartwarming optimism and Americana charm that is irresistible.

Ghost Light

Ghost Light is a clever take on theatre superstitions. You must never say the name of Shakespeare’s haunting play Macbeth in a theatre because it holds a curse. Instead, refer to it as “The Scottish Play.” Also, you must always leave a light burning in an empty theatre—a “ghost light.” The idea of the Macbeth curse came from rumors that a coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations so they placed a hex on the play and every production thereafter.

John Stimpson’s quirky horror-comedy takes place in the fields of Massachusetts where a group of ragtag summer stock actors will be performing Macbeth in a barn. Their production turns ghostly when one of them unleashes the fabled curse.

Ghost Light boasts a stellar cast of characters (and some who are Broadway legends) as recognizable theatre tropes: Carol Kane is a kooky, washed-up actress, Roger Bart is the frazzled director, and the hilarious Cary Elwes is a pompous and hammy actor who casts himself as Macbeth because he is a benefactor.

Shannyn Sossamon stands out the most as the actress who plays Lady Macbeth dealing with her own personal problems: she is dating Elwes’ character and cheating on him with Thomas (Tom Riley) who plays Banquo but covets the lead role. Sossamon conveys Liz Beth’s ennui and descent into madness with an alluring intensity. When her devious role on stage and off stage real life starts to converge, she starts to see blood on her hands like in the famous “Out, damned spot!” monologue.

The special effects used to bring the uncanny final production of Macbeth to life are excellent; they have a strange beauty and are quite well-made for a smaller-budget film. Ghost Light accurately depicts the camaraderie and minutiae of the thespian lifestyle. This offbeat tale of life imitating art puts a unique twist on theatre folklore. Stimpson interweaves supernatural eeriness and eccentric comedy with finesse.

The Issue With Elvis

The Issue With Elvis is another tale of an unlikely friendship between an adult and child. The gentle drama centers on Dr. Mercer, a scientist who lives alone in the mountains and comes across a boy named Elvis in the woods that lives in a rusty bus near an abandoned amusement park. Mercer brings the boy to his home and tries to help him. He has gotten used to his hermetic lifestyle, but there’s something about Elvis’ mysterious innocence that makes solitude seem less unappealing.

What sets The Issue With Elvis apart from other similar films is the relationship between the filmmakers. Charlotte Wincott directs with an intimate, loose style that brings out the innate chemistry of her husband and son as the lead roles; their interactions, which carry the entire film, are dynamic and visually interesting. Their pre-established familial connection combined with the on-location shooting in the sprawling woods lends the film a singular authenticity and raw feeling. Charlotte Wincott’s cozy interiors express Elvis’ growing comfort with Mercer.

Jeff Wincott has a measured warmth beneath his curt, logical surface as the isolated biologist. He’s exactly the kind of benevolent presence that Elvis needs in his life. As Elvis, Wincott’s son Wolfgang does not necessarily deliver a polished performance, nor would it be considered one of the greatest from a young performer; there are moments where he has a very flat affect and trouble finding words (or remembering lines?) but in a way, it works for his role as a traumatized child.

It’s also nice to see in this film a young person being so inquisitive about the outdoors instead of wanting to be inside playing video games all day. Elvis reinvigorates Mercer’s inner teacher and he happily lectures him on the machinations of the outdoors in his pleasant, robust voice. The only other characters in The Issue With Elvis are in stilted voiceovers over the phone.

The Issue With Elvis is a sweet character study that encourages viewers to have empathy for those with mental illness. As a story of a fractured family finding one another, it has familiar beats, but its good-hearted simplicity and roughness are charming.