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Indies and Awards Contenders in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Indies and Awards Contenders in TheatersStill from BPM, via IMDb.
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Lighter weekend at the movies, I guess to let you catch up on every wonderful thing you may have missed. (I’m looking at you, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

But if you have already seen the sure-fire contenders for best of the year, there are some under-the-radar gems you can find around town if you look.

BPM

Transitioning slowly from a sweeping, outrage-fueled political drama to a hushed and intimate personal study, BPM becomes a deeply emotional portrait of hope and love.

It is France in the early 1990s, when Act Up/Paris is becoming increasingly confrontational in their protests, demanding an official AIDS prevention policy from the state, and an end to the indifference of the population.

Early on, director/co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys) skillfully uses Act Up’s regular meetings to bring us up to speed on procedures and strategies. Through the group’s infighting and organized protests, the film speaks to the often fragile power of activism, especially when some of the activists are dying.

The confusion caused by the AIDS epidemic is heavy in the air, and Campillo effectively pairs it with the desperation of those most personally affected, eventually settling on two in particular.

Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) is HIV-positive and a veteran Act Up member, full of a passion that draws in the shy newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). As the two draw closer, Campillo narrows his focus to the touching, slice-of-life glimpses that lie at the very heart of the cause.

BPM builds an earnest base by faithfully re-creating an era while reinforcing that era’s continued relevance to the present. But the film reveals its purpose through the smaller moments that inspire, reminding us of the courage needed to take a stand, and just what’s at stake if we don’t.

Grade: A-

Last Flag Flying

Last Flag Flying is a loving salute to the enduring nature of honor. Thoughtful and sometimes genuinely moving, it’s also not above getting laughs from three aging veterans trying to buy their very first mobile phones or arguing about the ethnicity of Eminem.

It is 2003, and Larry, aka “Doc,” (Steve Carell) is looking up two old Marine buddies for a very specific purpose. Doc, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) all served in Vietnam together, and now Doc needs his friends to help bury his son, who has just been killed in the Iraq War.

Once the men learn that the official story of the boy’s death isn’t exactly the real story, Doc declines a burial at Arlington, deciding to transport the body for a hometown funeral in New Hampshire.

Director Richard Linklater confidently guides the film with gentle restraint and his usual solid instincts for organic storytelling. Some good-natured humor is framed from the three outstanding main performances, but it never derails the resonance of these characters grappling with the cyclical nature of sacrifice.

Linklater adapts the script with source novelist Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the 1970s servicemen-centered flicks Cinderella Liberty and The Last Detail. Last Flag Flying draws many parallels with the latter film, as it is not a stretch to see these characters as the Detail men taking stock of how the years have changed the world and themselves.

Though the perfectly-drawn contrasts of the three personalities seem manufactured at times, it matters less thanks to Carell, Cranston and Fishburne, who are never less than a joy to watch. You’ll need tissues handy for the touching final moments, but Last Flag Flying makes the tears — and the trip — worthwhile.

Grade: B+

Sweet Virginia

Which is a better death—a bullet, or a broken heart? Aah, the neo-noir, always trodding that lonesome, masculine road.

Director Jamie Dagg’s latest effort, the brooding Sweet Virginia, contemplates many of the same bruised musings in many of the old, familiar ways. But between Benjamin and Paul China’s taut script and an ensemble’s powerful performances, you won’t mind.

Jon Bernthal leads the cast as Sam, former rodeo star and current proprietor of small town motel Sweet Virginia. It’s the kind of place where a drifter (Christopher Abbott) might stay, a high school kid (Odessa Young) might take a part-time job, a new widow (Rosemary DeWitt) might find comfort or a femme fatale (Imogen Poots) might find danger.

Bernthal charms playing against type and spilling over with tenderness. His every moment onscreen is abundant with warmth, a curious choice for a hillbilly noir’s male lead, but it pays off immeasurably.

Abbott is his fascinating opposite. Both dark and imposing, Abbott’s Elwood festers and stews, a pot of simmering violence waiting to bubble over. Like Bernthal, Abbott chooses an approach to his character that is nonstandard and, in both instances, carving such believable and unusual men in such a familiar environment gives Sweet Virginia more staying power than it probably deserves.

DeWitt reminds us again of her skill with a character, embracing Bernie’s brittleness and resilience to craft an authentic presence. More impressive, though, is Poots in an aching performance.

Daggs shows confidence in his script and his performers, siding with atmosphere over exposition and letting scenes breathe. His string-heavy score and fixation with reflections and the spare light cast by a lonely street lamp create a mood that is familiar, yes, but fitting and welcome.

This is Coen territory, and where the Brothers can always find texture in even the most threadbare of material, Daggs’s film feels superficial. It holds your attention and repays you for the effort with a series of finely drawn and beautifully delivered characters, not to mention a script that invests in clever callbacks as well as character.

It’s a gripping film that lacks substance, a well-told reiteration on the same theme.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:
Another Wolfcop (R)
The Breadwinner (NR)
The Square (NR)
The Tad Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas (NR)

Reviews with help from George Wolf.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF, and listen to her podcasts FRIGHT CLUB and THE SCREENING ROOM.

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