You Should Be Watching: Brit Marling’s stunning series ‘The OA’ (for The Buffalo News)

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I was thrilled to ponder Netflix’s “The OA” for The Buffalo News’ “You should be watching column. Brit Marling is, quite simply, my favorite current actor, so I was probably destined to love it. Still, I was unprepared for how invested I became in this stunning series.

The best series of 2016 debuted in full on Dec. 16, just one week after it was announced. Since then, Netflix’s “The OA” has enraptured, overwhelmed, and frustrated viewers nationwide. A highly spiritual, quasi-sci fi drama told in eight parts, “The OA” is the brainchild of two stunningly talented individuals. The series is the latest creation from actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, following the thematically similar 2012 mindbender “Sound of My Voice” and 2013 thriller “The East.” “The OA” represents their finest achievement to date, and it just might be your next pop culture obsession.

Title: “The OA”

Year it began: 2016 (December)

Where it can be seen: Netflix

Who’s in it: Brit Marling, Jason Isaacs, Emory Cohen, Phyllis Smith, Riz Ahmed, and Alice Krige

Typical episode length: Episodes range between 31 and 71 minutes

Number of episodes to date: 8

Brief plot description: A young woman named Prairie Johnson resurfaces suddenly after being missing for seven years. Blind when she disappeared, Prairie now has the ability to see. She also calls herself “OA,” and has unexplained scars on her back. Slowly, OA begins to tell her story — involving a scientist, an experiment, and similarly missing individuals — to four local high school students and their teacher.

Why it’s worth watching: For fans of the hugely talented Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the announcement that a new series created by the duo was set for release in one week’s time felt like a holiday gift. It became apparent after watching the first couple episodes of “The OA” that this series — a film in eight chapters, really — was even more emotionally resonant and adventurous than the great “Sound of My Voice.” Much of the joy that comes from watching the series comes from the constant story surprises/mega-spoilers that occur, but it can be said that the tale of Prairie Johnson involves near-death experiences, Russian oligarchs, the FBI, high school pressures, and the horrors of sudden imprisonment. In less than a month, “The OA” has earned the crown of most Reddit fan theory-friendly show since “The X Files,” and it shares “Files”’ innate conflict between faith and skepticism. To that end, it must be said that a leap of faith is required. Viewers who choose to buy-in are rewarded with an emotional, dramatically transcendent experience. A key part of this necessary acceptance involves the show’s “Movements,” a series of interpretive dance moves that are strange, a bit silly, and utterly enchanting. It all culminates in an already controversial ending — one critic believes the climax is “tasteless,” and you’ll see why — that is provocative and thrilling. In fact, the second it ends, you’ll have to fight the urge to binge-watch the entire thing all over again. And I guarantee you’ll be Google searching “The OA Season 2.”

Ten reasons why 2017 will be a great year for cinephiles (from January Buffalo Spree)

Tracey B. Wilson, star of Trew Calling, takes a selfie with friends on the BIFF red carpet. PHOTOS BY SUMMER OLIVER

Tracey B. Wilson, star of Trew Calling, takes a selfie with friends on the BIFF red carpet.
PHOTOS BY SUMMER OLIVER

Most of my January “Coming Attractions” column for Buffalo Spree took a look at the year to come. You can check out the usual column online, as well.

January is a rather quiet month for screenings, so it’s a fine time to look at the entire year ahead, and reflect a bit on the previous twelve months. If you love cinema, there’s plenty to be excited about in 2017.

Year eleven for the Buffalo International Film Festival: There was no clearer sign that the Buffalo International Festival was in good hands than its choice of opening film: Tyler Hubby’s documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. This long-awaited portrait of the experimental filmmaker and University at Buffalo professor was a bold, brilliant pick, and it wasn’t the only festival standout; the partly animated documentary Tower, for example, ranks among 2016’s most acclaimed films. With a great lineup that featured several local productions, some ideal venues (the North Park, Hallwalls, Squeaky Wheel), and visiting filmmakers from around the world, the annual festival was an undeniable success. It was also a fitting tribute to late founder Ed Summer. Speaking to festival programmer John Fink a few days after BIFFX, it was clear the organizers were already thinking of next year: “At our 2017 festival, you’ll find films that might not otherwise screen in WNY front and center on the big screen along with engaging panels and events that celebrate diverse and underrepresented voices, emerging talent, and WNY’s film industry.” BIFF executive director Raymond Guarnieri says the dates for 2017 are set—October 6 to 9—and that the program will be announced in late summer with tickets on sale at buffalointernationalfilmfestival.com in September. (Organizers will once again offer a “Bison Pass” with unlimited screening access. At an advance price of $35, it’s a steal.) If 2016 is any indication, BIFF has officially staked its claim as the local film festival. It’s incredibly exciting to see what transpired this past October, and to ponder what’s to come.

The (expected) release of Marshall: Buffalo was buzzing over the summer with the news that Marshall, director Reginald Hudlin’s film about the early career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was shooting throughout the area. Stars Chadwick Boseman (an actor on the verge of mega-stardom as Marvel’s Black Panther), Kate Hudson, and the rest of the cast had lovely things to say about the Queen City. But when will we actually get to see Marshall on the big screen? As of press time, no date was set. However, distribution rights were already snapped up by Open Road Films, the studio of Oscar winner Spotlight, so a 2017 release is likely.

Diverse pleasures from DipsonDipson Theatres cinemas continue to find a nice balance between older-skewing independent films, hot-button documentaries, and ongoing series like Thursday Night Terrors. Marketing and promotions coordinator Jeremy Mills says some of Dipson’s biggest hits in 2016 involved established longtime favorites: Tom Hanks (Sully), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Sally Field (Hello, My Name Is Doris), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and, of course, the Beatles (Ron Howard’s hit documentary Eight Days a Week).

Did the switch to larger, reclining seats at the Amherst Dipson help at the box office? It’s certainly possible, especially when it comes to the Buffalo Film Seminars series. But just as pleasing is the success of one-off screenings like the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ doc One More Time With Feeling. “We partnered with Record Theatre to give that screening even more of a ‘live show’ vibe, and they outdid themselves by providing a ‘merch table’ that included the brand new LP and most of Cave’s discography as well,” Mills says, adding, “offering titles that appeal to both music fans and filmgoers is something we’re happy to keep exploring, and we’ve got more music-centric screenings planned with Record Theatre in the near future.” Mills is also excited to see the Cultivate Cinema Circle and Thursday Night Terrors series continue at the Amherst.

A second installment of Thursday Night Terrors: Organizer Peter Vullo’s horror series was a smash, drawing solid audiences for films like Fright Night and The Thing. Vullo says it exceeded all expectations thanks to the passionate community of horror fans in Buffalo. Therefore, another season will be on its way. “I hope to make the series better with each successive screening,” he says. “I think the success of Thursday Night Terrors shows that there’s a place for every genre of film in Buffalo. It’s just a matter of reaching that audience and playing the films they want to see. There’s room to experiment and expand. It’s a beautiful time to be a film lover in Buffalo.”

A busier-than-ever North Park Theatre: The North Park was hot in 2016; October even saw it host a screening of the first presidential debate. In addition to the theater’s usual selection of current independent films, the popular Family Matinee series and ultra-cool Neon Fever will continue. The latter saw screenings of such sci-fi and neo-noir classics as Blade Runner and Akira. Program director Ray Barker says, “2017 will be another exciting year for the North Park. In addition to bringing highly anticipated, Oscar-nominated films early in the year, we plan on bringing a director to the North Park in summer 2017 who was previously nominated for an Academy Award himself.” That’s a very cool teaser.

Comfy seats at the Regal Cinemas: Visitors to the Walden Galleria Mall cinema in recent months know the changeover to big comfy recliners has already taken place. A May Buffalo News article said all area Regal cinemas were expected to have these seats by October 2016, but, as of press time, there were no new updates. Still, you can probably expect to see the Regal theaters in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Orchard Park, and Williamsville getting real comfy real soon.

More treats from the Roycroft Film Society, the Old Chestnut Film Society, the Buffalo Film SeminarsSqueaky WheelHallwalls, etc.: It might seem as if the number of screenings of new, recent, and classic films in the Buffalo area has exploded in recent months. While there are certainly some new kids on the block, the folks mentioned here have been killing it for years. Keep checking this column in print and online for their latest events and screenings.

Another summer of outdoor cinema: From Bacchus to UB to Canalside and beyond, the number of venues offering outdoor screenings is greater than ever before. Watching films under the stars is now a Buffalo tradition.

New offerings from Cultivate Cinema Circle: The most recent CCC season featured a salute to Robert Altman, and the subjects for potential future series include Michael Mann, Alfred Hitchcock, and Roberto Rossellini. CCC organizers Jordan Smith and Jared Mobarak say they plan to continue screenings at the Dipson Amherst, Burning Books, and North Park. They also invite fans to tweet (@CultivateCinema), email (info@cultivatecinemacircle.com), or post (facebook.com/cultivatecinemacircle) suggestions for future films.

The fate of the Market Arcade may (or may not) be determined: So this is not a prediction, merely a hope. Not long after Main Street’s Market Arcade cinema closed its doors in 2014, there was talk of the AMC chain taking over the space. While AMC is an imperfect choice—the spot has always made most sense as a site for independent and small-scale films, rather than Transformers 7—it was nevertheless an exciting development. Fast-forward two years and … nothing. As of late September, a sign on the building still read “The facility is expected to reopen under new ownership by early 2015.” Meanwhile, a now hilariously dated feature in Buffalo Business First from February 2016 stated that “the theater could, potentially, be reopened by late summer or early fall in time to show such anticipated releases as the Ghostbusters reboot, Star Trek Beyond, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2.” Insert shoulder-shrugging emoji here. Let’s hope 2017 is the year of the Market Arcade’s rebirth as a site for cinema. Better late than never.

Christopher Schobert’s Top 10 Films of 2016 (for The Film Stage)

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It’s always exciting to see my personal top 10 list for 2016 posted at The Film Stage. But it’s always difficult to call it “finished.” Here’s how things stand … at the moment.

Ignore any suggestion that 2016 was not a fantastic year for cinema. Moments linger (the campfire dance in American Honey, the final encounter in Certain Women, the Tracy Letts–Logan Lerman debate in Indignation, the first ten minutes of High-Rise, both “Camelot”-soundtracked sequences in Jackie, any scene that featured Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash) and performances resonate (everyone in Moonlight, Emma Stone in La La Land, Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters).

Choosing ten favorites and five honorable mentions is nasty business; I wish I could have included Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, a ridiculously underrated film that does not deserve to be remembered as a flop. But it just missed the cut. (Also, I was unable to see Silence in time for end-of-year consideration.) What these fifteen films have in common is the ability to surprise, confound, and delight in equal measure. Let’s see 2017 top that.

Honorable Mentions

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10. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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The finest film of summer was Shane Black’s non-blockbuster The Nice Guys, a wildly funny, seriously involving slice of 70s noir. Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and (soon-to-be-a-megastar) Angourie Rice are perfectly cast, and somehow the plotline seems fresh. It is such a satisfying viewing experience, in fact, that I found myself desperately hoping that it would kick off a franchise. That’s not to be, but that’s OK — we have The Nice Guys to enjoy forever.

 

9. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)

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From start to finish, A Bigger Splash is beautifully disorienting. This tangled web of relationships and insecurities is highlighted by Tilda Swinton’s (voice-resting) rock star, and, of course, by Ralph Fiennes. He is a delightfully gyrating force of nature who is somehow not a lock for an Oscar nom. You’ll never hear “Emotional Rescue” again without picturing his moves. Even when offscreen, Fiennes’s aging record producer feels deeply involved. Clearly, Splash cements Luca Guadagnino’s place on the list of the world’s most exciting filmmakers.

 

8. Sing Street (John Carney)

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Like La La Land, the best moments of John Carney’s Sing Street felt charged by an almost relentless sense of positivity. What makes that accomplishment so remarkable is that much of the film is rooted in poverty, heartbreak, and sadness. That sadness, however, is balanced by some gobsmackingly fun music. And in the “Drive Like You Mean It” sequence, Sing Street truly achieves emotional liftoff. The film also takes the crown for must-own soundtrack of 2016.

 

7. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

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Where did American Honey come from? It’s hard not to ask that question while watching Andrea Arnold’s film, an almost indescribably exhilarating teenage road movie. A cast of unknowns (and a never-better Shia LaBeouf) excels at making this crew of magazine-hawking teens seem startlingly real. It’s a long journey — over two and a half hours — but never drags. In fact, Honey seems to fly by, so intoxicating is its mix of fiction and (quasi) reality.

 

6. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

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In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch makes the everyday riveting. And much of the credit has to go to Adam Driver, whose bus driver-poet is quite unlike any artist we’ve seen onscreen before. The same can be said of his wife, Laura, played by a luminescent Golshifteh Farahani. It’s the most effortless film of Jarmusch’s career, and certainly the most moving. It also features the most unexpectedly heartbreaking scene of the year, involving Driver, Farahani, a poorly behaved dog named Marvin, and a book of poems.

 

5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

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The Handmaiden is pure cinema — a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s also a tense, unsettling, erotic masterpiece. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook. From its four central performances and twisty script to the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon and feverish, haunting score by Jo Yeong-wook, The Handmaiden is crafted to take your breath away. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound.

 

4. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

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Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is wise, funny, and wholly original. This is the family drama reimagined, in visually intoxicating fashion. The performances stand out, especially Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. Yet it’s Mills’ script that resonates strongest; there are a few lines from Bening that seem to capture what it truly feels like to be a parent. Interestingly, it seems 20th Century Women is already underrated.

 

3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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Watching Moonlight is a wondrous experience. This coming-of-age drama following a young African-American male through three complex stages of his life never strikes a wrong note, and it always surprises. Barry Jenkins has crafted something extraordinary here, and it will be fascinating to see what he does next. In the meantime, let’s rewatch Moonlight, a film to be treasured and analyzed for years to come.

 

2. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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Pablo Larraín’s Jackie upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a piercingly smart, emotionally probing script. The film belongs to Natalie Portman, but the entire cast stands out, especially John Hurt. With Jackie (and his other late-2016 release, Neruda), Larrain has deconstructed the film biography, and it’s thrilling to watch. It’s difficult to imagine a film about a recent historical figure that feels as emotionally affecting.

 

1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

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Damien Chazelle’s Los Angeles-set musical lives up to the the fall festival hype. And my goodness, that’s saying something. Wonderfully unrealistic, even its flaws (and there are a few) are endearing. The songs, the performances from Gosling and Stone (the look on her face when the Messengers’ burst into life in concert might be the most perfect reaction of 2016), and that opening are unforgettable. But these are all topped by its dazzling final sequence, which sees La La Land practically explode with a mixture of joy and melancholy. The result is a film that leaves the viewer in a state of bliss — high on the feeling that comes from great cinema.