Sundance 2021, Days 6-7: The Best (?) of the Rest of the Fest

7 02 2021

In a normal year, Park City really begins to clear out after about day 5. It gets prohibitively expensive to stick around for diminishing returns, and the only people still around (to the best of my understanding) are usually locals and press members with extensive institutional support. With a virtual festival, however, there are many more reasons to be a Sundance dead-ender.

Sundance previously incentivized attendance in the back half of the festival by providing a much cheaper second weekend pass, where many films played encore screenings based on previous response and demand. If you didn’t mind missing all the big-name celebrities who flew in for the red carpet, it was the perfect way to mainline the best of the fest. 2021 had some equivalent in day 7 being entirely movies that won awards, and the festival offered a special deal to watch just this day.

But before I could get to the big winners, I had to clear two titles getting a lot of online buzz that did not pick up any additional laurels.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

First up was Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (C / ), a Nicolas Cage-starring balls-to-the-wall action flick. I’ll be honest: I just never quite got on this film’s wavelength. It managed to be both too simple and too complex at the same time. There are no shortage of ideas and inventiveness on display, and Sono’s verve is undeniable. But this maelstrom of sound and fury essentially becomes “LOUD NOISES: The Movie” without a focus or framework to anchor it.

In many ways, my feelings about “Prisoners of the Ghostland” mirror that of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” another movie I think gets far too much credit for doing something simple in all-capital letters. The story is even somewhat similar as Cage’s ironically named criminal Hero must go on a rescue mission for a governor’s daughter (Sofia Boutella) in an ominous, foreboding universe. The strange peoples and communities with which he interacts add color to the film, but this is a man on a singular mission kind of movie. No amount of anachronistic Jim Croce needle-drops or spirited line readings made that any more exciting for me.

A few years ago, I played a trivia game that asked us to match Nicolas Cage memes or GIFs to the movie from which they originated. I ultimately suspect that being able to recognize “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in such a situation will be the primary value of my having watched the film.

“We Are All Going to the World’s Fair”

The title that seemed to slowly build the most buzz among a discerning set of critics at Sundance was Jane Schoenbrun’s “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair” (B / ), an Internet-focused film I suspect will outlive many of its peers that are laser-focused on topicality. In the film’s opening credits, Schoenbrun surveys the dying embers of commercialism and industry in a small town, which sets up the vibrancy of the Internet as an enticing foil to this bleak physical landscape. This does not explain the decision of lonely teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) to participate in the World’s Fair challenge, an online horror role-playing game, but it does at least contextualize it.

Schoenbrun invites us into the mystery, terror and perverse appeal of these scary spaces online with a distinct eye towards how people consume this content. A man watching a video on his phone while crouched on a toilet is all too real, as is the extended buffering icon before a new video plays. I’m not sure I found the slow-building tension between Casey and a protective, borderline paternalistic stranger (Michael J. Rogers) quite as convincing or compelling as just the way “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair” replicates that hypnotic algorithmic suck of the video-based web. This “very online” element of the film feels transgressive and innovative where the relationship anchors it to a more traditional narrative structure I’m not sure it needs. Of all the films in the NEXT section I screened, this is the one that felt like it was moving to goalposts for the medium.


On the final official day of Sundance, I managed to squeeze in three award winners. The first, Clint Bentley’s “Jockey” (C+ / ), took home the fest’s only acting prize for star Clifton Collins, Jr. Sony Pictures Classics has already acquired the film, and they look likely to run a familiar playbook for awards glory. CCJ is an industry stalwart and beloved supporting player in titles spanning from “Traffic” to “Waves,” and he’s finally getting a well-publicized moment in the sun as a leading man.

It’s too bad that the film to provide him this narrative is itself quite conventional. Collins Jr. stars as titular aging rider Jackson Silva, a jockey hesitant to step away from the sport even as his body begins to give out on him. Bentley makes it easy to see why he finds the track such a hallowed site. Adolpho Veloso’s luminous cinematography channels that magic hour beauty in every outdoor scene, and the hum of Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s score gives the proceedings an ethereal quality. It’s a shame that little else in the film, chiefly the script, can conjure up that same wonder. “Jockey” wants what Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider” so effortlessly conjures about wounded masculinity in the American heartland.

Bentley and co-writer Greg Kwedar hit just about every predictable beat in the “last hurrah” sports narrative that you can imagine as a new horse in the stable, similarly discounted like Jackson, puts a new spring in his step. He’s also enlivened by the arrival of a young man, Moisés Arias’ Gabriel, who claims to be his son. So “Jockey” dutifully plays through the deadbeat dad and estranged son tropes as well. The film is not without its moments of grace as sequences of bonding between Jackson and Gabriel, with peppy trainer Ruth (Molly Parker) never far away, provide bursts of undeniable humanity. Yet this joviality, while nice, is entirely trite and at odds with the film’s desire to provide a stark look at the grittier side of horse racing that’s hidden underneath the sport’s pageantry.

“Summer of Soul”

Another award-winner found a more natural fit between form and content: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (B / ), equal parts the party movie and protest movie of the festival. This documentary brought down the house on opening night – judging from my virtual peanut gallery of Twitter and Letterboxd – and quickly sold out its on-demand reprise two days later. I had my fingers crossed it would win an award so I’d have the chance to see it at the festival before it got locked away from a release later in the year; the voting bodies delivered by giving it both the Jury Prize and Audience Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Fans of R&B and soul are in for a real treat with “Summer of Soul,” which brings to light a gobsmacking amount of never-before-seen concert footage from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. It’s a murderer’s row of generation-defining talents making an appearance: Stevie Wonder, The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly & The Family Stone, Nina Simone. If all Questlove did was string together the performances like D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop,” this would be an incredible documentary in its own right.

But he goes a step further, contextualizing what gives the performances such power and might beyond the raw skill of the performers. 1969 was “the summer we became free,” says one talking head early in the film. The festival known as “Black Woodstock” played a central role in owning Black identity as a point of pride, and the music blaring from the Harlem stages is inseparable from the cultural moment. The 300,000 attendees of the event cared little for the moon landing or the supernova blast of hippie energy occurring upstate. They found liberation and validation in this exuberant celebration of their contributions to New York City’s vitality and America’s culture.

“Summer of Soul” seems certain to change the fact that the Harlem Cultural Festival remains widely underappreciated as a major musical event. As the stage lights start to dim in the documentary, Questlove begins to interrogate just why this might be. Disconnection or distance from Black contributions to history can have the effect of making it seem like those moments were not real, one interviewee suggests. Maybe a more skilled documentarian could thread that thematic needle because the existential pivot does not quite work. To Questlove’s credit, I doubt this hypothetical documentarian would be able to hold court as pace-setter and party-starter quite like he does throughout “Summer of Love.”


But the work that most seamlessly matched story with storytelling style was Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” (B+ / ), an animated documentary that recounts the harrowing journey of gay refugee Amin from Afghanistan to Denmark. Ramussen interviews his friend as he lays prone atop a tapestry blanket with a camera dangling above his head. When he cuts to a wider shot of the setup, with Rasmussen sitting in a chair off to the side, it becomes clear that the arrangement resembles that of a therapist and patient. Simply recounting the traumatizing stories of his life that he’s suppressed has tremendous value for Amin as he prepares to enter into a marriage in which he wants to have no secrets.

But “Flee” serves a purpose beyond just rehabilitating its subject. Rasmussen’s animation viscerally pulls us into Amin’s memories, recreating them as he recalls them. The thinly sketched lines that define Amin’s early years recall the formlessness of youth as our minds can begin to process and store relevant information about the world around us. The film renders Amin’s scariest moments as haunting abstractions stripped of their vitality and detail, but it also recreates moments of joy and connection as reveries of cinematic fantasy. And all throughout, newsreel footage intrudes to ground his recollections in the painful objective reality of a country in turmoil around him.

“Flee” is a reminder of what cinema can do best: bringing us into heightened experiences by distorting them through the lens of artistry and vision. The film’s animation allows us to enter a liminal space between memory and history as we connect to a person in his pains and pleasure alike. From his hurried flight into Moscow to his escape to Sweden with the help of human traffickers, we’re in for the ride because we’re in Amin’s headspace.

Sundance 2021, Days 4-5: What’s Up, Docs?

6 02 2021

I guess the real place to start this dispatch is back on Day 3 when I screened Robin Wright’s “Land” (C- / ). Thanks to a local publicist, I got connected with a screener outside the official festival platform. My thoughts were embargoed, however, until the premiere so I didn’t spoil the party. It’s a good thing they zipped my lips because a spoiler I most certainly would have been.

To call something as unvarnished as “Land” a vanity project seems unfair. This does not feel like the kind of thing an actor makes to feed their ego. Yet, at the same time, the film would definitely have benefitted from someone to tell Wright “no” more frequently. As Edee, a woman going off the grid to sit in solitude with her feelings, she plays a solo adventurer in the tradition of Cheryl Strayed in “Wild” or Christopher McCandless in “Into the Wild.” The film plays out as the camera observes Edee primarily just doing tasks and being alone. There’s little reflection and certainly no commentary.


Wright is a strong actress, but there is no one who could make this much mundanity interesting without voice-over or some kind of subjective filmmaking choices to bring us into the character’s interiority – or strategically keep us out of it. We do eventually learn what drove her into a remote portion of Wyoming … but only at the very end in a line delivered so hastily it could have come from Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” This 11th-hour revelation does nothing to retroactively remedy a movie that is so focused on blandly portraying what she does without spending enough time telling us who she is. Even knowing the root of her decision cannot make up for having to sit through nearly 90 minutes of a white woman thinking she can subsist without any help only to need a bailout by saintly BIPOC characters. (Truly, the Caucasity!)

Then again, maybe this wasn’t the best choice to watch for my sixth movie of that day. Festival viewing slots have consequences…

“Land” comes out February 12 and played in the festival’s “Premiere” section. It most certainly would not be at home with the Competition titles and really stretches believability qualifying for the sidebar it received. I can understand the festival relies on high-wattage stars to help attract media attention that rising stars and no-names cannot – especially in a year like 2021 so thin on big actors and directors. But even so, this is just not up to standards even grading on the generous curve of actors behind the camera making self-indulgent works by and for themselves.


In the back half of the festival, I’ve turned my attention more to the documentary sections of Sundance. Last year’s fest yielded a particularly extraordinary crop of non-fiction films, three of which (“Boys State,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” and “Time”) ended up on my top 10 list. Admittedly, I’m unsure if we’ll see a repeat of that statistic in 2021. If any documentary I’ve seen were to contend for year’s best status, however, it would be Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s “Cusp” (B+ / ).

Much of the “discussion” (if such a thing really existed in an entirely virtual festival) about “Cusp” centered around an aspect of the film hinted at by a disclaimer in the blurb: discussions of sexual violence. The three Texan teenage protagonists of Hill and Bethencourt’s film – Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn – do make reference to incidents of rape, molestation and other abuse that they have witnessed, heard or even experienced. What makes the film so startling is that it’s not as if the documentarians have prompted them to reflect on these moments. The girls just offer these matter-of-fact statements up as if they are as commonplace and unchangeable a part of their adolescence as anything else. It’s a meaningful illustration of how rape culture replicates itself not situationally but contextually, creating environments in which acts of aggression and entitlement are treated as normal.

But there’s so much more to “Cusp” than just a single element in a film that’s such a rich trove of insights into the nature of contemporary small-town adolescence. Hill and Bethencourt do not present this nameless Texas town for commentary, just observation and perhaps recognition. More remarkable than any one thing they capture is just the overall sense of time in the documentary. Does this take place over a few weeks? A few months? A few years? I honestly couldn’t tell and wouldn’t have it any other way. This languid yet listless pacing brings back the steady beat of monotony that defines teenage life outside of structured school activity. Time does not seem to move forward at all in “Cusp.” It just cycles.

The doc settles into a rhythm with the subjects and yields fruit as Hill and Bethencourt patiently build trust with them. They can make an impactful moment out of the girls chowing on McDonald’s on a curb outside the restaurant, yelling at a sibling or simply going through another unspectacular day. “I’m only 16, I have forever to go!” offers one of the girls as the film comes to a close. It’s the tragic irony of the film encapsulated in a single line, an awareness of how much lies ahead but an inability to escape the pull of a perpetual present tense.

“Try Harder!”

The students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School are (allegedly) contemporaries of the girls in “Cusp,” though it feels like the high-achieving subjects from the institution featured in Debbie Lum’s documentary “Try Harder!” (B / ) are living on a different planet entirely. One of my favorite things about film festivals is the ability for unintended, fortuitous collisions between two works that emerge only by watching in adjacency to each other. Imagine the whiplash going to “Cusp” from “Try Harder!” – it was quite something! (The activism of the students in “Homeroom” also makes for quite the contrast with the solipsism in “Try Harder!”)

Lum’s subjects are highly self-aware. They know that they are all big fish in a small pond, and their obsession with achievement may even have backfired. Their end-all, be-all college Stanford is loath to admit Lowell students because they have a reputation for being “AP Machines.” The term is so commonplace that Lum can even have a montage of students reciting it, seemingly unprompted in other interviews. Nonetheless, the fixation on Ivys and their ilk has led the school to offer a bracing psychology lesson to the kids: you are not too good for a state institution.

For anyone who counts themselves as much a survivor of the college search process as a winner, “Try Harder!” really ought to come with a trigger warning. It’s a bracing look at how social and scholastic pressures alike to turn a decision into a competition, both with one’s self and one’s entire age cohort. Lum vividly recreates that fierce, raw teenaged myopia in conjuring the college acceptance as the most important validator of worth possible. Crucially, she also shows how the jockeying for admission makes unconscious racial and ethnic biases quite overt – even among a progressive student body in a majority Asian-American school.

Much of the documentary plays out in a fairly standard mix of timeline reconstruction with filmed events interspersed with talking head reflections from a handful of students Lum chooses to follow. When I saw the PBS/ITVS logo at the start of the film, I braced myself for something as studied and disciplined as the teens on screen. But “Try Harder!” has a few tricks up its sleeve as it sprints towards decision letters. Lum takes her subjects seriously but not entirely at face value. She hangs on the errant remark pondering the pointless of this exercise in proving one’s value, and they add up to a damning portrait of how the college admissions industry has robbed too many people of experiencing high school as its own life stage with purpose and meaning. When all these students care about is getting into college, they just see Lowell as something to get through.

“The Sparks Brothers”

The documentary fare was largely quite standard, although that might just be a reflection of the harsh realities of the festival schedule. After a punishing six films on Day 3, my friend and I were looking to both maximize our time and maximize our pleasure. With their generally shorted running times and lower risk propositions, we gravitated more towards the non-fiction titles available on demand. (I also watched some of these as I worked on Day 5, sorry!) Yet that does not mean there weren’t some real winners, such as Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers” (B+ / ).

We’ve all seen more than a fair share of musician bio-docs that exist largely as fan service. These films essentially count the subject’s existing base of support as the ceiling for liking the documentary. Wright, on the other hand, views the cult fandom of Sparks as the floor for his doc. (It’s a bit easier when part of the film’s mission is to increase the visibility of an undervalued group.) “The Sparks Brothers” is fan service insofar as it extends a hand to invite the uninitiated in and make them fans as well. It feels like Wright is bringing us into the world’s worst-kept “best-kept secret,” and I gladly took him by the hand into the musical stylings of the pop duo.

This is the best version of the “Wikipedia page”-style music documentary as Wright infuses it with the same kinetic, devil-may-care attitude on display in his narrative works. There’s everything from stop-motion animation and rapid-fire “explainer” videos to enliven a standard interplay of archival footage and talking heads. At 135 minutes, “The Sparks Brothers” take us through every turn imaginable with this chameleonic group that always seemed to arrive either too early or too late to any given musical moment. It’s to Wright’s great credit that he keeps us grounded through all the assorted ups and downs Sparks experienced over their unique career.

I don’t think there’s too much material here; Wright always keeps the doc engaging even as it begins to feel overwhelming. If anything, the film feels incomplete given that it ends in the middle of a distinct cycle in their work. One day in the future, we’ll see Leos Carax’s movie musical “Annette,” featuring Sparks’ music – a realization of the group’s longstanding cinematic ambitions that span from their French New Wave-inspired UCLA days to their unmade project with Tim Burton. “The Sparks Brothers” feels like more than a special feature for the eventual Criterion Collection release. It’s a distinct work in and of itself, and one that intersects intriguingly with Wright’s artistic taste and mission in his narrative films.

“Rebel Hearts”

There’s some element of reflecting the artistic sensibilities of a documentary subject in Pedro Kos’ “Rebel Hearts,” (B / ) a fascinating history lesson about a group of progressive Angeleno nuns squaring off against the institutional church. As a recovering sociology major, I was in the bag for this doc pretty early once a nun name-dropped a text we read in my freshman seminar – Erving Goffman’s “Asylums.” That canonical text introduced the idea of “total institutions” where, through the process of mortification, groups of people are compelled into submission by the stripping away of their individuality. These radical women recognize the Catholic Church in Goffman’s descriptions and let that inform as well as guide their rebellion against the authoritarian bent of the hierarchy.

This wave of activism does not occur in a vacuum; Kos points out that the nuns of the ’60s were often women scared by the conformity of post-war domesticity. These independently-minded women fled from the confines of marriage and found purpose in the convent. In many ways, they were ahead of the cultural sea change in mid-century America with various movements for social justice and liberation. But they also got caught in the undertow as they fulfilled the Church’s own pledge for modernization while also testing the limitations of that commitment.

Impressively, Kos resists aligning “Rebel Hearts” behind a single protagonist in favor of a collective voice befitting the nuns’ egalitarian ideals. If there’s any main figure, it’s Sister Corita, the nun who ruffles feathers with her distinctly modern take on traditional religious art. Kos frequently incorporates some animation resembling her style to add some flair to the historical footage and interviews, and it serves to beautifully illustrate her idea of how an inspirational throughline can connect art across periods. This documentary does nothing particularly noteworthy, but Kos tells a story that deserves to be better known with efficient, educational aplomb. He does right by his inspiring subjects who choose a protest rooted in joy for those they support, not humiliating those they oppose.

“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World”

I can’t say I was as taken with the story of Björn Andrésen as recounted in Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindström’s documentary “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” (C / ). At its core, the filmmakers never quite decide if they’re just telling one man’s story or making a statement about beauty and objectification as amplified by the big screen at large. The film constantly, aggravatingly toggles between the micro and macro scale implications of Andrésen’s experience as a boy stripped of his individuality to become an ideal.

Petri and Lindström lay it on thick as they wind back the clock 50 years to Andrésen’s discovery by Italian director Luchino Visconti, who was looking to cast a cherubic twink for his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” They score these flashbacks with intense strings as if we need some kind of sonic cue to understand the uncomfortable predation occurring before our eyes. Years of exposés around the horrible exploitation of children within the film and entertainment industry have already trained us to expect the worst, and that’s not even what happens here – though that’s not to dismiss or discount the very real way people lose sight of his humanity because they’re blinded by his beauty.

The film does get somewhat more intriguing when Petri and Lindström document Andrésen returning to some of the sites of his trauma, presumptively with his permission to excavate the painful history buried both in the places and in himself. It’s here where the film nails the interplay between past and present, showing how the long legacy of his brief yet brightly-burning stardom cast a long shadow over the tragedy that defined most of his adult life. But “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” never convincingly ties Andrésen’s woes to the system they allege caused him to lose touch with normalcy, and any broader relevance they aim for in the exploration of his life fall flat.


The only real dud of the documentary bunch that I watched was Natalia Amada’s “Users” (C / ). This meditation on contemporary technology aims for profundity only to turn up obvious or previously chewed-over insights. She aims for a cyber-age “Koyaanisqatsi” but ends up with something like a ponderous narration of posts from a Facebook parenting group poetically intoned over nice drone footage.

“Users” feels like a lamentation by one who fears the battle for the heart and soul of humanity, particularly the impressionable children, may have already been lost. The enduring image I’ll remember from the film is that of a woman in a pool, failing to beat back a mechanically-induced tide. Like the film at large, it’s both metaphorically resonant and maddeningly prescriptive. The documentary is at least well-paced out (not to mention mercifully short at 81 minutes), but Amada can never figure out if she’s most interested in using that time to ask us what we think or tell us what she knows. Her film suffers for having no thesis or even a thematic guiding light.

“Together Together”

Somewhere between all these non-fiction titles, I did manage to make time for that other thing Sundance does notoriously well: modest, twee indie comedies. The best of the bunch this year was easily Nikole Beckwith’s “Together Together” (B+ / ), a pleasant film that adheres to rom-com conventions so it can eschew them in favor of friendship. This unconventional surrogacy story is the kind of thing that feels easy to dismiss, yet Beckwith’s film finesses a finely calibrated cringe with a spirit that proves sneakily moving. At its best, this recalls the best work of Lynn Shelton, the undisputed master of tender movies about unusual relationships between people that don’t fit into a neat box.

The easiest way to describe “Together Together” is “Baby Mama” with a gender-swapped biological parent. Ed Helms’ Matt, a more wounded iteration of his Andy Bernard character, decides to stop delaying his desire to be a father until he hits milestones that traditionally precede parenthood. To fulfill this desire, he contracts the services of Patti Harrison’s Anna, a much younger woman whose draw towards surrogacy has deeper roots than just money. The two are both loners in their own unique way, a shared trait that draws the pair closer while also repelling each other in equal measure.

The chapter headings by trimester and overall irreverent but sweet tone of “Together Together” give us a sense of exactly what we’re getting. It’s all building toward the birth of Matt’s child, and there’s nothing in the gentle approach to indicate that something tragic will happen. There’s just an admirable simplicity of spirit that comes from Beckwith’s choice to savor the meaning found in little moments rather than having them culminate into something grand. The sum of the parts here might actually be greater than the whole. Her observations are modest yet meaningful, tickling the funny-bone (especially when supporting player Julio Torres gets to let loose) while also massaging the heart.

Matt and Anna are not growing into a part like “mother” or “father” – and especially not “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.” They’re growing into themselves, a journey that deserves the cinematic treatment just as much as more easily assigned roles.

“Marvelous and the Black Hole”

The more stereotypical version of this type of movie got its moment in the sun with Kate Tsang’s “Marvelous and the Black Hole” (C / ). Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a shy child who does not fit in with her family or peers finds friendship with a kooky loner who could also benefit a little more human connection, and together they change each other’s lives. This is “baby’s first Sundance movie,” though certainly not without its charms.

Tsang’s iteration pairs precocious delinquent Sammy (Miya Cech) with a salty aging magician Margot (Rhea Perlman), stage name “Marvelous.” She’s a storyteller and performer primarily for young kids because she just loves to see them smile, an expression Marvelous cannot quite elicit from her latest captive audience. Their relationship begins out of convenience as Sammy needs a “businessperson” to study for a class, although it quickly and expectedly turns into friendship and mentorship. Like any film aiming for inspiration, the student and teacher inspire one another and help each other tackle big emotional issues.

Tsang certainly has a visual eye and a knack for appealing eccentricity, yet her risk-averse filmmaking does her free-spirited characters a disservice. She coddles the audience in familiarity rather than challenge them to see the world in a different way. In fairness, no one has quite cracked the conundrum of magic on screen. How is one to convey the wonder of the seemingly impossible when CGI has made the unimaginable appear for decades?

“First Date”

Not to end on too sour a note, but what even was “First Date” (D+ / )? Who am I to question the programmers, but I struggle to see how this unfunny, unfocused action-comedy merited inclusion in the Sundance lineup. Darren Knapp and Manuel Crosby’s first film can never escape the morass of its tonal jumble, a mix of teen comedy and shoot-’em-up action.

“First Date” was at least bearable when doing some version of quiet character work between the film’s young romantic leads, Mike (Tyson Brown) and Kelsey (Shelby Duclos). The problem is, this movie is capital-L “Loud.” All he wants to do is take the girl he likes on a date but needs the all-important car to pick her up. His need to acquire said vehicle, the locus of anxiety and action in the film, sets in motion a bizarre chain of contacts and confrontations with an eccentric group of increasingly violent characters.

Knapp and Crosby occasionally get at something novel in these strange scenes. There are times when we just deal with people who are odd, and those encounters don’t serve any kind of productive purpose. They’re just baffling. If they could just let this shaggy, discursive story bounce around town, maybe it’d be something intriguing. But as is, their need to force-fit “First Date” into various genre constructs shatters the promise of an amorphous concept.

Sundance 2021, Day 3: Expect the Expected

31 01 2021

For all its promise and reputation for delivering a fresh burst of new, undiscovered cinematic energy at the beginning of each year, there is a certain pattern and predictability to Sundance. It’s possible that I have just caught wise after attending the festival in person twice, sure. But even as the festival positions its offerings in defiance of the mainstream’s generic templatization, there exists a class of movies for which you can sense how the gears are turning the second you see the Sundance laurels slapped on a production still.


That’s certainly the case for Siân Heder’s “CODA” (B / ), the opening night film that set the festival ablaze … at least on Twitter and Letterboxd. From the festival-provided blurb, I thought this story about a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) either had the makings of a major breakout or a total flop. I took a risk on “One for the Road” fearing the latter, and that proved to be my folly. Luckily, Sundance has preserved some semblance of shuffling around a festival schedule to make room for a word-of-mouth sensation through on-demand screenings two days following a premiere slot. (Though I learned the hard way when shut out of other opening night sensations “Flee” and “Sumer of Soul” that this viewing method is not a “get out of bad scheduling choices jail free” card.)

As I checked Twitter following a squeezed-in viewing of “CODA” before a packed day of previously selected festival titles, I saw the news that Heder’s film sold to Apple for a record $25 million price tag. My viewing buddy and I were not surprised in the slightest, though we do hope the platform can attract more viewers before they release the film. This is an old-fashioned festival crowdpleaser in the best possible way.

“CODA” hits all the beats in the coming-of-age story with familiarity, sure, but also aplomb. Ruby Rossi, played by Emilia Jones in a soulful breakout performance, embodies that classic teenage tension of being pulled in opposite directions by her family and her independence. Her scenario is a particularly unique one, though, as the only hearing family member in a tight-knit group of Massachusetts fishers. As pressures for regulation and interference increase, her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) strikes out on his own to create a co-op that grants a dignity to the scrappy dockworkers. Without even feeling the need to ask, Frank presumes he can count on Ruby to serve in her capacity as an ASL interpreter to grease the wheels.

But Ruby, of course, maintains and develops ambitions of her own. She develops a perverse interest in choir, a form of art and expression that her family cannot understand. It’s here that Ruby begins to develop a voice of her own with a little help from a paint-by-numbers quirky but inspirational teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). It’s here, too, that Ruby begins to share prolonged encounters with a musically-inclined crush of hers, guitar-strumming Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo of “Sing Street“). These two worlds unfold on parallel tracks until they have no choice but to collide as demands from both Ruby’s familial and scholastic responsibilities escalate in tandem.

It’s up to Ruby to recognize that the choice she’s offered is a false one, and maturation for her must mean finding a way to bridge the divide between her obligations and her passions. More than most movies, “CODA” really does convey the heavy nature of Ruby’s role within her family to emotional effect. But Heder does so without flattening or patronizing the deaf characters for whom she must help. This is a model for how to treat disability on screen, allowing for the fullness of their humanity to shine through from humor all the way to sexuality. The film soars when it makes clear the truth we can sense underneath it all along: Ruby’s beautiful voice emerges not in spite of her deaf family but because of them.

As director Kelly Reichardt once told me, “Clichés can be used, but it’s good to know what you’re doing.” Heder does, and the film is a winner for it.


Another classic Sundance subgenre is the actor-turned-director, often times to slightly fumbling effect right out of the gate. That’s part of the story for Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (C / ), the actress’ adaptation of a Nella Larsen novella that serves as her directorial debut. The text is rich for adaptation, especially now, as it traverses the blast radius from an unexpected reunion between two lighter-skinned Black women, Tessa Thompson’s Irene and Ruth Negga’s Clare, in 1929. The former makes herself up to look white enough for a day, while the latter has gone all-in on remaking her image as a white woman … racist husband and all.

The film defies the traditional damnation with faint praise for a thespian stepping behind the camera: “well, they know how to direct good performances!” The acting in “Passing” is not bad, however. It’s just that Hall does not seem to trust her performers enough to sell the story. She relies on Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s twinkling piano solo “The Homeless Wanderer” (familiar to fans of Garrett Bradley’s “Time” from last year) to do a good deal of the emotional lifting in the film rather than resting the camera on Thompson and Negga.

What actors choose to reveal, or conceal, to the camera makes for the heart of classical dramas Hall so studiously replicates, and yet she leaves us locked out entirely. (The film’s final image, a bird’s-eye shot pulling ever upwards until the characters appear trapped in a snowglobe, makes for a perfect encapsulation of this issue.) Hall’s collaboration with cinematographer Eduard Grau produces gorgeous photography, particularly when it comes to capture a range of hues and shades in Black skin. But it, like the rest of the film, manages to be both too overwrought and too subtle at the same time. “Passing” misses the mark on melodrama as the images fail to provide a connective tissue to the rich subtext underlining the sparse dialogue. With no ability to access that which cannot be said, we’re left with little but a meticulous look-book of studio-era B&W compositions.


Away from the glare of these self-invented Sundance subgenres, there was actually genre fare playing. For what might be the only toe I get to dip into the festival’s Midnight lineup, I watched Frida Kempff’s “Knocking” (B- / ). This wins the “Truth in Advertising” award, an honor I have just made up. Fresh from trauma and subsequent institutionalization, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) moves into a new apartment and hears a knocking noise that just won’t quit. Kempff locks us into Molly’s subjectivity, so we’re along for the paranoid journey as her worst fears about the source of the disruption slowly come to pass. Of course, given her record, Molly’s cries for help frequently fall on deaf ears as the systems designed to protect her refuse to believe her.

“Knocking” immediately announces itself a claustrophobic gaslighting thriller, and Kempff delivers on that promise. You get what you’re promised, nothing less but not necessarily much more. This is a promising debut that already shows a mastery of the formal elements in the genre. The crisp, precise sound design is the chief contributor to sense of overwhelming dread. But the real MVP might just be the DIY camera rigs that brings us into Molly’s head from unusual and discomfiting angles. It’s a good reminder that a scrappiness of an upstart indie can yield some of the most intriguing results, though I’m more curious to see what Kempff can do when she levels up to a larger scale and budget.

“Prime Time”

I’ll take a thriller with promise for the future over one that never starts at all, which was the case for Jakub Piatek’s “Prime Time” (C- / ). It’s a bold move to make a hostage movie with so little tension. This might be the first movie set in a heightened situation where I felt like time was slowing down rather than speeding up.

An angry young man Sebastian (Bartosz Bielenia, star of recent Oscar nominee “Corpus Christi”) storms a Polish TV station on the night of Y2K with a gun but without a plan. The whole affair unfolds rather predictably, and not only because I’ve seen Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster.” Granted, that film was a whole convoluted affair, and Piatek is after something more pared back with “Prime Time.” Fine, but it cannot be this simple, either.

The film wastes the shiftiness of its lead performance amidst lackadaisical pacing and obvious insights. He’s less like a bank robber or heist mastermind and more of a screen-obsessed nihilistic narcissist in the model of Christine Chubbuck or Lou Bloom. The attention is the goal, and he’ll hijack anything to get what he feels he’s deserved. If Piatek’s big twist is really that the TV station itself wants to make themselves the story of Sebastian’s stick-up, he must think we are stupid – or haven’t lived through the last decade of news media.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

“Documentary” is not really a genre, per se, but there are certain styles within the non-fiction form that jump out as instantly recognizable. All the hallmarks of basic cable historical documentaries are evident in Marilyn Agrelo’s “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (B / ), a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Children Television Workshop’s cultural phenomenon. The doc moves at a brisk clip through the origins of “Sesame Street” in the nothingness of ’60s television programming, urban blight and social upheaval. A group of people changed the medium forever by wondering what would happen if a TV program could love children rather than just sell to them.

With vivid behind-the-scenes footage and a wealth of authoritative talking heads, Agrelo conveys that something we now take for granted as a cultural institution was by no means a guaranteed success. In fact, it was quite radical and experimental. (Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, no less!) The doc is at its best when getting into the weeds of production to show how the sauce got made and refined by the “Sesame Street” team, and Agrelo does an excellent job of toggling between the creative process and the finished product.

As a child who grew up on “Sesame Street,” including VHS tapes of the classic older years, I am very much the target audience for a film like “Street Gang.” This is basically a doc providing fan service, and I don’t resent Agrelo for providing that while the doc also enlightens and educates. But there’s a breeziness to the film that leads it into deeply uncritical and borderline hagiographic territory. Agrelo takes the commercial bonanza that followed the release of “Sesame Street” as self-evident proof that it worked, but are we sure it actually does? Where’s the proof? (Furthermore, why exactly do a bunch of well-meaning white people want so desperately to save “inner city” kids? How were they consulting with those communities?)

Maybe this could be addressed in a sequel to “Street Gang” given that Agrelo’s focus is almost exclusively on the early years of the program. “Sesame Street” is not some kind of cultural artifact preserved in amber; it’s evolving to meet contemporary challenges for kids from incarceration to autism. There has to be some way to honor the show’s history without entirely discounting its present.


I don’t mean to just rag on Sundance for giving us the predictable; they also program a collection of boundary-pushing oddities in the NEXT section. (This is where I saw “A Ghost Story” in 2017, and I will never forget feeling an entire audience’s stomachs twisting in parallel as we all waited for Rooney Mara to finish eating that pie.) The only thing conventional about Carey Williams’ “R#J” (C+ / ) is its Shakespearean source material. If you think Baz Luhrmann did a number on “Romeo + Juliet,” you ain’t seen nothing yet. Williams stages this story of star-crossed lovers across contemporary smartphone screens, utilizing vernacular for Instagram DMs and Spotify playlists while maintaining verse for IRL interactions.

“R#J” is bursting with visual information to an overpowering extent. To Williams’ credit, his digital compositions are packed with detail and meaning. More than just using phones as the stage for his contemporization, the medium becomes the message. We’re bombarded with distracting notifications and feel our attention split across different platforms, each one assigning a different identity.

Tech is the selling point for “R#J” but also its limitation. Williams gets so beholden to his bold concept that storytelling becomes secondary. (At 90 minutes, who can really do a five-act Shakespeare play justice, anyways?) Apart from Romeo and Juliet themselves, every supporting character is flattened into little more than a digital representation or a plot device for the romantic leads. There’s some fascinating exegesis of the Bard in the film’s startling conclusion, yet the book report becomes subsumed by the video art project. “R#J” makes for a bold calling card for Williams, and I think I can already see the film’s future: for high school classrooms when the “cool” English teacher is too hungover to teach Shakespeare and decides it’s movie day.

Sundance 2021, Days 1-2: No, Time to Die

30 01 2021

People often refer to movies as an escape from life, but those who spend a good amount of their time steeped in them know that’s not quite the truth. We can never flee from the toughest conundrums of existence because they are baked into the medium itself, a living memorial to a time that has past. In cinema, death is both commemorated and cheated as the vivid recreation of what the camera once captured enters the terrain of immortality.

Of course death is present at Sundance 2021, occurring this year in virtual form because more than 400,000 Americans are no longer with us thanks to COVID-19. The people might be absent from Park City, but they can be virtually “present” at the festival thanks to Sundance’s online offerings. Accessibility is nice, of course, as is the perseverance of bold artists willing to release their work under less-than-ideal circumstances to help avoid a festival film logjam in 2021 and beyond. Yet the recreated and the reimagined don’t quite seem to capture that Sundance environment in the same way. Even more so than at virtual TIFF and NYFF, the attempts to bring replicate the festival’s giddy rush of marathon viewing and socialization just seem to remind me of what’s missing. Of what’s dead – or, at the very least, what’s not alive.

(OK, maybe it’s just the bizarre “virtual party” that the programmers keep hyping up after every Q&A. It’s not like Eccles lobby or the bus stops were anyone’s idea of a salon, but as my friend and co-passholder astutely observed … this is seriously serving some Club Penguin vibes.)

Of course, I have no one to blame but myself for selecting a death and doomsday-laden lineup in my first two days of festgoing. (This year’s Sundance, for passholders like myself, operates on three hour “premiere” windows in which you can select one film to watch. All films become available “on demand” for 24 hours on the second day following the premiere.) It’s not like these things were concealed in the all-important festival blurb. But the very viewing context – not in Utah, my first trip to some place I would not call “home” in over a year, a recent terminal diagnosis for my family’s beloved dog – just made it all the more prevalent.

That’s not to say these films are all gloom and doom, fire and brimstone, darkness and depression. The best film I’ve seen thus far, Jerrod Carmichael’s “On the Count of Three,” (B+ / ) finds uproarious humor and boundless energy in its morbid logline of two old friends forming a suicide pact. Carmichael also stars as Val, a droll working drone who buckles as personal and professional pressures mount. As the prospect of going out while listening to a chipper colleague singing Travis Tritt proves untenable, he enlists the collaboration of his institutionalized childhood pal Kevin (Christopher Abbott).

“On the Count of Three”

The pair pulls up behind a strip club – one of the few places with privacy at 10:30 AM, as Val wryly observes – with the intention of trading bullets into the other. At the last second, Kevin flinches and insists their last day be something more than an end to their lives. If you could say anything, go anywhere, settle any scores … what would you do? What follows is not so much a celebration of life so much as a probing of life’s possibilities when the guardrails of consequences are likely removed.

Carmichael leans into all the paradoxical promise of the premise. “On the Count of Three” flirts with absurd juxtapositions, such as gingerly dropping a tire iron to the ground after using it to wound a foe while a singing bass warbles from the wall. This pitch-black buddy comedy proves the ride of a lifetime – into death, no less – for Val and Kevin. Carmichael, best-known for his work in standup and sitcoms, makes an interesting decision by casting himself as more of the dramatic core of the film as well as straight man in their routine.

That leaves Abbott, one of the most intriguing and under-heralded talents emerging in the last decade of indie cinema, to play the comic man. He excels with that and just about everything else in the film, bringing a live-wire energy to imbue his character with hilarity and sincerity. Whether screaming out his angst to Papa Roach or delivering a rambling monologue about the racial undertones of his friendship with Val, Kevin’s pain pops off the screen. Abbott pulls off the tricky balancing act of making the inconsistencies of his character feel like they all emanate from a consistent well of pain rather than just haphazard scripting. It’s merely the latest excellently executed turn by an actor who should be getting just as much praise and attention as a fellow male co-star from the TV show that gave Abbott his big break, “Girls” (Adam Driver).

Not unlike Abbott’s performance, the film itself feels fragile. Not like a vase, like a powder keg. A single wrong move could tip it over and combust the whole enterprise. “On the Count of Three” flirts with danger, and I’m not entirely sure Carmichael avoids it entirely. Without spoiling the film’s conclusion, it’s always tricky territory when suicide becomes less of a psychological state of mind and more of a functional plot device. As a comic, Carmichael does not fear taking a slightly irreverent tack to discuss hot-button issues. This film might not capture the minds of the thinkpiece-industrial complex upon release. But while watching, it sure does an excellent job of replicating the experience of the characters (from a safe distance): two dogs chasing a car, unsure of what they’ll do when they catch it.

“One for the Road”

The imminence of death as impetus for a narrative journey is just as central to Nattawut Poonpiriya’s “One for the Road,” (B- / ) a Thai drama that plays like “The Bucket List” – at least to start. (More on that in a bit.) Ailing Aood (Ice Natara) summons his estranged pal Boss (Tor Thanapob) from New York to help him drive around Thailand fulfilling his final wish of “returning” things to people. By this point in the progression of his leukemia, he’s done an impressive inventory of sorting through his contacts, saying what he needs to say and then deleting their contacts. Aood is now moving onto the final stage of gaining closure: his exes, the people who filled his heart only to break it.

The film’s credits bear the name of producer Wong Kar-Wai, and there are some fleeting glimpses of his aesthetic that break through in the film’s first half. Of course, the student is not yet the master. “One for the Road” is at its best when floating between memory and present tense in its editing. This lyrical drift scored by a soundtrack of bops from an old radio program captured by Aood on cassette tapes and neatly labeled for each person on the trip. Once the first tape ejects and the name becomes visible, I just knew that a lightbulb went on for some American producer who wants to produce a more sentimental needle-dropper of an English-language remake.

Where Poonpiriya stumbles is in the back half, which off-roads into a more conventional flashback structure. It’s here where “One for the Road” reveals the origins of the rift between Aood and Boss: surprise, surprise, it’s a woman (Violette Wautier’s Prim). The film runs two hours and 15 minutes, and it could stand to be about 30 minutes shorter – all of which could come from the Prim section. We quickly get a sense of how this long passage reshapes the nature of Aood’s story, showing how his attempt to close wounds might really be pouring salt in them. Trimming the fat still would not mean the movie has any particularly novel ideas about life, death and romance. But at least “One for the Road” would not run out of gas.

“How It Ends”

Death looms large over lo-fi apocalypse comedy “How It Ends” (C- / ), a film that uses an impending asteroid strike as the impetus for a shaggy, ambling reconciliation of a woman with a metaphysical incarnation of her younger self. Zoe Lister-Jones both co-directs (along with Daryl Wein) and stars as Liza, a single and slightly self-loathing Angeleno looking to live out her final day in peace. That’s complicated by her bouncing teenage alter ego, played by a springy Cailee Spaeny. The two – well, really just one, but it’s visualized as a duo – trade reflections as they saunter together down vacant city streets on their way to an end of the world party. In classic Sundance fashion, ~it’s not the destination, it’s the journey~ as present Liza must confront the unmet emotional needs of her younger self.

That’s at least the story throughline, but “How It Ends” stems more from pandemic-related creative boredom than any kind of narrative necessity. This movie’s real attraction is the parade of cameos from other locked down Los Angeles comedians, each contributing a sketch-like beat to the film’s 82 minutes. Wein and Lister-Jones shot and conceived this during 2020 and shot it with COVID-19 protocols in place. Boy, does it show. The film felt dated as I watched it: other than the two Lizas, there’s not a shot where any other actor gets within 6 feet of each other, much less touches. If the goal was to resume some semblance of normalcy amidst a stifling shutdown across the industry, the film backfires tremendously. All I could think about was how far this film was from resembling anything like the reality we once knew.

“How It Ends” really only finds success in the brief moments where a scene’s new celebrity appears. Usually, it’s enough to generate a brief chuckle or a “pfft” reaction. There’s promise for a second with some familiarity. But then it fades quickly as everyone just looks uncomfortable as they try to execute an unfunny bit. The actors may be six feet apart, but I felt even further from the film itself.


Death is more backdrop than subject in “Homeroom” (B- / ), director Peter Nicks’ documentary chronicle of the 2019-2020 school year at Oakland High School. (It’s apparently the third in a trilogy of non-fiction looks at the city’s institutions for Nicks, who previously made “The Waiting Room” about the healthcare system and “The Force” about their police department.) Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year – and if so, got room? – you’ll know that this time frame will of course encompass both the impacts of COVID-19 and the uprising for racial justice in America. It’s unavoidable, and Nicks could not have known when he started that he’d be documenting a micro-scale environment that would have no choice but to directly experience macro-level shocks to the body politic.

When the film has to confront these seismic events head on, it’s an entirely predictable (if still astutely observed) affair. We know the impacts that COVID-19 had on graduating classes both practically and psychically; remember in a more innocent period of the pandemic when there were network TV specials to give them approximations of major high school milestones like prom and commencement? Similarly, anyone who’s paid a lick of attention to movements for social justice will know that youth leaders – particularly those of color – have been at the forefront of demanding and agitating for change. “Homeroom” tells us nothing new here, though it will be a great document for posterity.

The real value in Nicks’ project comes from the more siloed first half, in which we can see that the students’ zeal for community representation and social justice did not just appear out of thin air. Even prior to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Oakland High students were well aware of how abnormally, irrationally policed their school was – and took steps to try and remedy the situation. Not unlike last year’s “Boys State” showed in its own little hermetic vacuum, today’s teenagers are politicized at a much earlier age than previous generations. Be it school shooters, racial justice or climate change, their threats stare them in the face.

They act accordingly, too, treating the political as deeply personal. When a community board does not go along with the students’ proposal to remove police from Oakland High, student representative Derilson Garbo (the closest thing “Homeroom” has to a protagonist) responds with a scathing rebuke of the people of color who were not on their side. It’s a fascinating moment, one far more revelatory and prognosticatory than the well-worn observation that Gen Z is highly engaged with the world at large and the world on their phone screens.


Not all death is literal, though, as Alex Camilleri’s Maltese maritime moral drama “Luzzu” (B+ / ) demonstrates. Sometimes it’s just the loss of our connection to a time, past or future, that can knock us off-course. Or maybe it’s the death of illusions or naïveté that force us to become new people altogether. Both happen to fisherman Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), a humble skipper still using the same sea vessel utilized by multiple generations of his ancestors. A leak discovered during the film’s opening scene prompts acts of literal and metaphorical consequence as he refinishes and fortifies the family luzzu.

But simply returning back to normal might not be an option given what else is swirling in Jesmark’s life. He and his girlfriend Denise (Michela Farrugia) have welcomed a son, Aiden, and must deal with mounting medical bills to treat his slow development. Denise pushes him to work on a trawler or one of the big commercial shippers growing in presence along the coast, but Jesmark objects based on their environmental impact and how these behemoths stifle the little guy like him. In the face of his obstinance, she suggests having her mother pay for the treatments – or that Jesmark move inland and work for her uncle’s furniture company.

With his girlfriend’s exasperation lighting his short fuse, Jesmark’s idealism reaches its end as he begins to contemplate bending the rules in previously unimaginable ways. He’s willing to try selling some prohibited fish and even sell his services and savvy to some shady sea operators. Once he crosses this moral rubicon, Jesmark’s eyes open to the many ways his competition has cheated him out of an honest living. The myth of self-reliance that he’s bought into for so long, as it turns out, is for suckers.

Unlike “One for the Road,” “Luzzu” shows the influence of its famed producer – Ramin Bahrani – in a much more positive way. (In fairness, Camilleri has worked extensively for Bahrani over the years and has greater creative exposure to him.) Camilleri crafts a compelling moral drama rooted in a richly observed community where the interplay between personal biography and cultural history is evident. The film finds remarkable tension in the way Jesmark must make compromises with his own values, a battle that rages almost entirely underneath his stoic workman’s face. He’s so steeped in the painful, unavoidable economic reality of his life, and Camilleri’s neorealist-influenced aesthetic follows suit.

That is – until the end, when Jesmark gets the chance to retell and reframe his own story to his son. Baby Aiden is too young to understand the world around him, but according to the doctor, there’s still developmental value in him just ingesting the words. Something happens to us when we have to force our lives into a storytelling framework. In these narratives, we cannot escape death or dissatisfaction that plague us in reality. But, like Jesmark, we can cheat them and rob those forces of their power by telling a different story altogether. In “Luzzu,” this takes on a somber, somewhat defeated tenor – but that need not stop others from taking a more triumphalist tack.

Everything I Wrote from #TIFF18

17 09 2018

TIFFI’ve now pretty much filed everything from my time at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival! I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend again this year, now with a full badge, and write about some excellent films. I might have more to say about some of these titles later on Marshall and the Movies, but for now, here’s a collection of links to my published pieces from the festival. Many thanks to the editors who commissioned all this work and made the trip possible.

Now, after penning 24,000 words in two weeks, it’s time for me to catch up on some sleep…


The Streamer’s Guide to the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival: What Non-Festgoers Can Watch at Home

‘Monsters and Men’ is an Uneven but Potent Drama About Police Violence [TIFF]

‘Beautiful Boy’ Provides a Moving Showcase for Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell [TIFF]

‘Ben Is Back’ Haunts As It Shows the Ripple Effect of Addiction [TIFF]

‘Climax’ Review: Gaspar Noé’s Latest Dances Deliriously Toward Death [TIFF]

‘mid90s’ Review: Jonah Hill’s Directorial Debut is a Masterful Coming-of-Age Tale [TIFF]

‘Everybody Knows’ Review: Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz Lead a Thrilling, If Impersonal, Kidnapping Drama [TIFF]

‘Gloria Bell’ Review: Julianne Moore Charms in a Fun but Melancholy Romance [TIFF]

‘Assassination Nation’ Review: A Fascinating Tale of Online Justice Falters in Its Second Half [TIFF]

‘What They Had’ Review: Michael Shannon Dominates a Pleasant, If Unremarkable, Debut Feature [TIFF]

‘Boy Erased’ Review: Lucas Hedges Devastates in Conversion Therapy Drama [TIFF]

‘Maya’ Review: Mia Hansen-Løve Falters Slightly With Familiar Drama [TIFF]

‘The Hummingbird Project’ Review: An Engaging Financial Thriller Stops Just Short of Greatness [TIFF]

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Review: Melissa McCarthy Gets More Real Than Ever as a Legendary Fake [TIFF]

‘Teen Spirit’ Review: Max Minghella’s Directorial Debut Lacks Pop [TIFF]

‘Dogman’ Review: A Morality Tale We Deserve [TIFF]

‘Peterloo’ Review: A Different Kind of Historical Epic [TIFF]

‘Non-Fiction’ Review: Olivier Assayas’ Latest Film is a Droll Delight [TIFF]

‘Birds of Passage’ Review: A Thrilling and Refreshing Take on the Drug Trade [TIFF]

Crooked Marquee

TIFF Report: The Addiction Obsession

TIFF Report: Political, Not Polemical

Vague Visages

TIFF 2018: Embracing the Oxymoronic – A Review of Jacques Audiard’s ‘The Sisters Brothers’

TIFF 2018: One Small Step – A Review of Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’

TIFF 2018: Interview With ‘Dogman’ Actor Marcello Fonte


Thomas Mann on Growing Up in Netflix’s ‘The Land of Steady Habits’


Interview: Jacques Audiard on the Making of The Sisters Brothers

February film festivals around Houston

11 02 2016

It’s currently the dog days of winter at the movies – the awards movies have had their chance to relish in post-nomination success but we have yet to reach a point where the new year’s good films come out to play. (Sorry, “Deadpool,” you just don’t cut it for me.) For me personally, after the dual onslaught of end-of-year prestige films and Sundance, February has me wanting to dive into a book. Or catch up on all the TV everyone raved about for the past few months…

It’s the perfect time, in fact, to go off the beaten path for a little while and see what else is brewing on screen. For those in my native Houston, there are two great opportunities to see some things your multiplex would never program.

I’m talking, of course, about two film festivals, ReelAbilities and the Texas Christian Film Festival.


The first, ReelAbilities, is celebrating its fourth year of promoting inclusion and acceptance in town. Their programming focuses on those struggling with and overcoming disabilities of all kinds – physical or mental. Given that many conversations in the film world have recently focused on ensuring diverse representation of many races on screen, it’s important to see groups like ReelAbilities expanding the conversation. One of the great things film can do is provide a remarkable verisimilitude that sparks recognition. Seeing yourself reflected in the characters means the world to those who feel like no one understands their experiences.

The festival runs from February 14-18; the primary venue is Edwards Greenway Grand Palace. A variety of speakers, panels and talkbacks accompany screenings. Oh, yeah, and it’s free.

Get your free tickets here!

20140122-085721.jpgThe Texas Christian Film Festival runs a little later in the month: February 25-27. It’s another festival heavy on guest speakers and interactivity, kicking off with a screening of “9o Minutes in Heaven” with real-life subject Don Piper appearing in person for a Q&A. They will feature a number of other faith-based films, including 2014’s “Gimme Shelter.” Back when that film opened, I had the chance to interview director Ronald Krauss, star Vanessa Hudgens and real-life subject Kathy DiFiore.

While, admittedly, I had my issues with the film, I found DiFiore a true inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from my interview:

DiFiore stayed behind in the room to further elaborate on her mission through Several Sources Shelters.  When she opened up to talk about herself and not the movie, DiFiore’s incredible compassion becomes readily apparent.  She radiates an unflappable confidence that just makes you want to be a better person.  “I’ll find out when I go to heaven,” she stated without an iota of doubt, “but I think [Mother Teresa] is the patron saint of this movie.”

The shelter was only able to operate legally in New Jersey thanks to Mother Teresa’s help.  Quite literally an answered prayer, the Catholic icon threw her support behind the state’s DiFiore bill that would allow charities to run a boarding house.  The whole saga as narrated by DiFiore sounds like another compelling movie in and of itself, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see the story coming to a theater near you.  She’s far too humble to take center stage.

The Texas Christian Film Festival takes place at Bethany Christian Church. Tickets are free on their website while supplies last.

I’ve provided coverage from many world-class film festivals – Cannes, Telluride, New York, etc. – but I hope I have never radiated an aura that a film festival has to be some kind of elite institution. At its core, a film festival brings people together for an artistic communion around social viewing. It’s a very public reaffirmation of the power that a combination of images and sound can wield.

In fact, some of these more niche festivals provide for some of the more unique viewing experiences. If everyone has gathered at such an event, it means they share some interest in the subject with you. So start up a conversation, because festivals are fantastic incubators for compelling and necessary societal dialogue.

REVIEW: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 01 2016

Inside Llewyn DavisCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” explains Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after yet another gig strumming his guitar at Greenwich Village’s Gaslamp in”Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film is full of folk tunes in its soundtrack as it recreates the pre-Dylan early 1960s scene in New York. Yet, in many ways, the Coen Brothers’ film itself is a folk song, if judged by the definition they provide.

Llewyn’s story is all too familiar – and one that hits close to home for anyone yet to achieve the lofty success they were promised with every participation medal. Most stories of musicians trying to enter into the business involve some measure of pain and frustration, but for Llewyn, the bad breaks seem almost cosmic. He’s always a smidgen too early or a moment too late to shake off the funk that seems to set a tone of frustration and misery for his life. “King Midas’ idiot brother,” his ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan) describes him, and by the end of the film, such a mythological explanation for Llewyn’s woes seems entirely possible.

It proves frustrating to watch him endure trial after tribulation, though not because the beats are tired. The doomed slacker routine may have been done before, but certainly not like Joel and Ethan Coen do it. Insomuch as the duo would ever make something so straightforward as a “personal” film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” addresses the price a person can pay for trying to maintain the purity of their art. Llewyn decries the easy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing, lamenting anyone who panders to these attributes as sell-outs or careerists.

Read the rest of this entry »

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Days 3-4

13 04 2015

IMG_8479Admittedly, I have been spoiled in my festival experiences, spending the majority of my time at ones that essentially get pick of the litter in their selections (Cannes, Telluride, NYFF).  Never – before attending Full Frame, that is – had I attended a regional festival with a tightly, intentionally selected slate of films.  And, logistically speaking, it was certainly the easiest and most manageable to navigate with most screenings taking place around the same time and mostly within the same walkable space.

I saw no outright duds, which could just as easily be due to my own scheduling and screening.  But their selection was robust and purposeful, balancing a wide variety of topics, tones, and levels of notoriety.  They showed everything from flashy documentaries from well-established directors like the late Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, and Joshua Oppenheimer down to some experimental and audacious efforts from no-names.  There were films with big distributors and others that will probably never escape the festival circuit.

Perhaps most notably, there were documentaries that will reach extremely wide audiences thanks to patrons in cable.  Of the eight films I saw projected at the festival (as opposed to on my computer via screener link), a whopping half will be broadcast on television networks – HBO, Epix, Showtime, and the History Channel.

Documentary film still has an audience, perhaps even bigger than ever thanks to the streaming revolution, the wide accessibility of filmmaking technology, and the mainstream success of non-fiction efforts like “The Jinx” and the podcast “Serial.”  While some may lament that very few will get to experience these films in the traditional theatrical setting, I will be glad if the average consumer just sees them and then contemplates their form and content.

The Lanthanide Series

The Lanthanide SeriesI doubt that Erin Espelie’s avant-garde documentary “The Lanthanide Series” will ever be seen outside of the festival context, except maybe on some obscure streaming platform.  And that’s perfectly fine – there’s a place for these films too, and I am glad Full Frame curated this challenging, peculiar object.

“The Lanthanide Series” is part “Koyaanisqatsi” for the digital age, part poem, part visual essay, and part rumination on the very nature of the mediated image and its inherent distortion.  But in regards to its content, it’s a tale about how a few small elements, usually passed over in high school chemistry, are deeply and inextricably woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

The documentary is unashamedly ambitious, and it mostly succeeds. As with many works that go out on a limb, “The Lanthanide Series” occasionally slips. Yet even when it frustrates, it remains compelling since every image draws curiosity as to its construction and capturing. How exactly director Erin Espelie pulls off each shot makes for a wonderfully perplexing puzzle.

It’s notable that this is perhaps the first film concerned with technology that does not take a gloom-and-doom attitude towards these advances.  Although, Espelie does make expert use of “The End” by The Doors in her sound mix, which does invite comparisons to “Apocalypse Now.”  So maybe that’s a statement in and of itself.

How to Dance in Ohio


In her documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” director Alexandra Shiva does something that I have not seen since accomplished since “Silver Linings Playbook.”  She uses those who see the world differently to help us understand life more clearly.  Her choice of subjects: teenagers and young adults on the autistic spectrum as they prepare for their spring formal dance.

Shiva shows a whole center that comes in for counseling but focuses on three girls at different stages of development who form the backbone of the narrative.  16-year-old Maredith is just learning how to socialize and step away from just sitting in front of her computer.  19-year-old Caroline is attempting to navigate college classes on her own.  22-year-old Jessica is working to live independently from her parents and hold down a job of her own.  Each girl has some awareness that they are tired of being babied, yet their transition towards adulthood gets stifled by their incomplete social toolkit.


The creative team of “How to Dance in Ohio”

No subject ever gets propped up for easy pity since Shiva treats them all as human beings.  They are not there for us to look down upon or view as some kind of charity case.  We can learn so much more than just about autism and the unique challenges and obstacles faced by those who suffer from it.  We can learn about the very ways in which we all interact socially by paying attention to their observations and listening intently.

Shiva and her team took some heat at the post-screening Q&A from a few viewers who thought the dance existed more for the sake of the film and not for the subjects themselves.  After all, Dr. Emilio Amigo does say that the event is a confluence of the worst factors for those on the autistic spectrum between all the noise and stimuli.  But she was quick to defend her process, and I am convinced that Shiva made “How to Dance in Ohio” with the utmost respect and care for everyone involved.   It shows in the final product, too.

Coincidentally, I wound up sitting next to Shiva at a screening the next day.  (Aren’t film festivals neat?!)  I told her that I loved the film and have been telling my friends to look out for its HBO broadcast; she seemed genuinely touched.  I am glad to help do some small part to help this touching, humane film inspire even more people.

Deep Web

Deep WebI had pretty much ideal screening conditions for “Deep Web” – no preconceived notions and virtually no prior knowledge.  I just saw the general logline when browsing the original announcement of Full Frame’s program and signed up.  Since my knowledge of the deep web was essentially limited to the hacker with the guinea pig on “House of Cards,” I figured I could use a few more hard facts.

As it turns out, I was woefully uninformed about a story with some vast implications for the way we live in an increasingly digital world.  The case of Silk Road, an underground Internet marketplace, could potentially set a precedent for cases involving online search and seizure.  The government is currently prosecuting Ross Ulbricht for running the Silk Road and enabling the purchase of illegal items such as drugs.  Though not included in his formal charges, they have indirectly accused him of involvement in the murder-for-hire schemes that took out would-be whistleblowers for the site.

Proof is tenuous at best, and the FBI has yet to answer the question of how they were able to glean so much information on Silk Road.  Ulbricht’s defense argues that they may have violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  They make a frightening point that, without a disclosure from the bureau, future cases of cybercrime could be decided by previously inadmissible evidence.

What could have devolved into a classic, standard miscarriage of justice story becomes a gripping tale about civil liberties in the Internet era.  Director Alex Winter (of “Bill & Ted” fame) uses “Deep Web” as an instrument to challenge institutions and their attempts to exert hegemonic force to maintain order.  Can the government use any means to reach their desired end?  Who even benefits from those ends anyways?

Ask some of the people interviewed for the movie, and they will say private prisons, pharmaceutical companies, and police departments are the big winners from keeping Silk Road subdued and the war on drugs raging.  For once, these kinds of interviewees do not come across as paranoid conspiracy theorists but rather as deep critical thinkers.

I should note that, technically, the documentary is not even finished.  Winter said he was working to cut in more footage from new developments in the past two weeks prior to the May 31 premiere on Epix.  Count me in as an intent follower of this case from now on.  It is too important to look away from.

The Term

The Term - picAnything about Putin’s Russia seems like a fascinating topic these days, with the autocrat seemingly unstoppable in his invasion of Ukraine. “The Term” focuses on the voice we rarely seem to hear from – his opposition. Heck, from the news coverage, you would think anyone who dares to disagree with him gets quickly shipped off to a Siberian gulag.

“The Term” starts off promising but quickly devolves into a brutally mechanical routine. Directors Alexei Pivovarov, Pavel Kostomarov, and Alexander Rastorguev model their film’s structure after the instructions on a shampoo bottle: lather, rinse, repeat.

First, we see a scene from the streets of Russia, where Putin dissenters seek to peacefully demonstrate and harmlessly tease his stolid armed guards. Of course, their protestations are often met with an unmerited violent response.

Then, cut to the key personalities working against Putin. Old and young, political and anarchic, each has a different idea as to how the president’s oppressive regime can be toppled.

Finally, to cap off one section and transition to another, the documentarians cull the annals of YouTube to find some ridiculous footage of Putin. Nothing will ever top the pictures of him shirtless on the horse, but him hang-gliding with geese and big game fishing come pretty close.

All these components are worthwhile to watch, but their assemblage does the gravity of the subject a disservice. By the end of “The Term,” I felt much like I do walking out the door after finishing my usual morning rituals. I know what happened, but ask me to recall everything blow-by-blow, and there would be some big gaps.


WesternAmong the documentaries I saw at Full Frame, none felt more like a narrative film than “Western” from the Ross Brothers.  The experience was akin to a very deliberately parsed fictional indie film, and Bill Ross deserves serious commendation for bending time to his will in the editing room.

“Western” always feels taut and escalating towards some kind of breaking point, but that moment will not necessarily come since it is actual reality rather than an invented one.  In the border towns of Eagle Pass and Las Piedras, a fragile, agreeable sense of peace between the two localities seems to be ripping at the seams due to the incursion of gangs and drug violence.  As the events unfold, a rancher, a mayor, and many others have to find some way to make sense of it all.

I would not exactly say I was riveted by the experience, but the Ross Brothers cast some kind of spell over me that kept me intrigued throughout as I tried to figure out what this sorcery was and how they were pulling it off.  It’s the documentary as a landscape, one that captures a wide swath of activity along the border and also manages to get it in a satisfying amount of detail.

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon

Stevan Riley pretty much hit the jackpot in terms of material from which to compile his biographical documentary of Marlon Brando.  The revolutionary actor’s children gave him access to Brando’s private tapes, which he recorded to make sense of his craft and bring some sense of inner balance.  These audio recordings represent an indelibly intimate look at a man and performer notorious for his inaccessibility.

Listen to Me Marlon” is the end result of Riley’s fusion of the tapes of Brando’s musing with various interviews and archival footage readily available to the public.  Yet I cannot help but wonder if a more interesting documentary might have resulted from relying more heavily, if not exclusively, on the tapes.  Riley rarely delineates when we are privy to Brando’s private thoughts from when he is on the record with a reporter, making for a blurry line between public persona and private self.

Regardless of my preferences, “Listen to Me Marlon” still makes for a fascinating watch.  Riley informs us of Brando’s philosophy on any number of items from screen acting (“the face becomes the stage in close-up”) to romance (“the penis has its own agenda”).   I just cannot help but wonder if a more radical, powerful documentary lurks underneath the surface of one that seems to settle for pretty good.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Drunk Stoned Brilliant DeadWith a title like “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” director Douglas Tirola seems to imply four stages or traits will receive equal billing in his history of the National Lampoon brand.  But, from what I observed, “brilliant” trumped the others.  Tirola proves far more interested in hagiography than biography.  He heaps praise on the humorists, then briefly mentions that they relied heavily on drugs and alcohol to do their work.

As for the “dead,” it really only applies to co-founder Doug Kenney, whose passing in 1980 unofficially marked the end of an era.  (Curiously, he never mentions the overdose of John Belushi that occurred two years later.)  The close of the film feels somewhat rushed, as if the crumbling of a towering comedic empire needed to come with a lesson.  But the majority of the documentary is a fun, informative look at how a group of witty writers brought truth through humor during the crisis of authority in Nixon’s America.


12 04 2015

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Among their many capabilities, great documentaries can serve as provocative indictments of powerful institutions, profound interrogations of journalistic and filmmaking ethics, as well as personal portraits on the most intimate of scales.  Very rarely do multiple roles coexist within a single feature.  Yet with their remarkable, bold, and spellbinding film “(T)ERROR,” directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe achieve at least the three functions listed above with ease.

Their story starts off simply, following a subject Saeed Torres as he begins a new project working as an informant for the FBI.  This is not his first assignment, though it may be the last for this former Black Panther turned terrorist-baiter.  The sheer fact that Cabral and Sutcliffe can even get away with filming this activity seems jaw-dropping, but it quickly becomes a minor feat in an epic compilation of dangerous documentary derring-dos.


Saeed, or “Shariff,” as he is known to the bureau brass, heads to Pittsburgh for the sake of scoping out a suspected radical terrorist.  The target, a potential homegrown jihadist threat known as “Khalifah”, was raised a well-to-do Protestant and then suddenly converted to a strain of an anti-American Islam.  His activism was mostly limited to Facebook, though, and the FBI seeks to use Saeed’s subterfuge as a way to determine if he would carry out an attack on America.

Note the highlighted word; the bureau seeks to nullify hypothetical threats with the same zeal as real ones.  Aside from being a freaky “Minority Report”-esque Pre-Crime style of maintaining order, it dangerously blurs the line between ideology and intent.  Saeed himself wonders how much the FBI might lead him into situations of entrapment for his marks, though he hardly seems to lose any sleep over his duplicity.


His ambiguity over the fate of the people on whom he observes and reports is fairly remarkable.  The gig, for Saeed, is about his own financial security rather than the physical security of the nation, and he complains about how little the FBI compensates him.  He views himself as neither patriot nor traitor, just a businessman.

As the questionable motives of both Saeed and the FBI come into sharper focus, Cabral and Sutcliffe fittingly adjust their focus in “(T)ERROR” by adding a new perspective to the narrative: that of Khalifah.  They tread a precarious line, one that could have quickly crossed into unethical or perilous territory, by interviewing both the hunter and the hunted without the other knowing.  The film quickly becomes the ultimate cat and mouse thriller, made even scarier by the very real stakes.

But their gamble pays off in spades, and it plays as something more than just a gimmick.  The form and the process of the film provide a wonderful match. “(T)ERROR” highlights the lack of transparency in maintaining a victorious facade for the war on terror as well as the tacit permission we grant to questionable practices.  The film manages to simultaneously be about the subjects, the filmmakers, and the audience, highlighting how we all work to fashion an agreeable reality out of expedient half-truths and outright denial.

But since Cabral and Sutcliffe provide us with a thorough account of what is actually happening, we are left with the task of reconciling the two different images of our world.  The internal conversation may not be fun, but it is so necessary.  A-3halfstars

REVIEW: Cartel Land

11 04 2015

Cartel LandFull Frame Documentary Film Festival

Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land” follows a real-life David and Goliath story, as its participants describe their struggle.  The average Mexican civilians, even as a collective force, are rendered puny by the behemoth of the drug cartels that pervade every corner of their society.

So enter Dr. Jose Mireles, stage right.  He’s a working man just like any other who gets mad as hell and decides not to take it anymore.  Since the Mexican constitution states that power derives from the people, Mireles decides to reclaim that right as the head of vigilante group Autodefensas.  The militia manages to gain some serious traction in towns located in the southern province of Michocán, driving out the entrenched cartels.

But “Cartel Land” asks, at what cost? In order to reestablish order in the region, the Autodefensas become increasingly militaristic themselves and thus relatively indistinguishable from the threat they tried to eliminate.  When it comes to examining the vicious cycle of violence begetting more violence, Heineman knocks the ball out of the park.

Where he falters, though, is jumping back across the border to shine a spotlight on an American vigilante group.  The Arizona Border Recon, run by a deluded patriot, seeks to stop undocumented migrants from crossing the border.  In order to rustle up support, they rely on appeals that range from racially coded language to outright racism.

What function the Arizona Border Recon is supposed to serve in “Cartel Land” escapes me.  Perhaps they were supposed to be a reference group to make the Autodefensas look more sane?  Any other connection between the vigilantes is tenuous at best since such a wide distance separates them geographically.

Mireles and the Autodefensas get the lion’s share of screen time, as they should.  The group is more relevant to the central concern of the film, and they are more interesting anyways.  Every time Tim “Nailer” Foley and his band of self-appointed border patrol agents show up on screen, they just disrupt the narrative flow and dilute the effectiveness of the documentary on the whole.  B- / 2stars

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Days 1-2

10 04 2015

Greetings from Durham, NC! I am here covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, one of the premiere festivals for non-fiction film in the country. (Many thanks to Camel City Dispatch for syndicating my work so that I could score a press badge.) I have been to quite a few film festivals in my day, and almost all of them are devoted to programming films that meet some vague criterion of excellence. This one, however, keeps a narrower focus and thus plays some truly interesting titles.

Unfortunately, I was only able to spend a few hours at Full Frame in the first two days due to some issues and obligations back at school. But thanks to the availability of screeners, I have quite a few reviews to issue! I will be logging much more time at the festival in the back half of their program, after which I will have much more to say about the festival on the whole rather than just the films individually.

Nonetheless, here are some documentary films that you should definitely look out for if they play at a festival or theater near you!

(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies

11136141_370225293178068_8538359763330573093_oLike reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, but don’t like all the time it takes to get through one? Then check out Yael Melamede’s “(Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies,” a documentary about social scientist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s work. At Duke University, he researches the way that humans make irrational and dishonest choices, even when it is ultimately to their own detriment.

In an hour and thirty minutes, Melamede provides a comprehensive overview of Ariely’s research. The film details when we tend to be dishonest, what factors influence our truthfulness, and how these experiments play out in the real world. Melamede takes us to the worlds of professional cycling, public relations, Wall Street, and cheating spouses. He also scores a high-profile interview with notorious NBA referee Tim Donaghy, whose knowledge of how officiating influences game outcomes wound up getting him involved with organized crime’s betting.

“(Dis)Honesty” flows remarkably well from topic to topic. The film is massively engaging, yet Melamede never sacrifices his aim of informing to make sure he is also entertaining. This is the documentary film at its most enlightening, showing immediate applicability to the dilemmas of daily life. Gladwell should just move away from the written word altogether if Melamede and Ariely continue collaborating in the cinema.

Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck

Never heard of artist David Beck? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either before sitting down for Olympia Stone’s documentary “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck.” According to a curator at the Smithsonian, that’s because Beck spends so much time creating new work that he hardly has the time to promote himself.

So, in that sense, Stone takes care of that for Beck by the creation of her film. “Curious Worlds” at once feels like a gallery walk and a retrospective series, providing an intimate look at his very deliberate intent and meticulous process. The film does not work as well when delving into his biography, which does feel somewhat tacked on for time. Nonetheless, Beck’s singular, peculiar works fascinate, just as the film does on the whole.


Beck serves as a problem-solver and a mechanic as much as a sculptor. Though his final products may seem kitschy, he constructs them with such precision and attention to detail and scale that they can hardly be dismissed. I would hardly call myself an art scholar, but David Beck seems like a hybrid of Alexander Calder’s interactive mobiles with Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed media sculptures. Now I just need to experience one of his works myself!

(The Full Frame programming staff picked an excellent short film, “Crooked Candy,” to precede “Curious Worlds.” The doc short directed by RiverRun head Andrew Rodgers follows one of the most unusual international smuggling stories: a Bulgarian man obsessed with bringing the toys from Kinder eggs back to America, where they are illegal. Without the proper context or visuals, a viewer could easily assume the subject was talking about drug trafficking … therein lies the subversive humor of the piece.)


11050213_916090585102990_4081167160707705467_nBen Powell’s “Barge” details life on a shipping barge going down the Mississippi River. It eschews narrative principles, such as focusing on a single protagonist and following their development. Instead, it paints a vividly detailed portrait of what it takes to run such a massive vessel – the work it demands, the rivalries it instills, the animosity it inspires, and the loneliness it breeds.

Powell’s camera is well attuned to the many details of the boat, and he seemingly shows every inch of it in “Barge.” Half the film seems comprised of the B-roll footage that most filmmakers shoot to pad their main footage rather than seemingly constitute the backbone of the piece, as it does here.

This eye for the small stuff gives the film remarkable texture but leaves it somewhat lacking in substance and fulfillment. The brief 71 minutes fly by without leaving much of a mark, though time spent watching “Barge” is hardly time wasted. It’s just not necessarily time best spent.

From This Day Forward

From This Day ForwardSharon Shattuck’s intensely personal documentary “From This Day Forward” follows the unique ordeal that her family faced when her father decided to manifest her true identity as a woman. Sharon’s father, Trish, nonchalantly uttered, “When you get married, I hope you’ll let me wear a dress to walk you down the aisle,” thus beginning a long journey pondering the complexities of identity.

Each person in the family has their own set of issues coming to terms with the new reality. Sharon’s mother, Marcia, misses the man she married and adjusts to the different tenor of love she receives from Trish. Sharon and her sister have to come to terms with the fluidity of gender and sexuality at a time in their lives when the current rigid standards of society prove difficult enough. Trish herself has plenty of soul searching to do, not to mention the challenges dealing with a skeptical and unfriendly world. Yet in spite of everything, they find a way to make their unconventional family structure function.

In less than 75 minutes, Shattuck navigates these tough familial quandaries with thoroughness and ease. She never loses sight of the individual in “From This Day Forward,” focusing on the uniqueness of everyone’s path through life. And from that uniqueness comes beauty and understanding. If society wants to continue making forward progress socially, we could all take a few cues from Shattuck’s empathy and humanity.

F.I.L.M of the Week (April 9, 2015)

9 04 2015

As I Lay DyingWith each passing year, it has become harder and harder not to have an opinion about the multi-hyphenate artist James Franco.  Is he a Renaissance man for our time, a master of many artistic trade?  Or is he merely an Andy Warhol, signing off on other people’s work to make it more commercially viable?  Or perhaps, is he just insane?

After the strange back-to-back pairing of “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Spring Breakers” in early 2013, I was unsure of where to place Franco on the spectrum of genius and lunatic.  Then, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in an intimate setting at the Cannes Film Festival after seeing his “As I Lay Dying” play in Un Certain Regard (and waiting many long hours to do so), and I made up my mind.  I really think he’s a true artistic talent.

Admittedly, I have not read the William Faulkner novel on which the film is based.  And after seeing the movie, I still do not think I could provide a summary of the events that occurred and somehow make it resemble a plot.  Nonetheless, Franco turns Faulkner’s notoriously difficult prose into a fittingly challenging art film.  By finding a visual match for the author’s words, his take on “As I Lay Dying” makes for a deserving selection for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The novel, notoriously, features multiple narrators, and Franco preserves that aspect by filming those direct addresses in striking close-ups.  But such is a rather predictable choice for adapting the book for the screen, so Franco goes further and really utilizes a unique technique: split screen.  The multiple images flooding the visual field proves an effective, engaging tool to represent narrative fragmentation.  At times, the images complement each other; sometimes, they clash.  “As I Lay Dying” is Malick imagery meets Soviet montage experiments, all wrapped up in the form of a gallery installation.

This makes the story somewhat hard to follow, although I get the sense that few read Faulkner for clarity like a light beach read.  Still, I enjoyed the film on a moment by moment basis, appreciating each scene as it came.  Franco went out on a limb and really experimented with “As I Lay Dying,” a truly bold choice given the familiarity that many have with the text.  He mostly succeeds, and even when a directorial decision falls flat, it’s hard to fault the ambition behind it.  I get the feeling, too, that he might have laid the groundwork for someone to come along and create a true master work with his split screen technique.



REVIEW: 99 Homes

22 01 2015

Telluride Film Festival

In 2002, President George W. Bush declared, “Here in America, if you own a home, you’re realizing the American Dream.”  Six years later, that unbridled spirit of homeownership at all costs led to a bubble of subprime mortgages bursting and contributing to the tanking of the nation’s economy.  This time of panic and crisis brought about pain for many hard-working Americans, and it also provides the foundation for writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism, “99 Homes.”

Over five years years ago, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham arrived on screens to inform blue-collar workers they were out of a job in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”  A similar task falls to Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, the protagonist of “99 Homes,” who enforces evictions in working-class Florida neighborhoods.  Bingham, however, could stay detached from the plight of the newly unemployed; Dennis can receive no such comfort.  Before becoming the man doing the evicting, he and his family were the evicted.

99 Homes

In order to provide for his son Connor and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), Dennis turns to the very person responsible for putting them in dire economic straits: the vile, e-cigarette smoking realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).  While everyone suffers, his business booms, and Dennis is willing to sell his soul to his persecutor if it means putting food on the table.  Sure, he shares in some of the profits.  But, at the end of the day, Dennis heads back to the same kind of cheap motel to which he banishes countless other families.

Through Dennis, Bahrani brilliantly illustrates the sociological concept of false consciousness.  He buys into Carver’s policies and slowly deludes himself into believing he is of a higher class standing.  Carver, an unabashed believer that America only bails out winners like himself, takes the spoils and leaves workers like Dennis with the scraps.  Advancing out of their precarious position is merely an illusion.


If this sounds pessimistic, Bahrani earns the right with his intellectual depth.  “99 Homes” also wisely focuses on characters whose very livelihoods are in jeopardy because of the financial crisis.  Most films that have tried to grapple with the effects of the recession – “The Company Men,” “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” “Blue Jasmine” – only dare to assume the perspective of the upper-class descending to the middle-class.  Dennis and his family are not worrying about losing the Porsche or selling off the jewelry.  If they descend any lower, it is outright poverty and destitution.

Stemming from this standpoint, the stakes feel appropriately extreme enough both to feel deeply and contemplate thoroughly.  Bahrani often scores the film with tense, thriller-like music, and it works exceptionally well.  If the lives hanging in the balance and the severity of the moral compromises being made do not merit an increasing heart rate, nothing does.

99 Homes

If the film feels exaggerated and over the top, the financial crisis was an absolute nightmare for many families that felt borderline apocalyptic, so grandiosity is justifiable.  If it feels like a preachy morality play, at least Bahrani has his heart and mind in the right place.  He understands that the home is a symbol of heritage, inheritance, legacy, and personal pride.

Yet “99 Homes” communicates something more important.  The home itself is not the American Dream.  It is the well-being of the people inside of the home.  A-3halfstars

TELLURIDE TALKS: Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game”

27 11 2014

Morten TyldumEarlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure to attend the Student Symposium at the Telluride Film Festival.  As a part of this program, I had the privilege to partake in small group discussions with filmmakers at the festival.  The “Telluride Talks” series is a way for me to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights with everyone.  First up, Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game.”

There was a Friday evening screening of “The Imitation Game” on our schedule.  This meant that, so long as we arrived in a timely manner, there should have been tickets blocked off for us.  Yet as I hopped off the gondola – required to get to the theater on the other side of the mountain – all I saw were my fellow students walking the other way.  We somehow got boxed out.

It is standard operating procedure that when talent is to talk to anyone about their film, those people need to have actually seen that film.  So, needless to say, it was suitably awkward when Morten Tyldum walked in the next day for a rousing discussion of his movie … and no one in the group had seen it.

All things considered, however, the conversation was still quite lively and informative.  Tyldum remained in good spirits and obliged our requests not to say too much about the content of “The Imitation Game.”  Most of the conversation centered around his filmmaking philosophy and career – an interesting topic given that he is now making the jump to American cinema.

Tyldum, 47, began making films in his native Norway about a decade ago.  He came to most people’s attention with the 2011 action-thriller “Headhunters,” which is available to stream through Netflix and definitely worth a watch.  The film garnered a BAFTA nomination for Tyldum, but it more importantly opened the door for him to make movies on a grander scale.

_TIG2664.NEFThere are many people who romanticize the European model of making films, and Tyldum is not one of them.  He admitted to favoring the honesty of Hollywood filmmaking over the pretentiousness of the Scandinavian system.  Tyldum also lamented the way it was suspicious to make a commercially successful film in his home country, so no wonder he wanted to get out – “Headhunters” is the highest grossing Norwegian film to date.

He was initially set to hop across the pond for his English language debut with “Bastille Day.”  At the time, Ben Affleck was attached, but the film fell through when “Argo” became such a smashing success.  (“Bastille Day” is now filming with Idris Elba as the lead and British director James Watkins at the helm.)  Tyldum quickly landed on his feet, though, by scoring the gig to direct “The Imitation Game.”

The project was a hotly coveted property from the Black List, a registry of the best unproduced screenplays, ranking #1 in their 2011.  “The Imitation Game” initially attracted attention from Warner Bros. to set up as a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who wanted to play the leading role of brilliant yet troubled mathematician Alan Turing.  Ultimately, it fell to Tyldum and Internet sensation Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Which is quite an ironic role for him to play, considering that Turing essentially invented the computer.)

Turing’s tale is one of incredible highs, such as when he cracked the German cipher in World War II, as well as extreme lows, namely a chemical castration as a result of his homosexuality.  He definitely lived an eventful life, that much is for certain.  But like Bennett Miller and Jon Stewart, two other with films at Telluride about real-life subjects, Tyldum said it was more important to honor the spirit of the story than to get every factual detail correct.

Cumberbatch Turing Imitation GameAnd critics of “The Imitation Game” have been quick to take the filmmakers to task for whitewashing or downplaying Turing’s sexuality.  Seemingly in response to these criticisms, Tyldum highlighted the richness of the story and just how many distinct angles and interpretations that different filmmakers could extrapolate from it.  While some might see it as an opportunity for a LGBTQ message or a lesson on science and math, Tyldum stated that he saw the movie as “about how important it is to listen to people who are different.”

“I like shaded, flawed characters more,” as he put it, and Tyldum certainly dwells in the ambiguities of Turing’s character.  I can say so because, on the final day of the festival, I darted across Telluride on my bike to catch the final screening after a required event.  I was panting to catch my breath for the first thirty minutes, but at least I had the chance to see that “The Imitation Game” lived up to Tyldum’s expressed vision.

“The Imitation Game” opens in limited release on November 28 and will gradually expand throughout the month of December.


26 11 2014

WildTelluride Film Festival

On the page, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is nothing particularly noteworthy.  While she tells her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with raw honesty, the book is often little more than a hybrid of “Eat Pray Love” and “Into the Wild” that insists on its own importance.  The grueling odyssey is enlightening into the evolution of her psyche, though it usually achieves such an effect by excessive elucidation.

On the big screen, however, “Wild” is an altogether different beast.  In fact, it is better.  The book fell into the hands of a caring filmmaking team that sees the cinema in Strayed’s tale.  The collaboration of star Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editor/director Jean-Marc Vallée yields a wholly gratifying film experience because each uses their own set of talents to draw out the soul of the book.

Hornby is among the rare breed of writers who can balance the role of humorist and humanist.  Whether in his own novels or adapting someone else’s words for the screen, as he did in 2009 with “An Education,” Hornby’s stories percolate with snappy wit and superb characterization.  Here, almost all of that skill goes into the development of Cheryl, whose 1,100 mile solo hike virtually makes for a one-woman show.

The dearth of conversational opportunities hardly proves daunting for Hornby, who ensures the film flows effortlessly and entertainingly.  There is the obvious and occasional recourse to flashback to break up the monotony of her trek, sure, yet these glimpses from the past do not drive the narrative.  In fact, these scenes are among the least effective in “Wild” because they are never quite clear as to why Cheryl decides to take off on this foolish quest in the first place.  The past provides the background for the character, just not necessarily the journey.

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