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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REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

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REVIEW: Rosewater

10 11 2014

RosewaterTelluride Film Festival

It is fairly common for a director to choose a protagonist that they identify with to some degree – after all, why devote years of your life to telling someone’s story if you cannot connect to them?  Thus, Christopher Nolan directs films about obsessive heroes, David O. Russell has recently been looking at characters trying to reinvent themselves, and Woody Allen devotes movie after movie to sexually tense intellectuals (just to name a few).

At first glance, few similarities appear between Jon Stewart, the director of the film “Rosewater,” and its subject, Maziar Bahari.  Stewart is, of course, a wildly popular satirical newscaster who has left an indelible mark on American political discourse.  Bahari, on the other hand, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who dared to document the tense 2009 elections in his home country.  They did happen to somewhat cross paths, though, as Bahari appeared on a segment for The Daily Show.

This humorous interview was entertainment for Americans and evidence for the Iranian government, which was looking to clamp down on dissidents in the wake of former President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.  Bahari spent nearly four months in jail there, much of it in solitary confinement, while being interrogated ruthlessly as an enemy of the state.  “Rosewater” may very well exist as a film to placate the guilt in Stewart’s soul for his small role in causing this pain.

Yet self-absolution is far too simplistic an explanation for the film, as Stewart clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Bahari.  They face remarkably different circumstances and stakes in their line of work, obviously, but Stewart and Bahari both speak truth to power by relying on principles of logic and reason.  In the face of resistance, neither is afraid to use to ridicule the institutional folly.  Whether Bahari actually embodies these characteristics is anybody’s guess.  It is not hard, however, to imagine Stewart standing in the holding cell delivering his lines.

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REVIEW: Two Days, One Night

1 10 2014

Two Days One NightTelluride Film Festival

In 1999, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arrived on the world stage of cinema in a big way with “Rosetta,” a film that won them the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as global renown.  That story, which they both wrote and directed, followed its eponymous 17-year-old protagonist as she battles for self-survival in an unfeeling Belgian capitalist system.  In spite of all the setbacks she faces, however, Rosetta always summons the strength from within to get back on her feet and scrounge around again for a job.

Two Days, One Night” arrives from the brothers 15 years later, who once again take an out-of-work female as their subject.  Marion Cotillard stars in the film as Sandra, a struggling factory worker who learns she has one weekend to convince 16 coworkers to relinquish a bonus in order for her to stay on the company’s payroll.  Such a daunting task would seemingly shock anyone out of lethargy and into tenacious survival mode.

Yet when the Dardennes first introduce Sandra, she lies motionless on her side and is content to simply let an important phone call ring until it gets forwarded to voicemail.  Throughout the film, Sandra appears to believe that going to fight for her job is a futile waste of her time and energy.  Most of the push to continue the journey, in fact, comes from her rather saintly husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione).

Much of Sandra’s lack of confidence is explainable by her personal struggles with depression (that might be a generalized description of the specific condition afflicting her, which seemed to resemble bipolar disorder).  To focus solely on the personal, however, diminishes a whole world of social commentary in “Two Days, One Night.”  This is the second time that the Dardennes have placed the imminent possibility of joblessness in front of their central character, and the response that follows has shifted from powerful pugnacity to alarming apathy.

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24 09 2014

SalvoCannes Film Festival – Critic’s Week, 2013

In my second year at the Cannes Film Festival, I told myself I would expand my viewing beyond the Official Competition to enrich my experience.  (For those who might not know, the festival also has two officially recognized sidebars that boast impressive selections of their own.)  I feared I had run out of time to check out a film from Critic’s Week but noticed that, in a small pocket of freedom, I could catch a repeat screening of the winner, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s “Salvo.”

Perhaps seeing the high expectations surrounding a newly crowned champion are to blame for my intensely negative reaction.  Or maybe I was just fatigued given that this was my fourth film of the day.  But I don’t think I had a more miserable viewing experience at that festival than “Salvo.”

The filmmakers commit themselves to minimalism, which is certainly not an immediate cause for dismissal.  But the reservedness does not draw us in further or illuminate the characters.  It’s the case where nothing just means nothing. “Salvo” has an interesting enough plot – an Italian mafia hitman has a crisis of conscience when faced with the prospect of having to whack a blind girl – but it’s executed with such an excruciating lack of urgency that it renders the final product practically unwatchable.  D / 1star