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Sundance 2015 Review: The Forbidden Room

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Forbidden Room 5If there’s a director at Sundance who would view assertions that his film garnered the most walkouts of the fest as an indication he succeeded in making the film he intended, it’s Canadian director Guy Maddin, here this year with what I consider his finest and most layered work yet, The Forbidden Room. Known for making trippy, weird stories that are both deeply personal explorations of philosophical ideas, Maddin works in layers of abstract visual poetry. Recline in your seat, breathe in, breathe out, and allow the imagery to flow into you as you try to take it all in; you’re peering directly into Maddin’s brain through the lens of his camera, and given the recurrence of the idea of “brain” throughout his work, that’s about as meta as you can get.

Forbidden Room 4Maddin, working here with his co-director/prodigy/researcher Evan Johnson, weave together interconnected snippets of many different stories, intricately nested within each other like a cinematic matryoshka doll in which each new layer unfolds with its own brilliant palette to assail your senses as their stories dance around and through each other: the crew of a submarine, trapped and running out of oxygen but afraid to disturb their captain, desperately chews flapjacks to release the air bubbles and survive; a lost woodsman mysteriously appears to tell the tale of a fearsome clan. Skeleton women! Kidnapping! Amnesia! Murder!! And of course, Mother … Mother. Always watching!!!
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Sundance 2015 Review: Advantageous

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

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In the exquisitely crafted film Advantageous, director Jennifer Phang (Half-Life) explores a not-too-distant future where technology has advanced to the point that the need for human workers is diminishing. Consequently, only those with the most desirable attributes, highest connections and right looks have a shot at success, while the rest are presumably relegated to the rungs of the unseen lower classes. Jacqueline Kim, who also co-wrote and co-produced, plays Gwen Koh, the popular spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, whose comfortable life with her daughter and confidence in herself are shattered when the Center decides that the beautiful-but-40ish Gwen is too old to be the branding face of their youth-preserving technology.

At the same time, Gwen’s daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) is hoping desperately to be accepted into one of the most prestigious schools; the pressure is immense, and Jules’ entire future depends upon which school she gets accepted into – and whether her mother can afford to give Jules the advantages she needs to succeed. Gwen’s position on the social ladder, already precarious in an tech-based economy when women are being told to stay at home and leave the jobs for the men, is further jeopardized when a recruiter informs her that there’s an unspecified “flag” on her resume from a former employer that’s preventing her from getting another job. Desperate to provide her daughter the advantages she will need to survive, Gwen agrees to become the first “client” for the Center’s newest youth-enhancing procedure, the details of which Phang keeps deliberately vague until near the end of the tale, making Gwen’s situation that much more poignant.
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Sundance 2015 Review: The Second Mother

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

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Directed by Anna Muylaert and written by Muylaert with the film’s star Regina Casé collaborating, The Second Mother examines Brazil’s complicated maze of class and social rules through the lens of Val (Casé), who works for the stylish and elegant “Dona Barbara” (Karine Teles) and Barbara’s meek husband Carlos (Lourenceo Mutarelli) caring for the couple’s son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). Val is like a second mother to Fabinho, who’s now a teen on the verge of young manhood but still likes to snuggle with Val as he did when he was little; likewise Fabinho has become a second child to Val, a substitute for her own daughter, left behind 13 years ago with relatives so Val could support her by taking this job.

The arrival of Val’s willful, bright teenage daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila) shifts the social power dynamic in the house, rattling the comfortable foundation of Val’s good-natured acceptance of her place within the structure of Brazilian society to its very core. Val is conventional, never questioning the seemingly endless, intricate rules that dictate place on the social ladder: Who can eat ice cream? Who can sleep in the guest room? Who can swim in the pool? Jessica, who’s come to Sao Paulo to study architecture, is bold, curious, and burns with intelligence, ambition, and a stubborn determination to refuse to accept being treated as a second-class citizen.
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Sundance 2014 Last Call

Friday, January 31st, 2014

I got caught up in a whirlwind of post-production meetings when I returned to Seattle, and didn’t get a chance to write up a few more notable films. Here’s a final roundup of a few more noteworthy films I saw at this year’s fest.

BabadookThe Babadook

Taut, compelling Aussie horror-thriller about Amelia, a single mom struggling with the death of her husband, and her anxiety-ridden young son, who are stalked by a mysterious creature called The Babadook after a strange book shows up at their house. I know, it sounds kind of like an episode of Goosebumps, but up until the end it’s a pretty tight, engaging psychological thriller. Is the Babadook real, or is it a manifestation of maternal guilt and mourning? Femme writer-director Jennifer Kent explores these questions through the imagery of the story most effectively … until the last few minutes, when an ending that (to me) completely breaks from the theme of the rest of the film left me scratching my head, wondering if I’d projected that more was going on intellectually in the film than there actually is. It’s a strong enough film up until that point, an intriguing exploration of grief and survivors guilt, tied up neatly by some terrific performances, spot-on art direction, and spooky pacing — but man, I wish Kent would lose that ending.
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Sundance 2014 Review: The Better Angels

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

The Better Angels

The Better Angels, produced (and clearly strongly influenced) by Terrence Malick and directed by A.J. Edwards in his feature debut, is a stunningly beautiful, vividly black-and-white cinematic painting about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln on a farm in the remote Indiana frontier during the years 1817-1819. And for lovers of films that veer into the realm of art, it’s a deeply moving visual treat.

Presumably, these particular years in young Lincoln’s life were chosen as the focus of the film because of their profound influence in shaping the boy who would become our 16th president. In 1816 Lincoln’s father, Thomas, notably lost his sizable holdings of land in Kentucky due to property line disputes, forcing the family to relocate to Indiana to make a fresh start. It was during these years that two pivotal events occurred: Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, died of milk sickness in 1818, and his father remarried in 1819 to Sarah Bush Johnston, with whom the boy bonded. Both women strongly influenced the man Abe Lincoln would become.
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Sundance 2014 Review: Listen Up Philip

Saturday, January 25th, 2014
Image courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

Image courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

I almost didn’t see Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip at Sundance this year. I wasn’t a huge fan of Perry’s previous film, The Color Wheel, and thus was on the fence about seeing this one. A friend encouraged me to catch it anyhow, thinking I might like it, so when I wandered into the P&I tent after a canceled lunch date to see what the TBA was and found it was this film, I shrugged and took a seat. I’m so glad I did, because this film shattered whatever preconceived notions I’d had going in. Which is an object lesson for me, I guess, in not holding prejudice against a particular film just because I didn’t connect with the director’s previous work. So noted.

The story here revolves around Philip (expertly portrayed by that master of brooding man-boys, Jason Schwartzman), a talented writer who’s decidedly lacking in “works and plays well with others” on the report card of life. When we meet Philip, he’s channeling some serious anxiety over the publication of his new novel, along with some equally serious rage at the world. You could maybe excuse him if he was just having a rough time of things, but the film makes it clear early on that this is who Philip is: a talented but tragically solipsistic man whose issues go far beyond the mere stereotype of the difficult, selfish artist. He’s mean, he’s arrogant, he lacks empathy for others, and he views everything that happens through a lens tinted sharply by his favorite subject: himself.

Schwartzman brings this egotistic, misanthropic writer to life on screen with what can only be described as absolute commitment. With every tic of facial expression, every glower of darkly brooding brow, he owns Philip unapologetically. If he was going to take on the part of this asshole, he was going to do it thoroughly, and boy, does he ever. But while Philip may be a completely unlikable, unlovable character, Schwartzman manages to make him real and very human in spite of – perhaps because of – his many flaws.

Philip develops a relationship with a mentor, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a older writer and fellow misanthrope who sees in Philip a younger version of himself (though, as he keeps reminding Philip, he himself had achieved far more in the literary world by the time he was Philip’s age). Philip connects with Ike in a way he doesn’t with anyone else, and yet he’s somehow unable to read his own future in the allegorical tea leaves of Ike’s isolation from others and his utterly dysfunctional relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Instead, Philip just goes plowing along as he has been, tearing through and discarding relationships with both his longtime photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and Yvette (Josephine de La Baume), an attractive professor at the liberal arts college where he lands an adjunct teaching position. I found it interesting that both of these educated, otherwise intelligent women have extended relationships with this man who cares for no one more than he does himself, and I suspect for some viewers, this aspect of the film will feel like wishful projection.

But here’s a truism about men like Philip: smart women who tell themselves they would never put up with his particular brand of bullshit no matter what nonetheless can and do fall prey to the allure of the reclusive, temperamental, misunderstood genius, and will keep coming back for more. Men like Philip present a challenge to overcome, a puzzle to solve – until the women in their lives finally have enough and say “no more.” And then those men end up alone, feeling misused and mistreated, looking everywhere save within themselves for the answer to the riddle of their loneliness and isolation.

While both The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip deal with inherently unlikeable and self-absorbed characters, in the sense of both story and technical skill, this film represents a huge leap in maturity, style and substance from Perry. Although he’s working again with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who also shot The Color Wheel, there’s a completely different level of artistic sensibility going on with this film, in everything from the way shots are framed, to the use of music, to the overall color design, which lends a warm, golden tone to the film that serves to contrast starkly with the coldness of Philip’s behavior and personality in a way that works very well. The film looks absolutely gorgeous in every frame, evoking a beauty that’s absent from the soul of its subject.

I’d heard a lot of mixed reactions from press folks around this film, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Philip goes beyond the mere unlikable; he’s the kind of person many of us would go out of our way to actively avoid having in our lives. And yet, I found myself, if not exactly liking Philip, at least not hating him. As a character, Philip’s not unlike many artists I know, though many of us wouldn’t necessarily want to see ourselves reflected in the choices he makes. Being an artist, a person not only committed to creating, but who cannot imagine doing anything else, does require a certain degree of selfishness. Creating art requires time and solitude and mental space, and if the best art comes from within us, it also demands that we spend enough time in our own heads to be able to draw out our own truths and weave them into something we can share with the world.

Philip takes this to an extreme, yes, and his misanthropy certainly isn’t typical of every artist. But in his insularity, his willingness to put his work above all else, even his relationships, there’s a glimmer of recognition many of us who work in the creative realm can identify with, even as he makes us cringe in moments of self-awareness as his focus becomes more about himself and less about the work. How much Philip’s truth reflects Perry’s own truths as the film’s writer and director, I couldn’t say. But I can say, without reservation, that with Listen Up Philip he’s certainly speaking a truth, and doing so with a rare, unflinching honesty, even if it’s sometimes hard to watch Philip’s tragically miserable existence unfold.

Sundance 2014 Review: War Story

Friday, January 24th, 2014

War Story

When I first saw Mark Jackson’s 2011 debut feature Without, I was impressed by the young director’s confident direction and meticulous pacing. Jackson’s willingness to let his protagonist, Joslyn, a young girl flailing emotionally in the aftermath of her friend’s suicide, live out her story quietly within the spaces between things was noteworthy among a slew of indie films that seemed so reluctant to ever let silence carry the story. With Jackson’s second feature, War Story, he once again focuses on a single female protagonist who’s lost in the aftermath of trauma, grief and loss (subjects, it would seem, that he’s not yet done exploring). This time around, he squares his lens on Catherine Keener as Lee, a photojournalist who works in war zones, who’s just lost her best friend and work partner in one of those tragic events that happen when you’re working around war and guns and people who like to shoot them.

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Sundance 2014 Review: Imperial Dreams

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014
Image courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

Image courtesy of The Sundance Institute.

First time feature director Malik Vitthal channels the ebb and flow of hope and despair in his powerful feature film debut Imperial Dreams. The film tells the story of Bambi (John Boyega, who’s simply terrific here), a young man just released from prison who returns home to South Central Los Angeles intent upon creating a better life for himself and his young son, only to find he must fight against the tide of his family and friends, who expect him to dive back in to the life of crime in which he was raised.

Bambi wants desperately to be a writer; having had a piece published in McSweeney’s from prison, he finds his dream is within reach, if only he can find a way to survive long enough to see it come to fruition. When he arrives at the home of his Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer), who raised him to be a “soldier” on the streets of South Central in the absence of his crackhead mother, he finds little appreciation or support for his literary ambitions. Instead, Bambi walks straight back into a world where his four-year-old son, Day (played by twins Ethan and Justin Coach) plays unsupervised while Bambi’s mother Tanya (Kellita Smith) lies passed out on the floor, and his uncle greets him by trying to put a gun back in his hand. In Shrimp’s worldview, gratitude means you do what he says and don’t question; he wants Bambi to drive an illegal load to Portland for a tempting amount of cash, and saying “no” isn’t an option.

Day’s mother Samaara (Keke Palmer) is sitting in LA County Jail, leaving Bambi as a single dad struggling to support his son and stay on the straight and narrow, while running up against obstacles at every turn. The cops who patrol his ‘hood lock on to him from the minute he returns, tailing him everywhere in their attempt to find his cousin Gideon (De’Aundre Bonds), a suspect in the accidental gang-related shooting of a 10-year-old. Bambi’s parole officer demands that he find a legit job immediately lest he lose his get-out-of-jail free card, but Bambi can’t get a job without a valid driver license. He can’t get a license because the state has claim on a $1500 past due child support bill … which he couldn’t pay from prison, and can’t pay off now without a job. It’s the classic Catch 22 of the urban poor: the struggle of a young man who wants to live a clean life, juxtaposed against the reality of a world which sees him only as a young black man with a record who will never be anything more than a street thug. Bambi’s younger brother Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho), meanwhile, faces his own struggles and temptation to dabble in the criminal world for profit; he’s earned a partial scholarship to business school, but needs to raise $3000 fast to pay for what the scholarship won’t cover, or watch his own dreams of a better life slip through his fingers.

While the story Vitthal and his co-writer Ismet Prcic tell is Bambi’s, the obstacles their protagonist finds himself facing could be that of any young person growing up poor in the projects, where options are limited, hope a pipe dream, and the possibility of rising above it all a brass ring that feels forever just out of reach. When our justice system is largely a revolving door that sends people of color to jail at a disproportionate rate with little or no focus on rehabilitation and rebuilding, how surprising is it that the recidivism rate for parolees makes it more likely that someone getting out of prison will land back there eventually than succeed in making a fresh start? Bambi’s story is something we in our cozy middle class lives maybe prefer not to think about too hard when we ponder the abstract idea of projects and prison terms. The real plight of poverty is the disparity of opportunity, and the way in which we blame those born into an urban war zone for growing up in a way that enables them to survive in it. It’s nature versus nurture: How do we expect a kid with the potential to do something amazing with his life to navigate his way there with no support system save for the friends and relatives who have him working the corner and holding a gun in his hand from childhood? When going out of the house means you might be dodging bullets at the bus stop, or seeing the lifeblood seep out of someone you know onto the pavement? What do we see when we see a young Black man like Bambi? Do we see only the thug he was raised to be, or the artist struggling to break free of circumstance to be more?

Vitthal paints a grim picture, but he closes his tale by leaving us, and Bambi, with a glimmer of hope for his future, and the possibility that the power of his spirit and determination might just help him rise above his life after all. Imperial Dreams is gut-wrenching and often bleak, and no doubt there will be those who will label it as white-guilt-inducing poverty porn; I would argue, though, that if watching Bambi’s story unfold causes a twinge of liberal white guilt in your gut, rather than blaming the film and the filmmaker, you should consider the possibility that it makes you feel uncomfortable because its truths are resonating in a way you don’t want to examine too closely. And then consider the radical idea that maybe we need to be spending more on investing in keeping kids in the projects from growing up to become criminals in the first place, rather than building more prison cells to house them once they do.

Sundance 2014 Review: Obvious Child

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

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Spoiler alert: This review contains a true spoiler for this film. You have been forewarned.

Life is about the choices we make at those crucial crossroads in our lives; when we make a questionable life decision that has a serious consequence (and if you say you’ve never made one, I’m calling you a liar), which path do we choose? In her feature film Obvious Child (expanded from her 2009 short of the same title), writer-director Gillian Robespierre examines that question through the lens of her sharply funny screw-up of a protagonist, Donna Stern (SNL alum Jenny Slate), a Brooklyn stand-up comedian who finds her life falling apart when she gets dumped, fired and pregnant by a one-night stand, all in the same week.

Frankly, Donna is the kind of character I tend to not find terribly relatable in indie films. I’m pretty much out of patience for whiny late-20-to-early-30-somethings who can’t get their shit together, take responsibility for the lives, and grow up already. Blame it on the mom on me, who believes strongly in raising kids to be independent enough that when you shove them on out of the nest, they’re able to take wing and fend for themselves, at least for the most part. Much like Greta Gerwig’s Frances in Frances Ha, Donna is a perpetual girl-child, a grown, well-educated woman who works in a run-down bookstore, can’t figure out how to do her own taxes, can’t seem to get her love life together. She can’t see that her boyfriend isn’t happy about the way she works their relationship and sex life into her stand-up routines, any more than she can see that he’s tuned out of her and tuned into one of her friends – until he unceremoniously dumps her in the bathroom of the comedy club after a show. But where I found Frances (in spite of Gerwig’s excellent performance in Frances Ha) to be relentlessly annoying, Donna is drawn so unselfconsciously and without pretense that I loved her despite her flaws, and maybe even a little bit because of them.

While still flailing emotionally from her breakup, Donna meets Max (Jake Lacy), a super-nice businessman with a sweet, perfect smile and unfortunate taste in footwear (He wears boat shoes. Do you remember boat shoes? Enough said.) It’s maybe predictable that Max and Donna are going to end up in bed together, and that based on what we know about Donna up to that point, that the likelihood that she’ll make good choices around that one night stand are slim. What’s less predictable, at least based on how films tend to handle the idea of women facing an unwanted pregnancy, is the choice Donna will make about what to do about the situation in which she finds herself.

I’m not going to get into a rant here against films like Juno or Knocked Up, in which unplanned pregnancies were resolved through adoption and having and keeping the baby, respectively. I liked both those films, and didn’t have an issue with the path the protagonists took (not surprising, given that my own unplanned pregnancy at age 17 resulted in my daughter, who’s now 28 and pretty awesome). Choice, for me, means just that; the choice to have a baby and give it up, or to have a baby and keep it, is just as valid as the choice to terminate a pregnancy. What Obvious Child examines, though, is something filmmakers tend to shy away from: the idea that sometimes (maybe even a lot of the time), terminating an unplanned pregnancy is an equally valid, maybe even better, choice for a woman to make. Does it make as warm and precious an ending as a little bundle of adorable baby in someone’s arms? It doesn’t. But you know what? Life isn’t all about sweet bundles and everything coming up roses, sometimes it’s just about making the best choice you can at the time, and moving on from there.

Fortunately, Obvious Child isn’t a grim treatise on feminist politics and abortion; it’s smart, honest, and often bitingly funny. Both onstage and off, Donna says and does things that make you laugh out loud even as you’re cringing inside. As Donna, Slate strikes chords of raw truth that resonate, whether she’s onstage drunkenly performing a “set” about her loser boyfriend cheating on her with her friend, or hanging out with her best friend and roomie, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman). Nellie’s that kind of brutally honest friend who will call you on your bullshit, but she also knows when to bolster a friend who’s drowning in sorrow by dropping those truths in digestible doses. Slate and Hoffman play off each other perfectly; this is the way real best friends — or at least, real best friends who are a lot like me a my friends — talk and act around each other when they’re alone together.

I laughed a lot while watching Obvious Child. Not everyone will, to be honest – if fart jokes and sex jokes, abundant cursing, peeing in public and pooping in front of your best friend while awaiting the results of a pregnancy test are things that you can’t handle, this might not be the film for you. If you can get past those things to the core of this film, though, you might just find the places where Robespierre’s story resonates for you, too. It certainly did for me.

Sundance 2014 Review: Hellion

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Hellion

Kat Candler’s feature Hellion, based on her 2012 short film of the same name, was one of the titles at this year’s Sundance that I was most looking forward to. The short, about three young boys being raised by a single father who’s not around or emotionally engaged enough to keep them from getting into trouble, had a naturalistic honesty to it that I found very intriguing; it left me wanting to know more about these people and their lives. Given a lot more room to explore this through a feature-length film, she tells this story from the perspective of her troubled 13-year-old protagonist, played by newcomer Josh Wiggins in a powerful breakout performance.

Wiggins plays Jacob, a kid growing up in a refinery town in Southeast Texas, struggling to overcome both his mother’s death in a tragic car accident a year earlier, and the emotional absence of his father, Hollis (Aaron Paul, who’s simply terrific here), who’s still reeling from the loss of his wife. Jacob acts out his own anger and grief through a series of delinquent shenanigans around town with his “crew” of buddies that kicks off with a stellar, heavy-metal infused opening sequence that kicks us straight into Jacob’s rage. When he ropes in his sweetly trusting younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) into the action, CPS gets involved and removes Wes to place him with the boys’ Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), Hollis and Jacob are forced to take a long, hard look at their own choices to find a way to move on despite the gaping hole tragedy has ripped out of their lives.

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About Sunny: The Film Formerly Known as Think of Me

Monday, March 25th, 2013

You know how sometimes you’ll see a film at a big fest, and really like it and hope it does well, and then it just seems to disappear off the radar for a while before it magically reappears? That’s the case with Bryan Wizemann’s excellent indie feature Think of Me, which I saw at Toronto waaaaaay back in 2011 and included in my 2011 wrap-up as a notable indie film of that year.

So now Think of Me finally has a VOD release, under a brand-new title, About Sunny. When I saw the film at TIFF, I wrote, in part:

As for Wizemann, he’s written a story that’s both broadly empathetic to the plight of the many, many people struggling on the brink of financial disaster to hold their lives and their families together, to take care of their kids and give them the best shot they can, and socially relevant to the moment in which we’re living. In Angela, he’s created a complex character, a mother who loves her daughter deeply and wants very much to be a good mom taking good care of her daughter, but who also makes some pretty terrible choices along the way. Yet Wizemann, with his own choices as a writer-director, refrains from judging Angela and women like her, instead choosing to simply observe her struggles and see where she goes. Smart film, smart filmmaking.

You can read my full write-up from 2011 right here. Suffice it to say, About Sunny is still a relevant film addressing one of the most pressing social issues (well, after Congressional budgetary nonsense, social security, mental health and our health care system) we’re dealing with today: How can a single parent struggling with her issues of addiction, depression and general inability to care for herself and her child make the right choices, when it’s unclear what choices there are and what the implications of each of those choices could be.

Here’s the film’s trailer:

This is the kind of smart, intimate storytelling that delves beyond so much of the same-old, same-old, “woe is me, my 20-something friends and I just can’t move past our ennui to get our shit together” indie films that we see over and over again at fests large and small. Wizemann’s film is beautifully shot, tells a complex story in a way that’s not contrived or overly complicated, and it’s anchored by a performance out of Lauren Ambrose that should have been the the one to shoot her to the top of the indie actress lists (she was nominated for the lead actress award at the Indie Spirits for her turn here). I’d love to see Ambrose get the kind of opportunities that Jennifer Lawrence saw post-Winter’s Bone … she’s really a terrific talent and I’d like to see much more from her.

Meanwhile, though, please check out Ambrose in the excellent, underseen About Sunny on VOD. You can find it on Oscilloscope On Demand or iTunes. Give it your support, y’all.

Sundance Review: Prince Avalanche

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

David Gordon Green is back in arthouse form with the lovely and effervescent Prince Avalanche, a methodically paced, gorgeously shot buddy/road trip/ghost story loosely adapted from the Icelandic film Either Way. Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are stuck out in the middle of nowhere, living out of their tent and highway maintenance truck as they wend their way slowly down an endless ribbon of stagnant highway, methodically painting yellow line after yellow line in a hypnotic rhythm, interspersed with a staccato bang, bang, bang as they hammer metal poles with reflectors alongside the highway, marking their path as they go.

They make an odd couple. Alvin, who fancies himself to be smarter and therefore better than the rather dense Lance, studies German on audiotapes, blaring his lessons from an giant boombox as they work, while Lance complains that it’s putting him to sleep. Alvin’s self-righteously set on self-improvement and study; he’s a bookish, reclusive sort of guy, and he’s using this job at least in part, it seems, as a justified way of having space and solitude from his stagnant relationship with his girlfriend, Lance’s sister. Lance, on the other hand, aspires to neither big thoughts nor big dreams, and finds the endless stretches of quiet and loneliness, with no one but Alvin for company, to be excruciatingly dull. Lance’s tastes are simple: he likes beer, comic books, loud music, hot chicks, and “getting the little man squeezed.” He only has this job because Alvin is doing his girlfriend a favor – and perhaps because it makes Alvin feel important to be able to impart his own brand of knowledge and wisdom onto this guy he perceives to be beneath himself. With Lance, Alvin can play the role of mentor — a role, one suspects, that he otherwise has few opportunities to play.
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Sundance Reviews: Cutie and the Boxer, Fallen City

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer is the story of Noriko Shinohara, a talented artist who sacrificed her own ambitions to support her temperamental, brilliant, alcoholic husband, famed “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara, and how she finally stands up for herself after 40 years of marriage to finally pursue her own art instead of merely assisting her husband with his.

The film begins by showing us 80-year-old Ushio struggling not just to stay relevant but to establish his lasting legacy in the field of art, but shifts gears as Noriko — who four decades ago came to the United States to study art, met the much older Ushio, and promptly gave up her own aspirations to marry and support him– begins to work seriously for the first time on her own artistic effort. Noriko’s work is a series of drawings called “Cutie and Bullie” that depicts her struggles in her long relationship with her husband; her drawings are honest and emotionally raw; she uses them to gently express both her long-dormant anger and resentment, and to find her own voice as an artist.
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Sundance Review: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

One of the most culturally and politically relevant films to come out of Sundance this year, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer chronicles the controversial trial of three members of the anonymous Russian performance artists and political activists who call themselves Pussy Riot. Comprised of about a dozen young women who mask their faces with colorful balaclavas and stage stealth performances around Moscow, showing up when least expected in a beauty parlor or Red Square or on the rooftop of a building to raise their voices in protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the lack of separation between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox church, and sexism within Russian society.

For a while, Putin’s government mostly ignored Pussy Riot, handing out the occasional administrative ticket but nothing more, as if hoping that these rebellious young women might just quietly go away. Then on February 21, 2012, five members of the group staged a performance of their church-state protest song “A Punk Prayer” on the alter of St. Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. The group played about 30 seconds of their song before being shut down. Three of the members, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich were arrested and charged with criminal charges, and were detained for six months before finally being put on trial, facing a courtroom full of “victims” – those who were at the church that day and were apparently traumatized by the sight of five young women wearing brightly colored balaclavas, baring their arms, and singing punk rock music on the altar of their church.

In Russia, contemporary art is often scorned and misunderstood, and performance art and punk rock practically unheard of. And in a place where the Russian Orthodox Church was persecuted under the reign of the Communists, sacrilege can be seen as a tremendous offense. When the members of Pussy Riot were first charged, there wasn’t a great deal of support inside Russia for these young activists. But as word got out that they were facing up to seven years in prison for singing 30 seconds of punk rock protest, a groundswell of support both inside Russia and around the world grew in support of their activism and their cause. Amnesty International got involved. International news media flocked to Moscow. Pussy Riot support groups sprung up, the little seeds of dissent planted by the young activists taking root and starting to sprout. Even Madonna painted “Pussy Riot” on her bare back and sang “Like a Virgin” while wearing a balaclava in her Moscow concert.

Cinematically speaking the film is, like the movement it captures, more than a little rough around the edges. There’s an awful lot of courtroom footage, so much so that it starts to drag a bit and feel like an extended episode of Court TV, but it’s still impressive that the filmmakers were able to get the access to shoot in there. The performance footage is most engaging, when we see the girls of Pussy Riot rehearsing and performing; it’s guerrilla activism, shot guerrilla style, and it’s just great that it was even captured for historical purposes, given that the Pussy Riot collective has become a big enough deal to be of note as one of the more relevant and effective activist groups of our time, along with Occupy. Interviews with the girls’ parents round things out nicely, giving us a broader perspective on who these young women are.

The real stars of the show here are Nadia, Katia and Masha, the three young women at the center of this story. While all three are articulate and have some interesting things to say, it’s clear that Nadia is the leader of the group. She has a fierceness to her, a sharpness of intellect, clearness of jaw, firmness in the stubborn set of her mouth, that lets you know she is not even close to done. The penultimate moment of the film is Nadia’s closing statement, in which she says in part:

This whole trial refuses to hear us and I mean hear us, which involves understanding and, moreover, thinking. I think every individual wants to attain wisdom, to be a philosopher, not just people who happen to have studied philosophy. That’s nothing. Formal education is nothing in itself and Lawyer Pavlova is constantly accusing us of not being sufficiently well-educated. I think though that the most important thing is the desire to know and to understand, and that’s something people can do for themselves outside of educational establishments, and the trappings of academic degrees don’t mean anything in this instance. Someone can have a vast fund of knowledge and for all that not be human.

You can read her full closing statement here, or you can find on YouTube in its entirety if you’re so inclined. It’s worth it.

In a scene where a group of male Russian Orthodox leaders are discussing the Pussy Riot performance at the cathedral, bemoaning in particular the dangerousness of the articulate Nadia, one of the men notes that she’s “a demon who thinks.” And so she is, and so are all of them.

Sundance Review: Upstream Color

Friday, January 25th, 2013

There are filmmakers who tell a straightforward story, and then there’s Shane Carruth, back at Sundance nine years after his brainy sci-fi film Primer, which was anything but straightforward, won the Grand Jury prize and went on to become a cult favorite. This time around, Carruth brings us Upstream Color, perhaps the strangest film I’ve seen at Sundance this year, but also one of the most interesting and technically complex. It took me awhile to wrap my head around this film; it’s not something you can digest and then immediately spit out any sort of thoughtful analysis of, but I finally think I’ve figured out what Upstream Color means … or at least, what it means to me.
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Sundance Review: Blood Brother

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

While on a vacation to India to find both himself and a more “authentic way of living,” Rocky Braat decided to visit an orphanage for children with HIV. He expected he’d visit the kids, feel sad, and leave – and he did. But something kept pulling him back to that place, so he returned to spend the rest of his vacation there with the children who’d come to call him “Rocky anna,” (“anna” meaning “brother”).

Perhaps it was the smiles and laughter of these kids, determined to enjoy life in spite of the hardships they face. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the lifestyle in India; when your day-to-day life is about minimalist survival, you don’t have to worry about things like credit card debt, or making sure you have the latest model smartphone, or the nicest apartment, or the coolest friends, or the hippest clothes. Perhaps it was some deeper spiritual call, a desire to strip away the typically materialistic Western values with which he’d been raised, to find the purity in a life of giving to others rather than taking from them. Or perhaps Rocky simply found in the children of that orphanage the closeness of family and unconditional love that he lacked at home. Whatever the case, he also found he didn’t want to leave. These kids needed him, and perhaps he needed them as well.

Without employment in India, though, Rocky was forced to return to the United States, but upon his return he found it impossible to fit back into a societal structure he now found largely meaningless, and to friends caught up in their own busy lives. When he was eventually able to return to India, he gave up everything he had in America and moved there with a suitcase packed with toys for the kids, and there he stayed, adopted a sparse lifestyle in a ramshackle, rat-infested house with no running water, in part because he didn’t want to be perceived as having a different lifestyle than those he was there to serve, and in part, it seems, because he found a sort of spiritual, almost monk-like cleansing in ridding himself of material goods and comforts.

Rocky’s friend, filmmaker Steve Hoover, documented his friend’s personal journey in the excellent, deeply moving film Blood Brother, playing here at Sundance in the US Documentary competition, and the end result is a completing absorbing look at a world that Western audience’s may at times find hard to watch. There is ignorance in this place, and fear, particularly evidenced when the villagers learn that the orphanage is a haven for HIV positive children and mothers. Fear of HIV runs strong, and the villagers don’t take too kindly to this news. Rocky’s frustration with the villagers is clear; how can anyone think it’s wrong to help these lost children who need love and support to survive? There’s also the grim reality Rocky has to face that it’s not so easy to keep a sick child alive in this place. The access to medical care the Western world takes for granted just isn’t as accessible in India, particularly to sick orphans with no money. And then there’s the inevitability of loss that comes with working with children who are ill; Rocky struggles with this as well, though he grimly faces it, acknowledging that this is what he signed up for, and the kids need him.

Hoover, a professional videographer, captures some excellent footage here of the orphanage and village, and both cinematography and editing contribute greatly to capturing the feel of this place. We also see lots of the kids just being kids, and of the children’s relationship with Rocky and his with them, and it’s clear that as much as Rocky has given of himself to these children, what he gets in return from them — their openness and their love, and perhaps most of all the sense that they’ve come to truly depend on him — is priceless. There are some sequences in Blood Brother that are very tough to watch, but that’s what life – and death – are like in this world Rocky has adopted as his own, and the reality is that to not show it in both its moments of light and its moments of darkness would be to do the film, and the children, a great disservice.

It’s clear that both Rocky and Hoover have been greatly changed by their experiences; what’s more surprising is how effective Blood Brother is at moving the audience as well. This is a richly layered, ethically complex, wrenching and sometimes brutal film and boy, does Hoover put the audience through the wringer, though thankfully never in a way that feels overly manipulative or contrived. Rocky himself feels both utterly genuine and utterly human, and doesn’t shirk from letting us see him in his bad moments as well as the good. He wrestles with how to handle a relationship with an Indian girl he’d like to marry; he comes to terms with handling blood and other bodily fluids without blanching; and most of all he learns from the children themselves that what they most want is to be treated as the normal, beautiful kids they are and not as pariahs. And so Rocky — more quickly than Hoover, who has a bit more of a hurdle to overcome with it all — touches the children, puts bandages on little owies, and even eats off their plates when they offer him food. It’s clear that all he really wants is to love these kids, and accept their love in return.

Blood Brother
was funded entirely from donations of time and money, with the goal being that any profits the film should make will all go back to the orphans at the heart of the story. This couldn’t be more fitting; in spite of tragic loss and terrible suffering it’s the children, who are endlessly positive and optimistic despite their situation, who uplift both the story and the audience.

Sundance Review: Escape from Tomorrow

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

At once one of the more interesting and more over-hyped films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, first-time filmmaker Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow is stronger in concept than execution, but it’s still one of the films playing here this year that I’m most glad I didn’t miss. Is it a perfect film? No, it’s not. But one of the great things about this festival is that the programming often takes risks that other fests don’t, and you sometimes get to stumble upon something that, while flawed, still shows a brilliance and originality that’s lacking from so much of low-budget indie film. For that it’s absolutely deserving of some accolades.

The black-and-white, partially guerrilla-shot film takes us into the bowels of Disney theme parks through the story of one man, Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), who’s unceremoniously fired from his corporate job while on vacation there with his family. Determined to have one last day in the fantasy world with his wife and kids, unmarred by the grim reality of having to tell his wife he’s lost his job, Jim tries to make their final day at the theme park idyllic, but things quickly get surreal and more than a little disturbing.

A pair of flirtatious young French girls catches Jim’s eye, and soon he’s following them around the park, dragging his young son along with him for the ride, and getting increasingly shameless in revealing his lust as the film progresses. How much of the girls’ flirtation is real and how much is Jim’s delusion is left to you to judge, though given the rest of what’s happening here, I think it’s maybe a little of both; regardless, it’s a lot creepy, this middle-aged man trolling after a pair of young girls, but it also makes a statement of sorts about sexual fantasy and objectification that one doesn’t expect to overtly find in a film about Disney anything.

And yet, what are Disney princesses if not early gender role training for little girls? They are largely fantasy incarnate – the male fantasy of being needed and desired by a nicely busty, youthful and attractive young girl who flirtatiously giggles and bats eyelashes and radiates desire. Every now and again one may be a little feisty or independent, but at the end of the day what does a Disney princess want but to be rescued by her prince to live happily ever after, while sacrificing self-hood to be with her man?

Moore underscores this by contrasting Jim’s wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), a nagging wife and mother who’s always on his ass about something, with the giggling, attractive younger girls. Jim can’t seem to please his wife no matter what he does, but when he follows these young girls around, they stroke his male ego in a way that his wife does not, and whether that’s reality or fantasy matters little, given that we’re seeing it all from Jim’s perspective, warped through the lens of Disney-esque fantasy. All this fantasy exploration of screwed-up values is further underscored by an encounter Jim has with a seductive aging Disney princess who ties him up and beds him, a potentially fatal virus working its way through the happy, smiling tourists spending their dollars at the theme park, and a team of rogue scientists operating beneath Epcot Center, who have their own sinister plans for Jim.

Filmmaker Randy Moore says in his director’s statement for this film that it was inspired in part by his own trips to Disney theme parks as a child – something he loved when he was a kid, without realizing how he was being influenced by the surreal unreality of the temporary world of make believe and magic. The Disney theme parks create an illusion of fairy tales and princesses and happily ever after, and the influence of corporate branding and marketing sells children on a synthetic fantasy that doesn’t exist. While the execution of Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t always quite hit the fairly high ambition for which it’s aiming, it still manages to be an interestingly subversive exploration of the ideas and values peddled by a corporation that makes its billions off selling outdated ideas about gender roles and relationships. Moore plants the pretty princesses — both the young, fresh and dewy ones and the older, washed up and desperate ones — squarely in front of his protagonist, and reveals through Jim’s interactions with them just what’s so fucked up about the happily-ever-after Disney theme.

Among industry, there are films that are what we’ve come to think of as typical “Sundance films.” You know what I’m talking about here: low-key dramas exploring the rather mundane lives of lost and bored late-20-somethings who can’t seem to get their lives together; slow-burn relationship dramas, usually involving one or both partners cheating; small films that feel like extended visual blog posts in which the filmmaker is trying to sort through some aspect of their own lives. We get films like that at Sundance in spades. So when we get something that stands out as different in idea and execution, it’s a rarity, and there’s a tendency to immediately latch on and overhype the buzz. This is good in that it generates enough interest in a small, weird film like this to pack the press into the cattle chutes in the P&I tent, but not so good in that that same press come into the screening expecting to be blown away, and then are mildly (or even a lot) disappointed when they are not.

Is it absurdist and flawed in execution? Yes, it is, particularly in the green screen scenes, which are just not well-composed. But I’m not sure that matters as much as the idea of a filmmaker actually trying to do something different and new and darkly humorous, and at least it’s not another goddamn Mumblecore film. I’d far rather see a filmmaker doing what Moore is here, aiming for something completely original and darkly subversive, than yet another rehashing of the same story lines we’ve seen so many times we can predict the ending within the first five minutes. And a first-time filmmaker pulling off guerrilla filmmaking in the Disney theme parks, with a score that rather brilliantly both subverts and evokes Disney films, inventively using mics and smartphones in place of a sound mixer to capture the audio, all while exploring interesting ideas about gender roles, male sexual fantasy and the skewed view of reality the Magic Kingdom represents, is undeniably interesting. Escape from Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, but it’s completely unlike anything I’ve seen at Sundance or any other fest, and for that reason alone I would highly recommend catching it if you get a chance.

Sundance Review: We Are What We Are

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Spoiler alert: This review contains a significant spoiler. If you don’t already know (or want to know) what it’s about, move along.

As heavy rains and flooding hit a small town in the Catskills, a middle-aged woman collapses, spewing up blood, and drowns in a ditch. Thus Jim Mickle’s stunningly shot We Are What We Are, a re-imagining of Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau’s 2010 film of the same name, sets in motion its tale of the Parker family, headed by patriarch Frank (Bill Sage), a fierce, controlling, humorless man who rules over his three children with religious fervor and a devotion to maintaining a macabre family tradition.
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Sundance Review: Kill Your Darlings

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Kill Your Darlings, director John Krokidis’s excellent tale of the early beginnings of the Beat Generation writers, pulls us into the world of a very young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) at the cusp of his coming-of-age, as he breaks free from the hold of his mentally disturbed mother, gets accepted into Columbia, and takes his first tentative steps into exploring a world bigger than Paterson, New Jersey. It’s a world of jazz music and black musicians, hard drugs, and sex, all of which shaped and informed the style of writing that would ultimately come to define him as one of our greatest American counterculture poets.

Krokidis effectively pulls us into this moment in time, when a brilliant young man like Ginsberg could believe he had the power to change the shape of the world with his words and his mind — and further, by working collectively with other brilliant young men like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, actually create the spark that helped create a counterculture generation that cast aside the values and traditions of the post-WWII era in favor of birthing something born of completely different values. The film introduces us to young Ginsberg as he surprises his father, the poet Louis Ginsberg, with the news that he’s been accepted to Columbia.

Upon his arrival at Columbia, though, he quickly realizes that the staid traditions of that storied institution and, in particular, its insistence upon following structured, formulaic “rules” of writing, chafes against the burning desire Ginsberg has within him to break free from those molds and forge his own path. Early on, he meets a fellow undergraduate, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), and finds him to be a kindred spirit. Carr takes Ginsberg firmly by the hand and pulls him into a fascinating subversive world of drugs, jazz and writing, and together with the older, more worldly William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and eventually Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), these young aspiring writers challenge themselves and each other to set the world on fire, creating a manifesto of their “New Vision,” the seed of what would come to define the Beats.

The shadow hovering over this story is David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who’s as obsessed with Lucien Carr as Ginsberg himself will become. Kammerer controls and clings to Lucien and will not let him go and that, ultimately, leads to the defining moment of the film, Lucien Carr’s well-documented murder of Kammerer, into which Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg himself get pulled. Krokidas could have chosen simply to tell the tale of Ginsberg’s homosexual awakening, but instead he keeps his focus on the young poet’s awakening as a writer, drawn in parallel to Lucien Carr’s relationship with the obsessive Kammerer, who does his level best to put out the fire of the younger mens’ new vision so he can keep Carr to himself. This proves to be a smart choice for this film; Ginsberg’s sexuality is much less interesting to explore than how he came to be this remarkable writer whose poetry – along with the work of Kerouac and Burroughs – would come to define a generation.

Almost everyone has a sexual awakening at some point in their lives, and those stories are something we’ve seen done and overdone; not every young man grows to be the kind of writer who has a work like Howl gestating in his soul, though, and the murder of Kammerer and its aftermath is shown here to be a milestone of sorts in Ginsberg’s life, shaping who he becomes.

That this film works so well is due in no small part to the superb talent onscreen Krokidis’s deft, skillful direction. All of the performances in Kill Your Darlings are superlative. As Lucien, DeHaan radiates complicated, over-privileged tragedy, one minute all soulful puppy eyes and pouty lips, the next icy cold disdain; Huston brings to life the restless energy that defines Kerouac as both a person and a writer; and Foster is remarkable as the droll, bored-with-life-and-bourgeois-privilege Burroughs, who ultimately shrugged that life aside in favor of the deliberate criminality and addiction that in turn informed his own seminal works, Junkie and Naked Lunch.

Radcliffe is a revelation here, casting aside all remnants of the cloak of Harry Potter to fully immerse himself in becoming Allen Ginsberg. Radcliffe flawlessly takes Ginsberg on his journey from naïve middle-class Jersey boy to awakening young writer, from an emerging poet inspired by the casting aside of tradition and structure of Walt Whitman to the early stages of manic creative energy that shaped the influential writer he would grow to become. It’s terrific to see Radcliffe making such smart choices in his post-Harry Potter career, establishing himself as a young actor who’s pushing himself and stretching far beyond what anyone might have imagined.

My only quibbles with the film – and they are small quibbles, relative to how much I enjoyed it overall – are the use of modern music in a film about the Beats (for me, it should be jazz, jazz and more jazz), and one fairly graphic sex scene toward the end of the film that I felt almost edging toward gratuitous, than the scene actually needed to be to underscore its point. Had the focus of this film been more strictly about Ginsberg’s sexual awakening, I probably wouldn’t have felt that way, but as it is, in a film that’s about his awakening as a writer and about the pivotal impact of Carr’s murder of Kammerer, it felt out of place. Even so, I can respect the filmmaker’s choice to push the boundary of the audience’s comfort level, and I certainly can’t deny giving Radcliffe appropriate props for his bravery in going there on the big screen.

Production value is solid throughout, with both cinematography and editing being especially noteworthy. The editing of an early scene in the film, when Ginsberg, encouraged by Carr and Burroughs, gets off on a drug-fueled, manic writing session, effectively evokes the burning passion catching fire within this young, middle-class, would-be poet as he begins shifting toward the fiery, impassioned writer he would become. Overall, Kill Your Darlings is a terrific exploration of the young Beats in their earliest gestation, a lovingly rendered, well-executed ride that immerses the audience in that rare time and place when young people like Ginsberg and his compatriots truly felt they could change the world, when the casting aside of tradition and the challenging of social norms felt relevant, real, and genuinely world changing.

Sundance Review: When I Walk

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

I’m not always a big fan self-exploratory, therapeutic docs in which the filmmaker explores some aspect of their lives through cinema, but When I Walk, director Jason DaSilva’s wrenchingly autobiographic journey through the hell of his rapid physical deterioration after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is an exception to that rule.

DaSilva was filming a vacation trip with his family in 2006 when he collapsed to the ground and found himself unable to get up again; from that moment on his previous life of traveling the world to make documentary films would never be the same. As part of coming to terms with the new and ever-shifting “normal” that would be the rest of his life, DaSilva followed his instinct, picked up his camera, and turned it on himself. This project could have devolved into the maudlin and self-absorbed; instead DaSilva’s strength and resilience, his determination to stay positive – bolstered in part by his relentlessly positive mother, who’s prone to calling him out on any over-privileged American kid whining and reminding him constantly that we only have one life to live, and have to make the most of it – is what shines through every frame of his story.
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