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Sundance: New Frontier Round-up

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences

Described in the catalog as a “live science fiction event,” “Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences” isn’t a Sundance film selection … quite. A long-gestating, global collaborative project by Sundance Fellow Cory McAbee, the two live performances (aka masterclasses) presented at Sundance 2018 are pieces of a whole that were being filmed for inclusion, ultimately,  in a feature film project that will  emerge at the end of this long gestation. Confused yet? It’s okay, so was the guy at the Q&A for the first performance of Deep Astronomy, who thought he’d bought a ticket for a master class on … well, actual astronomy.

Deep Astronomy marks McAbee’s fifth Sundance appearance, something not a lot of people can claim. His first short film, Billy Nayer, premiered at Sundance in 1992; McAbee built live performances around the short and came back to Sundance in 1995 with its first multimedia event, The Billy Nayer Show.  McAbee followed that project up with a feature script The American Astronaut, which was accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and debuted at Sundance 2001, and then he returned again in 2009 with Stingray Sam, a series intended for distribution on multiple platforms.

Deep Astronomy is masterclass in two parts with an intermission in between; McAbee bounces energetically on stage in front of the audience, seamlessly shifting back and forth between singing songs and “lecturing” about transdimensionality, the Romantic Sciences, the stardust that comprises us, and the metaphorical relationship between you, a butterfly, a cotton ball soaked in ether, a jar, and the pin that holds the butterfly’s corpse. In the second half of the show, he delves into even headier topics like the feasibility of interplanetary relocation and … alternative burial methods.

It’s all very strange, strangely compelling, and completely mesmerizing. Are you the butterfly? McAbbe asks? Or are you the pin, or perhaps the jar? You may not come out of Deep Astronomy knowing the answer to that question, but you’re sure to find yourself pondering the show after experiencing it.

Spheres: Songs of Spacetime

The honor of the first-ever sale of a VR project at Sundance will go down in the annals of VR history as belonging to Spheres: Songs of Spacetime, the sophomore effort of 26-year-old science geek/storyteller whiz kid Eliza McNitt, who had her first big VR project, Fistful of Stars, at SXSW last year.

Spheres was a lovely and interesting way to experience deep space, and McNitt is a cool chick who’s deeply interested in space and science, but the team still has work to do in more tightly defining its storytelling aspect. I interviewed both McNitt and exec producer Darren Aronofsky about Spheres and how Aronofsky’s team worked with McNitt on defining the hero’s journey” off the piece, and there’s certainly more storytelling here than in Fistful of Stars, but as this is intended to be one piece of a three-part series, I’m hopeful they’ll find a way to tighten up the story and deepen the experience even more. The illusion of immersion into deep space is super effective for the most part, and I found Jessica Chastain’s narration of the piece very calming and soothing as it guided my journey.

I do hope they work on an aspect of Spheres I didn’t enjoy; around the two-thirds point of the experience there’s some multi directional motion stuff happening that made me quite nauseous and then gave me significant vertigo, so much so that I almost fell over. I experience a great many VR projects and I very rarely get motion sickness, so I found this pretty concerning, even more so after its high profile sale. Casual conversation on the ground at Sundance convinced me that it wasn’t just me.

Now that the project has been bought and, to some degree, can potentially set a bar with investors, I hope CityLights will incorporate some U/X testing as they tighten up the series, too. This piece, whether it’s ultimately experienced in homes or museums, needs to not induce motion sickness or vertigo before it’s out to the VR newbie masses.

Wolves in the Walls, Chapter 1

One of the most anticipated pieces at New Frontier was Wolves in the Walls, based on the award-winning 2003 book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. The project, a “VR fable about the nature of fear,” was created by Lead Artists Pete Billington and Jessica Shamash, with  Key Collaborators Edward Saatchi, Saschka Unseld, Jennine Willett, and Zach Morris, and is the first part of an intended episodic adaptation of the book, which is about a little girl who has nightmares about wolves living inside the walls.

The experience puts you alongside Lucy, and builds on work begun by the folks at the now-defunct Oculus Story Studio around interactivity with characters in VR settings. Lucy looks at you, talks to you, more or less reacts to you. Your mileage may vary as to whether you find the interactivity with Lucy meaningful, and whether the interaction with objects in the experience helps or hinders your own suspension of disbelief.

For me, it was distracting from the story, and I couldn’t help but think as I was going through it that Lucy as a character brought to life in this piece reminds me more than a little of Dora the Explorer, a character my own kids adored, even as I found her nauseatingly twee. The tone of the artwork overall in the VR piece also, and especially the character of Lucy, struck me as being a lot lighter and kid-TV-channel friendly than Dave McKean’s darker illustrations in the book.

If I’m looking at Wolves in the Walls in the context of it being a piece of work aimed at children as its primary intended audience, then I’d say the interactivity with both character and objects is fine, if a bit awkwardly experimental.  However, if I’m looking at it from my perspective as an adult who’s experienced a lot of VR projects over the past three years, who’s seen the space evolve and develop, this for me is at best an experimental prototype in how to integrate interactivity into a VR piece without disrupting story flow or suspension of disbelief that doesn’t quite hit its mark.

The things you’re given to do in Wolves in the Walls – picking up objects and interacting with them – were being explored through projects like Christine Berg’s Wonder Buffalo this time last year, although the virtual Polaroid camera was admittedly cute and fun to play with. If I’d had a chance to go through Wolves a second and third time, though, I would have tested whether the camera lets you take pictures of anything you actually point at  (true interactivity) versus only spitting out pictures that it wants you to take (faux interactivity) and even what would happen if I tried to take a picture of myself. Those experiments will have to wait for another day. Wolves in the Walls is anticipated to be a three-part series on Oculus, so I’ll have a chance to see if it all comes together eventually.

Experience Touch in Virtual Reality

It can’t properly be considered a “project” so much as a demonstration of technology, but Experience Touch in Virtual Reality by startup HaptX is a very cool demonstration of something the VR industry as a whole has been waiting to see fully evolve: haptics, or the ability to “feel” things (or in essence, to trick the brain into thinking you feel things) in virtual reality.

The two HaptX stations at the New Frontier space at The Ray demonstrated the capabilities of the technology HaptX has developed by having you interact with a number of virtual objects that allow you to “feel” things on your hand that aren’t really there: An apple (round shapes). A cube (edges and corners). A spider crawling on your palm. Heat and cold.

It may not be a project per se, but what HaptX demonstrated at Sundance is a relevant demo of where the technology is heading, and if you’re a storyteller or VR artist, it should definitely spur your imagination to think about the ways you’ll eventually be able to enhance the audience’s interaction with immersive storytelling through touch.

Chorus

Tyler Hurd’s 2017 VR project Chocolate was a brightly colored, psychedelic experience featuring brightly colored cats that you shot out of cannons on your arms. Chorus, Hurd’s latest project, presented by Within (the production studio of VR “thought leader” Chris Milk) and Annapurna Pictures, is a multiplayer game you play with six people at once. The premise is that each of the players randomly are assigned the avatar of one of six “female-ish” warriors and you just kind of fly through the game together, to the track “Chorus” by popular EDM group Justice, aka Xavier de Rosnay & Gaspard Augé.

Hurd has been exploring what music videos might be in VR for a while now, trying to figure out the right combination of immersivity and interactivity as he pushes against what our conception of  “music video” is and can be in this space; I can kind of see what he’s aiming to get at, and yet both Chocolate and Chorus leave me feeling that Hurd’s not quite there yet with figuring out what the term “music video” even means within a fully immersive and interactive context, and his content, stylistically speaking, is feeling very one-note.

For the Sundance installation of Chorus, described as an “epic ‘80s fantasy movie” experience, I was escorted into the installation space with five strangers, each of us assigned to a cubby and helped into bulky haptic vests and headsets. We were instructed by friendly docents to talk to each other, sing, dance, interact, and above all, not to be self-conscious about it. Essentially, here’s what happens in Chorus:  the Justice song plays (it’s a solid EDM track, so props there) and now you and the other five players are all very stylized female “warrior” type characters.

The experience of Chorus is one of constant motion as all six warriors are kind of surfing and zooming through this imaginary universe, and the idea is that you’re fighting off monsters by shooting lasers from your arms (lasers instead of cat cannons, same basic idea underlying the graphics) as you dance. You can’t control the speed at which you’re moving through the experience, and it takes you through it so quickly that there’s really not time to properly take in and observe the world you’re in long enough to really suspend disbelief, or even to really look at the other avatars much.

From the start I was so focused on trying to absorb everything that was moving around me that I quickly felt frustrated at the forced speed of the pace and especially the lack of ability for me to control that. It was rather like being shoved down a long, long slide with many trippy visuals around you; if I had had time to do it a second time being aware of that, I probably would have tried to just relax more and go with the flow rather than fighting against the constant sense of motion in the piece. On the plus side, it at least didn’t give me motion sickness.

I interacted verbally with my group and they were chatty overall. Lots of oooohs and ahhhhhs and “check out my lasers guys!” and that kind of stuff. But the structure of the experience is such that while you are  experiencing it socially with these other people, you’re not truly interacting with them, as the only real interactivity with each other is yelling over the music. It feels kind of like trying to talk to your friends in the middle of a dance floor during a rave while the music’s popping. There’s not a way for the players to interact physically with each other, or to cooperate in doing things physically within the experience, at least not that I found during the duration of my time in it.

Chorus evokes Chocolate visually, with lots of bright colors and trippy animation, not unlike what I would imagine it would feel like to fall into my vintage ‘80s Lisa Frank binder while on psychedelics; I suppose there’s something to be said for owning a particular artistic sensibility around your work, but cutesy aesthetics aren’t enough to make a VR experience compelling.

If you’re going to sell me that you have a six-player “epic ‘80s fantasy” experience featuring female warriors, man, I want some interactivity with that that goes beyond white-labeling last year’s cat cannon functionality reworked to shoot lasers out of my arms, and I want some story and character development that makes the female warriors feel actually incepted out of story and a hero’s journey, with enough substance wrapped around the experience to give me a connection to my character and the other avatars and to care why we are there.

From a U/X standpoint this project seems to be roughly be trying to build upon the U/X of both Chocolate and the 2017 Chris Milk/Within entry The Life of Us, a two-player experience in which the player “ran” through the entirety of evolution, assuming various evolutionary forms along the way, with the shifting avatars mapped to your body such that you could move your arms (or flap your wings) and kind of interact with the other player. Here you wave your arms around and shoot lasers, there are six people instead of two, and your avatar never changes. Same basic concept underneath, though, painted a very slightly new way.

I was left with the impression of being profoundly disappointed that a project like this, produced by both Within and Annapurna, incepted by Tyler Hurd (who has now had the good fortunate to have his work featured both at Sundance and SXSW), and presumably with some funding to actually create something really cool, didn’t push against the fabric of the technology more than Chorus.

All that talent and experience, presumably a project that actually had some decent financial backing and budget to work with, and the end result was profoundly underwhelming. Within is starting to feel like the Emperor who isn’t wearing any clothes, while the denizens keep ooohing and ahhhing over nothing much at all.

VR-I

On the other side of the room from Chorus, I checked out VR-I, a project that explored interactivity far more effectively. VR-I is a collaboration between Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin and the founders of Artanim, Caecilia Charbonnier and Sylvain Chagué (who were at New Frontier in 2016 with Real Virtuality, the first two-player VR piece I experienced at Sundance.

VR-I (yes, they could use a better name for this experience if it ever moves beyond the experimental and into the realm of monetization) is a deliberate exploration of multi-player interaction, and I found it infinitely more interesting and engaging than Chorus. VR-I was untethered, meaning the experience was run via laptops we wore in backpacks, and the five of us in the group together were free to move around the room and each other as we interacted with the content and with each other.

Once we were all settled in and in headset, a docent’s voice in our ear told us to try high-fiving each other. We did, and the latency-free result encouraged us to do more; soon we five strangers were spontaneously joining hands to dance in a circle and making a “soul train” style avatar fashion show.

The construct of VR-I plays considerably with scale and movement and encourages the group to move around and interact with each other and with the NPCs. It’s not a flashy piece, there’s no cats or laser cannons, but VR-I effectively explores the way a true multiplayer interaction within and immersive and interactive setting might work.

My one issue with VR-I was the backpack; the laptop powering the experience is heavy, and the docent didn’t know how (or just didn’t take time) to adjust the straps on each person to ensure the proper balance of the weight of the backpack with each person’s center of gravity. Consequently several of my group were complaining of the backpacks weight and it hurting their back while we were still in the experience, and the small of my own back was very sore for several days after. That’s not a good thing, and something the VR-I team needs to spend more time evaluating with user testing and fixing. Overall, though, while VR-I still feels more like a prototype than a ready-for-prime-time anything, it’s pretty cool and it’s a terrific exploration of the potentialities (and drawbacks) of multiplayer untethered VR experiences.

TendAR

At first glance TendAR is an odd choice for New Frontier; essentially it’s an app that demonstrates capturing human facial expressions to feed information to an AI database, which is generally something I think of in a marketing context; the preamble to the experience even touts it as the future of marketing, which makes it something that would seem more in context on the convention center floor at SXSW than at a prestigious film festival.

AI tech that reads and interprets facial expressions is also important, though, in the context of interactive storytelling and figuring out how to architect story with a fully immersive environment, so examining TendAR from that perspective, it’s not completely out of context here.

Consider Wolves in the Walls. If that experience was integrating the kind of facial expression reading demonstrated in TendAR and feeding that information in real time to an AI-driven script being written on the fly from a finite set of choices, such that the interaction with the character and even direction of the story were being generated dynamically, that would be super compelling. It would also be a way to make interaction with CGI characters feel more “human” because a dynamically generated story would be able to respond and react to the feedback it gets from you faster and in a way that more closely mimics actual human interaction.

What TendAR in its present exhibition at New Frontier shows is the potentiality of a piece of emerging tech that will, perhaps sooner than you think, change the way we can both write and experience story. Look at it from that context rather than as a purely marketing thing, and it makes more sense that it was here

DickGirl 3D(X)

DickGirl 3D(X), the piece at New Frontier that seemed, on the surface, to be the most baffling, turned out to be the most relevant and provocative piece showing among this year’s New Frontier VR installations, and perhaps the only one that I’d file under the designation “contemporary art.”

The very nice docent at the door of the DickGirl 3D(X) installation at New Frontier at Kimball Art Center looked up hopefully as I approached. “Would you like to experience DickGirl?” she asked brightly. “I’m not sure I… would I? What’s it about?” I said, curious how she’d respond. The friendly smile turned up a notch. “It’s probably easier for you to experience it yourself than for me to explain it.” She walked into the installation, leaving me no choice but to follow.

The docent suggested I sit on a comfy mat on the floor (er … not sure I want to sit on a mat where hundreds of people have been watching this X-Rated experience / digital art piece, but okay sure, just gonna trust that it’s well-sanitized between users and sit right down). She helps me into the headset, tells me the experience is running on a three minute loop, and quickly makes her escape. Now it’s just the two of us in here, it’s me and DickGirl and an amorphous blob and a three-minute loop abstractly exploring body, sex and consent..

I stayed in for 10 loops. 30 minutes of simulated cyberfucking. By about the fourth or fifth loop, I got it.

So what exactly is DickGirl 3D(X)? Google “dickgirl” and you’ll get a ton of variations on a similar theme, mostly pulled from hentai, a subset of Japanese anime featuring perverse acts / anime porn. At its simplest and most literal, DickGirl 3D(X) is a genderless (or maybe dual-gendered is a better word) humanoid modified from the Eva 3.0 avatar, a glowing white being with large breasts and a giant, electric blue, pulsing, throbbing dick. For the three minutes of the experience, DickGirl pleasures itself both on and with a large blob of not-very-sexy, non-reactionary, compliant grayish digital clay. If you sit and watch it on a loop three or four or ten times, as I did, the experience begins to feel like an abstract experiment in deconstructing arousal,  porn and the body in digital space.

DickGirl 3D(X) was created by the London-based artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen, who’s known for a body of work deeply exploring the body and capitalism, and virtual space as an extension of capitalist economy. DickGirl 3D(X) was exhibited back in 2016 as a part of an exhibition at Gasworks in London called “Second Sex War,” which featured this piece displayed on a monitor suspended from a wooden BDSM cruciform. DickGirl 3D(X) replicates fucking from the various “pose sets” that come programmed into the Eva avatar. The amorphous, genderless blob wraps itself around DickGirl, who pulls at its flexible blobbiness and moves through a wide array of simulated sexual positions viewed from many perspectives, slices of a digital sexual experience revealed in angles and moans and patterns of breathing.

Ultimately DickGirl 3D(X) dissects digitized sex and explores the commoditization of the human body and the sex act, and I found it to be the most originally incepted piece of digital art I experienced at New Frontier this year. It’s a bold and daring choice, an unapologetic placement of contemporary art in the midst of a lot of tech + art experimentation.

DickGirl 3D(X) in this program is exactly why Shari Frilot has the position of head curator of New Frontier. This is the kind of weird, challenging art that I want to see a festival like this putting out there; it simultaneously challenges both societal notions of the body and sexuality, and explores a more provocative and controversial theme through art.

Sundance Review: KUSAMA

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

Kusama is the top-selling female artist in the world, her art, which frequently features dots, mirrors,or both. As we learn from the film Kusama, directed by Heather Lenz, her journey to acceptance and fame in the art world was not an easy one. Lenz begins, more or less, at the beginning – in Kusama’s dark childhood, defined by the disapproval of her parents, in particular her mother, who forbade her daughter to be an artist – before taking the audience on a journey through Kusama’s later life and growth as an artist.

Kusama has said that her work, which centers broadly around the idea of the self being obliterated by patterns, reflects the hallucinations of repetitive dots and other patterns that have plagued her since she was a young child. She began painting at the age of ten, eventually corresponding with Georgia O’Keefe as a young adult before moving to New York City in 1958, where she became a part of the art scene there, staging “Happenings” in protest of the war and showcasing her work in exhibitions.

From 1958 to 1973 was a productive period in Kusama’s life artistically, yet even as her work clearly influenced (some might say was copied by) some of the better-known male artists in the NYC scene at that time, Kusama could not garner the level of attention and support that surrounded her white male peers. When her depression finally got bad enough, she retreated back home to Japan – where she was further rejected as “scandalous” for her art – especially the Happenings, which frequently involved nude dancers and live painting on nude models. In 1976, she checked herself into the mental hospital where she still lives voluntarily today; her studio is a couple of blocks from the hospital, and she paints there every day.

As far as the art world was concerned, when Kusuma moved back to Japan that was that; she all but disappeared from the art world, and might, like so many other female artists, have been lost to its history entirely, had not curator Alexandra Munroe brought her back into the forefront in 1989 with the exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective,” the first critical survey of the artist’s work, which thrust Kusama and her work back into the spotlight.

As far as documentaries go, this is straightforward – an homage to the artist and her work, not a scandalous tell-all – but the subject matter is so fascinating that it doesn’t matter; it’s almost as though the film itself, with its basic, linear structure, is content to play straight man to its colorful subject, allowing Kusama, her life and her art to tell their own story. In a Sundance year packed with strong female filmmakers and documentary subjects, Kusama shines a light on one of the most fascinating, original and enduringly influential artists of our time.

Sundance New Frontiers Review: BattleScar

Friday, January 26th, 2018

When you walk into the physical installation for BattleScar, a new virtual reality (VR)  project by filmmakers Martin Allais and Nico Casavecchia, you find yourself in a room that resembles a rather clean, well-decorated squat. Slip into the headset and you’re in 1978 New York City where you’ll follow Lupe, a Puerto Rican-American teen and her tough-talking fellow runaway Debbie, through their adventures navigating the ‘70s punk scene in Alphabet City. Debbie dreams of forming a punk rock band but can’t write lyrics, and she finds a connection in Lupe, an aspiring poet; together, the two of them explore New York’s Lower East Side, punk rock and poetry together.

Storywise, that’s pretty much it for this demo of BattleScar at Sundance New Frontier – the first of what’s intended to be a three-episode series exploring the year in Lupe’s life when it intersects with Debbie’s, using an innovative combination of animation and the immersiveness of virtual reality, with some creative explorations of the use of scale within VR and animation to guide the observer through a virtual story.

BattleScar doesn’t use controllers, a trend in VR content. Conventional wisdom of interactive VR design would dictate that no controllers equals no interactivity, but here the creators overcome that with some very creatively constructed design elements that guide you through Lupe’s story, taking you back-and-forth between fully immersive 360 scenes, and scenes in which a miniature diorama stage and characters appear in front of you, suspended. You can walk right up to it, peer closely at the miniature characters acting out their scene, examine it from different angles. Imagine you’ve stepped inside a graphic novel and it’s sprung to life around you, and occasionally there are call-out frames in 3D in which parts of scenes play out, and you’ve kind of got the idea here. It’s very cool and impressively imagined in spite of the lack of interactivity one tends to expect from room-scale VR.

I wouldn’t call BattleScar ready for primetime in this iteration, but I do consider it an exceptionally strong pilot episode for an immersive episodic series that shows tremendous promise. It may seem an odd choice for two male filmmakers to choose to write a story focused on two strong female characters (one of the filmmakers told me that production designer Mercedes Arturo, who has a “Story by” credit on the project, consulted with them to ensure that the story and characters felt authentically female). Rosario Dawson’s on-point narration further lends both credibility and a sense of who these girls are. The team also put a tremendous amount of work into the period authenticity of the piece, and the overall result feels very much like stepping into a graphic novel set in that time and place.

BattleScar eschews use of controllers in this iteration, which is a good choice for demonstrating how someone might be likely to experience it in a 360 headset like the Samsung Gear or the upcoming Oculus Go, hotly anticipated by 360 filmmakers for its significantly lower price point of $200. On the other hand, as someone who is super familiar with the ways in which one can interact in VR, there are also ways in which I’d love to see the filmmakers expand upon the interactivity of this iteration as they build it out. This story world is set among punk street kids in 1978 NYC and graffiti, while it may be thought of more as related to hip-hop, was also pivotal part of NYC’s hardcore punk scene. It would be cool to delve more into that and to tag graffiti alongside the characters. There’s also more that could be done with both Lupe’s journal and with the story’s references to “Howl” that are begging to be more fleshed out, and now that they’ve solidly nailed this iteration on a tight Sundance deadline, I hope to see the filmmakers build on what they’ve done and keep thinking outside the frame in exploring and pushing not just how to tell their story in immersive 360 space, but why they’re telling their story in 360.

BattleScar was co-produced by new VR production company Atlas V, which was formed late last year by VR veterans Arnaud Colinart (Notes on Blindness), Antoine Cayrol and Pierre Zandrowicz (I, Philip) and Fred Volhuer (Shuttershades); Kaleidoscope and 1st Ave Machine, and  the technical support the filmmakers had in realizing their storytelling vision is evident here. I was surprised to learn in talking to the filmmakers after I experienced BattleScar that neither Allais nor Casavecchia are actually VR developers – they are filmmakers who had this project they’d come up with, and one of them had a friendship with someone who made an intro so they could pitch it, and now here they are at Sundance.

This may seem like a minor side-note to this review, but for someone who works within the VR space as I do, BattleScar heralds an important shift in the pattern: Up to and including last year’s Sundance New Frontier and the 2017 SXSW Virtual Cinema (for which I served on the inaugural jury), I would say the vast majority of content we were seeing was being developed around the technology first, with story second. Atlas V in particular was founded with an intent to support the creation of content by filmmakers who don’t necessarily have VR development chops, but who are highly creative storytellers; if they succeed at this model, it would be a huge and favorable shift for other filmmakers looking to transition into the wide-open immersive storytelling frontier.

 

Sundance Review: THE DEVIL WE KNOW

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

One of the most genuinely scary films at Sundance this year, The Devil We Know shines a light on something almost all of us come in contact with:  Teflon – that magical non-stick compound found on the cookware you probably have in your kitchen right now, as well as in a lot of other places you don’t even think about, from sprays used to protect upholstery and carpets from spills and stains, to your Patagonia ski jacket – even in your dental floss.  You may recall hearing about Teflon in the news over the past few years, in relation to a class action lawsuit filed by a large group of folks who worked at DuPont or lived in areas contaminated by their factories, when DuPont knowingly dumped toxic chemicals directly into the area’s drinking water supply.

What you may not know about is the science around why C-8 is bad for humans; you probably also don’t know that studies of C-8 have found that it’s present in the blood of 99% of humans in the US.  You, and you, and you … and yes, me too – all of us have been exposed to C-8 and carry it in our blood. We didn’t sign up to have a chemical like C-8 in our blood; it was fed to us in fried eggs and pork chops cooked on non-stick skillets, a chemical condiment none of us ordered.

Producer-director Stephanie Soechtig, who previously brought us the excellent documentaries Under the Gun (about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings), Fed Up (about our addiction to sugar and the obesity epidemic) and Tapped (about the negative economic and environmental impact of the bottled water industry), is an exquisitely talented documentary filmmaker whose career started with producing documentaries for “20/20″ and “Primetime Live,” and all that experience shows here, with a tightly woven story full of suspense and told through the lenses of several of the West Virginia citizens on the plaintiff side of the DuPont lawsuits, as well as through excerpts of video depositions of many DuPont higher-ups.

The crux of the film, and the DuPont lawsuit it’s about, centers around the toxicity and very long half-life in humans of a nasty little chemical called C-8. Put simply, it’s the chemical that makes Teflon slick, providing the super-slipperiness that keeps your food from sticking to pans and your kids’ spills from sticking to your sofa and carpet.

Soechtig tends to have a particular point she’s guiding the audience to understand, and here she expertly steers us down a clear path through the mountains of information surrounding this complicated legal case, which center around a class-action lawsuit filed against DuPont in 2001. Soechtig constructs her own case for her film with as much care as a lawyer would put into building a case for a lawsuit, selecting compelling subjects, letting them tell their part of the story, and then weaving it all together into an intricate whole that breaks down a lot of complicated science around understanding what C-8 is and why it was bad.

It won’t surprise fans of Soechtig’s work that the other part of the task she takes on here is shining a spotlight on the greed of the execs at the top of the DuPont food chain (not surprisingly, none of them responded to interview requests). She artfully – DuPont would perhaps argue “selectively” –  uses their own words vis-a-vis video depositions from the case to  underscore how greed and arrogance played into DuPont’s decisions around the continued use and manufacturing of C-8, which they quite likely would have kept right on using and dumping had not these average folks from West Virginia taken on the corporate behemoth.

The people on whom Soechtig focuses to tell the plaintiff’s side of the story are compelling as individuals as well. There’s the crusty farmer who sold part of his farm to DuPont and subsequently documented the deaths of over 150 of his cattle and the deformities of countless calves that ultimately helped form part of the backbone of the case (one DuPont memo labels him dismissively as a “con man”).

All of these folks in this film have stories that are compelling and interesting and in some cases tragic, but as anyone who watches a lot of documentary film can tell you, a sympathetic subject (or even a class action lawsuit full of sympathetic subjects) doesn’t make a film good in and of itself, but in this case we’re in good hands. For the most part, Soechtig eschews the melodrama in which corporate expose docs sometimes overly indulge, in favor of facts, even as she leans on the human side of the story to make her case, and The Devil We Know kept the Sundance premiere audience fully riveted its duration; by two-thirds of the way through, folks around me were spontaneously applauding and talking back to the screen, which for me is a good sign that a film has struck a chord.

Soechtig again expertly weaves together all the complicated pieces and science to present a compelling case within a documentary structured like a suspense film, and by the end of it all I could think of was how many times I’ve cooked food for my kids on non-stick skillets, and about getting rid of any Teflon pans in my house post-Sundance, post-haste. Cast iron was good enough for my grandmother and now, after seeing The Devil We Know, I think it’s going to be good enough for me.

Sundance Review: THE TALE

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

One of the most buzzed-about films is “The Tale,” writer-director Jennifer Fox’s powerful, personal story based her childhood experience of being groomed and sexually abused at the age of 13 by a beloved track coach.  Laura Dern, outstanding in every frame, plays the adult Jennifer, while 15-year-old Isabelle Nélisse plays Jenny at 13. Best-known for her expansive personal documentaries like the epic “Flying,”  Fox skillfully weaves a fascinating journey through layers of perception and misperception skewed by innocence and naiveté.

Jennifer, in the film, is als a documentary filmmaker who lives her life at a frenzied, frantic pace that will register as immediately familiar to many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse or trauma; any good therapist will tell you that when you have buried issues your mind doesn’t want to deal with, one of the ways it deals with that is by keeping itself very busy all the time so it doesn’t have to unravel painful truths.

When we meet Jennifer she’s returning home from yet another work trip to a far-flung place to find her mom (Ellen Burstyn) has left a slew of very upset voice mail messages about something she’s found in going through Jennifer’s old keepsakes – a handwritten story written when Jennifer was 13-year-old Jenny – about a young girl’s sexual deflowering by her running coach, and her relationship with the coach and his married girlfriend. Jennifer’s story to herself has always been that this was a special, romantic relationship; now that her mother’s raised the question, though, she’s forced to consider: has she been hiding the truth about a sexual predator behind a romanticized tale of  first love her entire adult life? The documentary filmmaker turns a lens upon herself, using the techniques she teaches her students to use on their interview subjects to uncover buried truths within herself.

Performances are solid all around. Dern is a reliably terrific actress in anything and she delivers a practically perfect turn here, charting Jennifer’s emotional with a raw anguish and desperation to understand and confront her truth. Rapper Common, as Jennifer’s sympathetic, endlessly patient partner, is a steady presence throughout the film, balancing out Jennifer’s increasingly frantic energy. Jason Ritter simultaneously plays both with and against his usual good-guy type, delivering a career-high performance as the charismatic, charming track coach, Billy. As for Nélisse, the young actress shines with a mature, nuanced performance in the kind of role we would have seen Dakota or Elle Fanning inhabit not too many Sundances back (for the curious, Nélisse and Ritter were filmed separately for the sex scenes between Jenny and Billy. Nélisse was shot on a vertical bed with the camera turned sideways, and Ritter’s scenes were filmed with an adult body double).

The intricacies unfold slowly, evoking structurally the way memory itself works: we see Jenny as a young girl, and Jennifer the woman, going between past and present, trying to make sense of what really happened that summer, as Jennifer the documentary filmmaker gets closer to discovering the truth she’s hidden from herself her entire adult life. Fox doesn’t shy away from looking squarely at the spots that make us cringe, revealing in vivid detail how Billy slowly, carefully “grooms” Jenny over months of building trust. It’s a hard film to watch – Nélisse, who’s 15 but looks more like 12 here, seems so tiny, so young and naive, and Billy so smoothly charming and practiced in his grooming of her and you want to reach out to her to make it stop – but it’s all so exquisitely crafted you can’t help but be drawn into Fox’s sad – and all too common – tale.

Sundance Review: NIGHT COMES ON

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

In her feature directorial debut, Night Comes On, writer-director Jordana Spiro, whose creepy-yet-touching short Skin made a mark, takes us into the world of Angel (Dominique Fishback), a young girl released from juvenile detention on the eve of her 18th birthday. Angel’s released into the world with few people to whom she can turn for help or support. As with Skin, Spiro shows deftness as a visual storyteller, unafraid to allow the camera to linger on the little moments that make a compelling character. Life has been hard for Angel, a smart girl who did actually once have plans and goals before circumstances sent her careening down a self-destructive path. We follow Angel throughout the film, from a dreamy, gorgeously shot opening sequence as she wanders from place to place, seemingly aimlessly, observing other people and the world but not quite taking part in it. Angel’s loneliness, her disconnect, are palpable.

Spiro deftly unravels what could have been a lot of overly complicated exposition to set up Angel’s story with a precise, tightly constructed opening sequence that reveals Angel’s back story with poetic minimalism, mostly revealed through Angel’s probation interview, and the subsequent conversation she overhears through a closed door as a group of unsympathetic adults discuss whether she should be released.  With a clipped, almost clinical coldness, we, along with Angel, hear them dissect her sad, brief life history to this point: Mother murdered in the family home. Father accused but released on a vague technicality. Sexual abuse in foster care, unreported for a year (at this a curt, female voice interjects, “A year? Why did it take her so long to report it?”).

After her time in juvie, Angel’s been trained to respond (or at least bend to)rules and authority, and so she dutifully goes to her parole officer (NYPD Blue’s James McDaniel, tonally perfect here) who, with a stern, detached clinicality mirroring the opening probation hearing scene, informs her in no uncertain terms that no one cares whether she succeeds or fails, so she better learn to take care of herself and set some goals.

What Angel doesn’t tell her PO is that she does have a goal, three of them actually: 1) obtain a gun and 2) kill her father with it, for which she needs to 3) get his address from the PO. When he (wisely) won’t give it to her, she calls a relative, who tells her to ask her sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), who’s been having unsupervised visits with their dad at his place. Soon the two sisters are reunited and embarking on one journey with two very different goals: Angel seeks to avenge their mother’s death without regard for what happens after that, and Abby seeks to reconnect with her sister and escape the perils of life in foster care..

In one particularly moving scene later in the film, Angel and Abby have randomly ended up on Long Beach Island in a nicely upper middle class home hanging out with three nicely upper middle class teens Abby made friends with on a bus ride with Angel to find their father’s house. Their new friend’s home is nicely upper middle class, and all three girls are blissfully unaware of any difference between Angel and Abby and themselves, in part because of Abby’s intelligence and her ability to immediately fit in with these girls.

Angel looks at pictures of the girl on a wall, and Spiro pulls the camera with methodical intent, back and back and back until what we see is this lost, sad girl whose “normal” was taken away from her when her mother was murdered, staring at this seemingly endless wall capturing the life of the girl in all its painful (to Angel at least) privilege. As Angel stands there taking this girl’s perfectly normal life, seemingly unattainable for her and Abby, the class divide, the stark difference between their lives is underscored and appended with an exclamation point.

Authenticity here is totally on point. Spiro’s co-writer Angelica Nwandu was herself a child of the foster care system, and Spiro herself incepted this tale while volunteering at Peace4Kids, which helps kids living in foster care “grow and discover their significance.

It’s not unsurprising that Fishback turns in a strong performance; tonally, she’s practically perfect, portraying Angel with a stoic, detached surface that makes you ache for the depth of her carefully concealed rage and hate toward her father, which peeks out from time to time. In spite of her circumstances, though, Angel never comes across as a victim. Newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall, who beat out a slew of other young girls for the role of Abby, makes a startling, powerful debut turn; a moment of explosive buried rage and fear bursting out of her was made all the more shocking because she’s otherwise such a sweet, painfully hopeful kid who – like all  of the 400,000+ kids living in foster care on any given day in the US – just wants a normal life and a chance to pursue her dreams as far as her smarts can take her.

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.