FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #106 – “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (dir. Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg)

Poster for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a break from SIFF to return to the swashbuckling world of diminishing returns that is Pirates of the Caribbean, pondering the series’ future, and considering whether if Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) will ever slip his earthly bonds and meet the Fast and Furious crew in space (37:44).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Cruel Mistress” by Flogging Molly, and the track “He’s a Pirate“, from the soundtrack to the first Pirates film by Klaus Badelt, because the series’ various derivative versions of this track have yet to match the original in quality.

Listen above, or download: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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‘Silicon Valley’ Showdown: “The Big Sick”, “Entanglement” (#SIFF2017)

Poster for "The Big Sick"

What I knew going into this film is what everyone will know – that comedian Kumail Nanjiani is finally playing a lead role in a deeply personal story that he co-wrote, about his courtship with his wife Emily (Zoe Kazan). That they would explore the pitfalls and difficulties of cross-cultural romance between a first-generation immigrant whose parents wish him to have an arranged marriage, and an American therapist from North Carolina. What I didn’t know is that following a single act of naturalistic romance (and a bit of that “comedians playing themselves” stuff you see on FX shows and Judd Apatow films), Emily would exit the film into a serious health crisis, and the next courtship would begin – between Kumail and his future wife’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). The Big Sick never ceased to be a comedy, even as it was becoming a harrowing family medical drama. There were multiple jokes that caused me to guffaw for so long that I missed the next two or three lines of dialogue, in between revelations about Emily’s continuing decline and mysterious ailment. This is a story like nothing I’ve ever seen, except perhaps Jonathan Levine‘s 50/50 put through a filter of ‘How I Met Your Mother‘. Every moment of this film felt completely human to me, and that’s what made it work so well. Not the jokes – which were hilarious – nor any uncertainty over the film’s ultimate outcome. The tension of The Big Sick comes from the notion that these are real people dealing with some real shit. 

They meet ordinarily enough. Kumail is performing on-stage, Emily woos him (“WOO!”) when he asks if anyone here is from Pakistan, and he finds her afterward to give her some flirtatious chiding for heckling during his set. She flirts right back, they end up back at his place for a hookup. After, she gets dressed under a sheet, and the banter continues over the absurdity of her getting dressed under cover after they’ve just had sex. I mention this moment in particular because not only does the dialogue never cease to be completely comfortable and naturalistic, but the relationship (which we see in vignette and montage form over the course of the first act) is replete with details like this, that seem too oddly specific or embarrassing to not be true. I do wonder how I might’ve felt about these moments if I didn’t know that these two end up as the married screenwriters of this film, but I’m not sure how many people will have that experience. Many of these moments felt, perhaps, a bit heightened, but all of them felt real. 

And then it gets very ugly very quickly. I won’t spoil the complete chain of events, but Kumail’s family expectations that he’ll marry a Pakistani girl (that they choose for him) butt up against their relationship, the latter takes a dive, and then she gets sick. That plot description usually portends an aggressive turn to the dramatic, but I must emphasize that this never stopped being a comedy. Emily’s friends call Kumail because he has just been her boyfriend, she’s in serious medical trouble, and they’re unable to stay any longer because of jobs, academics, life… He realizes how much he cares, when he is suddenly thrust into responsibility for her so early into the relationship, in the form of a doctor asking him one question after another before Emily is dropped into a medically-induced coma, with his authorization, as her…husband. 

Her parents arrive and are outright hostile toward him, because they know that (as they see it) he broke their daughter’s heart. And yet, they bond. This is some messy, human nonsense right here. There are no clean lines or definitions to these relationships. It is completely unclear to the people involved whether Kumail and Emily will be together at the end of this, or whether these three will have any reason to ever speak again. But still they bond. Because the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all in the trenches on Emily’s team. The parents are a fine portrait of unfathomable worry, but Holly Hunter is particularly masterful. The three make a reluctant foray to a comedy club where Kumail’s show goes delightfully awry (and both parents get shockingly profane for the first time), and they find themselves getting hammered at Emily’s apartment. Kumail and Beth decide to drink whiskey and “stress-eat” after Terry passes out on the couch, and they try to talk about anything but Emily’s impending surgery. Later on, Terry sleeps at Kumail’s place and they chat awkwardly in the dark about the struggles in Terry’s marriage. All of this works. These scenes have time to breathe, and ring constantly true. These people grab onto each other –  not without hesitation – in an impossible situation, and they remain raucously funny as they handle it.

Kazan ultimately plays a side character, and does a fine job with it in the first and last acts. But this is not a choice I would’ve understood coming from screenwriter Emily V. Gordon if not for the specific turns of this story. Ultimately, Gordon’s greatest contribution to the film (apart, presumably, from an insight into how her fictionalized parents should act), is respect for movie-Emily’s agency at the film’s end. This is merely a chapter in the couple’s love story, it’s not one in which she plays a prominent role, and that’s fine. It’s not a fairy tale, and she doesn’t wake up feeling any differently about the issues that drove her and movie-Kumail apart in the first place. This works for the same reason that the relationship between Kumail, Beth, and Terry works- it’s honest and uncompromising, and showcases the best of each of them. 

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Still from "Entanglement"

I kinda want to drop by Thomas Middleditch‘s house and ask if he’s okay. His character, Ben Larsen, begins the movie Entanglement with an elaborate suicide attempt, and then we flash to him brooding (and alive) six months later. I last saw him play lead in Joshy, a film in which his fiancee commits suicide, and then we flash to him brooding (and alive) six months later. This is an actor and comedian that I quite enjoy – his awkward straight-man Richard on Silicon Valley is a classic character who has to deliver some surprising emotional range through the ungainliness of a nerdy developer, and his repeated appearances on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast have shown him to be a talented improv comic as well. Jess Weixler cut her teeth as the lead in…er…Teeth, a horror film with a single, repeated joke/scare that she was a uniquely essential component for, and she has made occasional TV appearances since. Like Anna Camp before her, she is generally a delightful, underused presence. Keep these compliments in mind, because Entanglement is flat-out terrible, and I have a difficult time blaming these actors for it.

When Hanna (Weixler) meets Ben at a drugstore while shoplifting, I realized I may have lost all tolerance for invasive meet-cutes. Perhaps it was Bad Santa 2, in which multiple women seduce Billy Bob Thornton while he is blind-drunk and covered in a urine-soaked Santa suit, that pushed me over the edge, but I just have a hard time buying that so many of these brooding sad sacks are beating women off with a stick. Yes, the scenes are usually fun, and actors are cast for their mutual chemistry (Bad Santa 2 being a notable exception on both counts). But that does not mean that meeting in a random drugstore is still a thing that strangers do in 2017, and the film’s forced whimsy and shallow female characters don’t end there. Ben’s neighbor Tabby (Diana Bang) drops in while he’s out and cleans his apartment, apparently not for the first time. It bugs him, he says he needs to ask for his key back, but she keeps doing it. This irritating pattern only continues as the film goes on. He’s getting therapy from a friend who’s a child psychologist. She points out how weird this is. He’s seemingly only there to banter insultingly with her child patients, one of whom gives him a child’s fairytale book that helps him seduce…I’m getting ahead of myself. Ben’s father has a heart attack, and reveals, on his near-deathbed (which Ben doesn’t seem overly concerned about) that Ben’s parents very nearly adopted a baby girl, right before his mother found out she was pregnant with him, and so they gave her back. This seemingly innocuous factoid throws Ben for a loop for some reason. He could’ve had a sister this whole time! He returns to the serial-killer yarn board in his apartment (where he maps out all of the different events in his life in an effort to see where it all went wrong), and determines that his nearly-sister is the key to his future happiness.

I would’ve been fine with accepting this odd motivation on its own terms, but I can’t overstate how poorly Ben values his hypothetical sister as a human being. Each time he discusses what she might mean to him, it’s always in terms of what she can offer him – she might’ve taught him how to dance, or talk to girls. She might have reminded him to call their mom on Mother’s Day. Somebody buy the kid a smartphone – Siri can do most of that these days. And of course (of course) it turns out to be Hanna. And of course they have a weird romance. And of course it gets whimsical really fast, with the manic pixie dream girl tropes plastered across the camera like paintballs even when they’re not visually enhanced by actual CGI weirdness – underwater jellyfish, faux-stop-animated deer, floating planets on a wall…

Let it never be said that I can’t cherish whimsy – even the sad, brooding sort. Amélie and Eternal Sunshine are my jam. Swiss Army Man, which featured a bromance between Paul Dano and a farting corpse, was in my Top 10 for last year. And I’m sure some will say that this film’s shallow plot twist justifies its excess. Let me be clear: it does not. Entanglement is aggressively bothersome, and no narrative trickery – even the type that attempts to recontextualize the film as a psychological drama – can make that right. Its musical score is a ceaseless, invasive loop of callow piano punctuated seemingly at random by 1950s Americana deep cuts, and its dialogue is a torrent of superfluous, rapid-fire banter intercut with strained, half-understood physics or textile metaphors. And more to the point, there is not a single authentic moment or human interaction in this entire film. Even without such a strong counterpoint as The Big Sick to compare it to, Entanglement falls flat, smashes through, and plunges into a bottomless hole in space-time.

FilmWonk rating: 1 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #105 – “Time Trap” (dir. Ben Foster, Mark Dennis) (#SIFF2017)

Poster for "Time Trap"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel jump into their favorite perennial time-bubble, the Seattle International Film Festival (which opens today!) (20:38).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

There are three public screenings of Time Trap at SIFF 2017, two of them this weekend (Friday 5/19 and Saturday 5/20), and another on 5/30 up in Shoreline. Check out the film’s SIFF page for tickets and details.

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Time Trap (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2016 Seattle Shorts Film Festival (Sunday)

SIFF Film Center projection room

The sixth annual Seattle Shorts Film Festival played at the SIFF Film Center this past weekend. I had a chance to preview some of the festival selections, which you can read about in my previous post.


Streets Don’t Love Me

Directed by James Winters
Music performed by TNT, Sir Mix-A-Lot, L.K.

The video is a competent execution of some pretty standard hip-hop tropes – a floating, spinning camera in front of singers with gold records and awards on the wall behind them. The subject matter? Get money, get fame, any way you can. We also see slick footage of the men driving around in cars, with a bit of amber-tinged overhead drone photography of Seattle streets for good measure. And I’d be lying if I said that all of this didn’t please me as a Seattle critic for sheer novelty’s sake, even if it might not impress the spoiled critics from NYC or LA who have presumably seen such a thing before. TNT is a capable and genuinely catchy performer, but Sir Mix-A-Lot is what makes this song truly special. And if there’s one thing that the the man born as Anthony Ray makes abundantly clear the moment he starts smoothly blasting into the mic with his stylish top-hat and signature goatee, it’s that he’s still got it. Is he suckin’ up game? Yes sir. And he’s expounding some history for these youngbloods. The song, and its smooth-voiced chorus by L.K., get downright wistful by the end – these men lament the passage of time and think upon an uncertain future. The themes may be common, but they feel sincere – and sorely needed right now.

Watch it here.

Release Me

Directed by Jeremy J. Hawkes
Music performed by Adalia Tara

I’m not a music critic, but I’m going to try my best here, because this is an odd, mostly a cappella, song that I quite liked in the end, and I think I’ll struggle to explain exactly why. The singer, Adalia Tara, appears in a series of shots wearing various face paints, forming a minor-keyed, percussive harmony with herself (in that deliberately unnerving YouTube-style). The background effect is genuinely ominous, so when Tara bursts out the heroic choral vocals, it creates an instant catharsis as she commands the listener’s respect and attention. And yet, she delivers this demand from multiple vulnerable stances, backlit, kneeling in a robe, and alternating with another interesting shot, which featured no visible singing whatsoever. She writhes and dances, alternately in a squat and on her knees before a black curtain, with a slightly soft focus, her hair unnaturally attacking her head to the beat of the song as she floats out of focus and into the background. The full effect – that of a human as a herky-jerky puppet – set against vocals that proclaim that the broken singer was “never yours to fix”, is hauntingly beautiful.

Watch it here.

Cheatin’

Music performed by Derek Reckley

The singer identifies himself at the outset as a pile of clichés. As the guitar twang’d to life, I initially couldn’t argue, and waited for the aggressively generic country song – featuring a middle-aged singer with an awkward mustache making upbeat love to a muscle car in the desert – to be over. This song actively irritated me even as I hated myself for finding it catchy and shared it with my Carolina wife when I got home. And then he hurtles his wedding ring, it lands in a tight closeup, and one silhouette fades into another and then another. The tires grind, the fighter jets soar overhead, the preposterous poetic voiceover begins, and the perils of Poe’s Law become apparent as always. As the singer wipes the sweat off his brow with the American flag, I was 80% sure it was a pastiche, like Zladko or Gunther or Dewey Cox or Borat. He’s in on the joke. Come on. He has to be. Maybe 70%? This is ridiculous and enjoyable. 63% tops. To be continued? Fuck, I have no idea.

Watch it here.

Calling Me Home

Directed by Tonya Skoog
Music performed by Jessica Lynne

Odd juxtaposition of an upbeat Northwest country song – performed by Jessica Lynne with some slick guitar work standing beside a pickup truck at a lake – with a harrowing dialogue-free drama about an imminent high school grad (Rachelle Henry) finding out that she’s adopted, and embarking on a search for her birth parents. The drama is essentially a silent film playing beneath the song, relying entirely on visual beats (notes and printed materials) and the actors’ performances to carry the emotion of the story and song, starting from the happy family and imminent graduation to the adoption twist. I’ve never quite seen a music video like this – except perhaps attached to a feature soundtrack in the ’90s – it’s a odd hybrid, which is, frankly, exactly the sort of thing I hope to find at a shorts festival. The parts and the whole work quite well, and it all adds up to a tale that feels real enough to be autobiographical for someone involved.

Watch it here.

Oceancrest

Directed by Kyle Woodiel
Music performed by My Body Sings Electric

I’ll skip to the meat of this- much of this video takes place on the gray-sand beaches of the Pacific Northwest, and virtually all of the beach cinematography actively bothered me. The soft focus, speed-ramping, and color manipulation conspired to make a place I love look as generic and bland as possible. I couldn’t connect with the singer’s long lost love when she was in this place, because the artifice of the entire shoot took me right out of her performance. Everything at the police station worked much better, including lead singer Brandon Whalen‘s powerful vocals in front of a suspect line of visibly silent backup singers and catchy, but entirely off-screen electric guitar riffs. All of the on-the-nose imagery seemed determined to drag the love interest back to the beach – as the singer says, “You pick me up”, bam – she’s back on the beach picking up sand. Some of these shots (such as the one above) looked difficult, and probably took a talented cinematographer to pull off. But they amounted to nothing more than a giant, ambiguous distraction. This is a solid song inside of a video that actively and repeatedly made it worse.

Watch it here.

Dying

Directed by Brady Hall
Music performed by Ephrata

This song starts as the very definition of background music – wispy, Enya-type stuff that plays over the emotional climax of a Grey’s Anatomy episode. Then there’s blood dripping sideways from multiple hands, the lead singer is a vampire, everyone’s covered in blood, and a series of shots ensue, oscillating wildly back and forth between hilarious and grotesque. The rotating four-way split shot of heads dripping blood in all four directions was particularly bizarre (and I resisted the temptation to include it above). While grotesquerie isn’t a dealbreaker for me (see my previous praise for the manic weirdos of Die Antwoord), it doesn’t hold any intrinsic appeal for me, and the imagery got a bit repetitive over a song that was equally tedious. As the bridge says, “They don’t know what to say to you, they don’t have the slightest clue.” That ably sums me up.

Watch it here.

Behind the Wall

Written and directed by Bat-Sheva Guez

This experimental short features an injured ballerina (Alexandra Turshen) who has just moved into an old apartment building as she recuperates from a twisted ankle (or some other injury which requires wearing a surgical boot). Having worn one of these boots personally for six weeks once, I immediately bought into the impact on this woman’s life, but the film accentuates it further with the odd, but apropos choice of having her remain completely mute for the entire film. This device is clear, and functions quite well as a mechanism to explore the dancer’s isolation and artistic stagnation as she tackles the long, boring process of recovery. And this is before she discovers the magical holes in her apartment wall that allow her to see her neighbors (Karen Lynn Gorney and Lou Patane) and…herself (also Turshen) in whimsical dance-o-vision. The sound design during these sequences is masterful (and made me glad to be seeing the film in a theater with surround-sound), with the building’s creaks and bangs providing a rhythmic soundtrack for the characters to dance to. This is quite literally the premise of a horror or psychological film put to downright delightful use. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but as Turshen meets her neighbors (who live down the hall, not through the wall she’s been surveilling them through), I just found myself smiling the whole time as the actors performed the delicate vocal dance of interrupting Turshen in perfect cadence to prevent her from responding to the barrage of well-meaning questions for the new girl.

More info here.

Cupido

Directed by Natali Voorthuis
Music performed by The Kik

Simple, fun, and incomplete. The Kik, a Dutch band, reminds me – like Japan’s The Wild Ones before them – that the ’60s beat rock style is catchy in a way that transcends language and time. The song is the upbeat lament of a poor young man with the misfortune to fall in love with a woman already in a relationship. It has the added dimension – only modern insofar as it’s discussed in the open like it ain’t no thing – that the object of his affections is a lesbian (or at least is in a same-sex relationship). And that’s about it. The singer rails merrily against Cupid for being so mischievous as to inflict a doomed crush upon him, and it feels like there’s a third verse missing where the singer gets on with his life. But then, I suppose The Beatles were never really about the three-act structure either. The animation, in a crude Flash-style, was quite fun, and included amusing renditions of Cupid’s other misfired arrows, including one that forces a whale to fall in love with…the planet Mars? Douglas Adams would approve.

Watch it here.

One of them Days

Directed by Cole Brewer
Written by Brewer and Baylee Sinner
Music performed by Lanford Black

This airy college-rock anthem is fine, but the video made it better. The film tells the story of a band having a house party and going on the road, but each shot contains a multitude of implied stories. We meet each band member (and perhaps a few strays), identified on-screen by a single stereotype (The Douche, The Flirt, The Caretaker, etc.) – but every shot of these people told a bit more about them through their performances and invited me to speculate further. One member of the band is clearly not enjoying himself, which is an odd thing to see in a party video, and kept me wondering. I particularly liked the moment when the group mom/Caretaker (Kyle Sinner) squirts everyone with hand sanitizer for an impromptu road bath before a very brief (literally 30 seconds long) performance beneath a freeway overpass that caps off the video. And everyone looks very put-together for it, for having had such a long day and night.

Watch it here.

Before I Die

Directed by Katherine Joy McQueen
Music performed by South of Roan

Look, I love a harmonic duet, particularly with a wide gulf in vocal pitch (usually, but not exclusively, male-female), and this was no exception. South of Roan are a pair of lovely and complementary voices, and the video has significantly better cinematography than some of the others here. That said, I didn’t care for the song or the video. I’ve always found this sort of upbeat death-worship a bit cheesy and off-putting – and this is a song that literally ends with, “And I pray she dies right next to me.” Not exactly the proclamation of love that the video – a great big pile of narratively-ambiguous backwoods imagery, plus furniture-building – is trying to sell me on.

Watch it here.

Lay Me Down

Directed by Tatjana Green & Nazar Melconian & Matt Barnett
Music performed by Fortunate Ones

Now that’s more like it. This video was shot in a static location – a church blooming with almost entirely natural light – but as I seek to describe it further, I find I’m hitting many of the same beats as South of Roan‘s country ballad above. This is another upbeat harmonic duet that’s ostensibly about death – but between the two, this one seems like it actually has something interesting to say. This Newfoundland pair stands back-to-back and belts out the chorus together, but then they perform alternating solo verses. The lyrics – which seem to tell the tale of a mother and father reassuring their daughter that her long-lost love will safely return – evoke a kind of hope amid desperation, like some calamity is waiting to descend upon the family, that they’re desperately and futilely trying to escape. And it’s all very catchy and performed with just the right mix of aggression and sincerity. The vocals are rendered in AM radio static, and the upbeat folk rock style that lands somewhere between The White Stripes and at least one version of The Decemberists. Most enjoyable.

Watch it here.

So it Goes

Written and directed by Justin Carlton

In this short, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a singer-songwriter dealing with a bout of writer’s block in her home studio. After staying up all night and blowing off plans with her sister (clearly not for the first time), she wanders to a lovely park and finds her muse – an unnamed puckish figure in a suit who is attached to a bicycle with a U-Lock. The stranger is played by Ryan Kattner, who also wrote the film’s original music – and the magical realism ensues quickly, as Winstead and Kattner immediately begin a choreographed song-and-dance number set to the music of Van Morrison, and it is magnificent.

My only real beef with this film is that it changed its title from its original Kickstarter pitch. It’s not that Studio Apartment was such a striking title, but a cursory google search (which I used to find the website below) indicates there are approximately ten billion gazillion short films called So It Goes already in existence, and it’s not a title that says very much. This film is a taut little musical delight – and the filmmaker shouldn’t have gone out of his way to make it sound trite. I didn’t mean to rhyme there, but…so it goes.

More info here.


Last Night in Edinburgh

Directed by Bita Shafipour
Written by Shafipour and Christopher M. Boyd

Before I discuss this film, here’s a little free advice for any festival programmers out there. This film was the first in a block called Raising Awareness. It may just be the glut of fake news on Facebook during this election cycle, but I’m just gonna go ahead and say, “awareness” is overrated. Empathy, rationality, understanding, intellectual curiosity? All fine. But people’s attention spans are finite, and by announcing “awareness” as the highest ambition of this block, you’re essentially telling me in advance that all of these films will be Very Special Episodes that I can watch, feel feelings about, and immediately forget. Message films are fine. But in my experience, it’s better when they sneak up on you a bit.

Case in point, Last Night in Edinburgh is a solid family drama about an Indian family in Scotland, and it announced its intentions in the very first scene as a film with an Important Message. That the message is about human trafficking didn’t make it any less clunky. In the scene above, one of the daughters, Zahra (Hiftu Quasem) has a bizarre back-and-forth with her Scottish boyfriend (Ikram Gilani) about a lesson they’d apparently learned recently, that forced marriage and abduction are “still a major problem in certain communities”, and that if you’re about to be abducted out of the country as a young UK girl, you should carry a spoon in your underwear so that it will set off the airport metal detector, as a final salvo to alert the authorities. It’s an entirely useful and helpful message that lands much better when it’s revealed naturalistically at the end of the film. And amid laughing banter between a pair of teenagers, it felt about as naturalistic as product placement for Subway on this blog. That’s Subway. Eat Fresh (Alternate slogan: “Look, we didn’t know. We make sandwiches. We’re not detectives”).

I feel as if I’m harping on this point, but the fact is, this was part of a block of semi-didactic films that mostly managed to deliver their messages less awkwardly, and the film is a pretty well-rendered family drama apart from this. Zahra and her younger sister (Hannah Ord) are about to be shipped out of the country to marry much older men, and their parents (Amir Rahimzadeh and Maryam Hamidi) are not only complicit in this sale of their flesh and blood, but they spend much of the film trying to convince the girls that it is an honor, and they should be happy. It’s disturbing to behold, and all of the actors pull off the tension marvelously.

More info here.

Trapped

Directed by Long Tran

Let’s have some real-talk here for a second. Transgender people aren’t new, but they’re conceptually new to a lot of people this year, and the cisgendered community is still learning the proper language to talk about (and to) them. And against this backdrop, I’ve seen more than a few documentaries of this sort – essentially biopics of a young trans person who is exploring or explaining their new identity. At this point, I’m just happy to see one of these portraits where the story being told is mostly a happy one. Brooklyn (née Bruce) Sabado Buenaventura is a recent high school grad from a Seattle suburb who identifies as a transgender girl, and as told in this 4 1/2 minute documentary (also made by high school students), I’m left inescapably with the impression that she has had a decent life so far. We even see footage of her being made homecoming king and also queen to a cheering gymnasium. And this was immensely satisfying to see, even if, “Teen girl has a mostly okay childhood” really shouldn’t have to be such a “man bites dog” story in 2016.

The most compelling monologue is when Brooklyn explains how she reconciles her faith (and the various people within it who treat her badly) with her gender identity. And she seems to have a healthy attitude about it – that being yourself isn’t a choice, and can never be a sin. We see much of the story filtered through Brooklyn’s YouTube and Instagram channels, and she uses a bit of that characteristic language as well (“I still have my haters”), and what I was left with was an overwhelming hope that she’s as happy as her warm smile suggests. This is a simple story, told mostly from Bruce/Brooklyn’s perspective (she goes alternately by both names). I have to know, as both an optimist and a jaded adult, that Brooklyn’s life is far less simple than a short documentary can tell, but Trapped is ultimately satisfying in its simplicity.

And Long Tran? Let me speak directly to you for a moment. I also made films in high school, but the tools were much cruder, and the results were far less polished. Your lighting, composition, and sense of pace are solid. Keep learning and keep making films.

Watch it here.

Venom Therapy

Written and directed by Steven Murashige

This is obscene. As I watched this story, a well-acted, well-shot drama about a family struggling to deal with the mother (Ashli Dowling)’s Multiple Sclerosis using an ineffective, unscientific, painful, and dangerous treatment of applying bee-stings to her spine, that was the phrase that popped to mind, and stayed in mind as I glared at the screen for the duration of the film. It didn’t matter to me that the child (Nikki Hahn)’s pain and courage, or the father (Kenzo Lee)’s love, felt unwavering and authentic. That the family’s desperation felt real. Because this played like propaganda, and I kept waiting for the moment when the mother would suddenly get up and start walking as the treatment miraculously starts working.

That moment never came. After a well-rendered dramatic climax in which the child is forced to drive both of her parents to the hospital, what popped up instead was a title card from the writer/director, dedicating the film to his parents, who battled MS by each other’s side for 47 years. And the film instantly went from obscene to tragic to…kind of poignant. I should probably mention, the internet has put me relentlessly on guard against unscientific medical practices ever since Andrew Wakefield first lied to the world about vaccines causing autism. As people bandy about the disingenuous rhetoric of “What’s the harm?” in order to peddle their own nonsensical “alternative” miracle cure to an intractable disease, I can provide innumerable real-world answers – the blood of needlessly dead children and adults who could – in most cases – have been saved or had their life improved with real medicine. What I’m admitting here is, my opposition to this film was transparently ideological. And in that opposition, I did the film a disservice. Venom Therapy depicts a labor of love in the service of family, and it never crossed the line that I assumed it was edging toward – inventing a fictitious happy ending.

I’ll let Murashige explain himself.

“It can be so isolating for those with MS and their family members because the experience and life-changes brought on by MS are so profound and so unique. I hope this film allows others to feel that they are not alone in their struggle and that it sheds a sliver of light on the experience of life with MS. If this film can do that in some small way, perhaps my parents can feel that their suffering has not been in vain.”

 

I feel anger and pity for the pain that the fictionalized mother endures. Perhaps some of it was needless. But much of it was inevitable. There is truth and poignancy here, even if the level of objectivity is uncertain. And that truth is in the love depicted between these family members who are doing the best they can, and the son who is struggling to tell his family’s story.

More info here.

Creased


Written and directed by Jade Justad

Kayla (Lizzie Lee) is a Chinese-American high school senior at a mainly white high school who is considering getting double eyelid surgery. This was a beauty standard I had been aware of, as there are many East Asian pop stars who have famously (allegedly) gotten the surgery to look more “Western”. I have no earthly idea whether this standard of beauty originated in the US or Asia, but I will say, the film depicted two things masterfully as it explored this cosmetic notion in the context of an American high school. First, Asians are seemingly the last group remaining in the US that it’s relatively socially acceptable to mock, stereotype, alternately sexualize or desexualize depending on the context, etc. And second, white people can be real experts at gaslighting minorities. Make a racist joke, lament political correctness, then tell em to calm down as they react like humans. It’s easy to see the resonance of this pattern this year, and the film makes this point well without feeling didactic. Indeed, the dialogue feels quite naturalistic, and this plays mostly like an ordinary coming-of-age film amid Kayla’s dilemma. Apart from Lee herself (who ably sells it), Rachelle Henry (who also appeared in Calling Me Home above) is a particular delight as Kayla’s best friend, and it is between these two that much of the film’s emotional range comes into play. These two are able to be more honest with each other than with anyone else in the film, and that level of candor isn’t always pretty.

More info here.

Piece of Cake

Written and directed by Ella Lentini

This is a satisfying love story told through flashbacks, right as it starts to get rough in the present day. Ever since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this media res romantic storytelling has been a favorite tool of mine, and the film manages to sell a meet-cute at a costume party quite well in a limited space of time, owing a great deal to the ambiance and chemistry between the characters, Alex (Lentini) and Jessie (Shannon Beveridge). The editing is quite slick, cutting seamlessly between the dour present and blissful past (my favorite cut was from Jessie cracking an egg…to Jessie cracking an egg in happier times). Their conflict is that Jessie is still in the closet with her parents, who are about to visit them in New York. They know about her significant other, Alex…but they think she’s a man.

The film’s website prominently mentions National Coming Out Day, so it’s pretty clear who the target demographic is for the film’s message. The dilemma is ultimately quite satisfying. Explicit metaphors always put me on guard, but the titular piece of cake works rather well for the short-form medium. Cake is a fine stand-in for home, family, and domesticity – and Jessie’s choice to either reinforce or blow up her parents’ expectations of her as a young [straight] woman living on her own is essential to the character’s dilemma. She can still deliver that cake to her parents, even if it doesn’t quite meet their old-fashioned expectations. And if they love their daughter, they’ll take a bite and be glad of it.

More info here.

Bunee: The Boy from Constanta

Directed by Bunee Tomlinson

A compelling personal narrative about a boy adopted from Romania at the age of six. Under Ceaușescu’s communist government, all forms of birth control were banned in Romania, and the entirely expected result was a glut of overcrowded, substandard orphanages. I visited a handful of these orphanages myself in 2001, and – at least for the ones I saw – the conditions had improved significantly. But this is a look back to the early 1990s, right after the communist government had fallen – and things were in bad shape. The story is mostly told through home movies (which gradually improve in quality and resolution over the course of Bunee’s childhood), intercut with interviews with his parents explaining what it was like raising a child plucked away from everything he had ever known. It’s a harrowing tale of love, made so by the parents’ confident retelling – in fact, the film feels mostly like Tommy and Susan Tomlinson‘s story, since Bunee is a child having a tricky upbringing for most of it, and he doesn’t really take the reins explicitly until he is revealed (through a series of photos) to have a escalating interest in film as he becomes a teenager and then an adult.

Bunee Tomlinson is the director of this film, so it’s entirely his story. But by telling it in such a third-person, hands-off manner for so much of the film’s runtime, he invites introspection on his parents’ part about what the hardest parts were about raising him. Some of the film’s most touching moments come from his parents’ moving reflections on Bunee remembering or rehashing something from the orphanage, explicitly or implicitly. His mother tells of him throwing a sippy cup on the ground, and looking at her expectantly, as if – she tears up while saying this – there had been no one to do that for him at the orphanage. It’s unclear whether this is true or not. It’s unclear whether Bunee left it in as confirmation, or because his mother’s love for him was the truth of that scene. But either way, the moment was powerful. There was a full cycle of appreciation and backlash on Richard Linklater‘s 12-year opus, Boyhood, but what ultimately makes that film so poignant is not its script, but rather our instinctual and cultural affinity for watching a child grow up, even when it’s fictionalized. That’s the monomyth – family, life, and a dream of a happy child becoming a happy adult. It’s the only story that we all strive to experience personally, and it’s a powerful thing to see rendered in short form, with the storyteller revealed to be its very subject. This one stuck with me.

More info here.

2016 Seattle Shorts Film Festival (Preview)

SIFF Film Center projection room

The sixth annual Seattle Shorts Film Festival will be at the SIFF Film Center starting tonight and running through Sunday – tickets are still available. I’ve had a chance to preview some of the festival selections below – I’ve noted at the bottom of each review when the film can be seen at the Film Center this weekend.


Lemonade Mafia

Still from

Directed by Anya Adams
Written by Keith Edie

Lemonade Mafia depicts a girl named Kira (Marsai Martin) who gleefully runs a ruthless price-fixing lemonade cartel – all-natural, yellow, made from freshly squeezed organic lemons. When a competing lemonade outfit moves into the neighborhood, slinging pink lemonade loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, Kira has to unleash every ruthless mafia trick in the book. The last of these is government corruption, when a city health inspector played by Community‘s Yvette Nicole Brown, shows up to shut down her competition. This was an unfortunate casting choice, as it served only to remind me that Community‘s depiction of a college chicken-finger cartel managed to tell a much more compelling story than the checklist of mafia tropes that are gleefully ticked off one by one here. There’s really no arc for the girl to speak of. Following many threats of kid-violence against Xboxes and comic books, Kira is at the top of the citrus game, and the film ends with a baffling, out-of-nowhere voiceover – “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” And yes, it’s just setup for a genuinely amusing visual gag. But it spoke to the film’s greater interest in being cute than telling an actual story. If this wasn’t confirmation enough, a three-minute rap recitation of the short’s entire script plays over the end credits.

Lemonade Mafia will be playing in:
“Women in Film” Block, Saturday 11/12, 3:50PM
More info here
.

Cab Elvis

Still from

Directed by Andrew Franks

This is a fun little documentary about an Elvis-impersonating Seattle cabbie named Dave Groh. The story is told mostly by Dave himself, with the visual aid of the various press clippings from when he began to get international media exposure. It was this exposure that got him in a bit of trouble with his boss and eventually the city, which apparently had a boring, black-pants-and-a-blue-shirt dress code for cabbies at the time. But after this legal spat is amicably resolved, I assumed the story – a fine capsule segment of This American Life, perhaps – was over. But then things get dark and strange for a bit. Dave contains multitudes, but his rationale for why he’s doing his Elvis bit is simple and straightforward – that the “reservoir of love” that Elvis left behind is bottomless. Notwithstanding whatever demons of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll that he consumes while soaking in it, it’s hard to argue with that reservoir’s appeal. Especially when it includes backseat karaoke.

Cab Elvis will be playing in:
“Made in Washington” Block, Sunday 11/13, 4:45PM.
More info here
.

Michelle

Poster for

Written and directed by Kendra Ann Sherrill

This is awkward. A group of twenty-something high school boys sit in a 60s diner sharing some stilted expositional banter about their group’s newest member, Doug (Nich Witham), and apparently the slender thread that binds them all together (apart from strained line delivery) is their shared sexual history with a foxy lady named Michelle (Victoria James), whom Doug’s gang of miscreants assure him is the “free love type,” and who happened to have just walked in. Naturally, the new guy is pressured to wander over and get his “Michelle story”. The group of women that he approaches is just as limited as his own posse – “That’s Jennifer, the mean one,” one says, “And I’m Georgia. The sensible one.” This is the extent of their characters and dialogue.

It gets a bit less awkward once Doug and Michelle are alone, as Witham and James are noticeably better actors than the rest of the ensemble – but nothing can save a premise this thin. Michelle quickly tells Doug that all of the sex stories about her are false, then proceeds to sum up each of his boys with equally one-dimensional character descriptions. Spoiler alert: One of them has daddy issues. But the two of them are no better. Doug is a blank slate who just wants to have friends (and says exactly this, twice), and Michelle’s cooperation in her own character assassination – or interest of any kind in its latest perpetrator – is never made coherent or convincing. Hard pass.

Michelle will be playing in:
“Made in Washington” Block, Sunday 11/13, 4:45PM.
More info here
.

A Walk in Winter

Still from

Directed by Ryan Moody
Screenplay by Jessica Nikkel, based on short story by Robert Boswell

A man comes back to his hometown to face his childhood demons in winter – and I’ll be blunt; I would not have thought that a story this severe could work so well in short form. James Franco (also the film’s producer) plays Conrad sad, quiet, and dark – reminiscent of his turn in flawed, but equally captivating True Story – and the mystery that plays out between Conrad, the town sheriff (Jack Kehler), and his childhood friend Abigail (Abigail Spencer) feels substantial enough by the end that it could probably hold together a feature, if such an endeavor wouldn’t plunge the audience into darkness. The flashback that occurs in parallel contains some nice visual touches, from the series of gorgeous static winter landscapes that start the film, to its willful avoidance of showing a certain character’s face before the end. This is riding right on the edge of exploitation, but Franco never overplays his hand. This is a character who has had a long time to live with his wounds, and it shows, even if we’re not quite sure why until the end.

A Walk in Winter will be playing in:
“Stars in Shorts” Block, Saturday 11/12, 2:00PM.
More info here
.

Frontman

Still from

Directed by Matthew Gentile
Written by Gentile and Corey Wilcosky

125 shows, six continents, six months. Rockstar Jodie Stone (Kristoffer Polaha) has a long tour ahead of him, and his doctor picked this highly inconvenient moment to diagnose him (apparently not for the first time) with an acoustic neuroma, which – if untreated, will result in him going deaf.

His manager tells him, “Your first show is tomorrow. You have, like, 24 hours to make up your mind.”

And that’s the moment that the film’s ambitions came together, and I realized how hard it was trying to imitate everything from Almost Famous to 25th Hour to The Wrestler, and the final moment of the film (in which the singer rocks out on-stage and goes deaf as the credits roll) became crystal clear. I wrote that sentence in the 8th minute of the film, and while I’m disinclined to change a word of it now that the film is over, I will say that it did a slightly better job than expected of showing rather than telling.

The film is technically well-made, with an ably-executed 90-second tracking shot through Stone’s fancy house. As he wanders the house half-naked playing his guitar, we see his household help, a line of 5-7 adoring fans outside the gate, and the trappings of fame – and it all felt a bit empty as I slowly drifted off to sleep (an utterly gratuitous blowjob montage hammers this point home further if it wasn’t clear enough). But at all times, even as I found the plotting a bit obvious, the one thing I cared most about was Jodie himself – it’s Polaha’s performance that holds the film together. The actor previously starred in Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow‘s odd, mean-spirited little short, Home Base, about a jilted boyfriend getting revenge on his cheating ex by sleeping with her mom. I’ve seen him in a handful of TV roles since, always serving as a grounding presence for whatever high concept he embodies. He sings well, he acts well, and he sold the dilemma in his performance (including some masterful physical tics), even if the script did a lesser job of doing the same.

Frontman will be playing in:
“Musical Cinema Block” Block, Sunday 11/13, 10:00AM.
More info here.
Watch online here.

Her & Me

Still from

Directed by Shelby Hadden

This documentary is a delightful and utterly fascinating chronicle of real-life twin siblings. It begins with a staccato series of on-camera interviews – basically just sets of twins (adults and children) briefly interacting with one another, cracking jokes, discussing whether they dressed the same or differently as children, etc. Most of the twins (especially the adults) are fairly distinct, but some of the differences are subtle. A pair of adult brothers, Dennis and Chris, look quite different initially. Dennis, with a larger build, narrates to the camera while Chris, with a baseball cap, has a skinnier face and looks at him in profile. Then he turns to face the camera and speak, and they looked identical once again. Another pair, Sheena and Alisha, have completely distinct hairstyles, with one wearing long, braided segments, and the other keeping her hair short, straight, and up. A pair of middle-aged women (who look quite distinct) discuss how one of them wanted to wear dresses, and the other wanted to wear pants, and how this was sufficiently concerning for their mother to take them to the doctor and ask if that was acceptable. One pair of sisters have distinct appearances and sexual orientations. And so on.

And then there’s Allie and Gabby Byers, the film’s primary subjects. 22 years old, about to graduate college, these women are inseparable, identically dressed, and always smiling in each other’s presence, speaking in parallel, and completing each other’s sentences. They share identical jobs, internships, and side-jobs, as well as hobbies and interests. They are living, essentially, an identical life. Their parents (amusingly, Jerry and Terri) discuss their laissez-faire approach, ignoring the girls’ teachers’ advice about how they spend too much time together, and it’s unhealthy… But they just didn’t care, and said it was up to the girls to decide. Then Terri tells a sweet little anecdote about how distinct their personalities were as babies – the sort of thing only a parent would notice. It’s all very nice and only a little unsettling.

“That is pathological,” says Chris bluntly. The rest of the twins evince a more subdued mix of judgment and compassion, but they all have a pretty similar reaction that what they’re seeing in the Byers twins is unusual in women their age. When Allie and Gabby are interviewed individually (each conveniently placed in a consistent position on the couch for identification purposes), it’s clear that they’re never quite comfortable apart from each other, and that this is something they’re aware of, and have discussed as they consider the next chapter in their lives after college. This chapter may take them somewhere together, or split them apart. It’s difficult to judge any loving family relationship when it clearly makes the participants so happy – except perhaps when they speak of their outside romantic life in unfavorable, but mostly hypothetical, terms – so all that I’m left with as a viewer is just a vague sense that however intense or unusual their bond may be, they’re probably (hopefully?) going to figure out their lives and be fine. And for most near college grads, that’s probably par for the course.

Her & Me will be playing in:
“Women in Film” Block, Saturday 11/12, 3:50PM
More info here
.

One final note…

This is normally where I put a list of which films are available for viewing online. While I won’t be doing that for this preview segment, I did want to call attention to one of my favorite short film selections from last year, Best Man Wins. After completing its festival run, the film is now available on iTunes. Check it out here.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #89 – “The Brand New Testament” (dir. Jaco Van Dormael), “When War Comes Home” (dir. Michael King)

Poster for "When War Comes Home"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Seattle International Film Festival, first to give a shout-out to the badass women of Angry Indian Goddesses, followed by some fanciful religious absurdity with The Brand New Testament. And then we conclude a trilogy of reviews that we’ve done on warrior subculture in the United States, with a deep dive on When War Comes Home, Emmy-award winning director Michael King‘s new documentary on soldiers living with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. This film divided us, both on what we think a documentary should be, and on the value of compelling human interest stories. Listen to us unpack the film below. (49:26).

Seattle area listeners:
There will be a special Flag Day screening of When War Comes Home at the Majestic Bay Theater, on Tuesday, June 14th, at 7:30PM. It will be followed by a panel discussion with several of the film’s subjects.

For free tickets, RSVP at this link.

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "The Brand New Testament"

FilmWonk rating (The Brand New Testament): 5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (When War Comes Home): 6/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Brief : Angry Indian Goddesses
  • [07:20] Review: The Brand New Testament
  • [23:06] Review: When War Comes Home
  • Music for this episode is a pair of tracks from the outstanding soundtrack to Angry Indian Goddesses: “Zindagi“, written and performed by Anushka Manchanda, and “Kattey“, performed by Bhanvari Devi and Hard Kaur.
  • We didn’t issue a rating for Angry Indian Goddesses, since we didn’t do a full review segment for it. But suffice to say, we both loved the film. Check out its Facebook page for more info on how you can see it.
  • If you’re wondering what the hell I was talking about with Paul Rudd‘s computer – treat yourself here.
  • You can check out the episode that we referenced of Rose Eveleth‘s Flash Forward podcast here – and we highly recommend it!

Listen above, or download: The Brand New Testament, When War Comes Home (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #88 – “A Bigger Splash” (dir. Luca Guadagnino), “Death By Design” (dir. Sue Williams) (#SIFF2016)

Poster for "A Bigger Splash"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel make an inauspicious start at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival with an environmental documentary that did a rather poor job of convincing our heroes of things that they already believe. Then they hop overseas to check out the latest Italian collaboration between director Luca Guadagnino and actress Tilda Swinton. Stay tuned for spoilers, because we had vastly different reads on this film’s ending (38:37).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Death By Design): 2 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (A Bigger Splash): 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [00:46] Review: Death By Design
  • [11:36] Review: A Bigger Splash
  • [26:25] Spoilers: A Bigger Splash
  • Music for this episode is the track “Emotional Rescue” by The Rolling Stones, from the soundtrack to A Bigger Splash.
  • Glenn was probably butchering Matthias Schoenaerts‘ name pronunciation, but he is definitely not the first to sorta mistake him for Ryan Gosling, and he regrets nothing.

Listen above, or download: Death By Design, A Bigger Splash (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)