2020 SXSW Film Festival – Short Film Collection

SIFF Film Center projection room

In 2020, SXSW was sadly and expectedly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to a partnership with Amazon, much of the festival’s collection is available for a limited time on Prime Video, giving me a chance to indulge my longtime love of short film for the first time since 2016.

There are 29 in total, and I’ve included links and runtimes with each review. As with many of you, my life is currently chaos, but I do plan to review as many of these as possible (Update: As it turned out, this was all I had time for!), but I’ll offer my apologies in advance to those at the end of the alphabet.


Affurmative Action

Still from "Affurmative Action"

Directed by Travis Wood
Runtime: 4 min

This documentary makes two succinct points: The first is that Wood is a black director that you should definitely hire, because quickly achieving a tone that is equal parts comedic and dystopian is no small feat (and owes as much to both Wood’s slick editing as to Brendan Moriak‘s topsy-turvy score). The second is that digital creative companies in NYC and Los Angeles never run out of ways to describe the various dogs they have on their “Meet the Team” pages to sit between all of the mostly white people they hire. It’s bittersweet to watch this film during a pandemic-induced depression in which I can only assume Wood’s employment situation has gotten worse along with the rest of Hollywood, but his point about racial inequities in hiring is well-made nonetheless.

Watch it here.


A Period Piece

Still from "A Period Piece"

Written and directed by Shuchi Talati
Runtime: 12 min

It’s always good to see awkward first-time sex used for storytelling. I’m not talking loss of virginity here (that’s a whole separate genre that’s rife with both quality storytelling and heightened nonsense), but to see a couple have sex for the first time with each other, but not for their own first time. It’s been said that stories should begin on an interesting day in the life of your characters, and first-time sex is, if nothing else, reliably interesting. To see such an act in cinema is not only to peer as an interloper into an intensely private moment, but to see two people indulging in an act that is ostensibly universal, but with which they might have very different experiences and expectations.

In her pre-roll intro, director Shuchi Talati spoke of a desire for inclusivity and universality in her storytelling – to showcase a pair of South Asian characters in a story about love and sex where, as she put it, “there isn’t an arranged marriage subplot lurking in the background”. As an editorial aside, while I’m not too annoyed that Amazon and SXSW chose to include these director intros before each short, I think I’ll be skipping the rest of them, as I’ve never had a film experience where it improved my enjoyment, and I’ve had at least a few where it had the opposite effect. And in this case, I think it’s fair to say that the work speaks for itself when it comes to a desire to showcase a mix of Indian and American sexual mores. These are clearly Indians, and also clearly Americans, and also clearly having sex that would be frowned upon by the more conservative parts of both societies. Fair enough.

Here we see a pair of Indian-American twentysomethings having an illicit afternoon rendezvous while dealing with the minor complication that Geetha (Sonal Aggarwal) is on her period, and Vehd (Nardeep Khurmi) accidentally gets some period blood on her couch while pulling out. Whoopsie! He’s also married to someone else, which adds a layer of subtext to their condom negotiation. Whoopsie! Unless I missed it, there’s not really any metaphor to speak of here. The blood is just a practical matter to deal with, and gives us a chance to learn a bit more about these characters both through how they navigate an intensely intimate moment, and how – as a practical matter – they deal with both the impediment and potential mood-killer at the heart of their sexual encounter. The mood-killer being – not the period blood as a rule, but the chance for either of them to ruin the mood by not quickly getting on the same page about it.

Watch it here.


Basic

Still from "Basic" (SXSW short)

Written and directed by Chelsea Devantez
Runtime: 3 min

This short is simple, twisted, and speaks to a place of profound insecurity and rage. So naturally, most of it is spent lying in bed in the dark scrolling through happier times on Instagram. I wouldn’t have thought a line like “I’m a pool THOT” could crack me up so much, but Devantez, who also stars in the film, pulls it off. Tara Trudel‘s score, the final track of which includes a lot of 90s grunge-metal screaming, makes a lot of this work as well.

Watch it here.


Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business

Still from "Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business"

Written and directed by Christine Turner
Runtime: 9 min

Betye Saar says early in the film that she prefers to create art that doesn’t include a specific story, so that the viewer can invent their own. Then she proceeds to tell her own story, about how the art she produced, as well as the art produced by people who looked like her (both African-American and ancestral African art) was not regarded as art at all when she started her career. At Chicago’s Field Museum, it was kept in the basement, and as she put it, “It was weird down there.” On the surface, Saar’s own work is all over the place. It encompasses everything from collages of found objects to paintings and sculptures. Some of it is, as she puts it, just “stuff put together”. And there’s also an entire series that explores mysticism and the occult. She’s 93 years old – she’s had a bit of time to explore. And she speaks with a voice of experience that retains the vibrancy of a much younger woman. Not only is her work widely varied, but it still pops. An entire segment of the film is devoted to her series in the 1960s and 70s lampooning and remixing derogatory images of black people, which includes a vintage image of Aunt Jemima, taken directly from the older “mammy”-stereotype (often with exaggerated lips and features taken from minstrel shows with white performers in blackface), but…turned into a figure of battle with rifles and grenades, who is “taking care of business” (roll credits!). In an accompanying magazine caption from the 1970s, Saar even discusses turning an Aunt Jemima syrup bottle into a Molotov cocktail. Yikes.

“It’s been forever. Racism hasn’t gone away. Has sexism gone away? No. So you still have to keep repeating things,” Saar puts it simply. Compressing so many decades of artistic creation into a 9-minute short is no small feat, and Turner and editor Mengfan Yu do an admirable job of pulling it all into a coherent narrative of both the random craftiness of a figure who struggled to even view herself as anything but a junk collector until she received an NEA grant, and an experienced and admired artist whose voice and themes retain their relevance in a world that is often frustratingly static. Saar is a figure I’d simply love a chance to sit down and have a chat with, but I suspect she’d be too busy making stuff to bother with me.

Watch it here.


Blocks

Still from "Blocks" (SXSW)

Written and directed by Bridget Moloney
Runtime: 12 min

I love my kids. They provide me with daily joy. They are also a laborious plague, and as I write this, my wife and I are home with them 100% of the time, just like you, perhaps! If A Period Piece strove for universality, this one took an accidental shortcut, because there’s nothing more universal than the struggle of raising small children during a pandemic, even if that wasn’t our reality when the film was made. As such, there was a ceiling to my enjoyment of this well-made film, which features a busy mother of two (Claire Coffee) vomiting up blocks. This metaphor gets literally strained as she rinses them and puts them back in the Various Bins, and her daughter dutifully informs her that the new blocks smell funny.

There’s a good lesson for me here about how to be a supportive husband and father and divide up the household labor and mental load and be on the same team amid a patriarchal economic system that makes it far more likely that women will bear the brunt of all of the above (a lesson that is literally read aloud to a child in the opening lines of the film, which is as pedantic as the film ever gets). I really do try to think about and practice this stuff as a parent, because I have a wonderful wife and co-parent who would accept nothing less, and it’s still a constant struggle. And honestly, at this moment, Blocks is a bitter and familiar fucking pill to swallow. And that is not the movie’s fault, but my recommendation is that you should feel free to watch if and only if you’re kid-free and on reliable birth control.

Watch it here.


Broken Birds

Still from "Broken Bird" (SXSW)

Written and directed by Rachel Harrison Gordon
Runtime: 10 min

This short is not only a triumph of storytelling through production design (there are three credited set dressers, but no production designer, so I have to assume Gordon took the lead on that) – but it manages to convey a great deal of emotional subtext in a short space of time, and owes a lot of that to the fine details of its central trio of performances, particularly father and daughter. Birdie (Indigo Hubbard-Salk) is the black (mix-raced) daughter of an estranged or divorced couple – she lives with her mother Eileen (Mel House), who is white and Jewish, and has her studying the Torah as she approaches her bat mitzvah. We also see Birdie getting her full and naturally curly hair chemically relaxed and straightened, and it is left unspoken whether this was her idea or her mother’s – and honestly, watching the film, I could go either way on it. Then she goes to visit her father Andre (Chad L. Coleman). She wears a Star of David around her neck, and the way she handles it, it clearly means something special to her. Her dad is supportive, but clearly not religious himself. Then she tells him that she hates the Torah portion that her rabbi has picked for her to read, and doesn’t really want to go through with it. Then she invites him to attend anyway, and he agrees without hesitating. Then they go pick out a bootleg purse from a car trunk. These habits feel familiar and comfortable to both of them, just as Birdie looks comfortable in her room at home, listening to her dad’s old records and studying scripture.

This soon-to-be-teenager’s life and identity are messy, and questions of who she is and where she belongs are certain to be an ongoing project in her life. Every moment of this film is a simultaneous process of acceptance and dissection, with the fine details of one identity bleeding into another, and forging something new. It’s hard not to feel excited by it, because as painful as this process clearly is for Birdie, she has two parents who each love and support her in their own way, and she is clearly asserting herself as thoroughly as they are each shaping her identity. This film left me wanting more, and also feeling as if it has more to tell, and that’s all I ever want from a short film.

Nina Simone‘s live performance of an Israeli folk standard, “Eretz Zavat Chalav“, appears at the start of this film. I mention that in the hopes you’ll go check it out – it really is an outstanding performance, and it fits beautifully in this film.

Watch it here.


Broken Orchestra

Still from "Broken Orchestra"

Directed by Charlie Tyrell
Runtime: 12 min

A caption at the start informs us that over the course of a decade from 2007, the Philadelphia School District’s arts funding dropped from $1.3 million per year to $50,000 per year. As has been the case with many state and local budgets, arts funding was a budget line item that was deemed inessential and cut, never to be restored even as the economy recovered. I’m playing a broken record here by saying this, but I shudder to think of what the next ten years will look like for arts programs if we fail to learn the lessons of the last recession and our current quarantine, which is that the arts are absolutely critical to our continued existence.

But…you knew all of that, and that’s not really what this film is about. This film isn’t about what’s broken, but is rather a clever rendition of how it can be fixed. As a single camera wanders the hallways of a disused high school, the story of how Philly SD’s music program was resurrected, via a concert of broken instruments, is laid out by talking heads on a series of CRT television sets on AV carts appearing seemingly by magic, with some stop-motion floating instruments ticking into the center of the frame and vanishing in-between. The one-shot storytelling really is quite engaging, and while a couple of hidden cuts are evident, my overriding feeling watching this is that this film was as clever a logistical feat as the project that it showcases. We learn how 1,500 broken instruments were found in various storage locations, an entire orchestra of volunteer adult performers was brought in, and they put on a concert making whatever sounds they could manage. And it was a rip-roaring success, raising enough money in donations to get all of the instruments fixed and back in the hands of the young learners who needed them. It was an act of true grassroots community philanthropy, and the filmmaking that was used to tell this story is quite as admirable as the act itself.

We’ll need a lot more of this.

Watch it here.


Call Center Blues

Still from "Call Center Blues"

Directed by Geeta Gandbhir
Runtime: 25 min

A young man is interviewed in the middle of this film who says of Donald Trump, “All I can say is, may God bless him. And maybe someday he’ll regret what he has done.” This provoked a swell of deep pity from me.

This documentary is a real bummer, as it fucking should be. It focuses on a group of deportees in Tijuana, many of whom live in a squalid tent city, waiting to be scooped up for employment by either the cartels or the call centers who each only prize them for their English skills and economic desperation. One man, Roberto, was born in TJ and brought to the United States at age 6. He went to school, went to college, went to work for an airline, and eventually worked his way up to be an airport manager at LAX. One dalliance with recreational drugs later, he was deported. Later in the same year, his wife back in the United States left him. Another man with a similar story, who was only ever in Mexico as an infant, said it took him fully a decade to stop being depressed about losing his American life. He’s now been in TJ for 20 years. It’s home, but not really. And what’s unspoken among these veteran deportees is that not everyone makes it past that depression. Mauricio, a priest, addresses a congregation of deportees in his native language, English, as an interpreter echoes him in Spanish in real time. He cautions his flock against despair, against losing hope, against suicide. Even as he knows they’ve all been ripped away from their lives already. Because outside of material support (which the church also offers), what else can he provide besides a loving community and faith that he believes has the power to transcend borders, even if its recipients cannot?

Call Center Blues is a showcase of a group of people doing their best to survive a bad situation, and that bad situation is a result of being economically scapegoated and deported from the United States so that rich people can convince poor people that the real reason why they’re getting economically fucked is because of other poor people who were brought here against their will as children. Because the price of a minor run-in with the law is a life sentence of exile because of the accidental circumstances of their birth. These people are the abused detritus of a lie – a lie so powerful that it sweeps aside every other lie that has been told to them. The lie that if you work hard in school in the only country you’ve ever known, you’ll have a chance to succeed. The lie that if you serve your country in the military as it blunders across the world on another ill-advised resource conquest, you’ll be protected against deportation and have a path to American citizenship. And the most powerful lie of all: that deporting you will do anything whatsoever to help the people who voted for it to happen.

Because that’s the lie of Donald Trump and ICE. They were never protecting jobs and never preventing crime. And they were never going after the “Bad Hombres” – at least, no more than local law enforcement was turning over to them on a silver platter. Because it turns out deporting violent felons is pretty uncontroversial even among liberals, and also requires very little effort by the feds. And now, with the gloves off, they’re relentlessly and lazily deporting…the lowest hanging fruit. The one-time DUIs. The people in family court. The parents showing up to pick up their kids from school. The patients showing up at the hospital for an injury or illness. The workers reported by their employers after making a fuss about abuses in the workplace, whose ultimate fallback is to simply make the troublemaker disappear with a phone call, invoking the awesome and corrupt power of the state, and knowing they will face no penalty whatsoever for the legal violation of hiring that “troublemaker” in the first place.

That young man turning the other cheek at the start of the film is a wishful dreamer. And he’s also better than me. Because I know Donald Trump doesn’t do empathy or regret, and sleeps like a tiny-handed baby every night. And he’s already been blessed quite enough. Damn Donald Trump. Damn his enablers. And damn every other cynical plutocrat who thought that amplifying that inept, gilded shitcan was a useful path to lower corporate taxes and higher rent from the serfs. They all made this happen. Their propagandists and supporters made this happen. America’s raging decline and ouroboros of racist lies made this happen. And we dare not look away from its victims.

Watch it here.


Daddio

Still from "Daddio"

Directed by Casey Wilson
Written by Wilson and Laura Kindred
Runtime: 18 min

What a weird, honest, funny, and touching portrait of grief this is. One year on from the unexpected loss of their beloved wife and mother, Abby (Wilson) and her father Paul (Michael McKean) are…not doing well. Abby is in a deep depression and sleeping in the closet, and Paul seems to be an exceptionally manic version of himself. Chipper, upbeat, and getting a perm so he can look like President Andrew Jackson to commemorate (and spend) the $20 bill he found on the ground, he comes to Los Angeles to visit Abby, and a significant faux pas finally gives them the chance to have an honest conversation. This story is based on the loss of Wilson’s real mother Kathy, who died of a heart attack on vacation at 54, and the details of what ensues with her father…are apparently also based on true events. And what can I say about it? It just makes you want to give them both a great big hug. McKean is pitch-perfect in his role, and the personal and confessional nature of this tale is spelled out by Wilson’s own performance and soft directorial touch.

Watch it here.

2018 Seattle International Film Festival: SIFF VR Zone

Seattle International Film Festival 2018 - VR Zone

At the 44th Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF debuted a brand new venue: The SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place, produced by Seattle’s WonderTek Labs. Participants are invited into a first-floor storefront at Pacific Place Mall in Downtown Seattle. They are free to choose their own VR content for the next 90 minutes, wandering through an array of 28 films and interactive VR installations. Some were 360-degree films, primarily on Samsung Gear VR, and others were interactive experiences using either HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, with handheld controllers.

It was quite impossible to view all of the VR content in 90 minutes, so a selection is reviewed below. I’d like to offer a special thanks to both WonderTek Labs and SIFF staff and volunteers for making this press visit possible – it is one of the most complex festival installations I’ve seen, and it was a well-oiled machine.

The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.


Space Explorers: A New Dawn

Poster for

Directed by Felix Lajeunesse & Paul Raphaël
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
19 min, Canada

Space is as appropriate a subject for VR as it has long been for IMAX, and I sense this won’t be the only subject matter overlap between these two venues. I’m told this one even has some narration by an Academy Award-winning actor (Brie Larson), but I’d be lying if I said I noticed it. This was the first VR film I watched at this venue, and I spent most of it simultaneously taking in the closeness of having a one-on-one conversation with its subjects (current and prospective astronauts all), and feeling a bit rude for ignoring their speech and staring around at the surroundings instead. The surroundings were, of course, as much the point as what the astronauts had to say about them. There was the simulator, as well as some barren landscape with spacesuited astronauts and a gargantuan test rover. There was even some stunning footage of areas not generally available to the public – although when I looked behind me as the tour guides spoke, I could see some public crowds accompanying me into NASA’s neutral buoyancy training facility – essentially a vast, deep pool with spaceship mockups either floating or submerged, for the astronauts to rehearse various procedures in the closest thing to null gravity that we can simulate on Earth. But all of those real tourists had to stand behind the yellow line. I know that experience, because I toured NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center last year – and it’s still awesome. Being there is still best, and probably will remain so, pending some Matrix tech.

But this was something different – this was plunking a 360-degree camera into the most interesting spot in the room. And then into the tank. And then into space. Looming closer and closer to the ISS docking port as telemetry is spoken into your ear, trying to keep your eye on the target with the vast Earth above your head, stretching to…well, the horizon, filling the entire upward view, reminding the viewer that our planet, tiny as it is, is several orders of magnitude larger than our human perspective. And in a flash, ISS and Earth are gone, and I’m suddenly watching one of the new astronauts that I “spoke with” earlier, and she’s wearing a VR headset of her own, working a controller, and rehearsing the ISS docking procedure. And that’s perhaps the greatest endorsement of this film: the pros are using something very much like it to learn their trade.

I’ll make a hardware note here: The Samsung Gear VR is heavy. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which I read afterward are a mere 50 grams lighter, didn’t tax my neck muscles quite so much. But this will definitely be a moving target if the technology sticks around.

Available for purchase in the Oculus Store here. More info here.

Homecoming: Seduction

Still from

Directed by Lance McDaniel
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
5 min, USA

An elaborate choreographed dance between a man and woman, seemingly in a romantic relationship, but occasionally strained and violent. The bulk of the dance takes place in an Oklahoma junkyard. The description for the film says it’s a metaphor for the allure and disappointment of drug addiction, and to be honest, I doubt I would have picked up on that without the artist’s statement. The dance is sensual, bordering on obscene at times – and turns angry and isolated before the end as the venue shifts to a flat landscape with a straight line of fenceposts stretching to the horizon. This is not the first dance performance I’ve seen in VR (that was this one, from the Dutch National Ballet), and my reaction was largely the same: this feels a bit odd. I enjoy dance, and I can theoretically see the appeal of feeling like an interloper or impossible spectator, experiencing art in a several-on-one format that is impractical for anyone but a wealthy patron in real life. I enjoyed this film – but this experience still feels fundamentally bizarre and isolated to me.

More info here.

Queerskins: A Love Story

Still from

Created by Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
15 min, USA

Of all of the VR experiences here, this was the one in which I felt the most like a real participant. My real body was sitting in a cushy chair, next to a table full of mementos – knick-knacks, papers, a diary – I didn’t look at them too closely, although I did ask the volunteer if handling them during the VR experience was a part of it. Of course, I realized how silly a question this was after asking it. The objects were disorganized, strewn across the table. And the idea that virtual versions of those objects could move in the simulation as I handled their physical counterparts would seem to strain the current state of the technology. Nonetheless, this was the first experience I tried that had controllers, and I was excited for something halfway between a film, a video game, and an interactive art installation. And I was not disappointed.

As the film began, I was in the backseat of an old car, driving down a country road. An older couple sits in the front seat, quietly discussing something dire, which is gradually revealed to be their dead adult son, Sebastian. The particulars: Sebastian was gay, and the couple – who appear to be Catholic from the iconography – had disowned him, and he had moved to Los Angeles. After the move, he had a hard life, and eventually died of an unspecified illness (the film’s synopsis reveals this to be AIDS).

My best guess at what I was seeing here was real-life driving footage outside, a 3D CGI environment for the car’s interior (likely taken from a scan of a real vehicle), and…wait, are those people real, or CGI? I leaned over to get a better look at the mom…my mom? And I realized the viewing angle of her changed slightly as I moved my head in space. Whatever this was – I would later read the term “volumetric video” – it was real footage of real people, rendered as three-dimensional objects that I could view from multiple angles. As they discussed…my death, apparently. I presumed I was meant to be Sebastian, and as a character, I’m not really there – the couple never acknowledges me. The man, Ed (Drew Moore) asks the woman, Mary-Helen (Hadley Boyd) what’s in the box in the backseat. To my left is a more obviously CGI banker’s box. I pick up the lid. I must emphasize, the ability to “pick up”, turn over, and view objects from any angle was crucial to the immersiveness of this scene. The weights didn’t feel right, of course, but watching my pale blue hands grasp each object, turn it over, throw it into the front seat… I felt like a real, live poltergeist. Inside the box was a variety of religious and personal items – a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a diary (whose pages didn’t move), several books (one of whose pages did move, at least initially).

The two former parents drive on to their son’s funeral, sadly discussing their cruel treatment of the man in his life. They argue over which of them treated him better. Ed projects onto Mary-Helen that she must have disapproved of his lifestyle, as she hadn’t talked to him in years. Mary-Helen protests that she went out to visit him “after the attack”, and Ed never did that. This is some borderline maudlin material, and it’s delivered with some haste due to the constraints of the VR experience – but the couple’s acting really sells it, particularly as the scene intensifies at the end. The scene also changes as the couple continues driving (it feels as if hours pass – the weather outside seems to change as well), and with each scene change, a new set of objects appears in the box. I’m straining to remember more than a handful of them, although their real-life counterparts were available on the table for me to examine after I had completed the VR portion.

One of the items that stuck with me was a cartoonish Frankenstein mask. I lifted it up to examine it, its eye-holes looking toward me. Then I decided – initially as a technological curiosity – to see if I could rotate it into a position where I could “wear” it. The Oculus controls are quite precise – I did so easily. As I moved it up to “my” face – it began to vanish from a point at its center, expanding outward as it passed through my virtual avatar’s face or field of view. And without even planning to immerse myself so fully, I took on the role of the frightened child. It felt performative at the time, and yet I found “my” parents’ argument so distressing that I kept the fake mask on my face for a full ten seconds, imagining what it would be like to hide from these people in life. That moment was the sense of “being there” that I had been seeking from each of these experiences. As a technological demo, this was cutting edge. But as a film, it was one of the most immersive emotional journeys I’ve ever experienced from VR. This was a hint of what Star Trek characters (starting from the ’90s, when VR was little more than a punchline until The Matrix) said about the allure of participatory storytelling in “holo-novels”. I’m a nerd in the tech industry who reviews movies. I am not the most objective source when it comes to whether or not VR will ever be anything more than a niche fascination. But this experience was the closest I’ve ever come to viewing VR as a true art form.

More info here.

Let This Be a Warning

Still from

Directed by Jim ChuChu
Created and Produced by The Nest Collective
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
11 min, Kenya

You – either a robot or an astronaut or both – land on another planet, in a barren desert. A heads-up display warns that your motor and speech functions are non-functional (a handy storytelling mechanic for VR), and that multiple subjects are approaching. A cadre of (human) soldiers appear – all dark-skinned, and all with futuristic weapons, and they take you into custody. The scene shifts, and you awaken in a warehouse. A representative of this government appears – also black, as every person so far has been – to inform you that you will be sent home to your planet, and you are to inform your people that this world does not wish to hear from you again. They desire no relations with your planet, and they will consider any further incursion to be an act of war. The man informs you that you’ll be held until a ship is available to take you back to your planet. He walks out, and the armed guards remain. The scene shifts, and another representative (Marrianne Nungo) appears. Your HUD informs you that she’s unarmed, but cryptically warns you of “extreme danger”. You, or it, recognize her – and view her as a critical threat. And then her speech begins. She paces around you with unwavering cheer and menace as you sit, powerless to interrupt her in any way. She never raises her voice, even as she casually discusses dissecting you, as “your kind did to us, many centuries ago,” she reveals with a smile. This woman holds your fate and has no sympathy for you. Curiously, she notes that no one living has ever seen “one of you”. Even amid the confusion of who and what the protagonist might be, this is some solid exposition. She finally reveals your fate. The plan is still to send you home to your planet. But how that will occur is, like this film, an act of provocation.

Fundamentally, even as the nameless, faceless protagonists sits, devoid of identity or defining characteristics, unwelcome and judged, I’m okay with taking the bait and saying that this film is trolling white fragility in a major way. The protagonist isn’t white, of course – it may not even be human. But it represents an unwelcome other on a powerful colony of black-skinned separatists, and the question that the film asks on-screen should only offend people that have a good reason to believe they’d be treated badly in such a place. The film essentially asks: Whoever you are, how would you be treated on a planet where black people hold all the power? What sort of treatment have you earned? Does this even seem like a fair question? And for that matter, where would the outrage be if someone wanted to make a sci-fi movie about “white worlds”? Shut the fuck up with that, Tucker Carlson, and yes, I would be addressing his impotent bowtie directly if I thought there was a chance he’d don a VR headset and watch a movie from Kenya on purpose.

Further, it feels as if this film is trolling anyone who pretends they haven’t witnessed “white worlds” in sci/fi and fantasy already. Throwing a bit of American racial politics into the mix (which I doubt were intended – not everything is about us), it also felt like a barb for anyone who pretends that racial segregation is some sort of novel and shocking concept, or a mere historical curiosity that’s long dead. The reality, of course, is that it’s as much the stuff of everyday housing and education policy as it is the fodder of tiki-torch-clad Nazi rallies. It’s the sort of reality that is dismissed as a historical artifact by people who vote up a local education levy before asking on Nextdoor if it’s dangerous that so many kids at the local elementary school are on free and reduced lunch, then posit that it won’t matter for too much longer, as the neighborhood is rapidly becoming unaffordable for their parents. None of this is in the film, but a VR experience like this really does feel like traveling to another planet: you only have what you brought with you. As the film asks whether you be welcome in a black world, the implication is surely to question how welcome black people are in this one. And whether or not it’s a fair question, it has stayed with me. This world is where I’ve remained whether it wants me there or not.

More info here.

Epic Snowday Adventure

Created by Verge of Brilliance LLC
Hardware: HTC Vive w/controllers
USA

As a film critic, I’m a little embarrassed that I succumbed to the temptation here. I asked if this booth was free, or how long the experience lasts for, and the volunteer immediately booted a lad of eight or so out of the booth – he had apparently been playing the game for 20 minutes or so, but I still felt a bit sad taking away a toy from a child.  I was prepared to go watch the seven short films from a Jordanian refugee camp instead, but…I just couldn’t resist the call of the silly snowball fight game. And that’s what this is. You’re a kid in the middle of the street (as Colonel Rhodes would say, the killbox). Various spritely (and by that, I mean simplistically animated) kids peek out from the driveways and houses around you, and attempt to gather up snowballs to pelt you. I’ll grant this was the first level in a game for children, but the little bastards didn’t stand a chance. I demolished them. A few of the kids wore armor in the form of cardboard boxes. As a game mechanic, this meant that I not only had to bend over to pick up a much larger snowball than the tiny ones I was effortlessly headshotting them with before, but also make it much bigger by frantically wiggling my wrist until it became the size of a basketball. And this is where they would’ve had me – where my thirtysomething knees and a flare-up of carpal tunnel would’ve let them do me in. Naturally, I abandoned the game before suffering such humiliation.

What I saw of this game was pretty basic, but it teased more elaborate mechanics (I received two large cardboard boxes to hide behind, making the killbox marginally safer). I never felt the nebulous sense of “being there” that I was seeking out with the other VR experiences, but I briefly felt like a Calvin and Hobbes drawing? And that’s not nothing.

Available for purchase on Steam here.

Mono: Blackwater

Still from

Directed by Ben Wolstenholme
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
USA

Mono: Blackwater is a slightly better movie than a game, but it’s a pretty underwhelming example of either. Before I go further, I should mention that this Oculus setup suffered some intermittent technical issues – a previous patron had apparently bumped the sensor that was meant to keep an eye on my position in space, so the entire perspective would occasionally tilt – it gives me a headache just thinking about it. The volunteers made it clear that we could ask for help if we noticed any issues like this, so this is on me, but it certainly didn’t help the film’s chances.

An older man paces around his study, and a beastly (but nonetheless humanoid) mutant jumps through the window, ready to fight, before the older man gestures to a foggy yellow 3-D image projected above his table, and informs him he has a daughter. There’s some alright acting on display here, but this is fundamentally just a simplistic, button-mashing “rescue the princess” brawler. The most interesting thing about it is the “AR-within-VR” mechanic. You’re in a simulation, wherein you play a guy standing in front of a table – and overlaid on that table is a virtual model of the castle that the mutant man is invading to rescue his daughter. And you’re controlling him, somehow? First you steer him through a HALO jump as surface-to-air missiles hurtle at you (this took several attempts, owing to both the technical glitch and the awkward motion controls, instructions for which only briefly flash in your field of view). Once he reaches the ground, you’re maneuvering him through the castle and brawling with other dudes. Since you’re viewing all of this through the fuzzy yellow hologram model, it felt like an excuse to only have to design two detailed character models – and the combat is uninteresting. Just a joystick and a single button for punching and kicking. It never really feels like you’re controlling what’s going on – just mashing a fast-forward button while the game plays itself. I found myself moving around in space just to view the action from different angles, in an attempt to make it more interesting. Then I gave up.

More info here and here.

Aeronaut

Still from

Directed by David Liu & Rob Ruffler
Hardware: HTC Vive
4 min, USA

This is a  swirl of mixed reality (Microsoft’s phrase for whatever HoloLens is shaping up to be), in the form of a music video. As Billy Corgan (from The Smashing Pumpkins) plays and sings his heart out at the piano, an array of animated colors and leaves and textures swirl all around and overhead. You can get a sense of the visuals from the 2D version below – just imagine that happening all around you. As the player, you’re a sort of colorful mummy figure that can swirl its hand-bandages together in order to create lotus flowers, Chinese lanterns, and sparks of light and color. It’s a fun ride and a decent song.

The non-VR version of this music video is available on YouTube, here. More info here.


The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.

“I Feel Pretty” (dir. Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein) – Body-unswapping.

I Feel Pretty earns a lot of points for good intentions. It is a fundamentally well-meaning and goodhearted film, centered on a lead character, Renee (Amy Schumer) who – through the lens of magical realism – is learning a lesson about self-acceptance and self-esteem that the world could surely use more of. It’s just a shame that it used such a banal, low-stakes filter of capitalism and high fashion to tell that story. Renee works at an haute cosmetics company, Lily LeClaire (whose retired eponymous founder is played by Lauren Hutton). LeClaire’s granddaughter Avery, played by Academy Award winner Michelle Williams (along with her My Week With Marilyn voice) is taking the reins of the company as it makes a push to expand to the Target and Walmart crowd with some lower-cost makeup. And in comes Renee, who previously worked in a Chinatown basement as part of the company’s ramshackle two-person website team, who decides that her greatest dream is to work as a receptionist at the company’s Fifth Avenue skyscraper. I have a number of credulity problems with this setup, but let’s move on to Renee herself.

Renee is a woman who is deeply insecure about her appearance and body. This is illustrated in classic “show, don’t tell” fashion with an opening montage that starts with an awkward first-time sortie to SoulCycle, climaxes with a pants-ripping, vulva-bruising fall, and finishes with Renee standing in her underwear in front of the mirror (framed as an unblinking stare almost directly at the audience), nary a drop of makeup on her face, looking dejected and disgusted with herself. I’m coming at this film as a follow-on and attempted modernization of innumerable body-swapping and slapstick comedies of the turn of the century (everything from Shallow Hal to The Hot Chick) that frequently used or abused the bodies of women – especially women considered overweight or Hollywood-overweight – as comedy fodder. I’d call it a qualified success in that arena, but even as a straight drama about a woman struggling with her body image and self-esteem, Schumer also performs admirably in this film. As she debates with her friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips) about the efficacy of profile details in online dating (which they’re somehow doing as a trio) as opposed to merely taking a sufficiently hot profile picture, it feels like the film is posturing, certainly, but it also feels like a genuine expression from Renee’s experience through Schumer’s sincerity. Online dating is a frustrating experience until the moment it isn’t, and it’s something women and others alike bitch to their friends about. Fair enough.

And then Renee smacks her head. Really hard, during a second fall at SoulCycle (which is getting a lot of injuries in return for its product placement buck). And suddenly, she is suffering from a traumatic delusion that she has transformed into a gorgeous, unrecognizable version of herself. To be clear, Schumer is still playing Renee at this point – there is no actual body-swap happening here. But the film essentially acts like a body-swapping movie from this point on, with Amy acting like the “hot chick” that she now sees in herself, and the world delivering some impressive (but not, like, The Secret-level) return on her confidence. She gets a new boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel), and of course she gets the new job at Lily LeClaire, because she wanders into the lobby-adjacent conference room where Avery the CEO does all her most important work in full view of the public, and decides that she has to have it. To be fair, she offers a few tangible pointers on what “real women” will think of Lily LeClaire’s new product line, soon to be slumming it at the big box stores – but this is essentially a simplified version of the fictionalized Vogue from The Devil Wears Prada  – literally everyone working at this place is a model, and she’s the fish-out-of-water amongst them. And on that note, let’s cut back to reality for a second.

Lily LeClaire is a ridiculous company. It is possible that between The Devil Wears Prada and certain, other family-owned real-world companies headquartered on Fifth Avenue (and/or Pennsylvania Avenue), I’m simply unprepared to believe that this collection of Manhattan elitists perched amid the stacks of pane glass and oozing, gaudy pastels could be led by anyone other than a high-functioning sociopath. This is high fashion and high finance. These people have investors to answer to, marketing teams and focus groups that don’t bend to personal whims or hunches, and even if they didn’t, these people grew up among New York’s pampered elite, and they aren’t “just like us”. And for a movie to not only breathlessly argue that the opposite is true, but also stake its entire emotional climax on it, was such a severe leap from reality that I almost dismissed the movie for it. There’s one fictional person that ultimately prevented me from doing so, and that was Tony Stark. Because if I can accept a weapons’ manufacturer CEO going on a personal journey that ended with him promising not to build weapons anymore – and in the process, become a superhero – I suppose I can accept a woman going on a journey of self-acceptance that has the minor hiccup of briefly derailing a product launch. They both exist in the same world of magical realism and wish fulfillment (in one instance, Black Widow literally resets Hawkeye by smacking him in the head), and if nothing else, the home-game version of this journey is a bit more doable than the superhero stuff. You can’t be like Iron Man, but you can certainly feel a bit better about yourself. And that’s enough complaining. In the end, the logic centers of my brain quieted to a dull roar, and I felt every note of tension as Renee persisted in her delusional hotness, with the audience faintly dreading the painful moment when the spell must break (or when someone would get Renee some medical attention, because seriously, her condition is literally a sign of dementia or traumatic brain injury okay shut up now Glenn). Because as long as she only likes her own appearance because she believes it’s been magically altered (to a standard of beauty that is equally arbitrary, cruel, and unattainable), then she doesn’t really like herself, does she? The film expends some clever dialogue in order to maximally delay this moment (including one particularly poignant scene with Boyfriend Ethan), but fundamentally, we need to see the other shoe drop. The movie doesn’t work without it.

And we do. I don’t mind spoiling that, because honestly, if we didn’t, then – like Shallow Hal, which ends with Jack Black pretending that he finds a literally inhuman-looking Gwyneth Paltrow in a terribly-rendered fatsuit attractive – I Feel Pretty would be a profoundly cruel and cynical exercise. For the audience, for Renee, and for the woman at SoulCycle to whom she repeatedly compares herself (real-life model Emily Ratajkowski), who has just as much right to feel dejected, unattractive, and unwanted as anyone else. For all of its flaws and oddities, this movie fundamentally understands the point it’s trying to make (even if the trailer made it look like the just the sort of material that it was trying to transcend). It ends with Schumer standing up and making a TED-talk (or Kyle from South Park)-style speech explaining what she learned today. And what she learned is, “You know what? We’re all okay.” She makes nice with her friends, she sells some cheap cosmetics, and we all go home feeling a bit nicer. The execution is a bit ridiculous, but the message is quite alright.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #110 – “A Ghost Story” (dir. David Lowery), “I, Daniel Blake” (dir. Ken Loach)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out a rallying cry for the British working class with Ken Loach‘s new film, I, Daniel Blake, then check out a shriek of impending doom from David Lowery, A Ghost Story, a film in which a goofy game of supernatural dress-up is just the thin veil covering intense trepidation about the whole of human existence. Three points if you guess which film caused an actual panic attack (56:50).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "I, Daniel Blake"

FilmWonk rating (I, Daniel Blake): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (A Ghost Story): 9.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:54] Review: I, Daniel Blake
  • [21:21] Spoilers: I, Daniel Blake
  • [34:27] Review: A Ghost Story
  • [41:58] Spoilers: A Ghost Story
  • Music for this episode is the track, “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms from the soundtrack/trailer to A Ghost Story.
  • In assessing the labyrinthine bureaucracy depicted in I, Daniel Blake, we referred to the game, “Papers, Please“, from indie developer Lucas Pope – highly recommended.

Listen above, or download: I,
Daniel Blake; A Ghost Story
(right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #102 – “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (dir. Niki Caro), “The Last Laugh” (dir. Ferne Pearlstein) (#SJFF2017)

Poster for "The Zookeeper's Wife"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out their final two selections from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, starting with Jessica Chastain in an untold Schindler’s List story, The Zookeeper’s Wife. And then we’re joined by a special guest, local author Erika Spoden, to discuss see who gets The Last Laugh when it comes to the Holocaust and other taboo humor subjects (including 9/11 and suicide bombings). Light, fluffy stuff, really. We promise (01:21:30).

May contain NSFW language.

Still of Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh"

FilmWonk rating (The Zookeeper’s Wife): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Last Laugh): 4/10 (Daniel/Glenn), 7/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:47] Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • [26:32] Spoilers: The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • [46:55] Review: The Last Laugh
  • Music for this episode is the track “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley (an English-language adaptation of O Sole Mio), which appears prominently (if a bit randomly) in The Last Laugh.
  • Special thanks to Erika for joining us this week – her memoir is titled Strawberries for 50 People, and it is available on Amazon Kindle.
  • Thanks as well to the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and Smarthouse Creative for helping us cover so much of the festival (for the first time) this year – we’ll definitely be back!
  • 20-year-old spoiler warning: We do discuss the ending of Roberto Benigni‘s Life is Beautiful in this episode.
  • We remarked upon the first film’s similarity to Schindler’s List – this led us to read up on those individuals who have been designated Righteous Among the Nations (an honorific by the State of Israel, similar to knighthood) for their work protecting Jews from persecution and death during the Holocaust. Over 26,000 individuals in 51 countries have been so designated, and their stories of heroism and sacrifice are well worth studying.
  • Daniel was correct – the term “genetics” dates back to the 19th century, and was coined in 1872 by an English biologist as a term for “laws of origination”. The sense of “study of heredity” comes about 20 years later, so the term had been around for over half a century by the time of this film’s events.
  • Correction: Oof. Glenn definitely referred to the late, great Joan Rivers as the very much alive Joan Collins at least once. Apologies to both ladies.
  • The two films that we discussed in the context of modern terrorism were Four Lions, from British comedian Chris Morris, and Paradise Now, from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad.
  • Joan Rivers told a Holocaust joke on the E! Channel, said a few more things on Letterman, and came back a year later to double down on Jimmy Fallon. These jokes are offensive, and we laughed at every single one of them. We repeatedly called this woman a national treasure and we stand by it.

Listen above, or download: The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Last Laugh (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #97 – “Split” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Poster for "Split"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (plus special out-of-town guest Tex) see if M. Night Shyamalan still has the ability to twist a film into something likable. The answer – especially after we disliked The Visit so much – may surprise you (39:24)!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Frogbass” by Snails, from the film’s soundtrack. Incidentally, this appears during a scene where we were promised that McAvoy would dance to Kanye, but I’m betting he was too expensive for a Blumhouse picture.
  • Speaking of, this film’s budget was $10 million, which is on the high end for Blumhouse Productions, matching the likes of Insidious: Chapter 3, Sinister 2, and The Purge: Election Year.
  • Michael Gioulakis was also responsible for the outstanding widescreen cinematography on Glenn’s #1 film of 2015, It Follows.
  • Check out the great work done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and if you’re able, think about donating!

Listen above, or download: Split (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 #91 – “The Birth of a Nation” (dir. Nate Parker)

Poster for "The Birth of a Nation"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel try their level best to be objective about a film and filmmaker that strive at every turn to make them otherwise, Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation. All of the film’s controversy (and surprisingly frequent comparisons to the work of Mel Gibson) is fundamentally about the interplay of fact and fiction, of drama and history, with our intrepid hosts firmly entrenched on opposite sides. Can we reach an accord, or will we go to war like the Inglourious Basterds of old? Tune in and find out below (49:46).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Black Moses” by Pusha T (featuring Meek Mill & Priscilla Renea) from the film’s Inspired By soundtrack, and Nina Simone‘s 1965 version of “Strange Fruit“, which appeared in the film’s teaser trailer.
  • Jerusalem, Virginia was indeed a real village – it was renamed to Courtland, Virginia in 1888.
  • Without being able to scroll back through the film frame by frame, we can’t be completely sure, but as best we can remember (with Google’s assistance), the Bible verse briefly shown in the film (which is the closest that the film comes to suggesting that the rebellion plans to murder children) is Ezekiel 9:5-7:

    And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity:
    Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.
    And he said unto them, Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain: go ye forth. And they went forth, and slew in the city.(KJV)

  • CORRECTION: This one, I really feel bad about, because it wasn’t HBO’s Entourage, the horrendous guilty pleasure of my early 20s, that was responsible for the fictitious Haitian Revolution movie. It was writer/director Chris Rock, in his outstanding 2014 film Top Five (which made my Top 10 for that year). I did correctly characterize its role in that film, however – it was an example of an artsy project that nobody wanted to see.

Listen above, or download: The Birth of a Nation (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

“How to Let Go of the World” (dir. Josh Fox) – Group therapy for climate realists

Poster for

Despite its title, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, an upcoming HBO documentary from Gasland director Josh Fox, is not trying to convince anyone of the realities of human-caused climate change. Nonetheless, it spends the first 40 minutes of its runtime dwelling on each of those effects in a gonzo, rapid-fire fashion, and allowing Fox, its frequent on-screen subject, to lapse into despair as he gradually learns the enormity of it all. Fox’s emotional journey is fundamentally at the center of the film, and between its frequent reliance on poetic (and occasionally stilted) voiceover to its various montages of original music produced on-screen by people who have been directly affected by climate change, How to Let Go of the World functions less like a documentary, and more like a sort of group therapy session for people who aren’t afraid to accept the scientific consensus and innumerable lines of evidence supporting climate change, but feel ill-equipped to confront that reality in any meaningful way by themselves. Full disclosure: I’m definitely a part of this demographic.

This is an exercise that runs a serious risk of self-indulgence, but what ultimately makes this film work so well is Fox’s credibly humble approach to such a daunting problem as climate change, and beautiful visual storytelling style as he documents this personal journey. He visits the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, witnessing the destruction and death along the Long Island Coast. Even as he remains on camera and speaking over the footage, he removes the focus from himself and points his camera squarely at the poorest and most vulnerable people – a focus that persists throughout the film. As a subway musician begins playing a hauntingly beautiful song (listen to it here!), a montage of Sandy’s unrelenting destruction flows across the screen. What follows is a litany of interviews with various climate experts (including one shot unauthorized in the Ronald Reagan Building cafeteria in D.C.), outlining just how dire the situation is now (with 1C of warming), soon (with a guaranteed 0.5C of additional warming even if we halted all CO2 emissions), and in the future (with a >2C increase). The 5-9 meter sea level rises, the loss of species and ecosystems, the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, the disease, blight, and death. And then it stops, because it’s all too much. Fox gives up, returns to his Pennsylvania hometown, and collapses into a desperate snow-angel figure on the wintry ground of his favorite childhood forest. The camera floats straight up into the sky as the poetic voiceover continues, shrinking Fox’s person – and potential impact – into a minor black dot in the distant snow. Remember what I said about self-indulgence? This was a genuinely touching moment, and simultaneously the point where if Fox had continued wallowing in his impending doom, I would’ve had a difficult time continuing to take the film seriously. But this is exactly when the film’s journey begins.

Still from

Fox asks a new question: What are the things that climate change can’t destroy? What will it leave behind? And in a moment, all of the footage of forests and oceans and glaciers and mountaintops spontaneously gets more lush and beautiful than the bleak, desaturated despair of the first act, and the film becomes nearly as slick a globe-trotting climate change doc as Racing Extinction, while perhaps remaining a bit more grounded in the human storytelling. If we can’t stop the worst effects of climate change, he asks, what can we do? The film hops around the world, telling tales of various local efforts to resist expanded fossil fuel speculation and fight climate change in critical areas. Fox keeps his camera trained on indigenous peoples who are being subjected against their will to the quasi-colonialist expansion of western energy production, posing a question which shouldn’t require an answer in 2016 – should a remote tribe be permitted to live as they wish, even if there is an alternative way of living that our western experience says must be better? We have our cars and lights and antibiotics, but what if these tribes simply have no interest in them?

The film is hardly fetishizing an archetype of the noble savage here – this perspective does not go unexamined as the film goes on. But the film’s initial view of this conflict, between the Ecuadorian government (who had an impending deal with an Argentine oil company) and natives in a remote river village called Sarayaku, presents it as a straightforward moral issue. The natives aren’t merely being offered an alternative to their indigenous lifestyle- they are having the very production of that alternative forced upon them. They can come join us in the cities and play with our plastic widgets and electricity, but we’ll have to destroy their ancestral homeland and drill for oil to create those things. The question of whether one way of life is better or worse than another is a complex one, fraught with questions about human rights and resource allocation and cultural identity. But by focusing on such a specific instance where the rights of the natives were being set aside in a zero-sum manner for those of a fossil fuel company, Fox successfully strips a great deal of the moral complexity out of the situation. Sure, energy production is an essential part of civilization. It warms and empowers and educates people, and can bring them out of poverty. Later in the film, we even see an instance of solar-powered irrigation pumps being distributed in Zambia to help impoverished women make a living by growing and selling vegetables, and thus avoid being swept up into their only alternative trade – prostitution. The film isn’t afraid to muddy the waters a bit on these issues, but it distills them into a fine argument for the idea that people should be free to refuse an outsider’s definition of progress if they wish, especially if it accompanies destruction of their way of life. This is just one small conflict in one small place, but its relevance to the lopsided struggle against climate change is palpable.

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This theme continues as the film shifts its focus to Pacific Islanders, whose homes aren’t merely threatened with oil production, but rather total destruction through sea level rise. One unexpectedly poignant section focuses an affable, dancing Samoan man, Mika Maiava (whom Fox ably identifies as “the Jack Black of climate change”), a spokesman for a group of activists called the Pacific Climate Warriors. We first see the Warriors during an impressive segment in which islanders in hand-carved canoes blockade an Australian coal port. This sequence is spectacular in its tense, on-the-water coverage, and I don’t dare speak of it in too much detail. After the blockade is over, as Fox returns with Maiava to his home island to get footage of an odd local custom.

We quickly meet Maiava’s pregnant (and past-due) wife, and he tells the tale: when a baby is born, they save the placenta, and plant it in the ground, along with a coconut tree. The tree grows tall, and forms a life-long connection between the islanders and their homeland as they grow up. I must confess, I initially rolled my eyes a bit at this on-the-nose metaphor, and even wrote in my notes, “Probably don’t need to mention the placenta-trees.” As Maiava and Fox take a roadtrip to visit his father’s tree, the islander engages in what seems to be commonplace gallows humor, joking about how they’re all gonna drown when the island disappears into the sea. And then, with some difficulty, they find the spot. And Mika Maiava transforms in front of me and breaks my heart, as he realizes, for the first time on camera, that his father’s tree is gone. The entire small section of coast where it had been planted had succumbed to coastal erosion. This warrior, who fights every day for the future of his unborn child, is deconstructed before my eyes. His tough, but jovial demeanor melts away, and he is reduced to tears.

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This segment embodies what makes this film so effective – its reliance on moments of genuine and irrepressible humanity. I’ve only mentioned a handful of the innumerable segments – Fox also visits the choking smog of Beijing and the Chinese countryside (where the film takes a surprisingly intense turn), melting glaciers in Iceland, and various other locations that climate change is likely to touch in some way. And in each spot, he rapidly establishes a setting and manages to tell a quick, human story in the process. Not all of these vignettes succeed (the “dancing democracy” scene is a bit baffling), but I’m hard-pressed to find one that didn’t affect me in some way. Early in the film, as Fox explores the wreckage of Sandy, he admits a minor journalistic failing, as they walk past the house of a widower whose wife had just drowned in the storm. “I just couldn’t bring myself to point the camera in a grieving man’s face and ask, ‘Can I get your story on camera?'” By bringing his camera around the world and pointing it in the faces of people who are certainly in need of help, but are nonetheless fighting for their futures every day, Fox attempts to flip the script on climate change from a daunting problem that we’re all powerless to arrest, to a daunting problem that we’re empowered to unite and face together. How to Let Go of the World is at once inspiring and sad – and a cultural document that will age in a manner entirely dependent on what we do next.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

How To Let Go of the World premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently on a tour of the US. It will be playing in Seattle from May 20-26 at the Varsity Theatre, and there will be a Q&A with the filmmakers after the Friday, May 20th screening at 7PM. More info at this link. The documentary will also air on HBO this summer.

Editor’s note:
This review seems like a good spot to mention that my home state of Washington is trying to pass a ballot initiative for a statewide, revenue-neutral tax on carbon emissions in November. Pollution gets taxed, and 100% of the revenue goes back to the people. Pretty much a no-brainer economically – we nudge ourselves in the right direction, away from pollution, in a cost-effective manner. If you’re a Washingtonian, know that we have a chance to lead the nation in fighting climate change here and now.

Join the fight today and help I-732 pass in November.