Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Great Battle: The Siege of Ansi

Today, the ruins of ancient Ansi happen to be in China, but the local spirits can’t be too happy about that. During the mid-7th Century, it was squarely a part of the Goguryeo Empire, a forerunner to Korea. Unfortunately, its commander was not in good standing with the generals at court, so when the Tang emperor laid siege to the fort, they were on the own. The tenacious defense of Ansi comes to the big screen in a big way in Kim Kwang-sik’s The Great Battle, which opens this Friday in New York.

The Great Battle is not kidding around. It starts with a disastrous route of the Goguryeo forces that Samul, a young cadet commander just barely survives. Naturally, at such a time of crisis, his next assignment is to assassinate Yang Manchun, the slightly off-the-reservation commander of Ansi, who seems to think he knows better than his commanding officers, because he does.

Not so shockingly, Yang is onto Samul right from the start, but he still lets the long-absent Ansi-native back into the fortress city. Despite his orders, Samul is quickly won over by Yang’s close, protective relationship with his people. Soon, Samul is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Yang’s lieutenants defending Ansi. They manage to foil most of Emperor Taizong’s siege devices, but things start to looking iffy when the Tang forces start getting creative. Things will get loud and bloody, but the film stays surprisingly close to the historical record.

There is some drama interspersed throughout Great Battle, but the warfighting scenes are what this film is all about. If you enjoyed movies like Braveheart, 300, and Red Cliff than Great Battle will be like catnip for you. It is often brutal, but the battle scenes are remarkably well-choreographed and crisply shot. This was a tough war to fight, but Kim certainly makes it quite a cinematic spectacle.

So, yes, the action is the thing, but there are still some nice performances, particularly Seol Hyun and Um Tae-goo as Beck-ha and Pa-so, two of Yang’s trusted warriors (and in her case, his sister too), who are also engaged in a tragic romance. Zo In-sung is truly commanding as Yang, in what could be his career best performance to date. Although Park Sung-woong has played plenty of bag guys before (including a different sort of emperor in For the Emperor), he is totally cold-blooded (and almost unrecognizable) chewing the scenery as the ruthless Taizong.

Obviously, a lot of stuff was built and destroyed for Great Battle. It is large in scope and packed with voluminous carnage. Kim’s previous films (including the thriller Tabloid Truth) were small-scale affairs in comparison, but with Battle he definitely proves he has epic chops. Recommended for anyone who enjoys action-packed bloody-flag-wavers, The Great Battle opens this Friday (9/21) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

A Happening of Monumental Proportions (2018)

Judy Greer's A HAPPENING OF MONUMENTAL PROPORTIONS is a great deal of fun. A grand comedy of the lives of various people in and a round a school on Career Day, the film takes a formula that Hollywood hasn't been doing well for years and makes it highly entertaining.

I really won't go too much into the plot, way too much happens to explain simply, but the story revolves around Common and his daughter. He works in publishing and is supposed to speak at his daughter's career day. In to the mix add a new kid in class with a crush on Common's daughter, Allison Janney trying to deal with a dead body at the school, a cut power cord in an office kitchen, the discovery of an affair, an angsty teacher teaching little kids about failure and existential crisis, a fist fight and paramedics who really won't help anyone.

There is way more going on with the cast of stars, including one surprise cameo at the end and Greer handles it all with near perfection. This is the sort of film where timing is everything and Greer nails it. She keeps pacing tight, the actors under control and the laughs coming.  We never have time to look away or ponder how silly it all is, we just smile and wait for the next funny bit.

What I really like about the film is that in an age when so many films come out where no one really cares or at least it seems that way from the way things bleed off the screen, here is a film where everyone seems to be having a good time. The broad spectrum of actors who grace the screen actually all seem to want to be there and appear to be having a good time. This clearly wasn't just a paycheck job for anyone involved and as a result we in the audience have a good time.

I'm not going to lie and say this is high art, it's not, but it is entertaining. This is film to curl up with a bowl of popcorn, a big drink and some friends and have a good time.

Recommended when the film his theaters Friday.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Ariela briefly discusses Ben is Back (2018) Toronto 2018

Julia Roberts should get the mother of the year award with this film. Ben is Back is the story of Ben(played by Lucas Hedges) who unexpectedly comes home when he’s supposed to be in rehab. The family initially freaks out, his mom (Julia Roberts) hides all the pills from the bathroom, and also hides her jewelry. They initially want to send him back, but then because it’s Christmas the mom decides he can stay for one day, makes him take a drug test, and says he can’t leave her sight for even a moment. Things seem pretty good, until they come home from church and their dog is missing.

This was a good film. I wish there was a bit more back story, but seemed like they didn’t want to focus on the past too much, and more so deal with the 24hrs. I didn’t love it, but it was good. It shows what someone dealing with addiction goes through and what the family goes through too. I won’t be surprised if this gets Julia Roberts an Oscar nomination.

Call Her Ganda (2018) opens Friday

Heart breaking and heady CALL HER GANDA is a truly sad film. While focusing on the murder of Jennifer Laudes literally at the hands of US serviceman Joseph Pemberton, the film lays bare the piss poor treatment given the Philippines by United States as well as reminding us how dangerous it is to be transgender.

There is so much in Call Her Ganda I don’t know where to begin. The film is such an emotional rollercoaster that even some months after seeing the film (I saw the film originally during Tribeca) I am still processing it and still trying to find the words.

Director PJ Raval beautifully balances all of the factors at play in the case. I love that no matter where the discussion goes we never lose sight of the fact that there was human being at the center of it all. Raval keeps this a personal story with the result that our emotions are moved. Too often when we are discussing gender and international politics we forget the people sparking the discussion. Raval makes certain that Jennifer Laudes is front and center.

While I knew things were tense between the Philippines and the US I never realized how bad things were and how badly the US abused what is supposed to be a sovereign nation. I never realized that the US military basically carte blanche to beat rape and kill without any real fear of prosecution. I truly didn’t know that until Pemberton had been convicted of Laudes’s murder no service man had ever been successfully prosecuted. Money be damned I’m shocked that the people living near US military bases didn’t kill anyone who left the base. America should be ashamed.

CALL HER GANDA kicked me to the curb. My heart broke, not just for Jennifer but her mother who has had to fight for justice. No parent should have to bury their child. And if a parent should bury their child there should be an accounting.

I don’t know what to say but go and see it and be moved.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Tallahassee Film Festival opens submissions for 2019 edition!

Florida's celebration of indie film returns April 5th - 7th to bring cinematic revelries to the Sunshine State's capital



Friday, September 14th, TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA - Springtime is prime time in Tallahassee, Florida's capital city, a place known for college football, the natural splendor of its canopy roads, and as the hometown of cinema legends from Ricou Browning (who played "The Creature from the Black Lagoon") to Faye Dunaway, and, more recently, as the collegiate stomping grounds of Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight").  
It's also home to the Tallahassee Film Festival, which unspools April 5-7, 2019. Founded in 2008, the festival relaunched this year after an extended hiatus, welcoming more than 50 filmmaker guests and some 90 features and shorts selections. Submissions are now open for next year's fest. Features, shorts, animation, documentaries, experimental films and work for TV/digital platforms are eligible. Must be completed between January 2018 and the late submission closing date of Jan. 15, 2019.
Early bird rates of $15/$20 apply until Sept. 30. Submissions accepted through FilmFreeway, Withoutabox, Festhome and FilmFestivalLife.
About 90 percent of the festival's program is drawn from submissions, which strongly favors first-time filmmakers and independent visions. Over the years, notable guests have included Barry Jenkins, Joe Swanberg, Kat Candler, Onur Tukel, Bill Morrison, Harrod Blank and Turner Ross.
Chicago writer-director Michael Smith ("Mercury in Retrograde"), whose work has twice been showcased by TFF, sings its praises. "One of my favorite regional film festivals! The programming is outstanding: for the films in competition, the programmers select excellent-quality and TRUE indie films that are not just the same films playing all of the other regional fests. Plus they showcase exciting titles fresh from Sundance, Slamdance, etc for their out-of-competition slots. They are also extremely well-organized and communicative. Great after parties, Q&A sessions and a well-run awards ceremony (featuring beautiful trophies) on closing night. A relaxed and friendly atmosphere where the opportunities for networking with other filmmakers are plentiful. I greatly hope to return!"

To submit a film, and for more information, please click on the link below.

Nate Hood on Commander Arian - A Story of Women, War & Freedom (2018) Camden International Film Festival

Ever since the rise of Daesh as an internationally destabilizing threat in 2014, documentaries on the so-called Islamic Caliphate have been a constant on the festival circuit. Some like Bernard-Henri Lévy’s dreadful Peshmerga (2016) immerse the audience into the actual fighting, examining on-the-ground battlefield crises and the day-to-day struggles of the freedom fighters. Others like Matthew Heineman’s superb City of Ghosts (2017) examines the plight of the displaced and/or terrorized populations suffering under their rule from the perspective of the scant few who’ve escaped. Alba Sotorra’s Commander Arian: A Story of Women, War, and Freedom is both, mixing unnerving battlefield footage with introspective examinations of the psychological and physical toll suffered by the soldiers.

The film centers on the eponymous Arian Afrin, a commander in the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ), a resistance army of Syrian-Kurdish women that arose in 2013. During an operation, Afrin’s unit was ambushed and she was shot five times by a combatant hiding in a hencoop. The bullets entered her spine, elbow, lung, and sacrum, necessitating a series of gruesome operations leaving her with a ghastly stomach scar not unlike one left by a cesarean. Several feet of intestines needed to be removed, and her bowels never fully healed, leaving her perpetually leaking urine and other fluids. The film opens with Afrin nearing the end of her convalescence as she reintegrates back into her unit as they begin their final push to retake the captured city of Kobane. Though she still hasn’t regained full use of her arms and retains a limp, she still joins her sisters-in-arms in deadly firefights. But the film is mostly interested in the still, quiet moments in between the fighting where Afrin sits, listens, tends her wounds, and eats her meals with her fellow women soldiers.

As the title explains, this is a story of women, so even more than the combat footage—which Sotorra clearly risked her life for—the film concerns itself with their fears, memories, and hopes. What is it like to not just be a woman soldier, but a WOMAN in a world gone topsy-turvy from sectarian violence? Pointedly, there’s no sense of triumph at the end of the film, even when they retake Kobane. Instead there’s merely a sense of relief that it’s over and a tired determination that there’s still much more to do.

Rating: 7/10

Camden Capsules: GOING SOUTH, FAUSTO, and VIRGINITY

Going South
Modern age of the version of the TV clip shows that some comedy and movie theaters show casing weird things found on TV, though this time out the clips are all from the internet. From rock shows, to weird weather, a transgender woman talking about her life, to burning trees and bizarre rants and behavior this film has it all. A visual and aural assault on the senses or seemingly random bits it is broken into six parts as if that means something. I couldn’t find any, as the steady stream of clips forced me to sit up and struggle to engage.
Does it mean anything? I don’t know. After a while I tuned out because it was simply too much random information coming in with too little time to process.

Fausto
People sit around and tell stories.
Kind of experimental film is interesting as long as I let the film wash over me but once I tried to piece things together I started to feel hopelessly lost.

Virginity
Several young girls try to use sex as a way of making money and getting ahead including selling their virginity and working in the sex industry. Grim and grimy documentary about the desperation of some women who will do anything to make their fortunes. A decided walk on the seedier side of life, it is a sad reminder that life is a terrible place for most people.

Nate Hood on First Stripes (2018) Camden International Film Festival (2018)

You can’t sneak Wagner’s Prelude from Das Rheingold into a film about soldiers and NOT be making some kind of statement. The piece—one made ubiquitous by countless movies and TV shows in need of stock classical music denoting triumph and majesty—was used by Wagner in the first scene of the first part of his Nibelungen cycle to represent the very creation of the cosmos itself. So when Jean-François Caissy uses it to accompany footage of new recruits in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) on patrol, the only interpretation possible is that we’re watching the birth of something powerful and great, something mighty and eternal. That’s not the kind of message that mixes well with what otherwise aspires to be a strictly cinéma-vérité exploration of the 12-week basic training of new recruits into professional soldiers.

Seemingly heavily influenced by American documentarian Frederik Wiseman, a filmmaker who’s turned his persistently objective gaze on his own country’s social institutions for the better part of sixty years, Caissy seeks to not only examine his young recruits but the CAF themselves and how they produce a sterile environment that psychologically strips the individuality away from its trainees for replacement with a collectivized, self-sacrificial mentality. (“It’s Canada before yourself,” one officer booms.)

But unlike Wiseman who liberally turned his camera on the administrators and bossmen of the institutions he probed, Caissy rarely shows the commanding officers, even during training exercises, choosing instead to focus on the steely-eyed, blank expressions of the soldiers as they receive orders, reprimands, and assignments. Sometimes this is used to great effect, such as a scene where the soldiers are taught the byzantine, labyrinthine differences between orders and directives from various agencies like the DAOD, the CFAO, and the CBI: they struggle to stay focused and awake as their unseen instructor drones on and on about protocol. In other sequences such as a recruit getting interrogated by his sergeant for accidentally leaving his cell phone on during an inspection, the creative decision seems arbitrary. Perhaps Caissy was uncomfortable with doing anything that might humanize the officers over the recruits—doing so could have easily made the film less an exploration of humans under difficult conditions then a recruitment tool advertising the CAF.

But the choice of music—not just the aforementioned Prelude but other classical flourishes—tip Caissy’s hand in way he probably didn’t intend.

Rating: 6/10

Angels Are Made of Light (2018) Camden International Film Festival 2018 Toronto 2018

Angels Are Made of Light follows the lives of several students and teachers in a Kabul. We watch as they go through their daily routine and ponder their lives and futures.

Good but kind bland film about life in a country at war. We watch the daily life of the various subjects while listening to their thoughts in voice over narration. It gives us insight into what is going on in their hearts but it never quite generates the necessary level of excitement, at least to support a two hour film.

The problem is the film is so very earnest in what it is doing and seeming so intent on being good it ends up being bland. In a weird way I got the sense that it wants to be a purely observational film and it stands back and outside a lot of what it is documenting. And yet there wasn’t enough insight into the various people so they added the voice overs. It’s beautiful to look at but it never is quite compelling.

While I like the film, watching it I get the feeling that the film has gotten slots at festivals such as Camden, Toronto and New York not because the film is truly great but because the festivals have respect for James Longley the film’s director. I say this because there are so many other better films out there that have not gotten a shot at the big stage but should have.

Recommended for those with interest in the subject but not for general audiences who are advised to look elsewhere.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Nate Hood goes into THE ANCIENT WOOD (2018) Camden International Film Festival 2018

Mindaugas Survilla’s The Ancient Woods might be the first time I’ve ever seen a movie and thought that a theater would be the wrong venue for it. It’s not because the images don’t demand the gigantic dimensions and clarity of a theatrical space—they do—but because a large, empty room cannot do justice to the film’s use of sound. Perhaps more than any other film I’ve seen so far this year, The Ancient Woods demands to be HEARD, not just seen, as its portrait of one of the last remaining old growth forests in Lithuania is as much aural spectacle as visual feast.

My suggestion? Laptop, darkened room, and headphones. Consider the first minute and a half where Survilla presents us with a Kubrickian black screen à la 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But instead of a wailing choir, we hear the rumblings of the forest: the swaying of trees, the snapping of twigs, the low rumble of unseen thumpings and thuddings. Soon the black fades into the night sky and little moths dance among the stars. Then comes the sound of gurgling water as schools of tiny fish slowly appear on screen shimmering among submerged tree roots. And in the distance, unseen, wolves and birds. The effect is hypnotic and key for acclimating oneself into Survilla’s method of sculpting time which is so highly reminiscent of Tarkovsky there are moments when you could imagine the cast of Stalker (1979) wandering into the frame. I shudder to think how a theater, even one with superb acoustics, might butcher the highly nuanced sound design.

Survilla presents a truly untamed wilderness in which one can see/hear echoes of an ecosystem still unmolested by humanity—there is only one human shown, a wizened farmer who appears in exactly two scenes, first to chop firewood, then to watch an incoming thunderstorm.

However, with the exceptions of the brilliant opening sequence and a chilling scene where he repeats footage of a family of cranes devouring an army of frogs, first in normal speed and then in slow-motion, he does precious little with what he finds other than present it to us in a deadening succession. The effect can sometimes come off like a nature documentary sans David Attenborough’s narration. Survilla clearly wants to evoke the otherworldly mood and timelessness of an antediluvian nature, but it comes off too frequently as frustratingly repetitive.

Rating: 6/10

Camden Capsules YOURS IN SISTERHOOD, EASY LESSONS, EXIT MUSIC and YOUNG SOLITUDE



YOURS IN SISTERHOOD
Women today read letters from Ms Magazine from the 1970's
Very good time capsule revealing how far we've come and how far we have to go. This is going to pla best for people who know what Ms was and stood for. I love bits of this such as the woman who reads the letter sent in from her 16 year old self. While I like the film a great deal I think it's a bit long at 100 minutes or so thanks to pretty much every reader being bookended by silence. uibble aside definitely worth a look.

EASY LESSONS
Kafia, a young woman from Somalia  tries to find the balance between life in her new home in Hungary and he Somali Background. If you've ever wondered what its like to leave everything you know for a better life somewhere else this film will give you an idea. While Kafia would seem to have an easier time than most, her struggle to balance this new world and it's new opportunities make this a compelling film. Also helping is the fact Kafia is a charming young lady you can't help but like.  Worth a look.

EXIT MUSIC
Ethan Rice is a young man with cystic fibrosis. A filmmaker and musician we watch as he navigates his final days. A film of mixed emotions will leave you both sad at what it shows and happy at having met Ethan, a wickedly funny young man with a one of a kind outlook on dying- its not death tat scares him its the road there. I really like the film but it made me sad, and as such I will not write alot on the film because I don't want to be in that headspace.

YOUNG SOLITUDE
Various 17 year olds talk to each other about their lives.
I have no idea what I think of this film. While billed as a documentary the film feels more like a work of fiction, perhaps docufiction as things see to be set up and not natural occurrences. The sense of unreality crashes into the reality for an uneasy partnership.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Nate Hood and COMMUNION LOS ANGELES (2018) Camden International Film Festival

On its surface, Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund’s Communion Los Angeles seems like the kind of dry experiment in cinematic form only consumed and appreciated by ivory-tower critics and semiotic theoreticians who discuss the films of Isidore Isou, Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow in hushed, reverential tones. At only 68 minutes, it charts the length of Interstate 110, the oldest freeway in California, as it snakes its way south from San Pedro through Los Angeles towards Pasadena. It has no plot, no story, and though there are one or two passersby interviewed, no characters. It’s simply a cinematic record of a freeway and its presence in the communities and environments it passes through.

This is cinema as imagined by Guy Debord and his band of Continental psychogeographists: an examination of the symbiotic relationship between people and places. If this sounds dull, it’s only because you haven’t witnessed Levine and Rappmund’s mesmeric kino-eye: shot entirely in still shots and rapid stop-motion photography, the film transforms even busy highways into semi-static landscapes. Combined with the random unseen chattering of those found along its route—street poets and street perverts, homeless dandies and radio hosts—the effect is at once hypnotic and terrifying, ecstatic and spellbinding. Before long the film lulls you into a stupor as the freeway slithers past palm trees poking up behind empty reservoirs canals and rusty old pumpjacks in the middle of parking lots; quaint one-story homes in the shadow of factory smokestacks and rundown two-story houses decaying in the California heat; dead birds smashed on the pavement, dusty horses wandering construction sites. Soon the rhythm of the cities reveal themselves to us in subtle ways—at night when the shops and banks lie shuttered like corpses and the tail-lights of midnight traffic blaze like neon lettering, the solitude of empty bus-stops and the noise of crowded taco trucks feel like enigmas into unseen, unspeakable patterns.

In many ways the film feels reminiscent of Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s Kuro (2017), another work that juxtaposed invisible narration with urban landscapes to create something meditative and ephemeral. Communion Los Angeles is by design not a documentary for everyone—many people might scoff at the idea of it being a documentary at all. But to those with the right eyes to see and the right minds to understand, it’s a revelation.

Rating: 8/10

Nate Hood on Young Men and Fire (2018) Camden International Film Festival (2018)

Alex Jablonski, Khalil Hudson | USA| 77 mins

Among the woodland firefighters of Grant’s Pass, Oregon, there are single fathers, ex-prisoners, and former addicts. Some feel called by God, some by the money, and some by the work. “I wanna feel things,” one of the new twentysomething recruits explains, “I wanna get scrapes and cuts and I wanna sweat. I wanna feel my legs burn when I get to the top of a hill. I wanna feel it. Those are the things that make me feel alive.” But whatever their motivations, these men come together for the sole purpose of defending lives and wildlife from the wildfires that threaten the west coast of North America every dry season.

Supposedly named after the Norman Maclean book about the deadly Mann Gulch fire of 1949, Alex Jablonski and Khalil Hudson’s Young Men and Fire follows the recruiting, training, and first missions of a new generation of hotshots. If Joseph Kosinski’s magnificent retelling of the doomed Granite Mountain Hotshots’ last mission in Only the Brave (2017) was the fact made fantasy, then Young Men and Fire is the fantasy made fact as it strips away all the inherent romanticism of man vs. nature with a ceaseless succession of backbreaking labor and stultifying monotony.

Right off the bat the recruits are told that it’s not unusual to work 100-hour weeks; twelve hour days are the norm and fourteen, sixteen, and even twenty-four hour shifts aren’t uncommon while in the thick of things. One of the trainers mentions casually that during one particularly nasty deployment she lost twelve pounds in the three days. So we watch them train and work and train and work until they can barely stand or speak. And only then are they sent off to fight actual fires.

It quickly becomes apparent that the biggest danger they face isn’t the fire, but boredom, both in a metaphorical and literal sense: if you slack off and don’t pay attention to your surroundings, you’ll probably end up dead. But the tedium hardly bothers the men—this is the work they were born to do, and they love it.

In an unusual stylistic twist, Jablonski and Hudson frame the film with quotes from an audiobook of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, his novel about growing up in the midwest. The comparisons are unmistakable: firefighting is a crucible that turns boys into men and broken lives into new and whole ones.

Rating: 7/10

DAWNLAND (2018) Camden International Film Festival 2018


A look at the Maine Commission for Truth and Reconciliation which sought to look into the State's treatment of indigenous children who were often taken from their parents and put into foster care of put up for adoption under the assumption that the kids would be better off not growing up on the reservation.

This is a bracing and eye opening film that is going to open your eyes to a whole world of pain inflicted on the North American people by "well intentioned" (outright racist) stupid white people who broke up families and cultures for no really good reason. I did not realize this was happening even today and I left the film feeling more than a little pissed off.

While the subject matter is important and vital, more so in that I know that the vast majority of Americans don't realize that the separations happened and are still happening, the presentation is a little too matter of fact for such a vital subject. While the film enlightens and enrages I wish it was a tad more in your face so more people would be moved to get off the couch and try to right a very big wrong.

 Recommended when the film plays the Camden International Film Festival

Four Hands

It is modern day Germany, not Dirty Harry’s 1970s San Francisco, but apparently the progressive judges and parole boards are just the same. Twenty years ago, Jessica and Sophie’s parents were murdered while they hid in terror. Now, the killers have been released from prison, because of rehabilitation or whatever. However, the dysfunctional sisters continued to feel the impact of the crimes every day of their lives. Sophie is finally ready to move on, but Jessica is not. In fact, she is determined to involve her sister in her bid for vengeance, even if she has to do it from beyond the grave in Oliver Kienle’s Four Hands, which opens today in Los Angeles.

As the older sibling, Jessica shielded Sophie from the sight of the parents’ murder, but she saw it all. That helps explain her more aggressive and erratic behavior. When informed of the murderers’ release, she goes into a full manic cycle, pulling Sophie out of an important audition, so they can plan their attack. Wanting none of it, Sophie tries to flee, but their jostling leads to a fatal traffic accident. Sophie wakes up in the hospital, whereas Jessica went straight to the morgue.

At least Sophie should be able to live her own life now—but not so fast. Rather disturbingly, she starts blacking out, during which time she acts quite suspiciously. She threatens the nice doctor who helped her after the accident and clearly starts stalking the murderers. Then Sophie starts picking up the voice messages Jessica leaves for her.

Throughout most of the film, Kienle leaves plenty of interpretive room for viewers whether the vengeful Jessica is a supernatural or psychological phenomenon. Mostly, Four Hands is a rather intriguing thriller that never crosses over into horror, but should still appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of horror fans (although there are no one-to-one parallels, it certainly feels like Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers was an influence). Kienle (the creator and head writer of the terrific German television show Bad Banks) is definitely playing with sister/twin/doppelganger motifs, but the film also directly explores the long-term emotional and psychological impact of violent crime, in a serious and thoughtful way.

Friederike Becht is impressively fierce as Jessica, especially during the scenes in which she appears to physically take over Sophie’s body. Again, for most of the film, it is unclear whether this is an actual manifestation of the uncanny or an expressively symbolic strategy of Kienle. Conversely, Frida-Lovisa Hamann often seems problematically bland and passive as Sophie, but that is arguably required of a character who has been dominated so long by a strong but unstable personality like Jessica. Christopher Letkowski is also believably grounded and appropriately freaked out as Martin, the doctor who haltingly pursues a relationship with Sophie.

There are some terrific settings in Four Hands (like the sisters’ isolated manor and a modernist concert hall), but Kienle never uses them to imitate Hitchcock or the Giallo masters. This is his film not a shallow homage. Recommended with enthusiasm, Four Hands opens today (9/14) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

MDMA(2018)

MDMA is Angie Wang’s semi-autobiographical crime drama about a young woman in the early 1980’s who, after arriving at prestigious college, finds she needs money fast. Able to manufacture ecstasy she turns to drugs dealing in order to make money, while at the same time mentoring a young girl whose life has been ripped apart by drugs.

MDMA is a film that I admire more than I like. On the face of it MDMA isn’t a bad film, it’s just that the film is trying to do a little bit too much. It wants to be Wang’s coming of age tale, a true crime story, a crime thriller, and an anti-drug film but it never quite nails a singular tone. This makes it so things don’t quite hang together even though we know they are one story. You have these small sections of the story that could be peeled off and made into singular films chopped down to fit with these other stories.

Blame it in part on the framing device of the flashback which opens with Angie on the down slide. It colors everything that we see as a result. We know she is a little girl lost so we know it’s going into the shitter- but we also know, since this is, on some level director’s Wang’s story, things will kind of work out. It undercuts a certain amount of suspense

Sitting and thinking about the film for about three weeks, I’ve been trying to work out what exactly feel about the film.  There are things in the film I like and some things in the film that are just okay. The problem is that as much as I can go on about, say, how good the performances the fact that the film didn't pull it all together for me leaves me very cold to the film. Part of me wants to walk away from the film but part of me has been fighting with this review for three weeks because there are some good things here. To that end I'm going to leave it to you to decide whether to see MDMA or not.- personally I'm still not sure.

Nate Hood goes to the Science Fair (2018)

If on the night of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster walk onstage the Dolby Theatre and accept the Oscar for Best Documentary, it will hardly be a surprise. Their new film Science Fair is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing, heart-warming story Academy voters are instinctively drawn to during years when the ballot isn’t stacked with true crime exposés.

Following the fortunes of a number of plucky young people competing in the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)—referred to as “the Olympics of science fairs”—it’s an inspirational story designed for soaring musical swells and tear-jerking postscripts.

Understand, none of this is to the film’s detriment: it’s very, very good at getting the audience heavily invested in the stories of these various kids. There’s the headstrong genius-level fourteen-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky with a new sensor for detecting arsenic levels in drinking water who inexplicably keeps losing during national competitions; there’s the duo from a desperately poor city in Brazil who’ve developed new techniques for detecting the Zika virus that’s ravaged their community; there’s the programmer wunderkind from nowhere West Virginia who taught his school calculator to generate Shakespearean insults and his computer Kanye West lyrics through a home-grown neural network; there’s the team of immigrant Chinese students in New York state marshaled by their loving yet imperious science teacher, herself the child of Caribbean immigrants; and there’s the shy hijabi from South Dakota who wants to develop technology to figure out why so many of her classmates descend into alcoholism and drug abuse. The methods with which they and their stories are presented are intimately familiar to anyone whose ever watched an episode of American Idol, Top Chef, or, heaven help you, American Ninja Warrior: interviews in their native trailer parks or favelas; their preparations for the Big Day; their eventual success or failure. It's tried and true and predictable.

The film's true virtue, then, is its tireless sense of optimism, both in science as a means for fostering international cooperation and for inculcating self-confidence and self-agency among young people from disenfranchised backgrounds. Watching the film, it's obvious which subject will win Best in Show (hint: it's the one seemingly added as an afterthought), but for a moment we truly believe that all these young people are winners in their own way, for themselves, their countries, and our species' future. And the winner's envelope please...


Rating: 7/10

Science Fair opens in select theaters today. It also plays at the Camden International FIlm Festival this weekend.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Ariela tries FARMING (2018) Toronto 2018

This was one heavy movie! The true story about the childhood of Director/writer Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, known as Anton in the film. In the 1980’s it was pretty common for Nigerian families to voluntarily give their kids away to British families. They would pay them to take care of them for a certain amount of time. This practice came to be called Farming.

Anton’s parents just needed to finish school and get their degrees and then they would bring their son home to Nigeria. This they did, but life in Nigeria was.. horrible to say the least. He wound up not talking for 6 months, and so they sent him back to England, to the family, for them to take care of him and make him “better”

The British family had several other “fostered” kids, think there were 6 or 7 of them, and the mom definitely had her favorites. She was not a fan of Anton to say the least.

This is a story about a boy who feels abandoned by both sets of parents, and winds up having so much inner hatred. He winds up hating being black and trying to paint his face white.

This was a painful film to watch, especially as Anton has encounters with skinheads, and winds up becoming one himself due to his self loathing and immense amount of anger built up.

There was a lot of violence in this film. A lot of scenes were difficult to watch.

The film is good, very well done, but again very very heavy and heartbreaking to know this is based on a true story.. The woman next to me said she felt like she needed to watch a comedy after seeing it, and I felt the same. Recommended but be prepared for its heaviness.

Ariela in brief: GIANT LITTLE ONES (2018) Toronto 2018

I loved this film.

A coming of age film about teenagers dealing with sexuality, friendships,bullying, family, and high school. A movie about two friends who have been best friends for most of their lives until an incident happens at a party.

I don’t want to give away much because I really loved this film. I loved the main star of the film Josh Wiggins, and the sweet unlikely friendship he later has. The film gave a real life portrayal of real teens going through serious events in life. It felt current and authentic.

I thought the film was beautiful. One of my top films of the festival.

Camden Capsules: SURVIVORS, MY FATHER IS MY SISTER'S BROTHER, PIPELINE, PUTIN'S WITNESSES and WHERE THE PAVEMENT ENDS

SURVIVORS
This is a portrait of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone as told by the survivors and the filmmakers who filmed it. Focusing on what happened and the work that was done by those who walked into the fray the film reveals what happened in ways that most of us have never seen before. While we no doubt seen the news stories and perhaps even some of the films turned out on the crisis, I don’t think any of us really could have understood what it was like to be there. Featuring footage shot as things went down as well as interviews who were there and who survived the film paints a portrait that only someone from in the thick of the crisis could do.
Very recommended

MY FATHER IS MY SISTER'S BROTHER
Portrait of a musician who takes custody of his young niece after his sister’s health declines. An observational look at a man and his defacto daughter is deeply moving. Dropping us into things in the middle the film just goes as we watch as the pair go through their paces and while dad tries to maintain his career as a singer. This is a super little film that is about life as lived and not as we want it to be. That’s the result of the film being very much there and in the moment. Cheers to director Vadym Ilkov for allowing the sequences to play out in real time because it adds a sense of reality that many docs don’t have.

PIPELINE
Portrait of the people and villages around the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline is a gorgeous look at various people most of us know nothing at. A mix of travelogue and informational doc the film demands to be seen on the big screen thanks to beautifully framed images that put us into the landscape.

PUTIN'S WITNESSES
Record of the transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Its an unvarnished look since director Viyali Mansky was there and filmed it all as it happened. We get snide comments from the directors family and we see everyone without their perfect media faces. And it is a lear view about how tyrants gets into power It is an intriguing look behind the carefully controlled Russian media machine


WHERE THE PAVEMENT ENDS
Thought provoking look at race in America through the all white city of Ferguson  and the all black Kinloch which were physically separated by a roadblock in the 1960's. You will forgive me if I don't say a lot about this film other than go see it because  as I write this piece the Camden deadline looms and I find I'm still pondering the film and trying to come up with what exactly I want to say. That is high praise because director Jane Gillooly has made a film that forces you to ponder and feel it and not simply react. One of the best of the festival and maybe 2018's as well.