Friday, January 30, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: HOMESICK

A scene from Homesick.
Domestic disturbance

By Don Simpson

When first meet the 27-year old Charlotte (Ine Marie Wilmann), she is in the midst of a therapy session. While the session does not reveal much backstory, the scene does inform us about Charlotte’s uncanny ability to avoid talking about her family. Other than expressing her frustration with her parents, as well as her therapist, Charlotte refuses to go into any details regarding the underlying issues. What we do learn is that Charlotte never felt like she had the love and security of a family unit; it also seems as though Charlotte never really confides in her best friend, Marte (Silje Storstein), either. No one seems to really know Charlotte; as her secrets get darker and more discomforting, it seems to be better that way.

Charlotte inherited her knack for secrecy from her mother, Anna (Anneke Von Der Lippe). Other than knowing that she has a brother who she has never met, Charlotte knows nothing of her mother’s previous marriage; but then her estranged half-brother, Henrik (Simon J. Berger), unexpectedly moves to Oslo with his wife and kid. With Henrik’s sudden appearance in her life, Charlotte finally sees an opportunity to form a connection with a blood relative.

Charlotte and Henrik’s connection grows far beyond platonic. Sure, Henrik is married and Charlotte is dating her best friend’s brother (Oddgeir Thune), but that does not stop them from “playing doctor” and so much more. Their sultry relationship is obviously destined for failure, but Charlotte and Henrik are much too engrossed in each other to care much about the risks. It is as if the two half-siblings are making up for lost time by overcompensating in their desire to establish an intense familiar connection; but other than ravaging each other like animals in heat, Charlotte and Henrik never really seem to connect on any other level. Their actions almost seem to be a rebellion against their mother for being too self-centered to love them. They end up discovering love in a very socially taboo place.

 
Like Charlotte, director Anne Sewitsky keeps us at arm’s length from Homesick‘s protagonists. The cold, distanced nature of the narrative provides it with an entrancing allure. Other than a few steamy sex scenes, the emotions are understated to mysteriously unrecognizable proportions. It is an intriguing approach to a taboo subject such as incest. Sewitsky has absolutely no interest in melodrama or expository dialogue, so she opts for an aloof nonchalance that seems to play off of the Scandinavian stereotype of quiet frigidity (it seems only appropriate that the story unfolds during the frosty Norwegian winter).

 

SUNDANCE 2015: (T)ERROR

A scene from (T)error. Photo credit: David Felix Sutcliffe.

Sought crimes

By Don Simpson

For the first hour of (T)ERROR, directors Lyric R Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe focus on an undercover FBI informant, Saeed (aka “Shariff”), who has granted them an “all access” pass to his final counterterrorism operation (unbeknownst to the FBI, of course). During the seven months that the filmmakers spend with Saeed in Pittsburg, his sole POI (person of interest) is Khalifah Al-Akili, a Caucasian American who converted to a militant Islam sect after being raised Protestant. The 63-year old informant does his best to ingratiate himself into Al-Akili’s world, all the while receiving vague directions from the FBI.
 
Saeed is an ex-Black Panther, ex-convict and practicing Muslim. He knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk of Muslim extremists, yet it is hard to determine how much of what he says is real. Cabral and Sutcliffe review Saeed’s life as an FBI informant and the cases he has worked in the past, most famously contributing to the conviction of jazz bassist Tarik Shah in Brooklyn. Despite his history, the more we get to know Saeed during this intriguing character study, the more unbelievable it seems that he is repeatedly cast by the FBI to play this role, but it is equally confounding how clumsy the operation appears to be. In the  final third of (T)ERROR, Cabral and Sutcliffe opt for a different angle.
 
Rather than spoiling the narrative twist, it is probably best to just say that it reveals their political motivations as filmmakers while also taking the film to a much higher level. Suddenly Cabral and Sutcliffe are able to talk about the FBI’s post-9/11 propensity for the entrapment of Muslims and the haphazard cases that they compile with the help of informants like Saeed. In the eyes of the directors, there have been several innocent Muslims who were incarcerated just because they were coaxed into saying something anti-American by a FBI informant. These Muslims did not actually do anything wrong, they just said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: THINGS OF THE AIMLESS WANDERER

News Correspondent (Justin Mulliken) in Things of the Aimless Wanderer.
A life in the bush of ghosts

By John Esther

It does not take long to realize Kivu Ruhorahoza's Things of the Aimless Wanderer is something special. Well, different at least.

Set in North Rwanda, Things of the Aimless Wanderer begins with somewhat of prologue where an Rwandan warrior (Ramadhan Bizimana) stalks a lonely white dude (Justin Mulliken) wandering the jungle. While wandering the jungle, whitey encounters a young, topless Rwandan woman (Grace Nikuze). There is a gaze off between the three characters.

Cut to early 21st century and "A girl has disappeared."

Told in three different yet related stories Ruhorahoza calls "a working hypothesis," the disappearance of the girl (or, rather, a young woman) offers up three scenarios involving sex, murder and shame. Using the same actors -- plus a narrator (Matt Ray Brown) who speaks for the white journalist -- the smaller stories are rather about bigger issues about the culture of Rwanda changing and expanding and how Rwandans are adapting to it (an allegory of sorts some may say). Except we are not getting a direct viewpoint from Rwandans but vis-a-vis what Ruhorahoza imagines what an American (or perhaps any white westerner) would see if he or she lived among the anxious Rwandans.

The issues are not so much related through dialogue -- there is very little of it, with the first of it coming during the 25th minute in this 77-minute film -- but rather through the Ruhorahoza's images and Daniel Biro's masterful score. In a Sundance Film Festival marked by outstanding scores, in particular Sam Shalabi's in The Amina Profile, Biro's wide, wild and wonderful music is like Brian Eno and The Orb (my Occidental ears!) got together with African Rwandan artists, smoked some cannabis and then got down to creative business.

SUNDANCE 2015: DREAMCATCHER

A scene from Dreamcather.
Turning the beat-en around

By John Esther

Under the alias “Breezy,” Brenda Myers-Powell worked as a prostitute for 25 years. An extremely violent encounter with a “John” landed Myers-Powell in a hospital in desperate need of facial reconstruction. That fateful moment was enough to convince Myers-Powell that she needed to change her life as well as the lives of others.

Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher observes Myers-Powell as she attempts to fulfill her mission of ending human trafficking in Chicago. Her organization, the Dreamcatcher Foundation, helps abused, drug-addicted women regain control of their lives. Armed with an overwhelmingly positive and caring personality, Myers-Powell gives hope to these women who would otherwise be lost. Myers-Powell’s unwavering strength and self-confidence serves as an anchor for the women, convincing them that they can survive outside of the sex industry. Thanks to the Dreamcatcher Foundation, they learn that their lives are not completely hopeless; they have a chance to follow Myers-Powell’s example and turn things around.

Knowing that she needs to stop the problem at its source, Myers-Powell works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youths. Via this harm reduction approach, if the Dreamcatcher Foundation can provide young at-risk teens with the strength, confidence and security they need, the hope is that the inherent cycle of neglect and violence will be broken, and there will be a much better chance that they will not succumb to being enslaved by the sex industry. It often seems that their only options to make money are prostitution and drug dealing, but the Dreamcatcher Foundation seeks to provide them with other choices.

Longinotto’s insightful documentary serves an inspirational tool to convince others that the sex trafficking problem in at-risk communities might not be a lost cause. There is hope as long as this world has more positive motivators like Myers-Powell to lead the way; the problem is, Myers-Powell seems like such a uniquely paragon personality for this role. Myers-Powell encapsulates her role with such perfection that it seems impossible to imagine that anyone else could replicate her successful methods. One might even go as far as saying that Myers-Powell is a modern day saint.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISM


A scene from Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
 Lone Wolf Nistor

By Don Simpson
 
By the year 1985, Nicolae Ceausescu had been the dictator of Romania for 20 years. Ceausescu controlled all media and entertainment, reducing television access to one channel that only broadcasted for a couple hours per day. The masses could only endure so much oppression, so a secret underground movement was established to illegally import and distribute bootlegged VHS recordings of movies from the Western world. Amazingly enough, a majority of the bootlegs were overdubbed with the voice of one person, Irina Nistor; she was the person everyone associated with the bootleg VHS tapes and became a mysterious savior to the Romanian public.
 
Combining talking head interviews with reenactment footage, first-time director Ilinca Calugareanu reveals the inner workings of an elaborate VHS smuggling ring that arguably might have prompted the eventual overthrow of Calugareanu’s tyranny in 1989. Oddly enough, there were plenty of Romanian officials and members of the secret police who helped out the VHS bootleggers (in exchange for free bootlegs, of course). In other words, Calugareanu’s government may have contributed to its own demise.
 
Through th title, Chuck Norris vs Communism, suggests that Chuck Norris was Romania’s savior, it was an entire catalog of films, mostly from Hollywood, spanning the gauntlet from action films to romantic comedies. These films taught Romanians about the many wonders of the Western world — specifically 1980s pop culture, free enterprise and materialism, but the films also served as an escape from the grim reality of their daily existence. While we can certainly debate the educational merit and the sociopolitical messages that most of these films communicated, it is quite invigorating to think that cinema might have been the root cause of a working class uprising.

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

A scene from Take Me to the River.
Head games

By Don Simpson

Ryder (Logan Miller) is a gay teenager who lives in Los Angeles. He recently came out to his mother (Robin Weigert) and father (Richard Schiff), yet they have refrained from spreading Ryder’s news to his mother’s family in Nebraska. When they arrive in Nebraska for a family reunion, Ryder quickly learns what is deemed normal in Los Angeles might be considered totally anomalous in Nebraska.

Ryder has no problem being the black sheep in midst of what he perceives to be a backwards family of Midwestern rednecks. With no intention of trying to fit in, Ryder wears his red short-shorts and yellow sunglasses loudly and proudly. His relatives might not jump to the conclusion that Ryder is gay, but they definitely assume that something is “off” about him.

The young girls of the family, however, love their cousin, Ryder. Specifically, Ryder forms a unique connection with Molly (Ursula Parker), but this only exacerbates the Nebraska family’s freakish perception of him. It is not long before Ryder finds himself the target of a witch hunt and is exiled to an abandoned cottage on the family’s property.

Secrets and denial have serious consequences in Matt Sobel’s darkly contemplative Take Me to the River; and though this film is set in Nebraska, this familiar problem is certainly not limited to Cornhuskers or Midwesterners. There are some things that need to be discussed and explained openly, especially among family, no matter how uncomfortable or painful. Pretending everything is normal simply does not make the secret disappear. The longer these secrets fester, the worse the eventual impact will be. Whether the motivation is self-preservation or to protect others, running away is never a viable solution.

Sobel’s film masterfully leaves important details up to the viewer’s imagination, allowing us to come to our own conclusions. When the closing credits appear, it is still unclear as to what in the hell just happened, which is precisely how Ryder must feel as he drives away with his parents.

Presumably the film’s title is a reference to the Al Green’s song (popularized by Talking Heads) “Take Me to the River,” which David Byrne once described as: “A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin’ Jesus.” Sobel’s film is not all that different from Byrne’s description of the song. The film certainly serves up a potent blend of puberty, sexuality and conservative values. Also, the story represents a seminal moment in Ryder’s coming-of-age, which could be interpreted as a baptism into adulthood; though rather than being cleansed with water, Ryder ends up with mud on his chest.

SUNDANCE 2015: CRONIES

A scene from Cronies.
Lean on me-an/der

By John Esther

Louis (George Sample III) and Jack (Zurich Bucker) go way back. Childhood friends, these two share the kind of special bond that no two kids should ever have to share. But the years have gone by, and while Louis seems to have matured -- at least a little -- Jack is as angry and edgy as ever. 

Accordingly, Louis currently prefers the company of Andrew (Brian Kowalski), a kid from the other side of the 'hood but no less  slothful and youthful than Louis or Jack. However, "Andy" is a lot more mellow than Jack.

Until the day of the (mostly) black and white Cronies takes place, Jack had never heard or met Andrew. Obviously, because if Louis had mentioned Andrew, the mistrustful Jack would have annoyed Louis with questions fueled by insecurity masked by anger.

When the three do collide in front of Louis' house, they decide to go out and run some errands: pick up a birthday present for Aisha (Samiyah Womack), play some dice for money, pick up some girls (if they can), and smoke large amounts of cannabis.

For the most part, Jack is a relentless nuisance, Louis smokes more weed than anybody  I know, and Andrew  keeps the party going. Will gambling, violence, drugs, grand theft auto, robbery, and jealousy ruin a friendship or two?

Produced and presented by Spike Lee, writer-director Michael J. Larnell's second feature film, Cronies, skillfully blends gritty cinema and faux documentary interviews with the film's very skilled three leads. Buckner, in particuar, is a talent to keep an eye out on. 

For the most part, the result of the fimmakers' efforts is a rather straightforward, entertaining film about the bonds of friendship -- old and new.
 

Monday, January 26, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: GIRLHOOD

A scene from Girlhood.
Oh you petty thieves

By Don Simpson

Opening with an all-girl football game, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood showcases the confidence that teenage girls possess whenever boys are not around. Post-game, the girls boisterously walk the dark and menacing streets of their Parisian banlieue défavorisée; but as soon as they reach the courtyard of their public housing development, the sudden silence is audibly jarring. This introduction immediately transports us into the mindset of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16-year-old who seems content and self-assumed in the company of other girls, but she shuts down in the presence of males — especially her abusive older brother.

Marieme’s one remaining hope of escaping the inherent trappings of her ethnicity, gender and class is dashed when she is informed that she will not be promoted into high school. Immediately after receiving that news, fate delivers Marieme into the hands of a local female gang. Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamou) are looking for a new recruit, and Marieme is in desperate need of female camaraderie. The three gang members are like hyper-real caricatures representing a temporary escape from Marieme’s grim reality. Gang culture is like a video game for Marieme; the seriousness of the bad girls’ actions does not seem real. Marieme is hypnotized by the cool and carefree nature of Lady, Fily and Adiatou. By the time that the four girls are lip-syncing Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a hotel room, Marieme has fully entered the fantasy world of her comrades. That moment might be when Marieme feels the most free, but it is not long before she realizes that it is a false sense of freedom.

Petty thievery will not sustain her for very long.

Girlhood is told in four parts, each of which shows Marieme in a different stage of evolution. Each chapter ends with a cut to black, then Marieme appears in her next phase, showcasing how Marieme adapts to the world by physically and mentally reconstructing herself. The most obvious change is in her hairstyle. Her face also mutates from smooth features and a shy, downward gaze to hardened features and a cold, intense stare. Marieme begins to carry herself differently, too, as her body movements grow more forceful and determined. That sweet young girl from the beginning of the film changes into a powerful young woman.

This is not just purely out of survival instinct for Marieme, but it is also a rebellion against societal norms. She will do whatever she can to avoid the destiny determined by her ethnicity, gender and class — specifically, Marieme does not want to grow up to become a poor and abused single mother. Men are a constant threat to women in Marieme’s world, so she cuts her hair short, binds her breasts and wears baggy clothing to appear less womanly.

Marieme may be the only gang member who attempts to look less feminine, but she is also the only one with a boyfriend. Girlhood may not directly speak to LGBTQ issues, but the female characters do prefer the company of women. As far as we can surmise, there is nothing sexual about their relationships, but the girlfriends are extremely protective and supportive of each other. It seems very possible that Lady, Fily and Adiatou would not be able to survive without each other.

Skillfully avoiding any of the usual tropes or cliches of gang-related dramas, Girlhood is not about redemption, nobody gets “saved.” Girlhood does not glamorize gang culture, nor does it overtly criticize it. In Sciamma’s eyes, female gangs fulfill the desire to be accepted as part of a social group, kind of like a sorority or sports team. Though these wild packs of girls do occasionally grow rambunctious and volatile, they also function as surrogate families, providing the girls with a level of safety and security that they cannot find at home. That is not to say that Sciamma glorifies thuggery either. Since we see female gang culture from Marieme’s perspective, we witness just how it is fake. You can only do what you want for so long before you have to grow up and find a way to make a living.

SUNDANCE 2015: STATION TO STATION

A scene from Station to Station. Photo by Alayna VanDervort.

All aboard artists

By Don Simpson

Over a period of three weeks in September 2013, a bedazzled train traveled from New York City to San Francisco, making seven other stops along the way. Doug Aitken’s goal with this project was to connect key players in the underground worlds of art, music, food, literature, and film, and have them participate in the creation of a series of “nomadic happenings” across the United States.

What is most striking about Aitken’s Station to Station is the way the film’s kinetic aesthetic structure mimics the feeling of traveling by train. The 61 one-minute short films pass along the screen like the ever-changing landscape outside of a train window. Each short film represents something unique, like a land formation or building that might gain your attention; before you know it, something new catches your eye. Yet with so many images passing by, the individual units eventually become a blur. For most viewers, the short films associated with familiar names -- Kenneth Anger, Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, Beck, Cat Power, Eleanor Friedberger -- will likely become the most memorable; but hopefully everyone will walk away from Station to Station with a renewed interest in train travel.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

SUNDANCE 2015: CHORUS


Christophe (Sebastian Ricard) and Irene (Fanning Mallette) in Chorus.
Good grief

By John Esther

Shot in black and white and mostly during Canadian winter months, the look of Chorus is as dreary as its tale of woe.

A man named Jean-Pierre (Luc Senay) walks into an interrogation room and sits down across from a police official named Hervé (Didier Lucien). He does not want a lawyer. The overweight, slouching (toward Gomorrah) criminal is there to admit to another crime he committed. It happened 10 years ago and it involves an 8-year-old boy who was not very good at sports, had lost his bike key and broke the cardinal rule about getting into a car with strangers.

As Jean-Pierre continues his story, a sense of dread seeps in. This is a story which cannot end well. But, before Jean-Pierre is done telling his story, writer-director-cinematographer-editor Francois Delisle's film cuts away to the film's two protagonists, a couple filled with existential dread. Except the couple are no longer together.

Far from the cold winter of Montreal, Christophe (Sébastian Ricard) does odd jobs around the sunny shores of a Mexican beach. Other than that, he spends a lot of time in the nude, either with a woman or rolling under the ocean's breaking waves. A desire to dissolve.

Meanwhile, Irene (Fanning Mallette), who has not left Montreal, sings in a classical music chorus and helps her mom, Gabrielle (Genèvieve Bujold) out with money. Her life is essentially free of companionship or coherence. Anything -- a smell, a sound, a word, a gesture -- can send her into a tailspin of emotional nausea.
 
 

Both now in their early 40s, it is rather obvious that Christophe and Irene are the parents of the dead boy who could not throw a baseball (although he was quite the painter). The parents were not sure their only child was dead, but when the news comes down from the police, the couple must now moved to a different kind of grief. Guilt and uncertainty have been replaced by guilt and certainty. Closure comes as both a relief and near-unfathomable woe. How can the parents go on? They could not even master their previous form of grief. They must go on (even if Irene's father could not).

To its credit, Chorus does not just limit itself to a couple's personal grief and loss, it shows how grief becomes compounded by one heinous crime. Not only did Jean Pierre rape and kill a boy, he ruined a marriage, produced a further rifts in the family dynamic, and scarred a young boy who was friends with the dead boy. Chorus does not stop there, either. A smaller narrative in the film illustrates the fact that not only can those who act against society, like Jean Pierre, kill children, but society itself can kill children, too (well, as long as the kids are foreign).

There is also another harrowing scene where the parents must essentially do the shopping for their dead son. Their tragedy is someone else's financial gain.

Part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2015, Chorus is a gritty, emotionally honest (and draining) film about coming to grips with the horrors life can throw at you at any given moment. Yet the film is not a tearjerker nor is it the kind of film made for year-end bourgeois acting awards. It is too gritty, too relentless and too sexually graphic to be that reductive and sinister. It also has a smart soundtrack featuring medieval classics as well as the Suuns.

It is the kind of independent film one expects from an independent film festival.