Tuesday, November 8, 2016

IMFF '16: Sophia Takal's Always Shine





The cinematic tropes of DePalma and Bergman appealingly collide in Almost Shine, a mostly successful thriller that examines competition between friends and the pressures women face in the entertainment industry. The sly opening scene focuses on a close-up of Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) as she auditions for a film that sounds strangely like it might be a porno due to the male voice offscreen calling her "sweetheart" and the constant reminder that the role will require lots of nudity. It feels like her willingness to remove her clothes is how Beth keeps getting roles since it becomes clear early on that she lacks confidence in her own talent. Enter best friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), who is less lucky getting work even though, even as Beth claims, she is the better (and more aggressive) actress. The two don't communicate much anymore, so they decide to take a weekend getaway to Anna's family home in Big Sur for long overdue bonding. Or so they think.

The movie sets up the tension that divides them early on by showing that Anna is jealous of Beth's success even as she criticizes the roles she takes. The unease escalates first during a bar visit where a man flirting with Anna has ulterior motives involving Beth, inevitably leading to painful secrets being revealed, and the next morning when Anna helps Beth do a script read that turns increasingly uncomfortable. Director Sophia Takal cleverly intercuts all these sequences of build up with quick flashes of chaos that give a nasty glimpse of a future confrontation. Adding to the tautness is the playfully suspenseful score by Michael Montes, which pays a striking homage to Hitchcock and the already mentioned DePalma. The latter's influence can also be seen in how Takal teases us with nudity. The slowly tracking camera occasionally emerges on someone in the shower, but always stops just short of showing anything but a bare back or staying above the chest.

I became even more involved with Always Shine once it pulls a switcheroo during the last third by blurring the lines. While there are some inventive reveals during this section, Takal gets perhaps too on-the-nose as the conclusion approaches and the energy that was so effectively built during the first part begins to leak out. And if the ending feels inevitable, it is also a bit disappointing. I was hoping to see the wonderful opening scenes bookended to bring the movie full circle. Despite this, there is plenty to admire here, from the believable dynamic between FitzGerand and Davis, to the appropriately isolated and unsettling atmosphere, to the slow burn deterioration of this already damaged friendship. Even without a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, Always Shine is a memorable portrait of female power struggle.


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IMFF '16: Joshua H. Miller and Miles B. Miller's All the Birds Have Flown South





I saw quite a few debut features at this year's festival, but none of them opened as intriguingly as All the Birds Have Flown South. Through a dialogue free series of events, we follow Stephen (Paul Sparks) as he wanders aimlessly around the home of his recently deceased mother. The place obviously hasn't been updated in many years, and looking at Stephen's suit and grooming, it would appear he has never moved out mom's house and was stuck in a time warp with her. This sequence does an exceptional job building atmosphere and creating a sense of mystery, continuing to do so once Stephen finally leaves the house and goes to a diner.

At first, it might seem as if Stephen is just trying to get away, but all that changes once a server named Tonya (Joey Lauren Adams) catches his eye. He offers her a ride home, which leads to taking her sick husband Jimmy (Dallas Roberts) to the doctor. Tonya is appreciative but suspicious of why this strange man would want to help her, as we get the sense that she hasn't seen a lot of charity in her life. Jimmy is verbally abusive and probably would be physically were he not bed ridden. With nothing else to do now that his mother is gone, Stephen shows back up at Tonya's home, a cheap motel, the next day to see if he can assist again. It is from here things really begin to spin out of control.

Up until this point, I was totally on board with All the Birds Have Flown South because it was emerging into a character study of these troubled, disconnected lives. But then it veers into directions that are excessively unpleasant without any real purpose. There are numerous scenes of Stephen and Tonya being verbally assaulted by Jimmy, though they hardly compare to the scenes of Tonya using drugs and eventually being beat up and raped. I'm not saying this subject matter cannot be used effectively in a movie but here, it feels like a devise to shake the audience. Stephen is the most fascinating character in the movie, so when he is offscreen the movie loses steam.

There is certain to be some debate over the ending. During the Q&A following the screening, the writing/directing team said they felt the climactic events were inevitable, although I'm not so sure I agree with them. The reasoning behind what happens does leave some questions for the audience, and that's not a bad thing, but I don't feel like Stephen was developed enough to justify them. It's a real shame too, because I found the movie to be very well acted and technically made, with some original and memorable visual touches. Had the movie stayed focused on Stephen and not become so concerned with Tonya's downward spiral, this could have been quite a movie. I will look forward to seeing what these brothers, Joshua H. Miller and Miles B. Miller do with a more focused screenplay.


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Monday, November 7, 2016

IMFF '16: Jim Jarmusch's Paterson





Jim Jarmusch has made a career out of creating delightfully offbeat characters, many of who are on an existential journey of sorts. What's most astonishing about him as a writer and a director is how he manages to always keep the vibe, even when it feels on the brink of pretension or hipster overload, unbelievably cool. There's a rich sense of poetry in the ways his characters act and look and speak, making it a delight to spend time with him. I often don't want his movies to end. They have a relaxed feel to them, but I can't think of one that's ever been as chill as his latest, Paterson.

Jarmusch has achieved something quite remarkable and rarely seen here, that being an observation of daily routines in an ordinary life where the person going through it is...happy. There are various points throughout Paterson where we wonder if the monotony of the cycle will have an unexpected effect on the main character, though it never does. This is one of the most original and intriguing slice-of-life movies I have seen in quite some time. A lot of credit for the movie's success belongs to Adam Driver's performance in the lead role. He plays a character named Paterson, which also happens to be the New Jersey town where he lives.

The movie chronicles a week in the life of Paterson, beginning with when he gets up in the morning and often ending as he stares into a glass of beer. He is a creature of habit, his internal clock waking him up at around the same time every day and his breakfast always consisting of a small bowl of Cheerios. From there, it's off to work as a bus driver, which might look like a boring and thankless job, but not for Paterson. Despite his quiet demeanor, he takes pride in it, and even seems to enjoy the conversations of some of the passengers. The biggest pleasure of his day is during lunch when he can focus on writing poetry, with subjects ranging everywhere from the print on a match book to his love for his wife.

Paterson's wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), spends her days at home dreaming of new creative ventures. She likes to paint, but also wants to become a country singer and have a cupcake business. There is a blissful innocence to her approach to these many interests, although that does not get in the way of her encouraging Paterson to let others read his poetry. Despite her pressing and him agreeing to make copies of his "secret book," Paterson doesn't want to share his poetry with the world. The writing is the one thing that is truly his; it's a way to escape and express himself on the page in a way he cannot do verbally.

Jarmusch gives the movie a compassionate all-the-world's-a-stage feel. He creates in the city of Paterson a tranquil sense of community, in which even the potential threats turn out to nothing even close to that. Like most of his work, Paterson is refreshingly multicultural. The best scenes in the movie occur during Paterson's nightly after dinner visit to a corner bar owned by an elderly African American man named Doc (the wonderful character actor Barry Shabaka Henley) who chats with him about the famous people from the city. These are the moments that best reflect Jarmusch's signature deadpan sense of humor, thanks the gallery of characters who interact with Paterson as he sips a beer. Another great example is his reaction while eating a Brussels sprouts and cheddar cheese pie that Laura makes for dinner.

And such is the comfortable pattern of Paterson. It is not a movie of deep revelations or surprises, but a modest snapshot of the benefits and comforts of a simple life, joyfully fulfilled. Paterson might not say a lot or show much enthusiasm, yet it is evident, especially through Driver's magnificently understated performance, that he is happy and doesn't have any desire to change (he does not have and does not want a cell phone). There's something very satisfying in this, not just as a concept so much as by how Jarmusch presents it. This is a mature and confident piece of filmmaking, one that embraces the gift of living combined with the importance of recognizing the undeniable beauty of the details that shape life. Sometimes we take the latter for granted. Paterson is a thoughtful reminder of why we shouldn't. I more I think about this movie, the more I love it.


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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016.

IMFF '16: Nicole Lucas Haimes' Chicken People





Viewers walking in to Chicken People expecting a real life version of Best in Show will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. I was the latter. That's not to say the movie does not have its fair share of big laughs, as it is about people who breed chickens and enter them into competitions. But there's a surprisingly tender side too. Director Nicole Lucas Haimes has genuine empathy for her subjects and by the end, so do we.

The movie focuses on three people in different parts of the country for which chickens are a true obsession. After meeting each of them, it becomes clear that chicken breeding is a way to cover deep internal wounds. In the case of the two men, both named Brian, their passion is a mask for them to cope with loneliness. For Shari, a housewife and mother, the obsession developed to overcome alcoholism. We spend equal time with each as they prepare their chickens for the upcoming Ohio National Poultry Show, learning about their breeding techniques, competition requirements, and what types of chickens they love the best. This proves to be surprisingly interesting since they each have completely different approaches to breeding, and their methods seem to stem out of their individual personalities.

We get a lot of insight about who they are and the key relationships in their lives, which adds an extra dimension to the movie I was not expecting. By the time Chicken People reaches its climax at the competition (in Knoxville, TN instead of Ohio due to a breakout of Avian Flu), I was rooting for all three of these people. Haimes has effectively gotten us acquainted with them to the degree that we know how much a win will mean, and how much a loss will sting. We walk out of the theater hoping they will each continue to perfect their chickens and that a future of victories lie ahead.


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Friday, November 4, 2016

IMFF '16: Jake Mahaffy's Free in Deed





Gutsy and uncompromising in how it shows spiritual pressure inside a barely attended Memphis store front church, Jake Mahaffey's Free in Deed focuses on the level of desperation a person can reach before finally turning to God and his believers for help. Simultaneously, we also bear witness to the struggles the faithful face in their daily lives, and the lengths they will go to display their connection to the divine. The movie exists in areas of crumbling apartment complexes and little to no sunlight, which adds extra tension to the already difficult life of Melva (Edwina Findley Dickerson), a single mother whose son, Benny (an amazing RaJay Chandler), has a puzzling behavioral disorder. Doctors are unable to provide a clear answer and continue to prescribe more medication, none of which seems to make a bit of difference. It is during one of Benny's frequent outbursts that Melva meets an elderly woman (Helen Bowman) who wants to pray for her.

With nowhere else to turn, Melva goes to the woman's church, a tiny establishment where the soft spoken Abe (David Harewood) claims to have healing powers (he supposedly healed a woman's cancer with the power of God). Melva and Benny begin to make regular trips to the church for "cleansing" sessions, and while at first it looks like Benny might be calming down, things begin to get progressively worse. We get a glimpse into Abe's personal life as well, which consists of a thankless job and an overbearing mother. He seems determined to save Benny, his intentions nothing short of pure, as we see when he turns down a sexual advance from Melva.

Free in Deed captures the mood and atmosphere of the characters' surroundings with startling complexity. There are moments where we can practically smell the rotting walls of Abe's apartment building or the musty air floating in the church. The spectacular performances provide some occasionally tragic insight into the damaged souls of Melva and Abe. But the movie didn't resonate emotionally with me. Eventually, the pattern of events simply became exhausting, particularly in regards to the number of heightened scenes set in the church and Benny's repeated tantrums. These elements are important to the story, but their sheer excessive volume starts to feel divisive. In my eyes, they took away time to further develop these genuinely interesting characters and their dynamic. By the end of the movie, I was not as affected by the outcome as I should have been. There's no question Mahaffey is a talented filmmaker, and I admire the fact he doesn't provide any easy answers on the movie's stance regarding religion (I think there are several conclusions you could take). But I feel this would have been more effective as a short film.


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(c) Hell and Beyond, 2016.

IMFF '16: Ira Sachs' Little Men





Few filmmakers working right now understand the complexity of human relationships quite like Ira Sachs. His movies often tackle difficult situations, but he explores them with a sense of realism we rarely get to see. Hearing Sachs explain that he does not rehearse with his actors and that they do not recite their dialogue aloud until they are on set is a testament to why his characters feel so lived in. It's a refreshing change of pace, as most character dramas have to hit a series of beats, most often climaxing with a serious conflict and at least one big emotional moment. Not that those don't happen in real life, mind you, but Sachs tends to keep the action on the more even tempered side.

Sachs' latest work, Little Men, is able to, in the span of barely 85 minutes, effectively examine the lives of two children and their attempt to understand the behavior of their parents. Thirteen-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) becomes fast friends with Tony (Michael Barbieri) following the death of Jake's grandfather. Their budding camaraderie is shown through a mutual love of the arts; Jake enjoys drawing and Tony wants to be an actor. What's refreshing about this is that their parents actually encourage and support them where in a lesser movie, they would discourage them. In Jake's case, this support probably comes from the fact that his father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), is a struggling actor. His mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), is a therapist and the sole bread winner, and while the movie could have created tension out of that, instead it shows a healthy marriage based on trust and understanding.

The boys budding friendship is tested when it looks as if Brian might have to evict Tony's mother, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), from the dress shop she runs because he now owns the building and has to raise the rent. The question of how far one's generosity can stretch is tested here, particularly if it means looking out for one's own family first. Sachs stages a series of difficult conversations between Brian and Leonor in which he states what is financially right while she is only concerned with what feels morally right. It puts Brian in an uncomfortable place, not just because of what she meant to his recently deceased father, who was letting her run the shop even though business was slow, but also because of how it could affect Jake and Tony's friendship.

The title refers, I think, to Jake and Tony's painful discoveries regarding adulthood, as well as Brian's struggle to be a good father and set an example for his son. There are moments when father and son clash here when each doesn't know what the other is going through, and those scenes are complimented by conversations that beautifully show how powerful honesty and communication can be. Look, for example, late in the movie where Brian gives Jake a pep talk on why he needs to keep drawing. Or a scene in the kitchen when Jake is discouraged over some of his artwork that possibly got thrown away. Sachs is able to bring the same level of pathos to the subtle exchanges between Jake and Tony, such as when Jake finds out Tony got beat up at school.

In the midst of all these relationships is the movie's setting, Brooklyn, which becomes a character of its own long before the movie is over. This atmosphere clearly has an affect on those who inhabit it, adding an extra layer to the weight of the emotions conveyed. In the course of only six feature films, Ira Sachs has managed to successfully explore a variety of different types of people, young and old, and express not only the intricacies of their interactions, but how the place they live shapes who they are. Little Men is one of his very best movies, a testament to how film can serve as a window into the lives of others who go through the same trials and troubles that we do.


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Thursday, November 3, 2016

IMFF '16: Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson





Kirsten Johnson has shot close to 50 documentary films over the past 25 years, many of which deal with harsh subjects like rape and mass murder. Footage from her body of work is what comprises Cameraperson, yet anyone worried about seeing any of these atrocities onscreen can rest easy. Johnson's role was in talking to the survivors. Her projects have taken her all over the world, ranging from Bosnia to Nigeria to Alabama. The clips are often very short and feel incomplete, and in some cases, Johnson returns to them. Many of the clips that appear side by side share a thematic thread, such as viewing how people in different parts of the world are dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault. Sometimes we see two different perspectives, like when a young African American woman struggles to explain why she needs to get an abortion and then later in the movie, we visit a Nigerian clinic where a midwife desperately tries to keep a newborn alive.

While it is easy for much of the footage to seem randomly thrown together, we eventually realize it is not, especially when Johnson brings in clips of her mother shortly before she died after a battle with Alzheimer's. We meet her children. Despite so much of her personality being evident throughout the movie, Johnson herself only appears onscreen once. But that doesn't mean we don't get to know her as the movie progresses. Cameraperson is not just the chronicle of a career, but a deeply felt portrait of how this filmmaker came to see the world. We are now experiencing the lives and behaviors of multiple cultures just as she has, and the effect is nothing short of mesmerizing. Just like Johnson, we have empathy for the people sharing their thoughts and feelings, especially when it comes to expressing how they deal with the conditions they live in (such as two women explaining why they have to cut down a dead tree for firewood).

Johnson is rarely heard speaking either, only asking questions or giving "direction" on a few occasions. We are reminded that even though this is real life we are seeing, there is also a movie to be made. I was quite amazed at some of the footage Johnson was able to get and how candidly some of the subjects spoke with her. It's a testament to her not only as a filmmaker but as a human being, as I can't always imagine it was easy for some of these stories to be told (there's a scene involving a young man describing how he lost sight in his left eye that is gut wrenching). As I mentioned, all of this is intercut with Johnson's own family, possibly as a way to bring her back to her own reality. Or could it be a way to preserve the memories should her fate be the same as her mother's? Cameraperson is a very special movie, one I will never forget and am anxious to see again. Given the way it is structured, there will be always be a wealth to rediscover. It is unquestionably one of the most unique and unforgettable memoirs I have seen. I urge you to watch it on the biggest screen you can find.


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