2016 Updates

2016 in Review: January – February

I went to Sundance and reviewed movies about camerapeople, sand storms, Belgian nightclubs, voguing, animal rights, Koreatown spas, the nature of identity, cults, catty Edwardians, and more.

“Acropolis Cinema Is L.A.’s Newest Experimental Film Venture”

I do think part of the seeming disinterest in experimental film among more casual filmgoers is due to a certain lack of awareness. But that’s more a problem with the state of journalism and film criticism (something else I’m obviously invested in), which is a topic for a whole other interview. I’m aware that a majority of the films that Acropolis will screen are of niche interest, but I also think that there is a bigger audience for these films than is currently being served. And I think the first step toward raising awareness is getting these films in viewers’ purview, whether that’s through advertising or word of mouth or simply by infiltrating different areas of the city that often aren’t catered to. The goal is to create such a strong awareness for the name “Acropolis Cinema” that viewers will continue to take chances on our programming whether they’re familiar with the films or not. It may be a naive notion, but if we’re loyal to the spirit of the films, I believe audiences will be equally loyal in return.

Sundance Review: Belgica

Though they have to suffer the motions of a archetypical rise/glamor/fall narrative, Aerts and Vermeir are game protagonists. From his baby curl hair and reed-thin figure to his permanently shut right eye, Jo is as imposing as a rabbit. Aerts even postures like a tough guy meekly. He’s sometimes so “nice” that it loops all the way around to unpleasantness — such as when his girlfriend gets pregnant and his aggressive sense of chivalry becomes self-righteously overbearing. Jo is the pushover Gallant to Frank’s hulking jackass Goofus. Vermeir, a rocker by trade, makes the most of his characters midlife crisis breakdown, sinking deeper into drug-addled apathy and lashing out as his friends and loved ones while regret flashes in his eyes even in the moment he’s being a dick. Belgica shines in the little details and moments, like when Frank takes a bump of cocaine off his arm while holding his newborn son.

Sundance Review: Plaza de la Soledad

Prostitution is a hazardous theme, but Plaza de la Soledad is as matter-of-fact about it as its characters. The youngest among them is moving past middle age — they’ve each plainly seen it all, and their candor about their profession is amusingly straightforward. The closest the movie comes to depicting their work is in a purely businesslike back-and-forth between one of the women and a prospective john. None of these women ask for sympathy, and the doc never makes them out to be tragic. Certainly, there’s tragedy at the margins — stories of broken love or rape — but Goded doesn’t turn this into an inherent symptom of prostitution, but rather as a fact of life that anyone might deal with regardless of their work. Sneakily, it might even suggest that there’s not too much of a difference between the way prostitutes may be mistreated and the way any woman may be mistreated, simply on the basis of their gender.

Sundance Review: Sand Storm

First-time writer-director Elite Zexer, who based her script on 10 years’ worth of interaction with Bedouin women, favors an understated visual sense and measured editing. The movie silently observes its characters without judgment, inviting identification through long takes of everyday moments. Jalila and Layla struggle to rejuvenate a non-functioning generator, bickering in a microcosm of their whole relationship. The tension builds until there’s a physical snap. It’s perhaps predictable — and one example among others of conventional scenarios; of course a bag of produce isn’t going to be anywhere but splattered on the ground by the end of an emotionally-charged scene — but the marvelously nuanced acting helps carry everything along.

Sundance Review: Pleasure. Love.

But the cutesiness would likely be forgivable if the two stories, or even one of them, really explored the movie’s supposed thrust of older-younger pairings. For the most part, both love stories are ruttedly standard, even the conflicts coming more from clichéd concerns (e.g. infidelity) than from two people’s mismatched, differently informed worldviews. Worse, while none of the four main actors are outright bad, none of them are notably memorable, either. If a love story can’t sell the bonding or the breakup, then what does it have to offer? Tactile pleasures can only carry Pleasure. Love. so far.

Sundance Review: Sonita

Alizadeh’s media consciousness extends beyond mere millennial hyper-connectivity, though. Having grown up in Afghanistan and living in Iran at the time of the doc’s filming, she’s aware of the perilous behavioral pommel that must be maneuvered. She’s a rapper living in a country that forbids women from singing publicly. She asks Maghami to shutter her lens before removing the hijab because she doesn’t want to risk appearing without it on film (a fear that gets a subtle but uplifting payoff at film’s end). And personal trepidation about her status in life turns out to be merited. Having already nearly been sold into marriage when she was 10, Alizadeh’s mother calls for her to return to Afghanistan so that she can marry — all while the cameras roll. Fascinatingly,Sonita is in part a document of Alizadeh using the film itself to her own end, appealing to Maghami to break “the rules” and intervene.

Sundance Review: Hooligan Sparrow

Wang builds second-guessing into the movie itself. Just as it starts somewhere in the middle before rewinding, we repeatedly get to peruse previously seen footage for what might have been missed — possible government agents or other enemies. In some cases, the results are surprising. After talking to a man who claims to have been inspired by Ye’s group, Wang combs through her archive and spots him interacting with them at an earlier protest.

Sundance Review: Audrie & Daisy

The latest documentary to tackle teen bullying and consequential suicide, Audrie & Daisyapproaches its subject specifically through the lens of rape culture. Both of the eponymous high school girls faced awful social fallout after they were sexually assaulted by boys who they trusted, and both attempted suicide. Audrie Pott of Saratoga, California succeeded, while Daisy Coleman of Maryville, Missouri survived and has since gone on to become an anti-rape activist. Both of their stories are tragic, and the public unrest galvanized by their cases is encouraging, yet this film doesn’t convey either the tragedy or the responses to it in any way not hidebound by documentary convention.

Sundance Review: A Flag Without a Country

The movie falters a bit in weighing its time between these two protagonists, with Anwar clearly getting the greater share of screen time — and many of the more interesting sequences. It’s him who gets a fleshed-out, prolonged backstory sequence, whereas Luv’s is comparatively clipped. That imbalance throws off the overall impact of both stories. It also doesn’t help that the children are, for the most part, an undifferentiated mass, more colonies of little bunches of possibilities forming one large symbol than actual human beings. Still, it’s a pleasingly odd duck in the Sundance lineup, tight-roping joy above tragedy in a non-saccharine way.

Sundance Review: Love & Friendship

In Love & Friendship’s world, courtship among the landed gentry is a chess match played between women, with men as the witless pieces. Only other women see straight through Lady Susan’s ladylike facade to her essential selfishness. The conflict emerges from these opponents attempting to outmaneuver one another to land the best marriage for themselves or someone they care about. Despite the 90-minute runtime, that back and forth gets oddly tiring after a while. Even the movie itself seems to care little for what basically acts as its excuse for various hangout scenes. It doesn’t help that it frontloads a lot of information in a confusing manner, but then, through simple character interaction, proceeds to lay out everything the audience needs to know much more naturally in the minutes that follow. But that kind of slapdashery can’t dampen this movie’s good fun too much.

Sundance Review: Notes On Blindness

How do you visually represent how someone who cannot see (but who once could) processes the world around them? Much emphasis is placed on tactility, with the camera lingering on hands on objects. Even moreso, sound is brought to the forefront, as one might expect; sound editorJoakim Sundström is this movie’s secret weapon. Both senses are sometimes combined, such as in a breathtaking sequence where Hull describes how the sound of rain helps bring the entire world around him into clarity. Slow-motion rain hitting objects is a cliched “cool” film visual, andNotes on Blindness utterly reinvigorates it with Hull’s thoughtful musings. And that’s before Hull wishes he could somehow bring a rainstorm inside his own house, so as to let him “see” it all again. Since this is cinema, we can indulge his fantasy for a moment. Creatively rearranging reality to put a viewer inside someone else’s head is the finest aim of non-fiction filmmaking, and this documentary pulls that off with both stylistic panache and emotional grace.

Sundance Review: The Land of the Enlightened

The movie does not hold up its young characters for pity or shock. It is unflinchingly matter-of-fact about them, dispassionately watching as they do everything from slaughter a goat to prime a land mine for demolition. Any canny viewer can spot the edits that delineate what’s probably real (e.g. the exploding of the mine) with what is probably performed for the camera (e.g. the delicate preparation of the explosive). At its best, the film plays the two elements together for visceral effect. An American mountain outpost bombarding the slope opposite them is cut with footage of a hawk or eagle hunting, the bird’s poised hovering and diving perfectly timed with the firing of the guns.

Sundance Review: Kate Plays Christine

Before shooting herself, Chubbuck announced to the camera, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” One of her many frustrations in life was her profession’s obsession with sensationalism. Our culture has only grown worse in the decades since. Often, we see violence but not people. We do not see Christine Chubbuck — only the violence she acted upon herself.Kate Plays Christine tries to see her. Whether it succeeds is a matter of debate — and, again, not truly the point. As an exploration of identity as it is felt, projected, and interpreted, this is masterful.

Sundance Review: Little Men

The film is nice. It’s shot, edited, and scored with a low-key sensibility in mind at all times. Even the most torqued arguments never rise above disgruntledness on the part of these characters. The actors are all perfectly able, none but maybe Garcia approaching something truly memorable. The young newcomers playing the boys are decent. Taplitz is called upon mainly to meek about, while Barbieri is handed most of the would-be-big-laugh moments.

Sundance Review: Holy Hell

Will Allen spent over 20 years inside a cult and was filming things the entire time. Now he wants to tell his story. It’s a good one, filled with drama and craziness and tragedy — everything one could hope for from a movie about a cult. In the same manner as the fun 2012 documentary The Source Family, he even tells this tale solely through the voices of people who were on the inside. But maybe they needed someone else to put all this together. Despite its worthy plot and the wealth of great footage with which it had to work, Holy Hell is a mess.

Sundance Review: Camperaperson

Cameraperson is hypnotic, a montage of seemingly disconnected vignettes that slowly demonstrate commonalities among disparate figures around the globe. It’s B-roll and unused footage and logistical behind-the-scenes wrangling assembled into a video album. For non-fiction enthusiasts in particular, this is catnip, an interesting glimpse at sausage production. While shooting from ground level a herd of sheep tromping down a road, Johnson reaches in front of the lens to yank out some weeds obstructing the view. She and a director discuss how the images they’re capturing will be edited in the final cut. She repositions herself around subjects and objects to get the most interesting staging. With little overt explanation, this doc lays out a better portrait of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking than most instructional projects could ever manage.

Sundance Review: Spa Night

Director Andrew Ahn makes reasonably skilled use of well-worn techniques to depict the world inside the spa, such as the almost-requisite all-filling colored light (greeny blues and muddy yellows, mostly) and omnipresent sounds of water dripping, sprinkling, flowing, sloshing, and splashing. Though the movie freely, casually displays the male body, actual sexuality is mostly tamped down, in keeping with David’s hesitancy toward his desires.

Sundance Review: The Lovers and the Despot

Shin and Choi spent years being imprisoned and constantly surveilled, ultimately making films for Kim and even falling back in love before making a dramatic vehicular escape in Austria. Every single element reads like it sprung from the mind of a Hollywood hack. And yet it all happened. That The Lovers and the Despot turns such a story into a bland chore to sit through is nigh-on unforgivable.

Sundance Review: Tickled

I’m generally in the bag for documentary material this weird, but Tickled too often gets in its own way. Though it makes sense that Farrier centers the narrative on himself as the main character, digging through the truth, this manifests mostly as him blandly narrating his way through the investigation. The film frequently elides the vital details of just what leads them from one clue to the next. This is most glaring in how the movie pivots from one thread to a supposedly disconnected one a third of the way through, only to reveal that they are in fact linked. This comes across as a staggeringly unlikely coincidence. Farrier will always state in voiceover exactly how the viewer should feel about what’s going on, even though there’s much better natural humor arising from the situations he engineers. A scene in which he “confronts” a trio of lawyers as they arrive at the airport with a friendly welcome sign is a miniature masterwork of both awkwardness and abrupt dread.

Sundance Review: The Illinois Parables

Stratman presents this through unshowy 16mm footage, enhancing the feeling of going on an old-fashioned historical road trip. With notable exceptions such as the aforementioned Native song player, the lens trains itself less on humans than it does on signposts, building facades, landscapes, and old footage. The human element is expressed more in the abstract of stories than in apparent personages. Even the most prominent inclusion of flesh-and-blood people comes in the form of the police and FBI agents demonstrating their version of Thompson’s death, puppets putting on a show instead of independent beings.

Sundance Review: Unlocking the Cage

Though Unlocking the Cage walks the nonfiction filmmakers’ traditional path, shepherding its story along mostly through interviews, the sophistication of Hegedus and Pennebaker’s craft is subtly present. A less adept director would take the all-too-common route of rushing through each plot point, as well as take every opportunity possible to wallpaper the proceedings with infographics.Unlocking the Cage lingers on moments, especially images of chimpanzees appearing absolutely miserable in their cages. Story beats play out in conversation between characters as much as possible. It’s still a bit too verbal for my liking, particularly in comparison with Hegedus/Pennebaker’s last film, Kings of Pastry, which made terrific, even suspenseful use of quiet. But letting a narrative unfold in an uncluttered way is a skill that’s sadly lacking in too many issue-driven docs. This film is especially good at making courtroom scenes engaging, where many would hurry through the choicest soundbites before moving on to the next part.

Sundance Review: Kiki

There are sympathetic life stories worth their telling and hearing in this film, though none of them will be unfamiliar to anyone who pays attention to reportage on modern LGBTQ life, specifically as it pertains to youths. The love these characters have for their lifestyle is obvious, as is their reasons for rejecting mainstream society for it, but the joy they receive from it is not conveyed to the viewer. Without that, Kiki is a decent survey of its chosen topic, but rarely anything more.

Interview with Chad Hartigan, Craig Robinson, and Markees Christmas on Morris From America

It’s actually the same approach, in that I want the style to be dictated by the POV of the main character. Martin Bonner was a calm, 60-year-old man living alone, and his film reflected that. But this had to be through the eyes of a 13-year-old experiencing all these emotions for the first time. How do you tell that visually? It’s not gonna be done the same way as Martin’s story.

I like the challenge of trying to branch out and do something different stylistically, to add flourishes that aren’t realism. I actually find realism to be easier. I don’t know if everyone feels that way. But it’s hard to do something like this, because people could very easily be like “That’s stupid.” But that’s what we were trying to do: Be true to the point of view of the character.

Interview with Kate Lyn Sheil and Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine

That’s a good example of how our collaboration really is: Kate sort of enacting, representing, and embodying that I was going through, what she was going through, what Chubbuck was going through. She was like our cipher for all these things, and that’s not atypical of being the person in front of the camera. If you’re a journalist in front of the camera, you’re the face of the whole operation. If you’re the actor in front of the camera, you’re the face of what the director is trying to say, and this is just a more layered version of all that sort of put together.

Review: Zoolander 2

Zoolander was much more plot-driven than later movies from the dick-joke-and/or-light-absurdism collective, and the sequel strangely incorporates more of the loosey-gooseyness of, say, an Anchorman while also attempting to have an actual story with character arcs and plot twists and such. The result is a mess of odd false starts and long stretches of pointlessness. None of this would be too bothersome if the film were funny enough. It’s not, so it is, and, well, here we are.

By Dan Schindel

Born and raised in Maryland and currently based in New York, Dan Schindel is an associate editor at Hyperallergic, freelance culture writer, and available for any copy-editing/proofreading needs you may have. This website was originally a blog called Days of Docs, and chronicled his attempt to watch and review a documentary every single day for a whole year. He was mostly successful at this, and now he knows everything. He puts this knowledge to use by writing about movies, TV, games, books, comics, art, and more.