By this point in most film festivals, there’s typically been a lot of take-out food, very little sleep and more movies in a single day than some people see in a month. The fact that this year’s Sundance Film Festival is happening from home just means that the take-out can be delivered to our doorstep and the sleep comes more quickly when the commute is from the living room to the bedroom. There are, of course, just as many movies. In our third dispatch from Sundance, the Third Coast film critics offer their takes on the documentaries, debuts and more from a Saturday spent at the movies.
Eight for Silver
Coming across like a modern Hammer horror film, writer-director Sean (Metro Manila) Ellis’ creature feature Eight for Silver is set in that late 19th century when wretched land baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) responds to a group of gypsies making a claim to his land and the land of others in his community by killing all of them and burying their leader alive with a set of silver fanged teeth in a box. Almost as soon as the massacre happens, everyone in the town starts having dreams about digging up the teeth, and it’s only then do they realize that the entire community is cursed. Before long, Laurent’s young son Edward (Max Mackintosh) goes missing after one of the other boys in the area digs up the teeth and bites him. Afraid to say what really happened, the other children who witness the attack say that a wild animal bit Edward and the marks on his neck seem to back that up. Soon after the boy with the teeth is found brutally killed, possibly by the same animal, and this is when famed pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) arrives in town offering to help but with a secret, very personal agenda.
Eight for Silver is all about playing with shadows, rain, mist and other grimy bits of nature, and does an admirable job of keeping its mysterious creature hidden from the audience, making it unclear if what is attacking is human or animal or neither. Director Ellis doesn’t scrimp on the blood and detailed gory wounds, but he also commits fully to the period and it feels like the entire film was shot in natural light, with candles and lanterns playing a part in the effective use of light and shadows.
Eventually we get an all-too-close look at one of the monsters in an autopsy sequence that is destined to go into a list of some of the most extreme gore we’ll see this year. I especially liked Kelly Reilly as Isabelle, Laurent’s more sensible and forward-thinking wife, and her daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch), who is determined to find and save her brother, even though he’s most certainly dead. McBride’s history with this type of curse and creature makes him ideally suited to defend against them, but he also has a sorrowful connection that makes us aware of how the horrific behavior of men actually brought this curse upon them. The Karmic implications are plentiful, and Eight for Silver does a remarkable job establishing a sense of atmospheric dread while also never being afraid to embrace its many monsters. (Steve Prokopy)
A Glitch in the Matrix
From the analytical mind of filmmaker Rodney Ascher comes The Glitch in the Matrix, an even deeper-dive documentary than his previous Room 237, this time into the ever-growing number of ideas concerning simulation theory—the belief that all of us might be living in a virtual reality (a la The Matrix) that is, in part, being controlled by outside forces. Most people consider science fiction author Philip K. Dick the modern godfather of this theory, but supposed references to it date back as far as Plato’s Republic. Interviews with game theorists (many wearing their game avatar for their interviews), scholars, and a healthy number of ordinary people who just happen to believe in this are featured, but it’s his use of film clips, lecture videos and other creative visuals that make the movie pop off the screen and into your brain.
And while a growing number of high-profile people—hello Elon Musk—are at least entertaining the idea that we may all be living in a simulation, Ascher also reminds us that this is not simply a fun mental exercise for everyone. He interviews one Joshua Cooke from Richmond, Va., who became obsessed with The Matrix and almost used that obsession as a legal defense after he dressed as lead character Neo and shot his parents to death at the age of 17. It’s difficult to hear all of these theories and not wonder, “Okay, even if this is true, what should we do with this information?” No one has a clear answer for that question, and those who do simply answer “Nothing,” like it’s just cool to know it, even if we aren’t going to change anything with said knowledge.
The Glitch in the Matrix embraces the digital nature of the subject by doing all its interviews by Skype, using rough CGI to illustrate some of the simulation theory ideas, and clipping out old movies and video games to give examples of the theory used in modern storytelling. Someone makes the point early on that based on the most advanced and popular technology, that’s how scientists see the brain: when aqueducts were new and exciting, people said the brain was like water flowing from one part to another; when electricity was new, the brain was compared to a power grid, firing impulses across neurons; and now that computers dominate the world, people simply say that the human brain is like a computer.
But with video games dominating popular entertainment, is it any surprise that ideas about other realities are dominating the landscape? Ascher and his film dive deep into our digital culture and contemplate whether there is any way to prove these theories, and if we could, what would we do with that information? The fact is that these gamers all seem to agree that being sure that we are living in a simulation hasn’t changed their lives in any way. Somehow, this doesn’t surprise or bother me, but as something to just consider as you pass the time or to keep the gears in your head turning, the film is a doozy. (Steve Prokopy)
Ma Belle, My Beauty
I have no idea if writer/director Marion Hill’s first feature, Ma Belle, My Beauty, is drawn from her real life or not, but it doesn’t really matter—the film feels immensely intimate, deeply personal, and occasionally erotic as she weaves the story of a one-time, three-way relationship among singer Bertie (Idella Johnson), guitarist Fred (Lucien Guignard), and Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), Bertie’s ex-lover. Lane vanished from the relationship when it was still based in New Orleans, before Bertie and Fred moved to the French countryside and got married. Now, on the verge of the couple embarking on a world tour with their band, Lane shows up for a surprise visit with a lot of questions, few answers, and loads of tension—sexual and otherwise.
It turns out Lane’s visit is a surprise only to Bertie since Fred (of French and Spanish heritage) actually invited her to perhaps stir things up in Bertie and make her less hesitant about singing and touring again. Many of the emotions and thoughts in Ma Belle, My Beauty are kept hidden, even from the audience, so we have to watch the actors carefully for signs of what they truly feel. Lane is the most difficult to read. We sense she still has deep feelings for Bertie, but she counters that by bringing a younger woman (Sivan Noam Shimon) she just met into their home to have sex with her. Bertie shouldn’t care, of course, but naturally she does. She was adrift about her feelings for her husband and her music even before Lane arrives, and her being there isn’t making it any easier for Bertie to decipher her thoughts.
Emotions are heightened by a ridiculous amount of drinking, the beauty of the landscape, and the overall appeal and attractiveness of everyone they come into contact with in this story, which is equal parts lightweight travelogue and heated, sensual adventure set under the blazing sun and inside a seductive atmosphere as these three characters struggle to figure out what they want from their lives within and outside this polyamorous environment. All manner of tension keeps the viewer on an emotional edge, almost to the point of frustration, as we wonder why these three grownups can’t pull their lives together. We learn, of course, that pulling their lives together is somewhat dependent on the other two in the relationship, and therein lies the problem. The sumptuously filmed Ma Belle, My Beauty isn’t complicated, even if the decisions are. (Steve Prokopy)
Marking actor Rebecca Hall’s filmmaking debut (Christine, Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Prestige), Passing is a nuanced rumination on colorism, friendship, marriage and the expectations put on ourselves and projected onto others. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Hall arrived at the story nearly 15 years ago when the book was recommended to her as she explored her own family’s history of inter-racial marriages and Black Americans passing for white (Hall’s maternal grandfather was, according to her own research, a Black man in Detroit who passed for white). Such a deep understanding of the source material is key to the film’s ultimate success. And so are the brilliant, quietly fierce performances from the film’s main trio: Tessa Thompson as Irene, an upper-middle-class Black woman living with her family in prohibition-era Harlem; André Holland as her husband, Brian; and Ruth Negga as Clare, the childhood friend she bumps into one day who’s doing such a “good” job of passing for white that her white (and very racist) husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard) is none the wiser.
Reconnected after many years, Clare and Irene rekindle a friendship as adults largely based on Clare’s desire to rediscover the Black community she’s shunned for most of her adulthood; Irene is skeptical at first, but she and Brian eventually welcome Clare back into their life, one that’s full of sophisticated affairs like charitable balls and cocktail parties sparkling with smart conversation. Though the title may imply that Clare is the central figure in Passing, in fact this is Irene’s journey, as she navigates reacquainting herself with a woman who was dealt largely the same cards as she was who opted to play them in very, very different ways. Thompson and Negga are each portraying women with a lot to lose, but as Clare relishes in what she’ll gain as she dips her toe back into her Black culture and community, Irene worries more and more about the family’s unstable position in society given the rampant racism and classism, both systemic and personal, in their lives.
Filmed in black and white and presented in a constrained 4:3 aspect ratio (more of a square than today’s modern widescreen standard), Hall uses every tool in her toolbox to create a sense of nostalgia and history in Passing (let’s talk about those costumes by Marci Rodgers, shall we?). She’s a first time filmmaker, but she’s anything but green, and she arrives to this debut directorial effort with a confidence that anchors the entire film. That sense of purpose carries into the performances, as all three main actors create individuals fighting their own internal battles while they push back against each other, too. Paced with plenty of space to breathe and observe every moment, every interaction, the slow build pays off in spades in the film’s final moments. I gasped, and I bet you will, too. Passing is a film with a seemingly countless number of themes, and digging into any one of them—Irene and Clare’s friendship; Irene and Brian’s marriage; raising Black boys in America; what makes a “real” woman, a “real” wife; and on and on—would only reveal even more layers to this beautifully articulated and deeply felt drama as relevant today as it was nearly a hundred years ago. (Lisa Trifone)
The Sparks Brothers
Well, if I can’t get to watch the new Edgar Wright film I’ve been waiting to see for months—Last Night in Soho, now scheduled for an October release—I’ll watch the one I can get my hands on: his first documentary that, not surprisingly, involves music that he (and many others) dearly loves. The Sparks Brothers concerns Ron and Russell Mael, better known for the last 50 years as the band Sparks, which has released 25 albums, been popular across the world at different stages in their career, and has never stopped following their artist muses wherever they may take them. If you weren’t aware before, Wright is a mega-fan who has clearly studied and discussed Sparks at length for most of his life (beginning as a teenager, I’m guessing). And it’s that passion that fuels the documentary The Sparks Brothers almost to the point of exhaustion.
What little I knew about Sparks going into this movie, I found out, were some of their highest-profile successes, including a catchy little collaboration they did with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s (who were then at their peak) called “Cool Places” and more recently in 2014, an entire album collaboration with Franz Ferdinand under the name FFS. But if you lived in Britain in the 1970s, they were one of the biggest bands around with albums like Kimono My House (1974) and Propaganda (1974), influencing every keyboard-heavy band to come out of the UK throughout the 1980s. There were periods they were big in the U.S., Germany, Japan; those eras rarely crossed over, so their success was almost as random as throwing a dart on a world map.
Looks were critical to the success of Sparks, starting with Russell’s matinee idol, glam-rock look, which contrasted with Ron’s Hitler mustache and the strange faces he would make while playing wicked keyboard parts (Ron was also the band’s songwriter). Wright makes the point that very few people knew anything about the band, and this mystique kept people curious about them for decades. I’d always assumed they were a British band, but they are Californians, born and raised. Some people thought they were a joke band or a novelty act, but they just had a pop songwriting sensibility like no other, and as Beck says at the beginning of the movie, any lengthy conversation among musicians will inevitably turn to talking about Sparks.
With a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Sparks Brothers is entirely too long—the final 20 minutes probably could have been cut with no pain to anyone but Wright. However, by giving the group’s story that space to breathe, we do get to spend a little time digging into each album and not having to skip over any phase of their ever-changing musical journey. And if you don’t come out a fan of the band, or at least immensely curious about a few of their records, you’ll at least have the truest appreciation for the history of Sparks and the credibility they have earned by going with their artistic vision rather than capitalizing on what may have worked for them in the past. They have paid the price financially (although someone mentions that because they never went through a drug-taking phase, they actually were able to live comfortably during dead periods in their career), but they rarely compromised musically.
Some of the funniest stuff in a movie full of very amusing stories involves the band’s many failed attempts at collaborating on movie scores for films that never came together by everyone from Jacques Tati to Tim Burton. They were in the “classic” disaster movie Rollercoaster, but that wasn’t their project and the movie isn’t very good. I believe that a documentary about a band you know little to nothing about has to showcase music that convinces you the movie was worth making in the first place, and The Sparks Brothers absolutely does that. Wright puts their music in both the context of the larger music scene at the time and how Sparks impacted what came after them (and usually was more commercially successful than Sparks as well). Above all else, the film captures how kind and fun the Mael brothers are, and that’s a much needed message in music or any field these days. (Steve Prokopy)
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street
Filmmaker Marilyn (Mad Hot Ballroom) Agrelo’s new documentary on the history of the long-running Sesame Street TV series would have to be pretty abysmal to not score with adults and kids alike on pure nostalgia energy alone. Thankfully, Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street does more than that by detailing the immense amount of work that went into creating and fine-tuning the focus of the show to not only aid in the education of young children but in specifically targeting inner-city, non-white kids with diverse casting and even making Sesame Street itself look like a city location rather than a sprawling, suburban street.
The brainchild of creator Joan Ganz Cooney, Sesame Street was meant to be counter-programming to network TV shows, which were all about sponsorship and selling kids toys and candy. Cooney laid out a plan that focused on simple learning ideas (like counting, learning the alphabet, etc.) taught in creative ways—with catchy music, colorful visuals, and of course lots and lots of Muppets, courtesy of their creator, Jim Henson. To be clear, Street Gang isn’t about the Muppets; it wisely centers on the science that went into each lesson and each show, and part of that equation were Henson’s Muppets. On the creative side, all credit is given to original series director Jon Stone for pulling all of these elements together—cartoons, Muppets, human actors, musical elements, and other set pieces—all while remembering that it was okay to throw in a few jokes and parodies for the parents as well as the children.
I also loved taking a glimpse at the process of prolific songwriter Joe Raposo, who knocked out incredibly hummable songs on a daily basis and still had time to write a beautifully layered tune like “Bein’ Green,” which is sung by a frog but has has been interpreted as being about race or anyone who stands out in some way in the world. Of course, he would also knock out one of the most classic earworms in history with “Sing a Song.”
Naturally, a great deal of time is spent getting a detailed behind-the-scenes look at how the Muppets were used in the show, from elaborate set pieces featuring Henson, Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney, among many, to improvised interactions one Muppet might have with a child just to see what magic results. The film even features a few outtake moments where the puppeteers break character or flub a line, resulting in some off-color language and humor. The film dives into the cultural phenomenon the show became almost instantly, how its integrated cast made it difficult to get on the air in the south, and how the focus for more than 50 years has remained on education, even when high-profile celebrity guests would show up to sing or make fun.
There are moments in Street Gang that might make you cry, but it’s more likely you’ll smile all the way through its attention to detail as it completes the near-impossible task of cramming so much influential talent into one highly accessible documentary. The film is set to debut on HBO sometime later this year. (Steve Prokopy)
I graduated from a small, rural high school where, mainly because there wasn’t much competition and there wasn’t much else to do in the cornfields of north central Illinois, in my senior year I played in the band, sang in the choir, danced in the Pom squad, edited the yearbook, served as student body president, took AP classes and nearly aced the ACTs, held down a part-time job and…I’m sure there’s more. Suffice it to say, I kept busy. That all pales in comparison to the teenagers profiled in Try Harder!, Debbie Lum’s insightful and surprisingly poignant documentary about the lives of contemporary teenagers at Lowell High School, one of San Francisco’s most demanding public schools where the students know their GPAs as well as they do their locker combinations and they pin their hopes on their eventual admission to elite Ivy League universities.
Lum balances a quick historical lesson on Lowell’s long and storied history in the Bay Area (the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi) with introductions to the students at the center of the film: nerdy and endearing Alvan; self-conscious and self-defeating Ian; cool-under-pressure Sofia; people pleaser Rachael; and the only junior (and only white student) in the group, Shea. The community at Lowell is majority Asian, and much of the film is spent with students exploring the many facets of their identities, how they’re perceived and how they perceive others. More strikingly, these examinations often happen on camera and seem to be the first time these students have thought critically about such things, or at least been asked to discuss them as young adults with wisdom and introspection to offer.
Over the course of the film, we learn more about each of the young people and their backstories, from parents who expect the world from them to parents who are barely in the picture. At either end of the spectrum and everywhere in between, the students are facing the sort of uphill battles that come with puberty and adolescence, on top of the pressures put upon them to be high-performing academics who test in the top tiers among their peers and deliver well-rounded college applications to admissions offices. I’m exhausted just thinking about it; I have no idea how these kids do it. More than once, I had the urge to reach through the screen and give one (or all!) of them a good, big hug, to tell them it’s all going to be OK and all their hard work will, with luck, be worth it.
Though it’s a conventional approach, Lum’s decision to build the film around a school year calendar works in the narrative’s favor as we follow the students through typical American high school milestones like finals and prom and graduation. In between, we meet the teachers who inspire the kids to work as hard as they do (Alvan’s relationship with his physics teacher is heartwarming), the guidance counselors who help them navigate their early admissions (Ian’s deserves a medal for her patience) and the parent who attempt to “bribe” the college recruiters (in her defense, it was Chinese New Year!). And all along the way, it’s impossible not to root for each of these kids at the most important crossroads of their lives to date. I found myself particularly feeling for Shea, a kid dealt a crummy parental hand who perseveres and someone who, along with his classmates, I sincerely hope finds future success. (Lisa Trifone)
Writing With Fire
Boasting a population of more than one billion people, India is a complex and complicated society, one driven by a deeply ingrained, deeply patriarchal caste system, devastating income inequality and, more recently, a conservative, nationalistic government that is doing more to divide the country than unite it. In Shushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’s inspiring Writing with Fire, women from the country’s lowest caste, the Dalits (or “untouchables”), eschew their predetermined destinies in life’s lowest circumstances in favor of education and work outside the home, specifically as journalists with Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper based in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh. Founded in 2002, the weekly newspaper is run and written entirely by Dalit women, and as the filmmakers join them in 2016, they are in the process of developing a digital presence, a process that requires not just the shift of stories from the page to the screen but educating an entire newsroom on how to use cell phones, send emails and capture video.
With dozens of women on staff, Writing with Fire focuses on only a handful in order to offer a glimpse into the noble work they do. Meera, one of the paper’s top reporters, is a wife, mother of two young girls and a woman who’s defied and exceeded every one of the limitations society placed on her given the caste she was born into. Suneeta is a protege of Meera’s, one who’s confidence grows with each reporting trip she goes on, even as she struggles with the pressure she and her family are under for her to get married and settle down (“Being single isn’t an option,” she says at one point). And new to the paper’s team is Shyamkali, a woman who left her abusive husband in order to keep her role on the paper, even if she doesn’t know yet what it means to find a story’s “angle.” They’re just three of the many women who make the paper possible, but they’re an impressive trio who inspire with their irrepressible search for the truth, their incorruptible journalistic ethics and their seemingly inherent ability to juggle their personal lives with their working.
I traveled across India for a month in 2013, and it was a transformative, unforgettable experience to say the least. I don’t share that fact to assume I’m anything close to an expert on the country or culture, but instead to contextualize how viscerally I understand the sheer wonder it is that these women are able to do their valiant work at all. I’ve been on the male-dominated trains where a woman out after dark is seen as a scandal; I’ve been approached by men trying to cajole me out of my pocketbook or swindle me out of my train ticket (telling me the train’s been cancelled and I must rent a car and driver with them to get to my next city; suffice it to say it wasn’t and I didn’t). India is the country where a woman was raped and murdered by a gang of men in public on a bus, and where, as noted in Writing with Fire, a staggering number of journalists are killed every year. To be clear, India is also home to some of the most hospitable, gentle and lovely people I’ve ever met, but the fact remains: it is dangerous to walk into a crowd of men and start asking questions about local corruption, rape accusations or other happenings the community would sooner keep under wraps.
In Thomas and Ghosh’s able hands, Meera and her colleagues are chronicled as women on a mission, determined to serve their communities in tangible, actionable ways that truly make a difference. In the film’s more produced moments (as opposed to simply following along on reporting trips and observing their work), the publication’s YouTube launch is charted through screenshots and animations that highlight its exponential audience growth, even as trolls online attempt to dissuade them from telling the truth as they report it. It’s easy to throw around clichés when a film leaves one feeling the way Writing with Fire does, but terms like “uplifting,” “impressive” and “triumphant” only scratch the surface. Meera, Suneeta, Shyamkali and their colleagues are nothing short of inspirational, women I’ll think of any time I’m scared to do the hard thing or worried about the consequences of taking a risk or speaking truth to power. If they can do it, we all can. (Lisa Trifone)