J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sundance ’16: Swiss Army Man

It was the year of the fart joke at this year’s Sundance and the stinkiest ones came from Daniel Radcliffe. That is because he finally played the role he and every other actor was born to play: a gaseous corpse. It is a somewhat passive part, but he has more dialogue than you might expect in the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, which screens today as the winner of the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Seriously, that’s not a joke.

Hank is a castaway on the brink of suicide. We never really understand how he got there, but the truth is, this discouraging turn of events is not that worse than his normally crummy life. Just as he is about to end it all, he sees a body wash up on shore. Unfortunately, the body really is a body, but in his addled state, Hank starts talking to the deceased, whom he comes to know as “Manny.”

Despite his lifeless state, Manny is a handy dude to have around. There is plenty of fresh water to be squeezed out of his gut and his voluminous gas allows him to power through the water like a motorboat. In fact, he will fart Hank to within reach of civilization. As the castaway talks to his lifeless companion, Manny starts to answer back. Is it all in Hank’s sun-baked head? Yes probably, but Manny still might be able to help him work through his issues, just by being such a good listener.

Swiss Army is sort of a love-it-or-hate-it film, yet a handful of us still managed to find ourselves /mixed on it. On some level, you have to respect the tandem known as “The Daniels” (a.k.a. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) for their willingness to follow their weird scatalogical vision through to its logical extremes (especially if you happen to be a Sundance juror). Nevertheless, as the film stands, it is an uneasy mix of slapstick and sentiment. Frankly, the things get wildly overwrought in the third act—at which points the Daniels only have their tongues partly embedded in their cheeks. That heartstring tugging just feels cheap and unearned.

Still, you have to marvel at Paul Dano’s commitment to the often tasteless material. As Hank, the Daniels leave him out there on a limb, but he manages to create a somewhat poignant sad clown persona. Although Manny has more to do than most corpses, Radcliffe still demonstrates a good sense of humor (and a fierce determination to overcome his Harry Potter image) by taking on the rather stiff role. All things considered, their chemistry together isn’t that bad.

Although Swiss Army sounds deliriously unhinged, it sort of tries to have it both ways, which is a mistake. Yet, a film with this many big set piece sequences built around fart gags deserves some sort of acknowledgement. Evidently, that would be the directors’ award. If you are still intrigued, then judge for yourself when Swiss Army Man screens tonight (1/31) in Park City, as an award-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: Richard Linklater—Dream is Destiny

Who is the most representative Sundance alumnus, Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith? Both have brought many projects to the festival and are represented again this year in some form. It is a close call, but the Oscar love shown for Boyhood (which had a special sneaky screening last year) tips the scale to Linklater. Austin’s favorite filmmaker is affectionately profiled in SXSW senior director Louis Black’s Richard Linklater—Dream is Destiny, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Linklater came along with Slacker at precisely the right time. It was practically a work of outsider cinema, but it had enough polish to catch the rising indie wave. He thought he was going studio with Dazed and Confused, but the studio changed its mind. Nevertheless, audiences gravitated to his retro-Texan answer to American Graffiti over time. He also started working with a cat named McConaughey.

Soon thereafter, he began another fruitful long-term association with Ethan Hawke on the first of what he would jokingly refer to as the lowest grossing trilogy of all time. However, audiences caught up with the “Before” films into time to make Before Midnight a pretty impressive performer at the specialty box office. And then there was Boyhood.

Frankly, even IFC’s Jonathan Sehring sounds a little surprised his twelve year investment paid off. In some ways, his interview segments constitute another victory lap, but he is entitled, considering all the heat he took from the company’s finance people. There is indeed a good deal of Boyhood in Destiny, but it was twelve years of his life.

Generally, Black reasonably weights Linklater’s filmography, but the continued short shrift given to Me and Orson Welles feels unfair (one critic describes it as “the one that got away”). On the other hand, it is hard to blame him for sweeping Fast Food Nation under the rug (but honestly, his Bad News Bears remake wasn’t that bad. Really, it wasn’t).

Filmmaker profiles like Destiny or Tessa Louise-Salomé’s Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax are sort of tricky to review. For those of us covering festivals, they are nice palate cleansers. We can revisit some films we enjoyed, file away some insights for the next time we review their work, and then move on to another screening. However, we probably would not be so satisfied with the experience if we had paid the full ticket price.

Destiny is exactly the sort of doc that gets compared to DVD extras—and not without some justification. Still, Black scores interviews with most of Linklater’s big name collaborators and talks extensively with the man himself. He moves things along well enough and gives us a vivid sense of Linklater’s distinctly Texan environment. It is highly watchable, but probably still best suited for Linklater’s most passionate admirers. For those hardy fans, Richard Linklater—Dream is Destiny screens again this morning (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’16: Last Summer

Plenty of divorcing couples have used their kids to inflict pain on each other, but this entitled princeling has been weaponized particularly cruelly. His Japanese mother has lost all custody and visitation rights to her well-heeled western ex-husband. Franky, the helplessly spoiled Kenzaburo (Ken) does not seem like much of a prize, but his mother’s love remains unabated. Unfortunately, she only has four days to say her goodbyes for the next eleven years in Leonardo Guerra Seràgnoli’s Last Summer (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Although the precise details are never revealed, it is strongly implied mental health struggles and her ex-husband’s wealth brought Naomi to this point. Presumably, those pills she pops in the morning are not vitamins. Clearly, her history was used against her in court and with the four man crew of the luxury yacht provided for Naomi’s farewell visit. Although Alex the captain remains rather open-minded, Eva the steward and Rebecca the surrogate nanny are clearly looking to undermine any last hopes Naomi might have of forging a connection with Ken.

This could have easily been the stuff of Lifetime channel melodrama, but Seràgnoli goes for broke with his rarified art cinema approach and largely pulls it off. Gianfilippo Cortelli’s cinematography has the lush glossiness of a fashion magazine spread that perfectly suits the graceful simplicity of Milena Canonero’s frocks. Canonero’s production design team perfectly conveys the ironically austere vibe of the ultra-chic trappings. (Indeed, the yacht is a trap, for both the aching mother and the problematically passive son).

As stylishly produced as Summer is, the key that makes it work is Rinko Kikuchi’s quiet but violently powerful performance as Naomi. The one-two punch of her vulnerability and beauty is absolutely heart-stopping. This is not a dialogue-heavy film, but you can read it all in her eyes.

Kikuchi also develops some wonderfully ambiguous chemistry with Yorik van Wageningen’s increasingly sympathetic Captain Alex. In fact, the shifting crew dynamics are quite subtly rendered, adding further layers to the hothouse atmosphere. Initially, young Ken Brady does not make much of an impression, but he duly comes out of his shell when Naomi starts to reach his privileged character.


Can you imagine how much this kid will hate his father when he turns eighteen and discovers the old man has been keeping him from his elegant and soulful mother? Seràgnoli and his celebrated co-scripters, Banana Yoshimoto and Italian graphic novelist Igort give us hope it just might come to that eventually, while scrupulously avoiding any phony sentimental cop-outs. Thanks to Kikuchi, it is a lovely little chamber drama. Recommended as a satisfying indulgence for sophisticated audiences, Last Summer screened at this year’s Slamdance, but it is sure to turn up at subsequent festivals given the talent involved.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sundance ’16: Film Hawk

When reviewing a documentary like this, you just have to take the inside baseball approach. I know I have seen Bob Hawk at Sundance, but I’ve never spoken with him. I’m pretty sure he stands in the express line, while I’m in the general press/SIO queue. I’m not complaining, because it is easier to talk to the wonderfully cool volunteers that way—and generally my press colleagues are a pleasant lot. I wasn’t shut out of a single P&I screening I targeted this year, so the system worked great for me. Regardless, Hawk gets the short line and he’s certainly earned it. JJ Garvine & Tai Parquet profile the indie film insider in Film Hawk, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Although Hawk has a fair number of producer credits and has recently directed a short film, he is best known as a film consultant. If you want to get your film into Sundance and then sell it to a specialty distributor for several million dollars, Hawk can help you develop a strategy, if he likes what you’ve done. He is probably most “famous” for launching Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Edward Burns’ The Brothers McMullen, and their careers along with them. The success of those two films really represent the glory days of the indie scene.

On the other hand, that sort of means we can indirectly blame Hawk for Tusk, Red State, and Cop Out, but let’s stay positive. In fact, Smith’s heartfelt reminiscences are the emotional backbone of the doc. Their relationship is obviously special, but plenty of other filmmakers also pay tribute to the confidante-strategist, including Burns, Barbara Hammer, Ira Sachs, Scott McGehee & David Siegel, and Kimberly Reed, whose personally revealing documentary Prodigal Sons Hawk executive produced.

Ironically, Hawk has not exactly enriched himself with his king-making work. The film consultant will not allow Garvine & Parquet access to his Manhattan apartment, but he makes it pretty clear it is alarmingly Spartan. Frankly, one of the best scenes in Film Hawk is a production meeting between subject and co-directors in which he sets up that boundary. Watching the old pro shape his own documentary is strangely fascinating. He is also unusually candid discussing his past struggles with suicidal depression. Still, there are too many scenes of Hawk the raconteur, regaling his tablemates at Elaine’s or wherever.

Garvine & Parquet probably get as much from Hawk as anyone could, but their production values leave much to be desired. The undignified soundtrack that sounds like it was mostly recorded on a cheesy Casio synthesizer is particularly embarrassing. That might come across as rather harsh, but if the filmmakers want to commission a richer, more professional soundtrack, I can refer them to some wildly talented jazz musician-composers, who could probably whip up something truly distinctive.

Be that as it may, Film Hawk has some nice moments, but the target audience has to be rather limited. It will be enjoyed by Hawk’s numerous friends and clients, as well as those of us who have seen him around, but that has to be the extent of it. Basically, it is like Todd McCarthy’s Pierre Rissient profile, except less polished. Recommended for serious festival professionals, Film Hawk screens again tonight (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Everybody’s Fine: Zhang Remakes Tornatore

At this point, a parent really ought to be able to deal with a son or daughter coming out of the closet, but things are still very different in China. However, Guan Zhiguo manages to take it in stride. That doesn’t mean he’s progressive, he is just used to his grown children’s disappointments. A series of unannounced visits will yield bittersweet fruit in Zhang Meng’s Mandarin remake of the Giuseppe Tornatore’s Italian film, Everybody’s Fine (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

As you might remember from Tornatore’s film (but hopefully not the 2009 American remake starring Robert “Keep Meeting the Parents” De Niro), when all his offspring bail on Guan’s attempted family gathering, the widower hits the road to pay surprise pop-in visits to his two sons and two daughters. He starts with his youngest son Guan Hao, but the photographer never appears at his studio-flat. Eventually, he moves on to his eldest daughter Guan Qing, who is in the midst of a messy divorce she has kept from him. Viewers also learn from sotto voce conversations, her brother Hao was visiting Tibet, but his whereabouts are currently unknown following a disastrous avalanche.

The Guan siblings duly work the phones, warning each other of their father’s anticipated visits and conspiring to keep their brother’s uncertain fate from him. Unfortunately, the shortfall between the lives Guan Zhiguo expected to find and the messy realities offer plenty of grist for arguments. This is particularly true of Guan Quan, who sold the Shanghai flat his parents bought for him to help fund a dubious start-up. At least, Guan Chu really seems to be working as a ballerina in Macao, but that gig turns out to be less impressive than her father had been led to believe. Even he can tell there is more to Chu’s relationship with her roommate than she lets on, further upending his perception of his daughter.

In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to coopt the concept of the “American Dream” with their “Chinese Dream” propaganda campaign. While intended as a pseudo-nationalistic slogan, many have chosen to interpret it in economic terms not so very different from its American analog. In several ways, screenwriter Xiao Song’s adaptation critiques both competing conceptions of the Chinese Dream, lamenting the damage done to familial bonds and cultural traditions by go-go consumerism and runaway urbanization.

If Zhang was still smarting from the shelving of his 2014 film Uncle Victory because of its star’s drug arrest, he sure plays it safe with Zhang Guoli, who has appeared in overtly propagandistic films such as The Founding of a Republic and Back to 1942. Unfortunately, actor Zhang also plays it safe with his performance. He hunches up his shoulders colorfully enough and putters about with a dignified air, but he never takes us anywhere surprising. However, Yao Chen, Ye Yiyun, and Shawn Dou quite distinctively render the angsts and resentments of Qing, Chu, and Quan, respectively.

Despite the memory-play nature of Guan Zhiguo’s journey, Zhang Meng maintains a surprisingly up-tempo pace. He also recruits a number of big name cameos, including auteur Jia Zhangke, appearing as a Macanese gangster, and Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor, The Pillow Book) flashing some earthy charm as the Sichuan mahjong player with whom Papa Guan strikes up a flirty friendship.

Generally, Everybody’s Fine is still a sentimental melodrama, but it incorporates some intriguing commentaries regarding tolerance and the commoditization of life. Those Chinese particulars and the work of Yao and Ye give it a huge leg up on the De Niro version. A nice, non-taxing film, Zhang’s Everybody’s Fine earns a qualified recommendation for those interested in the all-star cast and its respected filmmaker. It is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Sundance ’16: Equity

Remember Facebook’s over-hyped, under-performing IPO? Naomi Bishop certainly does. However, she is more haunted by the recent blockbuster IPO she was not able to land for her firm. She hopes to get back on track with the initial offering for Cachet, a vaguely sketched out internet privacy company. It’s so private, nobody really knows what is does. Regardless, it should be money in the bank for Bishop, but some of her closest colleagues are out to sabotage her in Meera Menon’s Equity, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Bishop is under pressure from her dim-witted blue-blooded boss to generate revenue the way she used to or resign herself to career stagnation. Consequently, Bishop is in no position to help her under-compensated and increasingly resentful assistant, Erin Manning. She has fun hooking-up with Michael Connor, a hotshot in her firm’s trading division, but she is right not to trust him. He is about to bolt to a rival firm, so he is looking for inside information to hobble her IPO.

It is not clear whether it is good or bad timing, but Bishop happens to re-connect with Samantha, an old classmate now prosecuting securities crimes in the U.S. Attorney’s office, just as the Cachet IPO starts to turn sour on her. (Since she works for the government, she can’t even afford a surname.) Of course, it was no coincidence. Samantha was not so subtly digging for dirt on Bishop’s firm.

Absolutely everyone in Equity is rotten to some extent, which is actually refreshing. Screenwriter Amy Fox never tries to gin up phony moralistic outrage by cutting away to the widows and orphans who stand to be dispossessed due to the characters’ shenanigans. In Equity’s world, when you play with vipers, you are likely to get bitten. It’s as simple as that.

Anna Gunn really gives it her all as Bishop. She can go from earnest glass ceiling exhibit A to snarling office nightmare on the turn of a dime. She looks like she is a part of this world, though not necessarily comfortable within it. Co-producer Alysia Reiner avoids all the usual crusading prosecutor clichés as the smart but ethically nuanced Samantha. However, her co-producer Sarah Megan Thomas’s Manning is a rather blandly vanilla, which gets a bit problematic when her sharp elbows are supposed to come out. Frankly, the extent of Connor’s villainy seems shortsighted and arbitrary, but James Purefoy clearly enjoys his dastardliness, which counts for a lot.

Even though Menon and Fox would probably be delighted if Equity led to tighter securities regulations, it would be dashed difficult to legislate against the kind skulduggery on view here. The fact that it does not immediately lend itself to teachable moments and online petitions makes it one of the better thrillerish financial dramas of recent vintage. Recommended on balance, Equity screens again early this morning (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Sundance ’16: The Blackout Experiments

Only in our postmodern age could extreme physical and psychological abuse be considered progressive, self-assertive therapy. If you have tried everything else to overcome your anxieties and OCD, perhaps you could try the Blackout Experience, assuming you have a strong ticker and are not prone to seizures. A handful of repeat customers analyze their horrifying experiences in Rich Fox’s “documentary,” The Blackout Experiments (clip here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Supposedly, this is a 100% true documentary, but viewers should have their doubts. The Blackout Experience it ostensibly documents is apparently a true phenomenon, having generating web ink well before the film’s Sundance premiere. Billed as an immersive horror experience, it is the closest patrons can get to the receiving end of the horrors in a Rob Zombie film and still live to tell about it. Waivers are definitely involved, as are beatings, gropings, and involuntary tattoo markings. Sounds like fun, right?

For reasons that elude even them, some patrons get hooked on Blackout. Somehow, the abuse and humiliation give them some sort of cathartic something, presumably like S&M submissives. However, the Blackout experience quickly comes to dominate their lives, often leading to feelings of guilt and paranoia as the sessions dangerously intensify. Frankly, you are probably better off re-checking whether the stove is still turned off ten or twelve times rather than undergo this kind of cure.

If Experiments is really real, than it is train-wreck fascinating. However, that would also mean Blackout creator-proprietors Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor violated several laws when they broke into their customers’ homes to secretly plant surveillance cameras and unnerving little messages. Russell Eaton, the lead Blackout survivor spokesman looks suspicious familiar, but fellow survivor Bob Glouberman is definitely an actor, which further stokes viewer incredulity.

So maybe the supposed doc is based on very real experiences, but recreates them with the benefit of a little poetic license. Regardless, it shines a light in a seriously dark corner of the human psyche. Just knowing this sort of masochist codependency potentially exists is pretty darn scary. In an error of over-compensation, Fox over-indulgences in the climatic New Age self-assertion, because real or not, it just sounds bogus after all that we have just witnessed.

Blackout Experiments is nowhere near as frightening or satisfying as Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare, but as documentaries go, it is still pretty scary—if it truly is a documentary. In any event, Fox, Randall, and Thor clearly know some sinister things about psychology. It is a baffler, but it is effective on a visceral level. Recommended for inherently skeptical horror fans, The Blackout Experiments screens again this Saturday (1/30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: Little Gangster

Rik Boskamp is probably lucky his father doesn’t make him wear wooden shoes. The widower has changed nothing in their home since the death of Boskamp’s mother, including the rotary phone and the top-loading VCR. However, it is Paul Boskamp’s meek submissiveness that directly leads to the bullying his son endures at school. However, when his father is promoted to a different branch office, the younger Boskamp takes advantage of the opportunity to create a new, mobbed-up persona in Arne Toonen’s Little Gangster (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Actually, Paul Boskamp did not want to accept the transfer in the first place, forcing his son to resort to a little forgery. It is probably good training for his reinvented identity, Rikki Boscampi, mobster’s son. After throwing out the nebbish clothes his father prefers, “Rikki” forces them to don their old, retro 1970s threads, which give off the desired gangster aura. A couple tweaks here and there convinces his new school mates he is the real deal. Naturally, he starts patronizing the local Italian market run by the sultry Gina. Boscampi would be delighted to fix her up with his father, but that might be asking too much. Unfortunately, he will have more pressing problems when a bullying father-and-son tandem from before also relocate to their new neighborhood.

It is hard to believe Little Gangster comes from the director of the Tarantino-esque drug dealer movie Black Out, but here it is. Toonen certainly keeps thing lively. Thor Braun is okay as the scheming Boskampi, while Henry van Loon deftly walks a fine line, making his father a put-upon doormat, but not cringingly so. Meral Polat also gives the film periodic energy boosts as Gina. Unfortunately, none of the other kids really register as anything but bullies or victims.

Screenwriter Lotte Tabbers’ adaptation of Marjon Hoffman’s YA novel manages to have it both ways, advising “to thine own self be true,” while more-or-less rewarding Rikki Boscampi’s initiative. Of course, ten year-olds are not overly fond of bitterly tragic endings, so there are only so many lessons he can safely learn the hard way. Despite the subtitles, Gangster is easily accessible and highly digestible. Breezily entertaining for kids and somewhat amusing for adults, Little Gangster screens again tomorrow (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: 31

There are thirty-one days in October. Baskin-Robbins has thirty-one flavors and Rob Zombie probably knows at least that many disembowelment techniques. Two of those will apply here. It is Halloween 1976 and the sickos behind Murder World are holding their annual survival game. The freaky faux-aristocrats will place their wagers, but it hard to understand why, considering how thoroughly they have rigged the contest. Not surprisingly, the bodies quickly pile up in Zombie’s 31, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

At least the 1970’s setting gives Zombie the opportunity to use some twangy, era-appropriate Southern Rock. Those are exactly the sort of tunes a scuffling, fly-by-night carnival would listen to as they drive through miles and miles of lonely highway. When they stop to clear a Blair Witch-looking road block, we can tell it is a trap, but they blunder into it nonetheless.

When the five survivors come to, there are informed they are the contestants in this year’s game of 31. If they can survive twelve hours in the post-industrial hunting ground than they win a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni and Turtle Wax. If not, they’ll be painfully dead. Their first designated hunter will be Sick-Head, the diminutive National Socialist psychopath. No sir, don’t you expect any subtlety here.

Frankly, 31 brings very little to distinguish it from the field of Most Dangerous Game exploitation knock-offs, including so-so predecessors like Preservation, Black Rock, Paintball, and Raze. Heck, there is even the awkwardly similar Carnage Park also playing in the midnight section this year. All of them are pretty darn bleak, which makes Raimund Huber’s Kill ‘Em All such a breath of fresh air in comparison. In the Thai martial arts beatdown, two contestants are actually vengeance-seekers who have knowingly infiltrated the brutal game of attrition, giving us something 31 and its ilk never offer: hope for payback.

Instead, Zombie just sets up his carny characters like bowling pins, knocking them down one-by-one. Everything is very methodical, with no reversals or detours permitted. It is certainly violent, but the predictability gets perversely boring.

It is a shame, because the colorful ensemble cast has plenty of genre potential. Meg Foster (They Live) is a wonderfully earthy presence as carnival owner Venus Virgo and Sheri Moon Zombie has real action cred as their exotic dancer Charly. Welcome Back Kotter’s Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs adds 1970s authenticity as Panda Thomas, the carny manager. Zombie also earns double genre points for casting Malcolm McDowell as the powered wig-donning mastermind. Yet, none of them ever have a chance to surprise us.

Zombie does have a distinctively grungy sweat-hog aesthetic, but it only gets us so far. A little suspense would help considerably, but we know how this will end right from the start. If gruesomely inventive deaths are enough for you, than have at 31 when it screens this Saturday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: Uncle Howard

Howard Brookner only completed three films, but he was no one-hit-wonder. Nor did he suffer a sophomore slump. Aaron Brookner pays tribute to the director of the classic cinematic profile Burroughs: The Movie with his own documentary, Uncle Howard (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Howard Brookner was always a natural playing the role of favorite uncle. Even though he was not always around, he developed a special relationship with his future filmmaking nephew. Clearly, Aaron Brookner will use his film to celebrate “Uncle Howard,” but it also becomes part of a bigger effort to preserve Howard Brookner’s work. Although previously considered lost, Brookner discovers his uncle’s outtakes from Burroughs, as well as the rest of his archives were stashed away in “The Bunker,” Burroughs’ in/famous subterranean Bowery apartment.

When Brookner finally gains access, along with his uncle’s old technical collaborator Jim Jarmusch, they discover (and duly incorporate into the film) sequences that reflect the extent to which the Burroughs circle embraced the elder Brookner as one of their own, all of which is confirmed by the emotional remembrances of James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ editor, caretaker, and literary executor.

Obviously, there is an awful lot of Burroughs in Brookner’s film, because that is what ninety-nine percent of the audience for Uncle Howard will be primarily interested in. Still, Aaron Brookner spends a good deal of time on his uncle’s under-screened second film Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, nor does he ignore Brookner’s Hollywood debut, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Wilson, the theater director, also offers some affectionate memories of Brookner, but apparently Randy Quaid was not available to wax nostalgic over Bloodhounds.

Uncle Howard is an unflaggingly nice film. Frankly, it is probably more sentimental than its subject and Burroughs might otherwise prefer. However, it really offers us a full sense of the postmodern-Beatnik world they inhabited. If it does not open before October, it is a cinch to get programmed at this year’s New York Film Festival, which screened Burroughs: the Movie when it was new and again as a restored retro selection in 2014. Having festivals favorites Jarmusch and Sara Driver on-board as executive producer and co-producer, respectively, looks like a further guarantee—and why not? The film is highly watchable, even if you are not a Burroughs fanatic.

Uncle Howard is an inescapably personal film, but Aaron Brookner maintains a healthy balance of family business and specialized cultural history. Consequently, it just plays considerably better than you would expect. Recommended for fans of Burroughs and the vintage 1980s downtown scene, Uncle Howard screens again today (1/29) and tomorrow (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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BYkids: My Country is Tibet

He was seventeen years old at the time of filming and had never set foot in his country, but Tibet’s teenaged king in exile would still be a much more enlightened ruler than the occupying Chinese military and their puppets. Namgyal Wangchuk Trichen Lhagyari is a student, who lives like many Tibetan refuges in India, but in addition to being a king, he is also a filmmaker. Namgyal Wangchuk, the 18th Trichen Lhagyari documents his life and the living conditions of other Tibetan exiles in My Country is Tibet (trailer here), produced by his mentor Dirk Simon, which premieres this Sunday on New York’s Thirteen, as part of the BYkids showcase of youthful filmmakers.

Student, filmmaker, and nice kid—that would be a pretty good place for most teens to start at, but Namgyal Wangchuk is not like typical high school students. He was officially crowned as the King of Tibet, by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. His father, the 17th Trichen Lhagyari, spent over twenty years in a Communist prison cell. After his release, the reigning Dharma King heeded the Dalai Lama’s advice and sought asylum for his family in India.

For the record, Tibet’s Dharma King does not seem to be the sort of centralized potentate one might imagine. After all, the 17th Trichen Lhagyari was also elected to several terms in the exiled government’s parliament. Regardless, 18 clearly feels a responsibility for his people, even while he washes his own clothes in his family’s modest home.

With the help of Simon, Trichen Lhagyari 18 also explains the efforts of the expatriate Tibetan community to preserve their language and culture. Frankly, the extent of the Communist Party’s cultural ethnic cleansing is horrific, but grassroots organizations like the Rajpur Tibetan Refugee Factory persevere nobly.

Modest but charismatic, Namgyal Wangchuk Trichen Lhagyari is an absolutely super public spokesman for the Tibetan people. As a mentor, Simon shared a special affinity for his protégé and the people of Dharamshala, having defected from East Germany to the FRG as a young man. Although just twenty-seven minutes, My Country gives viewers a nutshell recap of CCP aggression and an immersive sense of life for the Tibetan community in exile. The truth is, the King represents his people quite well. Highly recommended for teens of all backgrounds, My Country is Tibet airs this Sunday (1/31) on participating PBS stations nationwide.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sundance ’16: Brahman Naman

As a Brahmin, Naman is at the top of India’s caste system. However, cute girls still consider him untouchable—make that pretty much all girls. Naman will obsess over losing his virginity, but his own caste prejudices will undermine his efforts in Q’s Brahman Naman (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Naman is the captain of his College Bowl-esque Quiz team, a Brahmin-dominated competition if ever there was one. It is no coincidence how that works. Naman has packed the team with three of his horndog Brahmin cronies rather than recruit the best potential “quizzers,” like their loyal supporter Ash. She obviously carries a torch for Naman, but he treats her with caste-based disdain. Nevertheless, he awkwardly pursues the sexy lower-caste Rita for reasons of lust.

Since this is the 1980s, the city hosting the Quizzer championship is still called Calcutta. While in transit from Bangalore, Naman’s team meets up with the girl’s team from Madras, led by Naina, a Brahmin bombshell. Naman falls for her hard and fast. Somehow, he manages to forge a connection with her, but circumstances and his own immaturity conspire against him.

Brahman Naman is the Porky’s-style 80’s teen sex comedy we never knew Q (a.k.a. Qaushiq Mukherjee) had in him. The gags are unabashedly raunchy and surprisingly graphic (remember, this came from India). Let’s just say the horny Naman takes matters into his own hands quite a lot. He also uses the seal on the refrigerator door. Despite their lofty status, dinner with Naman’s family is not an appetizing proposition. Regardless, the gross-out comedy is pretty funny stuff.

The real problem with the film is the irredeemable jerkiness of the four lads. It gets to the point where we want them to suffer from eternal blue balls. Yet, it is all a function of their caste snobbery, which is the whole point for Q. Naman will indeed miss out on some potentially good things, because of sheer arrogance.

Frankly, Shashank Arora’s Naman is a bit short in the charisma department. The persona he creates is too small to put a stamp on the film. At least he gets some effectively colorful support. Anula Shirish Navlekar could be a real star in the making based on her memorable turn as the more mature and self-aware Naina. However, Marigold Hotel veteran Denzil Smith upstages everyone as Bernie, the Bangalore team’s snobby, hard-drinking, shamelessly irresponsible chaperone. He is like the Indian version of a Wodehouse character.


There is a real cornucopia of naughty humor at this year’s Sundance, but Q and screenwriter Naman Ramachandran deliver some of the best. It also has a real purpose underneath all the penis jokes. Recommended for fans of 1980s teenager comedies, Brahman Naman screens again this Friday (1/29) and Saturday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sundance ’16: Sleight

Misdirection is the stock-and-trade of a street magician like Bo, but he has really just misdirected his life. He only intended to deal drugs for a limited time, but that was obviously wishful thinking. Fortunately, he has some skills to fall back on in JD Dillard’s Sleight, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Bo had a scholarship lined up, but after his mother’s untimely death, he had to forgo college to take care of his young sister Tina. In addition to dealing Angelo’s coke to hipsters and yuppies, Bo earns decent tips performing magic on the main tourist strips. One day, he passes the hat and collects Holly’s phone number. She really seems into him, even when Bo is called away from his first date to help Angelo with his turf battle.

Apparently, an upstart supplier has moved into Angelo’s territory, so lessons must be taught. Much to his shock, Angelo has a game-changingly violent role for him to play. Of course, from the drug boss’s perspective, it represents an opportunity for advancement, but Bo recognizes a point of no return when he reaches one. Unfortunately, his plan to extricate himself from the drug scene backfires quite dramatically.

Sleight is sort-of, kind-of a superhero film, but it devotes ninety percent of its time to Bo’s origin story. That is perfectly fine, but there are conspicuous credibility holes pockmarking the narrative. We know Bo is a skilled pickpocket who has flexible scruples when it comes to stealing, yet he finds himself bereft of fundraising ideas when Angelo calls in his debt. Seriously, he can’t think of anything?

There might be plenty of grist for pedantry in Sleight, but the young, wildly charismatic cast still sells it through sheer talent. Both Jacob Latimore and Seychelle Gabriel are major breakout discoveries, who forge terrific chemistry together as Bo and Holly. Dulé Hill also demonstrates hitherto unseen ferocity as Angelo.

Sleight shows all kinds of promise in every which way, but Dillard and co-screenwriter Alex Theurer really ought to have gone through a few more drafts. Regardless, Bo and Holly’s mature-beyond-their-years romantic relationship really saves it. It is nice, but not quite the triumph some are suggesting. Recommended somewhat circumspectly for fans of magic and drug-related urban crime dramas, Sleight screens again tomorrow (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: The Eagle Huntress

Aisholpan is a thirteen year-old ethnic Kazakh nomad in Northwest Mongolia, but she became the sort of internet sensation every hipster aspires to be when a picture of her with her father’s golden eagle went viral. As her eagle-handling skills developed, she became the first girl to ever compete in the ancient Golden Eagle Festival. By the way, she is also a straight-A student. Otto Bell managed to arrive in the Altai Mountains (the most remote, least populated region in the world) in time to document her hunting milestones in The Eagle Huntress, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Young Aisholpan always had more affinity for her father Nurgaiv’s hunting and herding than traditional women’s roles. Although he is a devout Muslim, Nurgaiv is progressive enough to teach his daughter traditional hunting techniques. She could not ask for a better teacher, considering he twice won the Golden Eagle Festival and placed highly on several other occasions. Recognizing Aisholpan’s abilities, Nurgaiv decides it is time to corral a wild eaglet of her own in the first of the film’s three centerpiece sequences.

Eventually, Nurgaiv allows the increasingly proficient Aisholpan to enter the annual contest, despite his understandable fatherly concerns. She is barely a teenager—and many of the competitors will not welcome her trailblazing participation. However, the real test of Aisholpan’s rapport with her eagle will come during their first hunt.

Words like “inspirational” often inspire kneejerk snark in response, but anyone who watches Eagle Huntress is pretty much guaranteed to feel great by the time the closing credits roll. Aisholpan is a terrific kid, whose charisma absolutely radiates off the screen. Nurgaiv is also totally cool, giving his daughter exactly the sort of encouragement she deserves. Even her grandfather is surprisingly hip, offering his blessing for her eagle hunting training.

The soaring eagles and the Altai vistas are as stunning as you could imagine. Yet, the really exciting thing about the film is the groundbreaking significance of Aisholpan’s eagle hunting aspirations. It represents open-minded social change that respects and even strengthens cultural traditions. After all, the estimated ranks of eagle hunters have dwindled to something in the neighborhood of 250. Frankly, Aisholpan is exactly what they need.


Since Eagle Huntress screened in Sundance’s kids section, a lot of press and programmers might have overlooked it, but they will have to chase it later, because this doc is going to catch-on in a huge way. It is just the sort of film that leaves you with a big dopey grin on your face, so word-of-mouth will be rapturous. For what its worth, it is also tremendously accomplished on a technical level, as well as a wonderful trip to one of the furthest flung corners of the world. Enthusiastically recommended for mainstream audiences of all ages, The Eagle Huntress screens again this Saturday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’16: All the Colors of the Night

When you have a body that needs disposing, you would want to call in Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolfe. Unfortunately, an aging party girl like Iris will have to make do with an estranged friend with some dodgy connections. She might not realize the gravity of her situation in Pedro Severien’s All the Colors of the Night, which screens during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

During the long prologue, Iris gives us her version of Tiara’s story. She killed a man, but got off scot-free, thanks to her mother’s influential friends. However, the man Tiara killed sort of had it coming—and she did not exactly live happily ever after. Regardless, Iris apparently intends to avoid prosecution just as Tiara did. Frankly, she has no idea who the dead man on her floor might be or how he got that way. She vaguely remembers him giving her the eye during her party, but the rest is a drug and alcohol-enhanced blur.

Clearly, Iris hopes Fernanda can call in a fixer who can make her mess go away. It is also clear their friendship has largely been a one-way street, for reasons of race and class. Initially, Fernanda seems inclined to help the rich, white Iris once again, but old grievances start to surface in the third act. The should-have-been-anticipated arrival of Iris’s even more resentful maid Elga also holds destabilizing consequences.

Despite some surface similarities, All the Colors of the Night should absolutely not be confused with the notorious Bruce Willis vehicle The Color of Night. However, they both require a great deal of viewer patience, albeit in very different ways. Severien’s obliquely askew approach is somewhat akin to that of Qiu Yang’s Slamdance short, Under the Sun, but it lacks the darkly humanistic sensibility.

Regardless, Brenda Lígia is quite impressive as Fernanda, keeping us consistently off-balance throughout the relatively short feature (seventy minutes). For her part, Sabrina Greve’s Iris looks and sounds convincingly zonked out on whatever. They both also have photogenic legs, which is important, because that is mainly what Severien focuses on.

In all honesty, All the Colors feels more like a New Directors/New Films selection than a Slamdance film, but here it is. It is a provocative experiment, but it never really connects. For connoisseurs of broadly experimental films, All the Colors of the Night screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Slamdance.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sundance ’16: Trash Fire

Owen is so screwed up, it must be his family’s fault. As part of her tough love regimen, his exasperated girlfriend insists he reconcile with his grandmother Violet and sister Pearl, his only surviving blood relations. Then she meets them. They are in for some decidedly awkward family meals in Richard Bates, Jr.’s Trash Fire, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Owen hates himself, hates his shrink, and most of all he hates his family. He loves Isabel, but he has a hard time showing it. In fact, he has a habit of saying crass, hurtful things. His boorish, boozy rudeness has alienated Isabel from her friends and family, but Owen vows to turn over a new leaf when she announces her pregnancy. Part of his mission is a family reunion, but the flashes of demonic imagery that accompany his epileptic seizures suggest that might not be such a good idea.

If you think Owen is obnoxious, wait till you get a load of Grandma. However, you will have to wait to meet the reclusive Pearl. Due to her extensive burn injuries, she avoids most human contact. Grandmama fooled Owen into believing it was his fault, but it was really her doing. Yes, she is your basic delusional, psychotic judgmental Fundamentalists. You know, one of those.

There is actually very little genre business in the first half, but it features the crudest, snippiest, most caustic dialogue you will ever hear in a months of Sundays. Obviously, that is a good thing. It certainly makes Trash Fire distinctive. In fact, it sort of a letdown when Violet starts following her divine homicidal inclinations. The super-Christian stereotype is also more than a little tiresome. Really, we needed another one of those?

Still, Adrian Grenier’s Owen is just spectacularly messed up. The bile he dredges up is quite impressive. To her credit, Angela Trimbur hangs with Grenier quite well, developing some emasculating chemistry. Watching them tear into each is just good cinema.

Despite a conventional V.C. Andrews-on-crack third act, Trash Fire delivers a lot of blackly comic fun. Bates has a seriously twisted ear for dialogue and he also now holds the distinction of being the only filmmaker to propose during a post-screening Q&A (she said yes). Recommended for fans of macabre, take-no-prisoners comedy, Trash Fire screens this Friday (1/29) in Park City and Saturday (1/30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: Weiner

During the 2013 New York City municipal primary, Democrats faced the surreal prospect of nominating Anthony Weiner for mayor and Eliot “Client 9” Spitzer for comptroller. Ultimately, neither political comeback came to pass, but the spectacle of Weiner’s implosion will be hard to live down. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg documented it all, fly-on-the-wall style in Weiner, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

We all know the essentials: Anthony Weiner, sexting, “Carlos Danger,” and his femme fatale, Sydney Leathers. Kriegman & Steinberg start their film after the first wave of scandal had subsided. They give nutshell recap of Sexting Part 1, including Weiner’s admitted lie that his Twitter account had been hacked, but they neglect to mention the late Andrew Breitbart’s role saving the infamous tweets and holding Weiner accountable.

Regardless, Weiner is tanned, rested, and ready to run for mayor with the blessing of his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Initially, Weiner was riding high in the polls, until the second sexting shoe dropped. That would be Leathers, the media-chasing future porn star. It was really a time line issue that he handled remarkably badly.

Somehow, Kriegman & Steinberg’s footage humanizes and damns Weiner simultaneously. There is no question the press opted for the low road at every juncture. It is impossible not to sympathize with him, especially when we see him doting on his young son. Nevertheless, the once-and-future power couple’s ill-concealed ambition is somewhat unseemly. More problematic, it becomes obvious in the third act Weiner lost track of which lies he told, forcing him to have grossly embarrassing conversations with his staff in order to reconcile his latest statements with past claims. Clearly, just telling the truth was no longer an option.

Arguably, Kriegman & Steinberg sort of bury the lede when they leave reports of a Hilary ultimatum forcing Abedin to choose between her husband and her role in the Clinton presidential campaign dangling unresolved. However, Abedin’s subsequent disengagement from Weiner’s campaign certainly makes you wonder.

Despite their obvious political sympathies, Kriegman & Steinberg never protect Weiner from himself. Watching this film must be a humbling experience for him. Frankly, in the wrap-up interview he seems not just chastened, but broken. Having the doc in the public record should preclude any further comeback campaigns, but it also engenders sympathy for his Shakespearean fall from grace. Engrossing like a train-wreck, Weiner is recommended for political junkies when it screens again this Thursday (1/28) and Saturday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: Pleasure.Love

It is a case of life imitating art or the past repeating in the present or vice versa. The fates of a Jiang and a Hu are deeply intertwined, but their ultimate destinies will be rather slippery to nail down in Huang Yao’s Pleasure.Love, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Bitterly disappointed his neighborhood crush is suddenly unavailable, twenty-ish Jiang heads to a bar to drown his sorrows. However, he somehow manages to pick-up Hu Yajie, an attractive older professional woman who ought to be well outside his league. It does not take Jiang long to fall for her, even though she initially regards him as merely an amusing distraction. Unfortunately, just as she starts to develop feelings for the young man, she is ripped away from him.

That was the “Pleasure” segment. For “Love,” Huang flashes forward (or perhaps backwards) a few decades, just as the fresh faced “Hu” arrives to pursue a career in the big city. Much to her surprise, the misogynistic writer Jiang Nan takes an immediate interest in her. He gained a bit of notoriety for his steamy novel based on his relationship with a lover who died years ago and bequeathed her house to him (yes, we definitely recognize it from before).

Pleasure.Love is one of those Mobius strip films that eventually loop back into themselves, like Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain. Huang could have gotten away with it relatively cleanly, but he adds further diagonal time lines that completely muddy any sense of internal logic.

As maddening as Pleasure.Love can be at times, it is still consistently fascinating, especially for viewers familiar with Chinese cinema. Indeed, it is rather shocking to see a major Mainland movie star like Yu Nan in such a sexual frank film. Although there is no nudity per se, it is definitely mature in terms of themes and content. Presumably she still has a lot of good will banked from the PLA-supported Wolf Warrior.

She also gives an extraordinarily rich and nuanced performance as the older Hu. Guo Xiaodong makes the older, deeply flawed Jiang equally complex. Looking barely old enough to vote, Sun Yi is still wonderfully sensitive and vulnerable as the young Hu, but Ying Daizhen is much less so as the young Jiang.

Without question, Pleasure.Love is an achingly handsome production. You have probably never heard such lovely arrangements of “Auld Lang Syne.” Liu Younian’s gauzily romantic cinematography is also a thing of beauty. In truth, the film holds considerable artistic merit. Even though Huang gets a bit too cute with his temporal-narrative games, there are individual moments in the film that are absolutely arresting. Recommended for its overall look and wildly camera-friendly cast, Pleasure.Love screens again tomorrow (1/27) in Salt Lake and Friday (1/29) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: A Good Wife

To Serbia’s credit, they ousted Slobodan Milosevic on their own, unprompted. However, there is still a general defensiveness whenever people ask questions about the 1990s. This is particularly true in the case of Milena’s husband Vlada. She is about to discover why, but it is not clear she can handle the truth in Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic’s directorial debut, A Good Wife, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Vlada is a prosperous contractor, so obviously he has no scruples whatsoever. Nevertheless, Milena was able to maintain a willful blindness, despite Vlada’s sneering curses at the war crimes investigators on the evening news. One day she comes across an old VHS tape while cleaning and watches just enough to see too much. She tries to ignore her new reality, but when the drunkard Dejan, Vlada’s junior paramilitary colleague, starts making veiled threats of blackmail, it is impossible for Milena to live in denial.

Milena also has her own issues, like her recently discovered tumor. The parallels between Milena’s breast cancer and Serbia’s cancerous history are impossible to miss, but Karanovic shows a good sense of restraint, resisting the urge to drive the point home with a pile-driver. If you can’t get it from her matter of fact approach, you never will, but the film never feelsl lectury or contrived.

A Good Wife is really a slow burn that gives the others issues in Milena’s life nearly equal weight as her struggles with Vlada’s war crimes (though they arguably all interrelated). If you are lucky, you will recognize Karanovic from Darko Lungulov’s wonderfully wise and world weary romantic comedy Here and There. Yet, in many ways A Good Wife is the antithesis to that film, which clearly implies everyday Serbs deserve a return to normalcy and a break from the international guilt trips. Not so fast say Karanovic and co-screenwriters Lungulov and Stevan Filipovic, arguing if Serbia does not face up to its not-so-distant past, it will continue to fester and metastasize.

Karanovic also set herself up with the sort of role that is a perfect awards vehicle, which she duly knocks out of the park. Karanovic and company do not merely present a simplistic conflict between doing the right thing and protecting a comfortable life. We also see all the small, possibly more pernicious little compromises she makes just to get through the day.

A Good Wife and Here and There are about as far apart as two Serbian films can get, but they both showcase Karanovic’s warm yet sophisticated screen presence. It is a quiet, patient film, but it directly challenges Serbs to look inside the dark corners of their national psyche. Frankly, she is pretty darn gutsy on both sides of the lens. Respectfully recommended for international audiences and rather more forcefully so for those in Srpska and Serbia, A Good Wife screens again tonight (1/26), tomorrow (1/27), Friday (1/29), and Saturday (1/30) as part of this year’s Sundance, in Park City.

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Slamdance ’16: If There’s a Hell Below

Driving through wide open and apparently endless highways and rural routes can make you feel disconcertingly exposed. The notion that the government might be monitoring and tracking average people without probable cause is also somewhat disturbing. Even though the latter is a red hot button issue, a Chicago journalist’s misadventures are far more successful conveying the unease of the former. Regardless, he will find himself well out of his depth in Nathan Williams’ If There’s a Hell Below, which screens during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Abe has arranged to meet “Debra” out in the middle of nowhere, because she claims to have some sort of explosive information regarding an NSA-ish government agency. Even her first name is more personal information than she wants Abe to have, if it really is her name, which it probably isn’t. She is a senior mid-level data cruncher of some sort, but at her level, even her gender would be a meaningful tell.

Debra is certainly better at the cloak-and-dagger stuff than Abe. He will try to win her trust and calm her raging paranoia, but that obsessive fear and suspicion is not misplaced. Events will happen, but at a slow boil that allows for enough ambiguity to fill the Great Plains.

The teasingly oblique manner in which Williams’ advances the narrative could have fallen flat, but he manages keep the audience focused like a laser-beam. Frankly, the entire film feels like an homage to North By Northwest, in which Roger Thornhill is constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering if that crop-duster really means business. Of course, nothing is as it really seems, but Williams’ third act reversals are almost too much for their own good.

Still, Conner Marx and Carol Roscoe put on a veritable master class playing off each other as the earnest Abe and the skittish Debra. Mark Carr also delivers and fascinating and deceptively out-of-left field monologue as a character whose identity we never really verify.

There is no question If There’s a Hell is the sort of film you have to work with. Yet, the layers of mystery Williams bakes in make it quite distinctive. The importance of Chris Messina’s cinematography cannot be over-emphasized. He vividly captures a sense of vulnerability one feels on isolated stretches of empty road. Ironically, the film is so enigmatic, we lose sight of the very policies it seeks to critique, but that is not such a bad thing. Recommended for adventurous viewers with adult attention spans, If There’s a Hell Below screens again tomorrow (1/27), as part of this year’s Slamdance in Park City, Utah.

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