J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Sundance ’20: Sergio


It was not exactly the United Nation’s finest hour when Turkey was tapped to co-chair the human rights committee that accredited NGO’s, despite its dismal record of press censorship and oppression of the Kurds. Hypocrisy and corruption have long been rife throughout the UN bureaucracy, especially during the days of Kofi Annan’s administration. The one shining exception was Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. He had the unique distinction among his UN peers for actually brokering equitable peace deals, but he was tragically killed by the Al-Qaeda faction that evolved into ISIS. After chronicling Vieira de Mello’s story in documentary form, Greg Barker retells it as the Netflix-produced narrative feature Sergio, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Vieira de Mello opposed the Iraq War—a fact Barker and screenwriter Craig Borten clearly do not want us to forget. In fact, they revel in his disagreements with Paul Bremer, the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq. Alas, it is no spoiler to mention the titular diplomat was killed during his Baghdad posting, because Barker uses it as a narrative device, flashing backwards to happy times, while U.S. Sergeants Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, firemen in civilian-life, struggle to unearth Vieira de Mello and his colleague, Gil Loescher, from the precarious rubble. Obviously, the prognosis looks bad.

Those better days include Vieira de Mello’s tenure as the UN’s Transitional Administrator for East Timor, where he negotiated the new nation’s peaceful independence from Indonesia. East Timor is also where the divorced High Commissioner meets Carolina Larriera, a micro-finance expert, who becomes his lover and UN colleague. Unfortunately, such business leads Vieira de Mello to neglect his sons. Indeed, family time is rare and awkward for the diplomat (sadly, a big pot of delicious shrimp moqueca gets neglected during a short-lived family reunion).

Sergio’s biases are blatantly obvious, but they still probably could have been worse. Arguably, Bradley Whitford’s cartoonish portrayal of the nebbish Bremer as cynical villain is the most egregious aspect of the film. On the other hand, it forthrightly depicts the heroic efforts of von Zehle and Valentine to save Sergio and Loescher. It is worth noting von Zehle served as a technical advisor, which is a major reason why the rescue sequences are so tense and realistic.

Borten’s screenplay readily admits Vieira de Mello’s decision to evict the U.S. forces guarding the UN’s headquarters in Iraq left it directly vulnerable to terrorist attack. However, for some dubious reason, it omits al-Zarqawi’s cited motivation for the bombing in his statement of responsibility: the East Timor deal that result in a net loss of territory controlled by the Islamic Caliphate—in that case the Indonesian government.

As a film, Sergio moves along at a good place and convincingly recreates the major events of his time, even though Barker and lead actor Wagner Moura are transparently mindful of protecting Vieira de Mello’s reputation throughout the film. They show some self-doubt and human weakness, but just enough to provide an opportunity for redemption. Ana de Armas is pretty credible expressing frustration with his workaholism and commitment phobia, but the character is largely defined in relationship to him. 
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Sundance ’20: Once Upon a Time in Venezuela



Who knew socialism could lead to such privation and poverty? Except maybe anyone who ever studied economics to any extent. In the case of Venezuela, there really is no excuse for the devastating effects of state command of the economy, because the nation is blessed with considerable oil reserves and was ruled by a dictator who was considered a folk hero by his famous international admirers. Nevertheless, viewers can see the devastating results of Chavism over a twelve-year period in Anabel Rodriguez Rios’s documentary, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Congo Mirador is a small village on stilts that sits not far from Lake Maracaibo, the center of Venezuela’s oil industry. Its proximity should make it prosperous, but instead it is dying. In fact, it might not survive the film as a viable community. Pollution has devastated the water-bound town, but the Chavists only seem to care about them during election years. Even then, they just offer small tokens like cell-phones, rather than any long-term relief.

Indeed, Mrs. Tamara, the village’s hard-core Chavist political coordinator is so nakedly corrupt, she openly offers bribes to villagers in exchange for votes, but this year, even her friends are defiantly refusing to go along anymore. In contrast, the local school teacher, Natalia is not explicitly political, but her independent inclinations earn her the scorn of Tamara. She must also endure constant harassment from the regional school supervisor, who always looks for petty causes to reprimand the devoted teacher, such as the organization of the supply shelf (fully stocked with defective pens that do not write). Yet, Natalia is widely popular among her students and their parents, at least while they remain in the dying village.
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Sundance ’20: Leap of Faith—William Friedkin on the Exorcist


William Peter Blatty paid extended tribute to the mother who had such a formative influence in Crazy, one of his final novels (which—disclosure—I helped market). It was shared experience William Friedkin could relate to and bond with Blatty over when they collaborated on the celebrated film adaptation of his most famous novel, especially in the scenes depicting Father Karras and his mother. That is the sort of in-depth commentary Firedkin offers throughout Alexandre O. Philippe’s Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It would be fair to think of Leap as the special Exorcist supplement to Francesco Zippel’s career-survey documentary, Friedkin Uncut, except the director is the only voice heard during Philippe’s film. Arguably, The Exorcist is the only genre film that is sufficiently intriguing and significant to support such a “director’s commentary track” approach, but it is the Exorcist, so it can. Needless to say, Friedkin’s candor and enthusiasm help tremendously.

Friedkin’s deep dive roughly follows the film’s narrative, with quite a bit of time devoted to the prologue in northern Iraq. Even today, some viewers do not get it, but it is what helps make the film so distinctive. During the course of his examination, Friedkin reveals the film almost had two jazz-related associations. Ken Nordine of Word Jazz fame was recruited to create the demon voice, but just couldn’t get it right. Similarly, Friedkin rejected a score composed by Lalo Schifrin, who reportedly was not at all happy about it.
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Sundance ’20: La Llorona


In horror movies, if you hear the sound of weeping, it probably means you did something bad. There is also a good chance you’ll soon be the one doing the crying. According to legend and lore, the vengeful weeping spirit of La Llorona lures children to her death, after having done the same to her children in real life. She is sometimes associated La Malinche, Cortes’s indigenous mistress, who was betrayed by the conquistador. The legend gets reworked in a similar spirit for a contemporary Guatemalan context in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, which screens again today at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

After decades of impunity, the old General is finally being prosecuted for his role in the mass murder of the indigenous people during the dirty Civil War. However, he still has the protection of powerful people. That outrageous the unwashed masses, who are loudly protesting in great numbers outside his stately home. All the help have abandoned ship, except Valeriana, the trusted family servant, who could very well be the General’s illegitimate daughter. She sends for new domestics, but only the quiet Alma answers the call.

Her arrival coincides with the start of the General’s erratic behavior. He starts sleep-walking and complaining her hears a woman sobbing. Even more awkwardly, the pretty Alma reawakens his old predatory Weinstein-esque impulses, even though he probably lacks the strength and virility to fully act on them. Still, it makes it harder for his massively in-denial wife to ignore the obvious. On the other hand, his daughter Natalia, a respected medical doctor, is already suspicious her former lover (and the father of the General’s cherished granddaughter) is among the disappeared.

Bustamante manages to straddle the horror and art cinema genres rather agilely throughout La Llorona, even though the didactic score-settling detracts from its effectiveness as either. Arguably, what Latin America really needs right now are more moderate democrats, but the film is not likely to de-radicalize anyone. Regardless, Bustamante earns credit for crafting the milieu of corrupt decay and the foreboding vibe.
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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sundance ’20: Scare Me

There is a long tradition of telling scary stories, but getting well-paid for it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Seriously, can you imagine explaining to Poe and Lovecraft how much money Stephen King makes? That is the sort of success Fanny has achieved and Fred aspires to. Alas, he simply isn’t in her league when it comes to writing talent, but he manages to hang with her for a while when she challenges him to dueling campfire stories in Josh Ruben’s Scare Me, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Fred has checked into a remote cabin hoping to finally make headway on his first novel, so he is both excited and intimidated to discover Fanny is his nearest neighbor. Her zombie novel is a #1 bestseller, a fact she lords over him. Fanny loves to throw around jargon like patriarchy and “toxic masculinity,” so she takes sadistic pleasure in belittling Fred. He will take it up to a point, in the hope that some of her mojo will rub off on him. Reluctantly, he agrees to proposed night of improvised horror stories, despite her constant needling.

In a way, Scare Me is sort of an anthology film, in which Fred and Fanny act out their tales amid the simple but spooky cabin setting, with only some clever lighting and sound effects to augment the vocal performances and outrageous pantomiming. A bit of chemistry starts to develop, as the two vastly different writers egg each other on (getting a brief guest appearance from the pizza guy). Yet, there is always a looming sense that the sinister business of their stories could spill over into their reality at any time.
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Sundance ’20: Possessor


Tasya Vos works for the corporate equivalent of brain controlling parasites, like the exotic “zombie ant” fungus. She’s the fungus, or in this case, an assassin who commits hits while controlling the body of an unwitting host. She is a lethal legend among the limited numbers aware of her company’s true specialty, but her next assignment will involve unexpected complications in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

The process is pretty simple—and sinister. Through some kind of cyber-punky procedure, Vos’s consciousness is inserted into the abducted host. She establishes a pattern of suspicious behavior over a few days, before killing her target. Then she blows the host’s brains out just as her handlers extract her. We can see pretty clearly from the opening hit how the process is supposed to work. It is also pretty easy to see Vos is increasingly troubled by lingering memories and flashbacks, even though she manages to conceal it from her employer, Girder.

She really should have more down time between possessions, but she agrees to do a priority rush job with little rest. Her next target will be John Parse, the CEO of a data-mining firm, who happens to be played by Sean Bean, which does not auger well for his potential survivability. The host will be his daughter’s low-life boyfriend, her former drug dealer, Colin. He doesn’t seem like much, but he manages to wrestle control of his body back from Vos, at least temporarily, after much damage has been done.

Cronenberg, a chip off the old block, balances scenes of intense violence with trippy surreal passages in a sleekly stylish package. Fans of his father should also eat this up with a big spoon. However, it should be duly noted there is a previous precedent for the body-jumping assassin: Jesse Atlas’s short film Let Them Die Like Lovers, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, so nobody should say it is completely unknown. To be sure, Cronenberg comes up with plenty of his own twists. Nobody is implying anything, just acknowledging Atlas.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sundance ’20: Sylvie’s Love


Nobody ever said loving a jazz musician was easy. Sylvie Johnson can tell you about that. They are always on the road and they never get paid what their talents deserve, but they feel things very deeply. Johnson cannot help loving tenor titan Robert Holloway, but the world seems to conspire against their romance in Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Johnson is the daughter of a prominent Harlem family. If truth be told, her mother the etiquette teacher is the prominent one, rather than her father, “Mr. Jay,” a former musician and owner of a hip record store. That is where Holloway first met her. He went in looking for the latest Monk record, Brilliant Corners (the Fantasy/Riverside/Contemporary catalog of labels get prime placement in the film), but he applies for a part-time position to woo Johnson. Rather inconveniently, she is engaged to the proper sort of man her mother approves of, but their mutual attraction is undeniable.

Somehow, despite the passion, they just don’t end up together in 1957. The pattern will repeat when they cross paths again in 1962. He is still a sideman in the Dickie Brewster Quartet. The band is having some success, but it is mainly the less talented leader who is benefiting. To a great extent, this is because he is sleeping with their manager, who is rather transparently and unfairly based on the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. He also owns all the publishing rights for the group’s tunes.

By this time, Johnson has married her respectable fiancé and they have a little girl they both adore, but her heart still belongs to Holloway. Her only real satisfaction comes from her work as a TV production assistant for a large New York affiliate, until Holloway reappears again (and again).

This is a wonderfully lush period production that perfectly captures the look and texture of an era when Howard Johnson’s was a Times Square landmark. It also gets the jazz right, starting with the lovely Nancy Wilson standard playing over the opening credits (if this film gets distributed relatively widely, it could very well put Wilson back on the charts). Even the jazz dialogue, especially Holloway and Johnson’s shop talk, sounds legit for the times. The original music composed by Fabrice Lecomte also sounds era-appropriate and swings quite nicely. You can definitely say the Brewster band can play, since their musical parts are supplied by musicians like Mark Turner on tenor and Uri Caine on piano.

The music is terrific, but the drama can get a little manipulative at times. Frankly, the contrivances keeping the two lovers are often clumsily forced. Be that as it may, Nnamdi Asomugha rises above it as the cool-on-the-outside, blue-and-sentimental-on-the-inside Holloway. He carries himself like a musician on the bandstand and slow burns with passion and pride when he is off. He also develops some deeply soulful chemistry with Tessa Thompson’s Johnson.

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Sundance ’20: Bad Hair


It is 1989, when you could still see music videos on television. Musical tastes are changing, but Anna Bludso has a keen sense of trends. She should be a producer or an on-air presenter for her African-American-targeted cable channel, but her follicle issues hold her back. Image is key in the superficial music industry, so she will change hers drastically. The immediate results will be dramatically positive for her career, but deadly for her co-workers in Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

As a child, Bludso’s older sister damaged her hair with a toxic treatment. Her scalp still bears the scars and so does her self-image. It has made her meek and submissive in office situations. Despite her talent for trend-watching, she is still an assistant at Culture, the music network about to be rebranded “Cult,” by the new white corporate president and Zora, the glamorous former super-model he has appointed as the new network director. Bludso manages to score some points in an initial meeting, but her scraggly hair just won’t cut it, so she splurges for a killer weave from the “in” stylist.

Suddenly, Bludso looks the part and then some. Her new hair hurts a little but it is worth it—at least until it starts showing an appetite for blood. Many of its victims sort of have it coming, in the EC Comics tradition, but Bludso might be in long-term danger herself.

Killer tresses—they are not just for K-horror anymore. Yet, Simien deserves some credit for taking the time to fully establish his characters and their office politics before getting down to the gory business. The late 1980’s fashion, décor, and overall vibe are also perfectly rendered, but don’t worry genre fans, there is still plenty of disgusting body horror in store for you.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sundance ’20: The Night House


Imagine if Jerry Zucker’s Ghost had been tweaked into a terrifying horror movie rather than a paranormal romance. That is basically where this film starts, but it goes off in a crazy occult direction all its own. Being a grieving young widow is still painfully hard and it only gets harder in David Bruckner’s The Night House, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It is hard to blame Beth for using a whole lot of wine to self-medicate the pain of her husband Owen’s recent inexplicable suicide. He left a note, but it takes her a while to summon the resolve to read it and when she does, it makes absolutely no sense. As she drinks herself to sleep, she starts to feel Owen’s presence. The sensation grows in intensity, as things start to go bump in the night. That might sound like a relatively conventional movie haunting, but the uncanny goings-on take on sinister metaphysical dimensions as Beth follows Owen’s trail down the rabbit-hole.

Getting too specific would be spoilery, but there are a number of original elements in Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s screenplay that are really creepy. This might be Bruckner’s best work at the helm (even better than The Ritual), but he gets critical contributions from the art and design team. From the eerie looking lake house to some ominous rare books Beth unearths, the props and settings really help intensify the vibe of deepening dread.
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Sundance ’20: Minari


We recruited Angelica Sakurada to cover Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, because we had a hunch she would have strong handle on its themes. As a courtesy to us, her review and photo of the post-screening Q&A follow below:

This is a great movie that beautifully tells the story of a Korean immigrant family struggling very hard to make the American Dream come true, working by day for large chicken farms (“chick sexing” is what they do) and growing their own family farm during any extra time. Everyone that had the parents or grandparents who were immigrants in any part of the world will immediately connect to their experiences: low paid jobs that are not enough to achieve the ultimate goal, the dream to own a piece of land (or start their own business) and feeling pride at the achievement, the home sickness, the challenge of raising kids in a new culture, and finally learning how to live in a place out of your comfort zone while keeping the family united.

Introduced by the Sundance’s director, Minari is an emotionally power film, because of its high-quality direction, photography and editing. The camera angles and background details all really support the drama and the great performances of the entire cast. Steve Yeun is excellent playing the father, but special mention goes to the actor Alan Kim who plays young Daniel. He is so sweet he steals the heart of all the audience.

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Sundance ’20: Assassins


It is the stuff of a Hitchcock thriller, but Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong have probably never heard of Hitchcock and they certainly never heard of the man they were tricked into killing. Kim Jong-nam happened to be the older brother of Kim Jong-un, who had expressed guarded skepticism of the Kim dynastic regime. That made him a threat that Kim intended to remove. Tragically, his agents duped Aisyah and Huong into committing the crime and then left them to face the music. Ryan White chronicles the attack and subsequent trial step-by-step, with the close cooperation of their defense teams, in the Kafkaesque documentary expose Assassins, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Aisyah is Indonesian and Huong is Vietnamese, but both came from mean circumstances. However, they were young, attractive, a very connected on social media. The latter is important, because it left a trail for the defense teams to follow later. In 2017, Kim Jong-un was ruthlessly purging anyone who could be a potential rival. Naturally, his estranged older brother was at the top of the list, but he was a difficult target, because China had granted him sanctuary (most likely to gain leverage over Prince Jong-un). That meant any assassination would have to take place outside China.

Prince Kim’s agents hatched an evil plan, recruiting Aisyah and Huong to ostensibly perform in prank video, in which they surprised unsuspecting targets by accosting them from behind and rubbing baby lotion on their faces. They filmed nearly a dozen dry runs, establishing the legitimacy of the videos with the naïve young women, but when it was time to punk Kim Jong-un in the Kuala Lumpur airport, they were lathered up with VX nerve agent instead. Of course, their North Korean masterminds immediately fled the country, setting their dupes up to take the fall. Frustratingly, the Malaysian legal system was happy to oblige, focusing their wrath on the women, instead of the North Korean government, or Air Koryo, which helped facilitate the agents’ escape.

These are the bare facts, which really only the Malaysian prosecutors disputed (seriously, how would the economically disadvantaged Aisyah and Huong acquire a sophisticated weapon like VX?). We watch the defense attorneys methodically build their counter-narratives and hear from the women themselves via phone interviews from prison. White’s talking heads also provide some eye-opening context on the royal Kim regime. It is not the primary focus of the film, but it is still valuable analysis.

Once again, the global community has allowed a repressive regime to violate international law and every standard of decency, without facing any consequences. The Malaysian government simply tried to railroad Aisyah and Huong, declining to take any action against the DPRK. (Even if they wanted to avoid a diplomatic kerfuffle, they could still sanction Air Koryo—and so should the rest of the free world).

This is a riveting film that establishes beyond any possible doubt the ruthlessness of the Kim regime, as well as their culpability (the Malaysian justice system does not come out looking very enlightened either). White’s telling of the tale maximizes the suspense for those who do not know the beat-by-beat history of the trial, without indulging in sensationalism. It is scary stuff that should serve as a bracing wake-up call. Very highly recommended, Assassins screens again this afternoon (1/28) and Saturday (2/1) in Park City and Thursday (1/30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Monday, January 27, 2020

Sundance ’20: Impetigore


There is usually a reason why secluded villages are secluded. It might not be rational, strictly speaking, but it holds enough sway to prevent people from beating a path to town. Likewise, large empty houses are not left abandoned without some kind of rationale, especially in hardscrabble rural Indonesia. Unfortunately, a scuffling twenty-five-year-old will go out of her way, putting herself in harm’s way, in hopes of securing an inheritance in Joko Anwar’s Impetigore, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Frankly, Anwar is criminally under-heralded as a modern master of the horror genre. In the future, film schools could very well show Impetigore’s opening sequence in horror directing classes, as a crackerjack example of immediate white-knuckle tension that could serve as a compartmentalized prologue, but steadily takes on greater significance as the film develops. Maya is a frustrated toll-collector who survives a harrowing attack from a passing motorist. Weirdly, he seems to know her, even calling her by a name she vaguely remembers from her early childhood.

The ordeal spurs Maya to examine her hazy memories of life with her late parents in the countryside, before the orphaned girl relocated to the city with the woman she always knew as an aunt. All that remains is a photo of little Maya (as she is now known) standing with her parents, in front of a large and presumably valuable house. Accompanied by her encouraging friend Dini, Maya treks out to the too-small-to-be-on-the-map village, hoping to claim title to the property. However, they find the village odd. The people are standoffish and there are absolutely no children to be seen—except for the three spectral girls Maya thought she saw standing by the road, during the overnight bus ride.

The evil vibe Anwar establishes right from the start only deepens as he reveals the details regarding the curse plaguing the town. Karma kills and tragedy compounds—brutally. Arguably, Anwar’s storyline is not blow-you-away original, but his execution is so skillful, he keeps the audience on pins-and-needles throughout every second and every frame. Like his previous horror film, the remake of Satan’s Slaves, Impetigore is straight-up terrifying.

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Slamdance ’20: 1986


Thanks to Russia and Putin’s expansionist ambitions, this is an interesting year to be Belarusian. 1986 was also an interesting year to be Belarusian, thanks to the Soviets and the radiation wafting from their Chernobyl meltdown. As a Belarusian today, Elena doesn’t think she has much to lose, so instead of looking for opportunities in her own nation, she seeks them in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She might just find her destiny there, for better or worse, in Lothar Herzog’s 1986, which had its American premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

These days, time spent in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is no longer necessarily fatal—just ask the wolves. However, you are still warned not to ingest anything originating there. Elena will do so anyway, because she is a millennial. However, she has a right to be bitter. Despite the phony Lukashenko propaganda her economics professor spouts in class, the economy is stagnant. Elena would like to pay-off her father’s tax-debt to get him out of jail, but $30,000 is a prohibitive sum to raise.

Her only chance is by taking over his former gig smuggling salvaged scrap metal out of the Exclusion Zone. Frankly, she rather likes it there, because she can visit her grandmother’s house. It also forces her to take a break from her unhealthy relationship with her unfaithful boyfriend Viktor.

The stakes are serious for Elena, but plot is not the film’s top priority. Rather, Herzog is more concerned with conveying a sense of place (that being the Exclusion Zone) and exploring the national Belarusian malaise. Although he wisely does not overplay the metaphor, we can pick up on Herzog’s analogy comparing the corruption permeating contemporary Belarusian society to the radiation that devastated Chernobyl.

Herzog and cinematographer Philipp Baben der Erde frame some vividly striking imagery. As a result, Elena’s trips into the Zone are often hypnotic, creating an almost immersive cinematic experience. This is one of the few examples of slow-ish cinema that might have gained something from 3D. Still, its ambiguous nature will certainly limit its popular audience.
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Slamdance ’20: Ask No Questions


The world should be horrified by the evidence of genocide emerging from East Turkestan, but we shouldn’t be so surprised. To a large extent, the Chinese Communist Party is merely repeating the game-plan they used to launch their wholesale crackdown on Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong). Today, Party propaganda tells the world they are simply rotting out terrorists. In the case, of Falun Gong, it was religious extremism. Filmmakers Jason Loftus & Eric Pedicelli ask the hard questions about the incident used to justify the anti-Falun Gong campaign that the Western media should have in the riveting expose documentary, Ask No Questions, which premiered at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival, in Park City.

Falun Dafa is a spiritual practice combining Buddhism and Taoism that is not inherently political, but its rapid growth spooked the Communism Party, so true to form, they prohibited it. Those who still practiced, were subjected to physical and mental torture in re-education camps. Whoever refused to recant became slave laborers in work camps (much like what is happening in East Turkestan).

For a while, the world expressed concern over this naked repression of Falun Gong, but the release of video tape supposedly documenting practitioners self-immolating on Tiananmen Square largely defused the issue. (In fact, the IOC rewarded the CCP for their brutality by approving China’s bid for the 2008 Olympics.) Ever since, the incident has made practitioners like Loftus defensive. Yet, when he took a hard look at the tape, he noticed some suspicious inconsistencies. CNN reporter Lisa Weaver (who happened to be on the Square at that very moment) had questions about the official story, but she was not allowed to follow-up, because CNN wanted to protect its Beijing bureau.

Throughout Ask No Questions, Loftus points out the strange circumstances surrounding the incident, starting with the fact the self-immolators had no known history of practicing Falun Dafa. He also interviews at length Chen Ruichang, a former state television official and Falun Dafa practitioner, who refused to recant despite the brutal torture he endured in a prison camp.
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Slamdance ’20: Sanzaru


An estimated 10% of the Philippines’ population works outside of the nation. Many such domestic and home-care workers have found themselves in exploitative situations. In Evelyn’s case, her employers’ treat her pretty fairly and respectfully. However, their karma is truly terrifying. Past anguish and lingering guilt metastasize to an uncanny extent in Xia Magnus’s Sanzaru, which premiered at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Home-bound Dena Regan and her grown son Clem, a discharged veteran, live in the middle of East Nowhere, Texas, literally a world away from the Philippines. Yet, it is a decent paying gig for Evelyn, especially since they also allowed her to bring over her son Amos when he got into trouble at school. Technically, he has always known as his aunt, even though he has long suspected the truth.

Dena’s relationship with Clem is probably even more awkward, because of the family’s mysterious history. He still suffers from some serious service-related PSTD, but he is probably even more haunted by whatever it is they never talk about. The name “Sanzaru,” the Japanese word for the see-hear-and-speak-no-evil monkeys, ominously looms over the house. In fact, Evelyn can often hear a spectral entity whispering that name.

Sanzaru easily fits within the new “elevated horror” rubric. There are absolutely no cheap jump-scares, but the atmosphere of decay is almost stifling. To be honest, the limited woo-woo special effects look like they were rendered in the 1980s—the early 1980s, but they are not the point. Instead, Magnus unflinchingly depicts the consequences of trauma on individuals, families, and even the outsiders who enter their orbits.

Shrewd viewers will probably easily guess the family’s hidden shame, because it is usually the big secret in films like this. Nevertheless, it explores its themes with unusual humanism, especially for a genre(-ish) film. This is most notably true with the character of Clem Regan, who demonstrates how the demarcation between victim and villain is sometimes quite blurry. In fact, his Job-like suffering ultimately makes him an acutely sympathetic figure—no doubt Justin Arnold’s remarkably sensitive performance is a tremendous help in this respect.
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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sundance ’20: Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness


In Iran, reality TV is a matter of life and death. The traditions of “blood money” and legal retaliation have given rise to real-life shows in which convicts seek pardons from those they have wronged. Young Maryam is one such “contestant,” but her TV appearance will take some unusually dramatic turns in screenwriter-director Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

It is Yalda, the traditional Zoroastrian feast night, when Iranians celebrate Persian culture. It is not the ideal date for Maryam to beg for forgiveness, but with her execution fast approaching, time is of the essence. Technically, she was only Nasser’s “temporary wife,” a longstanding Iranian relationship that is exactly what it sounds like. Temporary wives have virtually no long-term spousal rights, but legal offspring have inheritance rights, if they are male.

Regardless, Maryam apparently allowed Nasser to die through sins of inaction following an accident. As a result, she was convicted of murder and faces the death penalty, under Iran’s “eye for an eye” criminal justice system. Her only hope is for Nasser’s daughter Mona to pardon her in exchange for blood money. Ayat produces a TV program that facilitates such pardons. There are only two problems: Mona is no mood to forgive and Maryam is not inclined to ask for forgiveness.

Although in her early twenties, the shockingly young-looking Maryam could pass for a girl in her early teens. Regardless, there is clearly something amiss with a society that so readily accepted Nasser’s marriage to a teenaged girl (at the time), especially in an exploitative temporary arrangement. Indeed, much of Yalda’s drama is rooted in the gender and class-based inequalities of Iranian society.

There is no shortage of social criticism in Yalda, but viewers might not notice while watching, because it is so viscerally intense. It follows squarely in the tradition of emotionally-draining, uncompromisingly naturalistic dramas best represented by films like Farhadi’s A Separation. Frankly, Iranian films as a class might just inspire more confidence than any other national cinema, but they are so exhausting, it is difficult to binge on very many in quick succession.

Bakhshi masterfully cranks up the tension and dexterously springs several crises that upend everything in fascinating ways. Yalda is an eye-opening look at contemporary Iran, but it also offers quite a wild ride, by depicting a live TV broadcast completely running off the rails. He creates such a distinctive sense of place, audiences will feel like they know every inch of the TV studio after watching the film. Altogether, it is quite a work of bravura filmmaking.
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Sundance ’20: The Go-Go’s


Their admirers make much of their status as the only all-women band that played their own instruments and wrote their own songs to have their debut album reach #1 on the charts.  Yet, that still understates their significance. You could easily argue the Go-Go’s were the most commercially successful band to emerge out of the American punk scene. Yes, they evolved into a pop group, leading to conflict within the band. Of course, drama is always inevitable for any band that has that much success and does that much drugs. The original band-members take stock of their music and legacy in Alison Eastwood’s The Go-Go’s, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

They really were punk kids, who decided to form a band, even though they couldn’t play very well, because that is so punk. However, they actually developed skills while playing rough & tumble punk venues. They caught on slowly with the legit punk scene, even managing to tour the UK, where they recorded a single for Stiff Records titled “We Got the Beat.”

Obviously, that tune caught on. It was such a perfect rock anthem, it almost sounds like a cliché now. Yet, they would also chart with hits like “My Lips are Sealed” and “Vacation,” which immediately summon sense memories of the early 1980s. Those were definitely pop songs, reflecting a change in the band’s direction and the departure (firing really) of the founding bassist.

With success came all kinds of partying, as well as tremendous pressure to keep producing. All of the Go-Go’s avoid talking about their private relationships, but they are quite forthcoming on the subjects of drugs, alcohol, and depression. They also candidly address issues of unequal compensation within the band and the ill-advised decision to dump their original manager in favor of corporate suits.
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Slamdance ’20: The Penny Black


Brace yourself for some extreme philately. Anyone who has seen Charade knows there are stamps out there that are valuable enough for people to kill for. That is why his under-achieving neighbor is rather confused when a sketchy Russian asks him to “hold on” to his rare stamp collection for an indefinite period. Confusion and moral dilemmas abound in William J. Saunders’ documentary The Penny Black, which premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, in Park City.

Will used to smoke with Roman on the sidewalk outside their Los Angeles apartments. He never really knew what the Russian did for a living precisely, but he definitely seemed to be a tough guy. Regardless, he had no idea why Roman asked him to hold onto a large collection of stamps. He even pointed out a few that had recently sold at auction for tens of thousands of Dollars. Shortly thereafter, Roman vanished from the neighborhood. A few weeks later, Will also moved out of his apartment, taking the stamp collection with him, because he did not know what else to do with it.

Trying to get a handle on the situation, Will makes halting attempts to appraise the collection, which includes the Penny Black, the world’s first stick-on stamp, issued by the UK in 1840. The value of the collection and Roman’s mysterious disappearance represent potential temptation for Will, who rather awkwardly finds himself revisiting his painful relationship with his father, a convicted con artist.
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