Category Archives: Festival Series

After Yang (2022)

Columbus, the debut feature from writer/director Kogonada, was so quietly self-assured that I figured I knew what to expect from his sophomore effort After Yang. Carefully composed framing, slow-but-steady pacing, and a general construction so precise that it borders on the architectural (and not just because Columbus was partly about architecture) — these are the hallmarks I readied myself for in After Yang, which premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival.

…so an opening that included the year’s flashiest techno dance sequence could very much be called a surprise. Based on Alexander Weinstein’s 2016 short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, Kogonada’s second feature is definitely the work of a director trying to reach farther, trying to push out beyond the bounds of his finely-calibrated debut. It’s an admirable and exciting endeavor, and After Yang would be disappointing if it adopted the personality of Columbus. In certain respects — see: techno dance sequence — this endeavor is a success. But After Yang is a bit disappointing in other ways, even if only in falling short of the high bar Kogonada set for himself.

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The Worst Person in the World (2021)

All good film is probably about balance in some sense, but it takes a particularly special work of cinema to strike the balance at the heart of The Worst Person in the World. The last installment of Joachim Trier’s loose “Oslo Trilogy” — which also includes Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011) — is connected to its predecessors mostly by the city of Oslo and a few recurring actors, rather than being linked in story or character. But the comedic youthfulness of Part 1 and the dramatic maturity of Part 2 dovetail beautifully here in Part 3, so perhaps that’s the real connective tissue. The Worst Person in the World has moments of genuine hilarity and moments of crushing sadness, but it never slips off that tonal tightrope between the two.

At the start, we’re pretty firmly in romantic comedy territory. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a young medical student without much passion in her life, so she jettisons her designs on becoming a doctor and decides psychology is more her thing; it’s easier to be passionate about the mind than about the body, after all. She meets a guy and they hook up, and Julie then decides that photography, actually, is a better career fit. She buys camera equipment, takes portraits for a male model, and then hooks up with him. They’re at a bar in the next scene when Julie meets another guy, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a moderately-famous cartoonist, and before the movie actually really begins Julie and Aksel are together for what feels like the long haul.

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Red Rocket (2021)

Independent Film Festival Boston presented Red Rocket at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA last night, and before I fawn over Sean Baker’s latest film it’s worth mentioning that it’s damn good to be back. The last film I saw at the Brattle was almost exactly two years ago — The Lighthouse, with director Robert Eggers in-person — and I didn’t quite realize how much I’d missed the comfort of that room. Props to IFFBoston and the Brattle for making that return as safe as possible.

Up on the screen, though, was a homecoming of a decidedly different sort. Red Rocket follows Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a washed-up L.A. pornstar returning to his impoverished hometown of Texas City. Mikey’s a narcissistic bastard, to put it mildly, sporting a gravitational pull of destruction that threatens his old acquaintances after his 20-year absence. Mikey’s delusions imperil a new relationship, too, when he meets the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Something about Mikey is undeniably electric, though, and so every new obstacle he faces presents an opportunity for him to redeem himself of his despicable ways. Maybe he’ll do the right thing this time, we think. Maybe he’ll turn it all around.

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How It Ends (2021)

The 2021 Independent Film Festival Boston came to a close last night, having presented a virtual slate that included great films like Summer of Soul and The Sparks Brothers. The online format only left a lingering feeling of imperfection during those more raucous, larger-than-life entries, which Soul and Sparks certainly are, as the communal theatrical experience must bring out even more of the Big Joy in those films. I’m not sure that’s the case for How It Ends, the Closing Night film from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, a movie so slight and lonely that screening it at home sort of fit the bill perfectly.

How It Ends follows Liza (Lister-Jones) as she tries to get to her last party before the world ends. A conspicuous meteor hangs over her citywide jaunt, scheduled for impact around 2am, and so Liza engages in much the same behavior as everyone else: she says “fuck it,” eats a stack of pancakes with a glass of maple syrup, and sets out to right a few wrongs with the people in her life before the apocalypse arrives. She’s accompanied by her Younger Self (Cailee Spaeny), who by turns keeps Liza in check and also spurs her onward into situations she might otherwise avoid.

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Passing (2021)

Passing, one of the most unassuming and unpretentious films to premiere at this year’s Sundance, might have been the festival’s best. As noted by The Guardian way back in 2018 when the project was announced, the film’s subject matter revives a cinematic trope that used to be fairly popular in the ’40s and ’50s: non-white characters “passing” in order to enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Odd, perhaps, to think of such a thing as a “trope,” as “popular,” or as fodder for melodramas like Pinky or comedy-musicals like Show Boat. As it pertains to real life, the practice is decidedly more complex than its depiction in film would lead one to believe. Passing is one of the few to treat this social maneuver with care and restraint, and in doing so it instantly becomes the defining film on the subject.

The film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), discovering that Clare has been passing for some time. She’s married to an unsuspecting white man (Alexander Skarsgård) prone to a matter-of-fact hatred of non-whites, and their child together was “thankfully” equally so light-skinned as to not give her away. Clare is immediately fascinating to Irene, and Irene’s obsession only grows when her own husband (André Holland) seems to take an interest in Clare as well. The criss-crossing relationships become fraught with ambiguities, true motivations and intentions often shrouded by a social façade that each character carries like a shield.

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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

The trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah made me doubt how effective the film would actually be. Not because it looked bad, mind you, or uninteresting in any way. But I had flashes to Man of Steel, which lured me to the cinema with a stunning trailer and then turned out to be a soupy mess. Same for Only God Forgives, which had a bangin’ trailer — I remember saying the words “looks amazing” to a friend — and ultimately had about as much substance as the two-minute teaser itself. Well, fool me twice. Trepidation filled the air as the Sundance premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah began, because the first glimpse I’d had of the film was this rollicking hype-train of a masterful trailer:

Shaka King’s first major studio feature, thankfully, is indeed a strong and energetic biopic that doesn’t at all renege on the promise of that trailer. Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and focuses on FBI efforts to suppress and ultimately silence Hampton as he gains more and more popularity nationwide. It’s a long overdue portrayal of a significant figure in American history; before Kelvin Harrison, Jr. played Hampton in a bit part in this past year’s Trail of the Chicago 7, you have to go back to 1999 to find the only other instance of Hampton in another film or TV show (it’s another bit part in the miniseries The ’60s, which is mostly about hippies).

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The Sparks Brothers (2021)

I’ve got a snapshot of your Aunt Maureen.

Okay, I don’t, actually. You probably don’t even have an Aunt Maureen. But that line is a real attention-grabber, much like the guys who came up with it, so I figured what the hell. Film criticism is an unsexy business. I’ll take any spice I can get.

Sparks, known by some as the best British band ever to come out of America, seems perennially able to remain interesting without looking like they’re trying to remain interesting. Since their inception in 1971 — that’s 50 years ago, for those who flunked math — the duo have released a whopping 25 studio albums, closing in on 300 original songs. For those who flunked math, that’s, like, a lot.

Comprised of brothers Russell and Ron Mael, their stage presence and obvious visual flair is perhaps as inextricable from Sparks as the actual music. Russell, the singer, fronts the band with hyperactive and often very sweaty antics. Meanwhile Ron, keyboardist and songwriter, sits very still and scowls while his brother goes nuts. Either of the two alone would turn heads, but together they create a contrast that would force a smile on even the most straightlaced of faces.

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Mass (2021)

There’s an intentional obscurity at the start of Mass, the debut feature from writer/director Fran Kranz, that instantly placed it amongst the most intriguing premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We open on a church in a suburban town, meeting the volunteers as they set up a room in the basement for an impending meeting. Much attention is paid to the placement of the table, the positioning of the chairs, the proximity of a tissue box. We meet a social worker, clearly acting in the capacity of a liaison, who asks that the tissue box not be placed in the middle of the table — that would be weird. As long as it’s within reach. This much we can glean about Mass, after a simple Times New Roman title fades in on a black screen over dead silence: we’ll probably need tissues. But we’re not sure why, exactly, and yet we’re gripped all the same. The social worker moves the chairs from their even placement around the table, putting two on one side and two on the other.

Mass is no less interesting once the purpose of this meeting is revealed, but it’s a particularly refreshing opening in an age where most films assume an audience will lose interest if they’re not given all the facts up front. Every glance and seemingly-negligible line of dialogue becomes a potential clue, and it never approaches a feeling of purposeful obscurity or frustration. Before we reach that point we finally put the pieces in place: two sets of parents are meeting six years after a tragic school shooting in which one son killed the other.

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In the Earth (2021)

I respect the hell out of Ben Wheatley for his drive to make new film. A good 90% of what he’s done, for better or worse, is actual original cinema — not an adaptation of a beloved novel, not a bastardization of a classic film, not a superhero flick that takes bits and pieces from comic books and cobbles them together into a weak installment of some neverending box-office-driven franchise. A Field in England and Sightseers are sort of the pinnacle of this criteria for Wheatley, with Field as a particular achievement — weird as hell, quite unlike anything you’ve seen to date, but importantly a cohesive experience that you can mine for deeper meaning and rewatch ad nauseam without feeling like you’ve exhausted it. Field does more with five or six actors and a muddy pasture than most movies do with $250 million, and so the prospect of Wheatley returning to ragtag roots with his latest film In the Earth was a promising one.

This is largely due to his most recent efforts: a workmanlike remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca this past year, in which Armie Hammer wore the same yellow suit in like nine different scenes; High-Rise in 2016, an ultimately joyless adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel; and Free Fire, an original movie which zips along on first watch and positively drags on subsequent viewings. If each of these films was successively bigger — in budget terms, but also in scope — they also felt less and less like the scrappy Wheatley who made A Field in England in 12 days on just £300,000.

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Summer of Soul (2021)

“Everybody wanna know why I sing the blues…” — B.B. King

In the summer of 1969, upwards of 300,000 people gathered for the greatest concert you’ve never heard of. This was the Harlem Cultural Festival, a massive six-weekend celebration of black excellence through music, dance and prayer. The cavalcade of musicians, entertainers and preachers far exceeded anyone’s expectations, bringing together Americans from Harlem and beyond over the course of a particularly sweltering city summer. The music was amazing, sure, but it seemed all 300,000 attendees understood that this was about more than just the music. This — to quote Nina Simone — was about being young, gifted and black, about the world waiting for you, about the quest that’s just begun.

By mid-1970, the Harlem Cultural Festival was forgotten entirely.

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