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Infinity Baby (2017)
A Failed Attempt at Satire
Infinite Baby premiered at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. This local product was a failed attempt to satire something although it wasn't really clear what it was trying to do. The audience seemed confused and befuddled and asked the director who seemed like he might be drunk fairly gentle questions, because they didn't seem to know how to break it to him. There was some attempt to make fun of parenting and dating relationships. Some individual scenes were mildly funny and might have worked as SNL sketches. But the screenplay was a mess and the skilled actors couldn't really save it. There is no point in this film being widely released. Back to the drawing board.
The Big Sick (2017)
A Beautiful Sweet Film about Complexities of Diversity and Relationships in Modern America
The Big Sick was very warmly-received at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. The Big Sick is a superbly original romantic comedy/drama based on a true story of Kumail Nanjiani and his now-wife Emily Gardner; they co-wrote the script together. Kumail stars as himself. It starts from the premise of the inherent difficulties of interracial, inter-religious relationship between a Pakistani- American comedian and white woman in Chicago who face both the normal difficulties of relationships combined with the pressures of Kumail's overbearing, but loving family who demand that he participate in an arranged marriage to a Pakistani girl. Kumail is caught between competing worlds. The situation spins out-of-control when Emily becomes extremely ill and Kumail has to deal with her parents.
The amazing part of this movie is that it deals with deeply serious complex issues, but does so with humor and grace. The screenplay is remarkable and nuanced, but is infused with a comedian's sense of humor that captures the real human comedy that exists in all personal relationships. You will die laughing when Emily's bewildered father turns to Kumail in a hospital cafeteria and asks him, "What do you think of 9/11?" and Kumail responds as a comedian should to such an outrageously stupid question. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are excellent in the roles of Emily's parents.
While based on a true story, I'm sure parts have been fictionalized to bring the drama and the humor of the events to the screen, but it appears that the basic Romeo & Juliet premise is based on the screen writers' real relationship. The film's ability to balance the deadly serious and the comedic reminds me of the wonderful film 50/50 (2011) which also dealt with a deadly illness with a similar light touch. This beautiful film which deals so well with the complexities of overcoming cultural differences serves as a good anecdote to our charged political climate and especially with the demonization of Islam that has become all too dangerous in this country. I hope it is the breakout comedy hit of the summer when it goes into wide release in July.
Easy Living (2017)
A Peculiar Story about a Woman Trying to Turn Her Life Around
Easy Living seemed to be warmly-received in its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is entertaining quirky film about Sherry Graham, a door-to-door makeup saleswoman, who is struggling to fix her rather messy life. The writer/director Adam Keleman has crafted a strong lead character. The lead actress, Caroline Dhavernas, delivers a really strong performance. Sherry is trying to turn a corner and escape her dead end job and really her dead end life. While much of the film is entertaining and provocative, the bizarre ending doesn't really do the rest of the movie justice. It is as if the Keleman wrote himself into a corner and couldn't figure out how to get out of it so he just came up with a completely unanticipated and illogical way to resolve the story. It is unfortunate, because it undermines the intelligence nuanced writing and acting that had occurred up to that point.
I Am Another You (2017)
A Beautiful Profile of the Struggles of a Homeless Man
I am Another You was extremely well-received at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is a daring attempt by a Chinese director to explore the nature of homelessness in America by spending time traveling and living on the street with a homeless young man named Dylan Olsen. She actually spends a few weeks living with Dylan on the streets which is an amazing act of artistic commitment. The film takes a really interesting and somewhat unexpected path to explore the trials and tribulations of homelessness. I want give away the story arc. I will say the film was really touching to me, because I Dylan reminds me of college friend who also ended up homeless for similar reasons.
Director Nanfu Wang has done a beautiful job of presenting the story of homelessness through microcosm of one man's story. Sadly, we have all learned to dehumanize the homeless just so that we don't start crying each time we see a human being sleeping in the dust on street. This film gives us a chance to gain a better understanding of why people live on the streets. Dylan can help us personify and comprehend a larger problem. I hope this film is gains distribution so that more people are able to share Dylan's story. Additionally, I hope the film is used in schools to educate young people about the experience of homelessness. The level of homelessness in this country is a disgrace and addressing that problem requires educating the public about the underlying issues like mental illness and addiction that are interconnected with homelessness.
Rat Film (2016)
A Failed Attempt to Address an interesting Animal
This was one of the worst films a SXSW Film Festival. The audience found it confusing and almost incoherent. The experimental attempt kept jumping around from rats to video games to the sociology of race in Baltimore to some sort of attempt to recreate crime scenes. None of these parts seemed to be connect to the other parts. It just jumped from one part to another without any real transition or clear narrative. The narration was also done in this strange voice that sounded almost like a computerized voice. There were individual scenes and characters that seemed somewhat intriguing particularly as they related to the human relations with rats. Some people wanted to exterminate them while others treated them as pets. But none of it connected in this poorly edited mess of a movie. This was film is sadly a failed experiment.
Most Beautiful Island (2017)
A Powerful Provocative Film about the Dark Side of the American Dream
Most Beautiful Island was extremely well-received at Austin's SXSW Film Festival where it won Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature. This eloquent film explores the experiences of Luciana, a recent undocumented immigrant, who has recently arrived from her home land and is just trying to get by in New York. The film focuses on a single day as she takes various odd jobs and then gets invited to work at a mysterious party where she will be extremely well-paid for a single night's work. The suspense builds towards a truly shocking and deeply disturbing climax. This film shows the truly dark side of the American Dream and the truly disturbing nature of class privilege in a society with huge gaps in class and, therefore, power and privilege.
The story is described as inspired by true events so there may be some exaggeration in the actual climax, but it is still quite powerful and leaves the audience awestruck. Ana Asensio directed, wrote and stars in this fascinating and absorbing film. It is beautiful written, filmed and acted. The tension builds towards the disturbing climax. The American Dream is not always what it seems to be and needs to be re-imagined for our current economic and political realities. I hope the film gets distributed so more people can learn to empathize with the immigrant experience which has sadly become a political punching bag in recent years.
Let There Be Light (2017)
An Informative Documentary on Important and Poorly Understood Subject
Let There Be Light was generally well-received during its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It raises some vitally important issues about the massive scientific endeavor of trying to develop nuclear fusion technology which if perfected could solve the world's energy issues almost overnight and end our dependency on fossil fuels. It is a tantalizing possibility that international researchers have been quietly working on for decades. The film raises some important and fundamental questions. It also examines some of the bureaucratic and political hurdles (including some utterly clueless members of the U.S. Congress) that have undermined the research.
Unfortunately, it also meanders a bit through different research projects without clearly explaining why the various scientific approaches really matter. While it is a fairly accessible introduction to the subject for a lay person, it seems to go off in too many different tangents. Much of the film is not particularly visually interesting with a lot of shots of scientific talking heads in laboratories. Still, this is an important research which needs to be funded and in a country deeply lacking in scientific knowledge that recently seems to be rejoicing in its own ignorance, the film is quite worthwhile. This important research has a better chance of being properly funded if more Americans at least gain a basic understanding of what fusion is and why it is so important. I hope the film gets distribution so more people can learn about this important research.
The Work (2017)
A Compelling Intense Documentary about a Prison Therapy Program
The Work was extremely well-received during its world premiere at Austin SXSW Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary Feature Competition. This is one of the most intense films that you will ever see and it literally takes your breath away. It is follows several prisoners many serving long sentences for violent, often gang-related, crimes - in a group therapy program at Folsom Prison over a four-day period in which they push each other to confront their demons. They discuss their betrayals which often involve deep-seated and painful issues in their family lives. They confront each physically and emotionally. They open up the darkest corners of their lives so that outside observers can understand that much of the anger that made them criminals comes from deep well-springs of personal suffering and often abuse.
Indirectly, this film asks a very deep question about our criminal justice system: Is it supposed to warehouse and punish offenders or is it supposed to rehabilitate them to return to society? If it is the former it is doing so at a very great cost. If it is the latter than we need to invest in programs like this so that we can return these men to as productive members of society. This film shows us what rehabilitation looks like and subtly makes that argument. We need a national conversation about how the criminal justice system is failing and about how we can begin to repair it. We have begun discussing some aspects of this complex problem including reconsidering the "War on Drugs," but we also need to be discussing how to rehabilitate those currently imprisoned as well. I hope that it gains distribution so that a wider audience can see this powerful and compelling film and begin this conversation about the criminal justice system.
A Fascinating True Crime Story about a Bizarre Murder at Baylor University
Disgraced was well-received in its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. The film explains the complex issues around the tragic disappearance and ultimate death of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy. The events that led to the arrest and conviction of one of his teammates Carlton Dotson - are complex and remain confusing since there was little explanation of that player's motivation. The director and his team did an excellent job of laying out the details of that multi-layered investigation.
The web events that played out was complicated and ultimately led to a NCAA investigation of rules violations by Coach Dave Bliss and others. These included extensive allegations that Bliss likely backed by boosters paid player tuition and expenses. The director does an excellent job of dissecting this complicated true crime investigation. It reveals a pattern of extensive corruption at the heart of the world's largest Baptist University (which has continued recently with the cover-up of a massive sexual assault scandal). It is clear that Baylor University put winning ahead of the rules of amateur college athletics. As someone who has taught college athletes in Texas, I have to wonder if Baylor was worse than other college or just more careless so that they got caught? I suspect that Baylor may merely be one of the worst offenders in a deeply corrupt system. This is powerful film that asks may important questions about these tragic events and more broadly about the nature of college athletics. It has been picked up by Showtime so it should be widely seen by a wide audience and hopefully adds to a wide debate over college athletics. Oh, by the way, Baylor is #3 seed in the NCAA tournament announced this week.
Served Like a Girl (2017)
An Extremely Moving Film about the Lives of Female Vets
Served Like a Girl was extremely well-received during its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is a beautifully directed and edited film describing the compelling experiences of four women veterans who compete in the Ms. Veteran America contest. The contest is held each year to raise money for homeless women veterans. Their stories are compelling and patriotic. The film is a wonderful statement about the need to treat women as equals in society in general and in the military in particular. It also points out despite the policy under which until recently many women were not officially serving in combat, many actually served in virtually the identical combat roles as men. This is a compelling and powerful film about an under reported subject. They also faced additional traumas such as sexual abuse in a male dominated environment. Despite the heaviness of much of the narrative, the first time director managed to make the film remarkably humorous by finding the funny stories from their lives. It makes the film much easier and much more human than it would have otherwise been. I hope this film is widely distributed, because these important stories deserve a wider audience.