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Dispatches From The 2021 Tallgrass Film Festival

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Intro:

Happy Tallgrass, everyone! The 19th festival is running in one form or another until October 29th, I’ll be updating here on what I’ve seen until then. The bulk of my entries will be during the virtual portion of the festival, since that’ll give me more flexibility in what and how much I can see, but I’ll have a bit here before that begins, too. There’s a lot out there this year, so if you need any direction on what to check out and what to avoid (hopefully not so much that last part!), read on…

Friday, 10/29/21

This is the end of the road for me, but you still have through October 31 to catch most of these movies through the festival's virtual screening room, so take a look through these entries if you haven't already, and get an idea of what you might like to see. One of them might be this last movie I watched for festival...

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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

Sapelo

Much like A Rifle and a Bag, but even more so, this documentary tells a deeply compelling human story by ostensibly telling us about something else—whereas A Rifle did give us that human drama within the context of the overarching issue (reintegration of Naxalites into Indian society), Sapelo essentially gives way altogether to that human drama.

The movie takes place on Sapelo Island, in Georgia, among the Saltwater Geechees, part of the Gullah community who descended from West Africans (which means I can’t let the chance go by to mention Julie Dash’s utterly astonishing 1991 movie Daughters of the Dust, one of the few movies you can really, truly call essential), with Cornelia Bailey, a ninth-generation inhabitant of the island who maintains the community’s stories. She’s worried, understandably, about losing that thread, although she’s adopted her grandchildren and maybe there’s a possibility there.

We do, certainly, get an idea of the Saltwater Geechee community, and Cornelia’s endeavor to pass along the history. But we also begin to understand her burden in dealing with her grandchildren, specifically one of them who has serious anger problems. And slowly, over the course of the movie, the focus shifts from the Geechees in the larger sense to Cornelia’s family more locally, so that by the end we are there with a family that’s like many families, struggling to help those who need it the most.

Sapelo is like the best kinds of movies, where at some point we realize there isn’t really going to be an end, there’s just going to be a point where the movie stops, but we know that we’d be very happy (or, at least, very interested, as “happy” is not so much what we feel as time goes on) to keep watching these lives, to see how they turn out. It’s a look at a very specific way of life, and everything that comes with it, but it also tells a story that reflects the experience of so many people, no matter where they are.

Thursday, 10/28/21
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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

A Rifle and a Bag

One of the most valuable things about a film festival, especially if you’re trying to pack so much in that you’re watching movies without really even reading a description, is when you hit upon a movie that tells you about something you never even knew existed.

It seems crazy that I’ve never, ever heard of the Naxalites, an armed Maoist insurgency in India, especially since they’ve been operating since 1967. We learn from some text at the opening of the film that the Indian government has instituted a policy that will allow any Naxalites who surrender and give up that way of life to be exonerated and absorbed back into society.

Or at least that’s the official line. What A Rifle and a Bag does, brilliantly, is not to outline a history of the Naxalites, we can look that up ourselves—instead, they show us a small family of these former Naxalites who have surrendered, and how difficult society makes it for them really to come back in. We follow Somi and her husband, who surrendered together a number of years earlier, and their two young children, one of whom is supposed to be entering school, the other who’s born during the course of the movie. And we see how there just isn’t really a place for them anywhere. They face major obstacles no matter which direction they turn: the police, with whom the Naxalites often fight, won’t really respond to complaints or emergencies involving former Naxalites, Somi and her family are generally shunned or looked down on by the rest of society, and they have to deal with major bureaucratic hurdles everywhere, represented in the movie by the fact that they need their son to have a caste certificate to enroll in school, but his father can’t get one unless he returns to his home state, and if he does that, he could come into contact with people who are still Naxalites, putting him in extreme danger. The only people they can really find acceptance with are the few other former Naxalites around, with whom they can commiserate, but can find no real solutions.

The film is shot beautifully, simply letting the family live their lives and showing us what that’s like, without narration or talking heads distracting us from the human drama. We learn a lot about these people through their conversations, not just what life is like for them now, but also why they joined the Naxalites in the first place—Somi, particularly, who had no real idea of communist ideas when she joined (though she came around), she’d just heard that Naxalites sometimes beat up village supervisors, and she had a grievance against hers.

A Rifle and a Bag is a magnificent documentary, one that tells us a fascinating story, but also understands there’s nothing more interesting than people and their lives.

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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

Eternal Harvest

The winner of the festival’s Outstanding Documentary award, and certainly one of the weightiest topics of the documentaries I’ve seen at this year’s festival. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. maintained an absurdly large bombing campaign on Laos, which obliterated much of the country, but has also continued to wreak havoc in the decades since. Because not all bombs explode when they hit, but they are still bombs, and so they sit, and wait, and will, eventually explode.

We see the human cost of this right away, meeting a family whose daughter was recently killed when she picked up what she thought was a ball to throw to her sister, but was instead a small bomb that exploded, killed her, and injured everyone else in the family. And there are plenty of others, many who’ve died, some who’ve lost arms or eyes. It’s an enormous problem, and while it hasn’t been ignored entirely, and the U.S. government does spend some money to help to find and detonate these leftover bombs, it’s barely a pittance compared to the money spent to bomb the country in the first place (one person describes it as “not even pocket change, it’s the lint in your pocket where the pocket change would be”), and it’s resulted in all of 2 percent of the affected area being cleared.

As we’re told, this is a solvable problem, it’s just a matter of resources, which is why the Laotian organization working to clear the bombs continues to request more money for their operation, and also why a Wisconsin man we meet has created his own organization to help. He lives in a town in Wisconsin where a number of Laotian immigrants have come to live, and he learned about this struggle in the country, and so he raises money to help, and actually goes to Laos himself to find and coordinate the detonation of these bombs. Is it enough? Well, no, not remotely, but he knows that, and at least it’s something.

Wednesday, 10/27/21
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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival
James 'Jimmy' Carrozo in MOON MANOR

Moon Manor

I wonder if here is an example of how you can have a central character who’s too compelling.

Of course I don’t mean that. But I do think it’s tricky when you have someone like this, because you have to be very careful about spending any time away from him, and very conscious about what you do with any other characters.

In this case, we’re talking about Jimmy, played by Jimmy Carrozo, very much playing a version of himself, and it’s plainly obvious why people find him so magnetic. He’s not the sort of person with a charisma that relies on largeness or volume, his is much quieter. And a lot of it has to do with how real he seems. There’s an incredible attractiveness about authenticity, and while Jimmy is a strange guy, he comes across as purely genuine in that strangeness. He even moves like a real person, or moves like this particular kind of real person—you can tell there’s nothing at all self-conscious about how he stands, his gestures, his expressions. Even when he’s posing, a necessarily artificial action, it somehow feels like exactly the right thing for him to do at that moment.

This Jimmy, the character in the film, has Alzheimer’s and is planning, that night, to end his life with the assistance of medication (I don’t remember it being clear what state this takes place in, but it’s one that allows legal suicide). He’s invited many of his old friends (and he has many), and the entire neighborhood to his “Fun-eral,” where he wants to celebrate his life and, yes, his death. Earlier in life, Jimmy was a singer, a musical partner with his romantic partner, Ricky, who died from AIDS in the 1980s. Actual footage of the real Jimmy and the real Ricky plays on videotape from time to time, both adding a bittersweet layer to the film and nodding to the fact that much of the fictional Jimmy is made up of the real one.

And if we’d stuck with that gentleness and feeling of self-actualization that surrounds Jimmy through the entire film, this would have been very, very good. And nearly everything involving Jimmy himself is very, very good. But we do run into a bit of a problem when we bring in anyone else, and especially when Jimmy isn’t in the scene with them. Part of this is unavoidable—Jimmy does feel so true to himself that when you put him in the same frame as another person, a person who is acting, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for that other person to match his authenticity. But it’s also true that the other characters are not written terribly well, either simply underwritten or, in a few cases, treated for much of the film with derision (this is played for laughs, and eventually works itself out, but it wreaks havoc with the tone). And it’s hard not to want to simply get back to Jimmy, or at least to maintain the frequency Jimmy has through the rest of the film. The rest feels like a distraction.

But there is a very good movie in there, we just have to clear away the brush surrounding it. Trust me, we didn’t need all the extra bits. Jimmy would have been enough.

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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

The Woodstock of House

House music has a far more interesting history than I’d realized—by the time I became aware of it, the music had already been adapted by white musicians into various other subgenres. And so I had no idea of its development out of disco, largely in the black clubs of Chicago (specifically the gay clubs, early on), and while I did have some idea of the sociopolitical context surrounding disco music, there’s certainly a lot I didn’t know about that, either, even prior to its transition to house.

And I think this is the greatest service of The Woodstock of House, a very well meaning, if unpolished, documentary that looks to tell the history of house music and the DJs who created it, and to spotlight an annual house music festival that continues to celebrate the music. One of the things I value the most from documentaries, particularly, is when they make me want to go and learn more on my own, outside of the movie, to fill in gaps, to get a better understanding of whatever we might be talking about. I work in public radio, it’ll be no surprise to when I tell you one of our explicit core values is a pursuit of lifelong learning.

Not that this movie doesn’t try to tell me everything it possibly can! Or at least it seems to. And this is a little bit of an issue as it tells its story—the filmmakers and everyone involved are so enthusiastic about the music that it muddies the narrative quite a bit, as they throw so much in that I had to work a little too hard to pick out the core of the story and the history. Ultimately, it just comes down to wanting to do too much—a far shorter version of this movie would have played a lot better, if they had cut it closer to a streamlined narrative. Still, as far as movie sins go, caring too much is not among the worst.

Tuesday, 10/26/21
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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festiva

Sisters With Transistors

The real trailblazers are the people who do something when no framework exists for them to do it. It’s depressingly unsurprising that so many of these people are women, for whom there’s not only no framework for what they want to be doing, but any structure that does exist is often actively working to keep them out.

And so here we have the women in Lisa Rovner’s delightful documentary, women who were (and are) pioneers in the world of electronic music, women who not only had no guide for what they were doing as women, but who were creating an art form that simply didn’t exist. The movie is narrated by Laurie Anderson, herself an electronic music pioneer (among many other things, she’s kind of amazing), and uses a ton of archival footage and audio to tell the story of a handful of these women, from the very beginning when people were simply figuring out how to make certain sounds using waves and circuits, on through the familiar synthesized sounds we know today. And because of all that footage and those sound recordings, we get to see and hear many of these women talk, themselves, about what they’re doing, and this is how the movie really elevates. Of course it’s incredibly important that these women be recognized for what they did, but Rovner also just lets us learn about them as artists, and we get to experience their wildly creative minds as they draw ideas and inspiration from everything the world has to offer, and often simply from their own extraordinary imaginations. We hear about the different sounds and souls of cityscapes, about the music of dying circuitry, about the vibrations of the cosmos. We see the delight on their faces as they talk about their ideas and their music, and it’s a wondrous look into the minds of artists who are assuming no pretensions, because there’s none to be had. They are creating all of this as they go. They are literally forming a new universe.

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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

Ascension

An exceptional piece of work, and I’m shocked if this isn’t the best movie at this year’s festival.

I don’t know what all of the different perceptions of China are in the U.S., but a lot of times it seems like it’s simply used as a caricature for whatever line someone wants to be pushing—often, as a stand-in for the perils of communism. And whatever else we can say about China, this documentary makes it very clear that the country is communist in name only.

Director Jessica Kingdon (herself of Chinese descent—she opens and closes the film with excerpts from a poem her Chinese great-grandfather wrote, called “Ascension”) composes the movie almost entirely of static shots of life in China, with no narration, and only the occasional bits of musical score to guide us to certain feelings. The first hour or so is made up almost entirely of work and workers—we begin in a busy square with a whole lot of people looking for a job while various employers describe their options through megaphones, we move on to factory work and assembly lines, and eventually up the chain into service work, and on to businesspeople. And then, we transition into recreation, specifically (it’s implied) the recreation of people who can afford it, usually on the backs (or with the products) of those workers we see earlier on.

What emerges is a portrait of a highly capitalist society, one with remarkable income inequality, one that’s left behind whatever ideals of communism may have existed. More than that, if we look just a little bit, it’s quite clear this is not at all different from where we live, here in the U.S. Some of the customs are different, some of the social interactions and graces, but we can easily find the analogue in the western world. This is a world of capitalism, and everything that comes with it.

Kingdon’s approach is particularly suited to my tastes, but it’s also extremely well constructed as we move up the line into higher income classes and see how exploitative this system is. The scenes are mesmerizing, with factory workers and their rote movements, and Kingdon’s ability to find interesting compositions within her frame, and the unfolding narrative the movie presents. And we see the pervasion of technology throughout, where nothing is untouched: the people looking for work at the beginning are being offered primarily by Huawei and Foxconn, the workers watch videos on their phones while working, they take photos of their work and upload it to… wherever, we see jaywalkers captured on CCTV and shown on a screen to everyone on the street, phones and screens are everywhere. Everywhere. All of this feeding back into itself, into a system that’s grinding workers in and out, and shoving all of it up to the top. Which, again, sounds a little familiar?

Monday, 10/25/21
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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

Luzzu

The world is changing. Yes, the world is always changing, but now, especially, as we face the increasingly apocalyptic effects of climate change, decreasing resources, increasing corporatization and mechanization, and the deaths of many ways of life.

Jesmark is feeling this keenly, although it’s clear he doesn’t entirely comprehend the sheer scope of the situation. He’s a fisherman in the Mediterranean island (archipelago) country of Malta, and life is getting harder. The fishing business is getting more difficult, and he has an infant son who needs special medical care and no way to pay for it. A new fish vendor in town is giving much lower prices for the few fish Jesmark and his partner catch, and it turns out this vendor is doing most of his real business on the black market, a place Jesmark realizes might be the only avenue he has for getting the money to take care of his family.

The central metaphor in the film is Jesmark’s luzzu, a small, traditional Maltese fishing boat (they’re beautiful, look them up), which has been passed down to him through generations, but is currently in need of repairs. Jesmark knows this might be an option for getting more out of his fishing business, but it also becomes increasingly clear that the time when these were useful as a vessel for conducting business has passed by.

Director Alex Camilleri’s movie is a gorgeous piece of neo-realism, examining this disappearing life and the modern demands it has slammed up against through the eyes of Jesmark, and the actor, Jesmark Scicluna, has an exceptional ability to express his character’s struggle, frustration, and humiliation with just a few movements of his face and eyes. Jesmark isn’t dumb, but he’s relatively simple—he generally knows what’s in front of him, and hasn’t really had to see a larger picture (the black market vendor asks him how many fish he thinks will even be in the sea in 20 years, as the temperature rises and kills so many of them, and it’s very apparent Jesmark has never even considered this). And we see the lives of people working harder and harder for less and less, as it becomes more difficult for them simply to live their lives. Camilleri’s anchoring of the movie in that physical object, the luzzu, is a wonderful move, in the tradition of neo-realist movies that use those objects as metaphors (think of De Sica’s bicycle or Ramin Bahrani’s push cart—in fact, Bahrani is a producer on this film, not surprising that he would be attracted to something like this). It’s not heavy handed, but it places our attention in something that helps us understand the many lives that have lived this way, and what is happening to those lives now.

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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival
Sylvie Mix in POSER

Poser

I learn this is based on (or around) real people in the Columbus, Ohio, music scene, which both makes it a little more interesting and a little more disappointing.

Lennon (presumably the titular poser) is a woman in her early 20s who has an interest in the local art world, especially the music, but little idea how to approach it. She’s an observer, but one who desperately wants to be a participant, somehow—she records everyone and everything around her with her iPhone, and decides to begin a podcast interviewing local musicians. She quickly picks up the vernacular of the medium, talking about how “as a producer” she wants her aesthetic to be “lo-fi” (what this really means is that she has no recording equipment other than her phone), and about how many interviews she’s booked, and about, you know, “process.” We have to assume a lot about Lennon, because we really only know her through her actions—she’s played with flat affect by Sylvie Mix, which isn’t a criticism, as Mix does her job well.

Lennon meets one of Columbus’ hottest underground music stars, Bobbi Kitten, who fronts the duo Damn the Witch Siren (both Kitten and the group exist in real life), and if we can’t quite say Lennon is obsessed (that would require some level of passion, one would think), she does take a special interest in Kitten. Lennon also seems to have a bit of a problem with intellectual property theft, and literally takes a page from Kitten’s book (or at least copies it).

We can more or less see where this is all headed, and the movie ends up in the silly, unnecessary place so many movies do (although the real-world implications of the climactic event are kind of fun to play with), and as far as this goes, it’s a pretty big letdown. The story we’re told is something we’ve seen a million times, and it’s not made more interesting here. By now, it’s dull, and here, it stays dull.

What’s not dull is the filmmaking, which is what kept me watching—it’s very well controlled, it pops when it needs to, and there’s at least one exceptional sequence that I wish would have gone on a bit longer. Judging by this, the directors, Noah Dixon and Ori Segev, have plenty of talent, now I’d just be interested in seeing what they might do with a more novel story.

I feel safe in my assumption that most, if not all, of the non-Kitten musicians we see in Poser are, indeed, also Columbus-area musical acts, which does help add a layer to what we’re seeing, but I find one thing incredibly curious—much of the movie seems at least mildly, if not outright, contemptuous of the very scene it’s steeped in. We have to figure Dixon and Segev do not actually hold the Columbus art and music scene in contempt, or they would not have wanted to make this movie this way (to be sure, there are always contemptible parts of any scene, but this doesn’t examine those so much as sneer at certain parts of this world). It’s bizarrely conflicted, and I don’t know how much of it was intentional, but it can’t be ignored.

And a bit of a stray thought, but adjacent: I wonder at when the time will come that we can make a character have a podcast and not instantly feel contempt for that character. It’s got to happen at some point, but we’re definitely not there yet.

Sunday, 10/24/21
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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

A Sexplanation

The hottest documentary style right now is the kind that starts with the director telling the camera, “I’m on a (quest/search/mission) to (find this thing I used to love that’s disappeared) / (learn this interesting thing about my family history) / (find out why this particular issue is the way it is).” There are other variations. Look around this very festival and you’ll find other examples. It’s certainly one way to make a movie on a small budget, although that’s not the only reason people do it, of course. And I have to say, as a style, I’m dead tired of it.

BUT: That doesn’t mean it can’t work, or maybe more accurately, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a decent movie despite a lackluster approach. And that’s where we get with Alex Liu’s A Sexplanation, despite my apprehension when the movie began—it’s not necessary for him to have used himself as a subject to look at these issues, but it ultimately makes sense that he did, and it helps to tell a reasonably compelling story.

Liu is in his mid-30s and is gay, and like a lot of people, gay or not (though especially in the gay community), he’s often wrestled with shame about his sexuality. He uses this as a springboard into a larger examination into why we (especially we Americans) intertwine sex and shame so tightly, and how damaging our lack of attention to simple education is to our sexual (and, therefore, personal) understanding. Abstinence-only education, religious pressures, societal constraints, and just plain not talking about sex leads so many people to being ashamed of a thing that nearly every single person in the world (though not all!) is intensely connected to.

Liu, of course, explicitly addresses his own shame throughout, although even when he’s not being overt with it, the idea still comes through. He sometimes refers to his “messed up” desires or fantasies, not in a shameful way, but lightheartedly (the movie, I should point out, is very upbeat and breezy, he comes at this from a comedic perspective, even with what can be a serious topic). But this reveals that shame, too—his “stepdad” fantasies are not at all uncommon (as we learn from statistical analysis of a porn website), it’s just that we’re all indoctrinated to believe that any sexual fantasies we have are “messed up.”

Having Liu here to anchor this story in his own sexual embarrassments and hang-ups helps us see how pervasive this all is, which, of course, is the helpful aspect of this approach to making the movie. But I think the bigger benefit is in how we see the way Liu regards his parents—as the movie presents it, he initially rather blames them for his lack of sexual awareness, since they never discussed the issue with him when he was younger, and his experience was entirely private (and therefore shaped by whatever society was telling him, i.e., “you should feel shame”). But as the movie goes on, and certainly by the end, he’s come to a better understanding of their point of view (in short, “we just didn’t really think about talking about it”), which leads to a generosity I’m not sure he was willing to extend to them earlier on. This is the sort of thing that’s really valuable as we see another person’s experience, seeing that kind of growth and realization, and it helps to make A Sexplanation more than just another documentary vanity project.

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Courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival

A Machine to Live In

In 1960, Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to the newly constructed city of Brasília, in an effort to have a more centralized capital city. This much I knew. I may have even known that Brasília was built specifically for this purpose, but I certainly didn’t grasp what this meant. The title of A Machine to Live In is far more literal than I could have expected without more knowledge, but it turns out Brasília is exactly that—a city built as a machine, to function in particular ways, with different parts directing certain behaviors, or attempting to. It’s not something that developed organically, as most cities (mostly) do, and so the energy, the beating heart most cities have, is here something far more mechanical.

The film is an interrogation of this, of the many aspects of Brasília specifically, and more generally the attempt to create a human society, or at least a human social structure—something that simply can’t be artificially molded. It’s no wonder parts of what we see echo totalitarian states of the Soviet era, not because Brazilian life is remotely the same, but because imposing a space and a way of life on creatures so peculiar and idiosyncratic as human beings is something that’s bound to be dissonant with the natural development of our living spaces.

Directors Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke approach these ideas from many angles, some of them metaphysical, some of them artistic, many of them deeply engaged with the actual physical reality of the city. Their camera often depicts something that appears entirely alien, as if it’s a city from a faraway planet, or a time well into our future, and it becomes clear to us that none of this is a mistake, or even artistic license—Brasília was built to look this way, to be a city that looks to the future, that reflects high-minded ideals, that could perhaps be a utopia, without acknowledging the disastrous consequences that could come from trying to graft specific ideas onto human life.

In fact, A Machine to Live In is so wide-ranging that I sometimes got the feeling it was a bit unfocused, even at just 90 minutes. And while some of that is certainly true (I understand the examination of utopian ideas in a larger sense, but we might spend more time than we need in certain places), it’s also unquestionably true that much context was lost on me and my general ignorance of Brazilian political life and issues.

Saturday, 10/23/21
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courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival
Scott Mandel, Alexandra Stebbins and Lacey Jeka in REHAB CABIN

Rehab Cabin

See, now, this is what it looks like when this kind of thing works.

As far as the humor goes, this isn’t that different from what Keeping Company was trying to do, which is to say we have over-the-top people in over-the-top situations, doing and saying things no actual human would say and do, and not being at all subtle about that. But there, I laughed no times, and here, I laughed throughout.

What’s the difference? A couple things: one, Rehab Cabin isn’t really mean—we don’t necessarily identify with anyone, as no one is anything much like an actual human being, but we also aren’t trying to dig for humor in obnoxiousness and aggression, where it rarely lies. And what’s more, though Rehab Cabin is blatant about the fact that it’s trying to be funny, it isn’t yelling that fact at you—it’s very, very silly, it’s not trying to be sly, but it just is silly. It doesn’t need to tell you, “now I am being silly!”

And that makes all the difference! Rehab Cabin tells the story of two friends, Chloe and Domenic, who love the movies of fictional former child star Amanda Campbell, who, like many child stars before her, has fallen into being mostly tabloid fodder, drinking and partying too much and not having much of a career other than occasionally getting paid just to be famous. Chloe and Domenic are sure that if they had a chance, they could show Amanda Campbell the benefits of living a simpler life, and help to put her on a path to personal and professional rehabilitation.

But of course, that’s just two friends talking about something that will never happen, at least until fate (kismet!) puts the celebrity into the limousine Chloe is driving for her dad’s business, and they decide to take the opportunity to kidnap—er, help—Amanda, and take her to Domenic’s family’s cabin in the woods to put her through a kind of rehab. And do you think things will go according to plan? (No, really, do you? Have you seen a movie before?)

This could have gone a lot of different ways, but despite letting it all be ridiculous (and it is), directors Kate Beacom and Louis Legge show some important restraint, and don’t let anyone or anything get too out of hand, keeping a firm hold on the nonsense while still letting the comedy play out. And a ton of credit goes to the leads, Lacey Jeka and Scott Mandel—they play types we’ve seen before that can go very wrong, but the two skate just along the edge of abrasiveness without ever tipping over. They’ve both got a good comedic sense and are able to play this kind of hyperreal personality cleverly, which we often see is a pretty hard thing to do.

This is one of Tallgrass’ “Stubbornly Independent” nominees, and I’m racking my brain to think of a comedy in this category from past years that I’ve liked more than this. It’s true that it doesn’t exactly nail the ending (it’s fine, endings are hard), and there’s a completely unnecessary cameo by Colin Quinn that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Otherwise, though? I don’t have a lot to complain about. Comedy is so difficult, and you expect to say, by the end, that a movie had laughs but was uneven, and I’m not even sure that was true here for me. Rehab Cabin consistently entertaining, even if it won’t have you necessarily rolling in the aisles, and it knows that comedy has nothing to do with your budget, or how loudly you proclaim your intentions.

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courtesy Sicily Publicity

Zero Gravity

Hard to go wrong with kids and astronauts! Fortunately, director Thomas Verrette seems to recognize that, and doesn’t do anything to get in the way of a good thing.

This is ostensibly one of those “kids in competition” documentaries, a la Mad Hot Ballroom or Spellbound, and for the most part it is just that, as we follow students at a California middle school who are competing in a robotics coding competition run by MIT, with the ultimate goal of creating a GPS system to be used for exploration of Mars. Whatever the reason for the decision, it works out well for Verrette to restrict his view to a few kids at just the one school (rather than to show multiple schools in the competition or to try to profile every kid in the class, as similar documentaries have), as we’re able to see the lives of these kids, who come from diverse backgrounds, some of which we don’t typically expect to produce kids who are extremely accomplished at such a young age in pursuing computer language and engineering as a vocation (although as some of the instructors point out early on, that’s the whole point of the program, to give opportunities to kids who aren’t usually pulled in to these kinds of endeavors and eventually to expand the diversity of engineering in a larger sense). It helps the movie keep its focus, but it also helps Verrette expand the film into a larger celebration of space exploration and the work of NASA, which we can all agree is inherently cool, separate from whatever political and economic implications might come along with it.

Sincerity and good intentions will get you very far with me, and Verrette has both, so any flaws Zero Gravity might have generally melt away, and we’re left with a sweet, earnest documentary about some amazing kids and a pretty great subject. As far as it all goes, the movie’s not breaking any ground, but it’s entirely engaging and enthusiastic, and even thrilling at moments, especially as the kids are racing against the clock to finish their project and upload it at the last second (Verrette does a dandy bit of editing here). This is the sort of thing where you can’t help but root for what you’re seeing, and really who needs much more than that?

Friday, 10/22/21
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Elle Schneider
Paul Magaro and Willa Fitzgerald in 18 1/2

18 ½

Tallgrass’ “Stubbornly Independent” award is such a welcome part of the festival, at the very least for what it represents—nominees have to be domestic features made for less than $500,000 (among a few other requirements), which means throwing a spotlight on people who are doing more with less.

One of the more welcome nominees in recent years—for a while, at least—is director Dan Mirvish’s 18 ½, which has a killer set-up and an even better first 25 minutes (we’ll get to the rest). It’s 1974, and the infamous 18 ½ minutes missing from Richard Nixon’s taped conversation with H.R. Haldeman are all over the news. Connie is an audio transcriber with the Office of Management and Budget, and she’s found something… unexpected. Somehow, in amongst all the exceedingly dull tapes of OMB meetings is that missing conversation, accidentally captured by a voice-activated recorder Nixon and Haldeman didn’t know was there. Connie’s not dumb, she knows what she’s got, and she meets Paul, a New York Times reporter (not The Washington Post, darnit), at a remote diner to get the story out.

The movie opens with a clever bit of visual trickery as Connie takes a ferry to the diner to meet Paul, and then is genuinely entertaining and funny as the two try to feel each other out while they talk about the tapes. Connie is understandably cagy, Paul wants to hear the tape to see if there’s really anything to this. It’s zippy, and smart, and the two leads, Willa Fitzgerald as Connie and John Magaro as Paul (you may remember him as Cookie in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow), are fantastic throughout the entire film (particularly Magaro, who gets better and better as it goes on). The two decide they need a private place to listen to the tape (Connie won’t let it out of her possession), so they find a secluded motel and check in under assumed names as a married couple.

And frankly, this was all fantastic. I was truly excited to see where this was going to go, with such a refreshing ease about its humor and an intriguing premise that could lead in all sorts of directions. And then I got even more excited when Richard Kind showed up as the motel owner, in a small-but-delightful, laugh-out-loud role. And then it all hit a brick wall.

Connie and Paul think they’re being surveilled at the motel and so decide to accept the dinner invitation of a couple of swingers (one of them being Vondie Curtis-Hall!) who are staying there, too, so they can hide out for a bit around other people and figure out what to do next. And then… we stay there for the next 35 minutes. And it all turns into a sort of farce, with the swinging couple being kind of wacky, lots of conversations about Connie and Paul being newlyweds and them having to come up with cover stories on the fly, and lots and lots of spinning of wheels. I don’t want to speculate on why we end up here for so long, but it seems such an odd choice after such an exciting opening to simply take that momentum and shoot it dead. Still, it wasn’t a doomed decision in and of itself, but the humor that was so smooth and intelligent early on becomes much more broad and strained, and I just spent the entire time wondering why we were still here, and when we would move on. (There is a bit of a point, but it’s not one that can justify taking so much time and derailing us so entirely.)

But, different strokes for different folks, comedy is subjective (just wait until my entry on the next movie on my list), and so it could be that it just doesn’t work for me. Even so, it’s such a hard departure from what got me so interested to begin with that I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Once we finally leave that motel room, things do pick back up a bit as we reach our climax, but we’re never able to recapture that early magic (and I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end).

All that said: the performances are wonderful, with a lot of familiar faces (and voices!), the movie mostly looks great, and I think Mirvish and screenwriter Daniel Moya certainly show they’ve got ability, I just hope next time they get off to such a great start, they get the follow-through right, too.

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courtesy Tallgrass Film Festival
Jacob Grodnik in KEEPING COMPANY

Keeping Company

William Russ is one of those actors whose face you probably know even if you don’t recognize his name. Heck, you probably best know him as the father on Boy Meets World, although he’s been in a ton of stuff. His first movie, back in 1977, was called Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, and it is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about, a bed that eats people, in this case by sort of absorbing them into itself and the strange digestive liquid that exists below its mattress.

Honestly, I kind of love Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, although even at 77 minutes, it’s too long. It’s really far more of a (purposeful) comedy than a horror movie, albeit an incredibly strange comedy—Russ spends a decent amount of time with the flesh of his hands and forearms eaten away to the skeleton and just kind of (kind of) functions that way for a while. The humor and filmmaking style make me think that this would be a little bit like what would happen if Guy Maddin got bored one weekend and decided to make a horror movie in the shed in his backyard, just for kicks. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is, it turns out, easily found on one particular VOD service that I won’t buzz market here, if you’re interested in taking a look at it.

So: why am I spending all this time talking about Death Bed: The Bed That Eats rather than Keeping Company? Two reasons:

1) William Russ is in both movies, and I like him.

2) I would very much rather be talking about Death Bed: The Bed That Eats than I would about Keeping Company.

William Russ isn’t even in Keeping Company very much, although that’s not at all the problem here. I’ll stop talking about William Russ. Ok, I’ll talk about Keeping Company.

Not a lot, though. I wrote a very long screed, and then deleted it, because it was a bit much. No one needs that. But I believe in transparency, so there you are.

I do regret to say, though, this movie has nothing for me. There is a kind of aggressive humor that likes to announce quite loudly how Funny it is, where people are noisy and mean, or noisy and nice but obnoxious (that’s just one guy, everyone else is mean), and it’s all quite over-the-top, which I don’t actually mind, except when it’s telling me so much that it’s Funny.

But humor is entirely up to your own tastes—as Gene Siskel reminded us, comedy is one of the two things that’s not debatable: if you think it’s funny and I don’t, neither one of us is going to change the other’s mind. (The other thing that’s not debatable is eroticism, if you were wondering. That’s not relevant here. Believe me.)

Quickly: we follow a couple of insurance salesmen, one a new father, the other who is constantly browbeaten by his own father. They cross paths with a serial killer, a socially stunted man under the thumb of his sadistic grandmother. Things get crazy.

The movie’s set and costume design are just as aggressive as its humor, mostly red and white, and yes, plenty of that red is blood—the film is quite bloody, but strangely not gross enough for me to have fun with it. Lots of blood, not enough gore. C’est la vie.

But! I have been in rooms where people are laughing at things that baffle me, and you may be one of those people. I’ll just acknowledge that it takes all kinds, and let it go.

Fletcher Powell's biggest claim to fame is that he owns a copy of every Bo Jackson baseball card ever made. He's done other things, too, like work in the stock market, but that wasn't so fun. So now he's KMUW’s Production Manager and host of All Things Considered, as well as KMUW's movie reviewer and producer/co-host of the podcast You're Saying It Wrong.