As an avid photographer myself, I truly love coming across a documentary that expands my mind about the artistic qualities and emotional power of excellent photography. Along with The Salt of the Earth (about legendary photographer Sebastião Salgado), the documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is the latest to leave me floored. This utterly inspiring and eye-opening doc examines the (entire) life of Robert Mapplethorpe, a controversial gay photographer whose work was banned from museums in the 90s because it was deemed too obscene. Boy were they wrong. Hearing him talk about his life and then seeing the photos he produced - I couldn't help repeating in my mind, "this guy is a true master of photography." Seriously.
Do you think what Edward Snowden revealed about the surveillance state is terrifying? Wait until you see this documentary. What documentarian Alex Gibney uncovers in his new documentary Zero Days is incredibly frightening and extremely worrying. But that's his point - he wants to thrown open the doors to these top secret operations and allow the people of this planet to debate and discuss what's happening. Zero Days begins by examining the malware known as Stuxnet, a self-propagating virus that seems to have been written by the NSA specifically to attack centrifuges in Iran. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. From there it presents a case that we've entered the era of cyber warfare, but few people know about what's occurring.
It's not often that we see a film about editors, about the hard-working, dedicated people that hide behind-the-scenes and help writers produce their best work. Michael Grandage's Genius is a very touching story about two friends - writer/novelist Thomas Wolfe, and Charles Scribner's Sons editor Maxwell Perkins. Max first meets Tom when a massive manuscript is dropped on his desk. He reluctantly reads it, but finds it to be absolutely wonderful, bringing in the writer to work on cutting it down so they can sell it as a novel. This ends up becoming Wolfe's first book Look Homeward, Angel, and it was the beginning of a rewarding relationship between these two showing just how important an editor is to producing truly successful work.
This should've been so much better. The story is so good, but the filmmaking is just so bad, and it deserved better. Alone in Berlin is a film directed by Vincent Perez telling the story of Otto Quangel (in real life: Otto Hampel), a German living in Berlin during WWII that decided to write post cards with "free press" notes opposing Hitler and his regime. It was one of the most awkward screening experiences I've ever had - sitting in a theater full of German critics, in Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival, watching a film set in Berlin, but everyone in the film speaks English with German accents. One of the worst decisions they made. Even though I understand it's about getting this film to a wider audience, it just doesn't work, the performances are stilted, and everything seems off for the entire film. Which is unfortunate because I do love Otto's story.
I still can't believe I'm saying this. Lee Tamahori, director of Die Another Day (one of my least favorite Bond movies) and other junk like xXx: State of the Union, has actually made a rather wonderful film. I'll admit - I kinda loved it. Maybe because I really had no idea what to expect. The Patriarch, also known as Mahana, is a film about the Mahana family in New Zealand. It's set during the 1960s and focuses on one boy in the family named Simeon, played by Akuhata Keefe who is the only one, out of about 20 members, to ever challenge and speak out against the patriarch of the family, played by Temuera Morrison. It's an uplifting story about how things can change over generations, and it's just as fun to watch as it is inspiring.
Right from the start, this film is already moving. A father, his son and another protector are on the run. The young boy they're watching over seems to have some sort of special powers that even he doesn't understand. We never learn what exactly his powers are, or how he used them before they had to go on the run. Instead, the film focuses on this particular moment in time when they make sure to get him to where he needs to go. Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special is a solid sci-fi thriller with big ideas hidden within. It's not really a studio movie (produced by Warner Bros) as much as it is another stellar Jeff Nichols film with studio sensibilities.
Deadpool isn’t like any Marvel movie before. True, if you break them down, the same could be said for all the movies that make up the current subgenre of superhero films. Though the basic structures all resemble one another, the sheer number of new entries flooding theaters allows the fimmakers behind them to play around in different, cinematic territories. Captain America has become the paranoid thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy is the space opera. Deadpool nestles its way into a subgenre taking on all the characteristics. It’s the filthy, R-rated superhero movie comedy. Though it never reaches the height of vulgarity or subversion it intends, Deadpool offers an abundance of crude humor, edgy self-referentiality, and a huge amount of fun.
If only we could resurrect writer Jane Austen and ask her zombified corpse what it thinks of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2009 mash-up novel put together by Seth Grahame-Smith. Using her 1813 classic about love and aristocracy as a basis, Grahame-Smith fused the romance novel with all the brain-munching aspects the modern, zombie sub-genre has to offer. Surprisingly enough, the mash-up novel was a success with both critics and audiences, and now the beloved story of engagements and the undead has made its way to the big screen. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted and directed by Burr Steers, follows through on the novel's success, providing a ball of humor, romance, and an abundance of exploding heads. It's enough to satisfy anyone not beholden to either side of the mix.
It's not exactly easy to make light of and laugh at disabilities without coming across as insensitive, which is why this film is so unique. The Fundamentals of Caring (original Sundance title, as it has apparently been changed to The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving) stars Craig Roberts as a boy named Trevor with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who is confined to an electric wheelchair. He requires a caregiver who helps him do many basic tasks, though he always tends to scare them away because he's blunt and loves playing sick jokes on them. The humor in this film is what makes it so entertaining to watch, since the script is otherwise full of too many easy cliches that prevent it from being much more than another good laugh.
We all know that movies can change lives, in small ways and in big ways. But that change is often internal, and it's hard to track exactly how we are affected. The documentary Life, Animated (which premiered at Sundance) is an absolutely wonderful documentary that perfectly captures how one autistic boy learned to communicate and engage with the world through Disney animated movies. It's a triumphant and inspiring story, but it's also a beautiful documentary that features many clips from Disney movies as well as original animation (by Mac Guff). The film is about Owen Suskind, following him as he moves into his own place for the first time in his life. His entire VHS collection of Disney movies is the very first thing he unpacks.
Sundance loves to find and premiere the next generation of horror films, and this is one of them. It's very likely most people have never seen a ghost movie like this before, which is refreshing for the genre. Under the Shadow is a horror-thriller set in Tehran, Iran, about a mother and her daughter encountering eerie supernatural forces in their bombed out building. The only worthwhile comparison to make is that this film reminded me of The Babadook, another Sundance film (from 2014), with a plot involving tensions between a mother and her child, not to mention some very creepy things going on. Under the Shadow is frightening and captivating, and while it doesn't have the most extensive mythology, it is a satisfying horror experience.
This documentary is freakier than most horror movies. Tickled is not really a documentary about tickling, even though it is a documentary about tickling. Produced out of New Zealand, this entertaining and egaging documentary (co-directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve) follows Kiwi pop culture journalist David Farrier as he investigates a company that films professional tickling events. It all starts when he discovers a wacky video online of "competitive endurance tickling", and attempts to contact the people behind it. Suddenly, David is tumbling down a rabbit hole of legal threats and insane discoveries as he attempts to get to the bottom of this. It becomes a doc about the abuse of money, and how power hungry some people are.
There's no doubt about it - this is a film you're going to either love or hate. Swiss Army Man is one of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival's most divisive films, with some of my fellow critics walking out before they could even finish it. The film is unquestionably unique, I've never seen anything like it, and while it starts out totally wacky everything clicked for me about 30 minutes in. The film opens with Paul Dano playing a man stuck on a deserted island trying to hang himself. But before he can do so, a dead body in a suit (played by Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Attempting to ignore it, the body begins to fart, then before you know it he's riding this farting body like a jet ski back to land. I told you it's wacky, but actually quite fun.
As Aristotle once explained, every story is either a tragedy or a comedy. This film is a tragedy – in the true sense of that word. It's very depressing, and sad, but depressing in a good way, if that's possible to imagine. I say that because it captures some very beautiful, intimate moments of connection among friends dealing with the hardship of young life. As You Are is the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and it will hopefully give Miles the break he needs to make more films - because he seems to be a very talented storyteller. While it's not the best film of the fest, it does show quite a bit of potential, and it's a powerful story about love and what it makes you do.