"Kusama-Infinity" Review

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Anyone with access to the internet over the last decade or so has seen the work of Yayoi Kusama.  The 89-year-old Japanese artist's paintings, soft sculptures, and mirrored infinity rooms have captivated audiences around the globe.  But this was not always the case; Kusama's long life as a creative has been fraught with pitfalls and setbacks; yet, the artist has pushed through adversity to become one of the most successful artists in the world.  Filmmaker Heather Lenz's debut feature tells the story of the woman behind the art and provides a conventional look at the life of Kusama. 

Growing up in post-war Japan, Yayoi Kusama decided to become an artist after a hallucinatory experience in a field of flowers.  Kusama set off for New York, where she found herself fighting against a white male-dominated art scene that sought to both oppress and appropriate her work.  Nonetheless, Kusama carried on, staging transgressive performances against the Vietnam War, upending the Venice Biennale, and expanding beyond the gallery into the worlds of film and fashion.  The artist's career was filled with ups and downs, none of which kept her from creating her instantly recognizable work. 

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The abstract nature of Kusama's work contrasts with the way Lenz chooses to tell her story, which could be seen as both beneficial and harmful.  Infinity is told in a very straightforward fashion that’s familiar to fans of documentary film. The film moves from event to event in Kusama's life throughout the short 76-minute runtime. It often treats what seem like pivotal events in the timeline as mere asides as it plunges towards the present. It doesn't help that these events are almost entirely dictated by a stream of art critics, museum curators, and professors, all of whom tell us what Kusama was feeling at the time.  The artist herself appears briefly throughout the film but she rarely tells her own story.  This may be due to the artist's reclusive nature but, nonetheless, it takes away from the overall narrative. 

This story is an important one, touching upon many issues that still haunt the art world as well as society at large.  While not breaking any new ground in regards to contemporary documentary filmmaking,  Kusama-Infinity presents a clear overview of the artist's life- those interested in the story behind her work should see this film. 

Rating: B

Annapolis Film Festival '16: (T)ERROR Review

In a world where terrorists make the news weekly, someone has to be on the lookout for people who want to harm others. But what’s the price of that security? Who watches the watcher? What does it take to catch the bad guy? Saeed "Shariff" Torres, the main subject in (T)ERROR, is a documentarian’s golden goose. After two years of knowing the filmmakers, he confessed to being an FBI informant, and then proceeded to ask them to document his next assignment. What the viewer is presented with, is an astonishing, albeit limited look, at surveillance and the human impact of it.

We’re first introduced to Saeed as he complains about being on camera.  It’s interesting because we find out that he wanted to be documented. Shortly after, he’s calm and enjoying a basketball game. He explains that he became an informant in exchange for a reduced prison sentence for a New York City robbery he committed. We find him getting ready to go to another assignment in Pittsburgh. He needs the money, and he doesn’t have any love for muslims who malign the teaching of the Quran. He only has an obvious love for his son. 

As Saeed begins to settle in the safe house in Pittsburgh we see a map that he pins photos on. He explains that he has a POI (person of interest) that he is going to befriend at the local mosque. He makes it clear that he has his own way of gaining their trust, and that if he did things the way the FBI wanted he would never get any of the busts he’s gotten. His arrogance is somewhat off putting, but the espionage drama pulls you in closer.

When we’re first introduced to Khalifa, Saeed’s POI, we see him in black and white surveillance photos. We see a picture of him with an automatic weapon. Probably most importantly, we see his appearance in muslim garb. So it’s easy to side with the FBI and Saeed. What directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe do next is stunning as they interview Khalifa himself behind Saeed’s back.

As the viewer, you’re instantly hypnotized at watching a documentary being made without the FBI’s awareness with their paid informant Saeed; at the same time you get to see and hear the extremely intelligent, other side of the story through Khalifa’s own account of what he believes is happening. You’re able to put the truth together yourself seeing all sides “straight from the horse’s mouth” as they say.

(T)ERROR successfully leads us down a path of preconceptions and shocks us by providing truths that disturbs them. Perhaps the most disturbing realization is the questionable entrapment schemes set up by the FBI as shown in the documentary. Yes, it is limited in scope. No, paid informants aren’t new. But the questionable ethics of counter-terrorism as displayed is worth analyzing.

Rating: B+  

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Until 20" Review

Childhood cancer is one of those topics that I believe we don’t want to address as a society. Numbers don’t lie; only 4% of the budget of the National Cancer Institute goes to pediatric cancer research. As long as it doesn’t affect us personally, by those numbers, sadly it seems we’d rather keep living our lives with no regard to the issue, myself included. Perhaps it’s because we’d be faced with our own mortality, our children’s, or because to be honest, it’s somber. So when it comes to a movie, why would you want to watch one about childhood cancer? Keep reading and I’ll tell you!

James Ragan was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 13. When we first meet him, he’s bald, skinny from treatments, and way stronger than most of us. He’s viewing the latest results from a scan with his doctor and family. He tells the doctor that he’d like to “preserve a little bit of quality for when we’ve sorta kicked the can as far as we can kick it so to speak.”  It’s this statement and James’ strength in the face of a doctor telling him that without further treatment he has six months to live- within the first five minutes of the film- that engages you to want to see and learn more about James and his journey.

What “Until 20” provides is a pure look into a young man and his family’s life as they’re going through it.  There’s no doubt that when the film picks up James has already been through the fire, and his strength and resolve to help other pediatric cancer patients is inspiring. James created the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation in 2007 as a way to raise money and awareness to the cause. Throughout the film it’s obvious that because life isn’t promised to him, he lives his to the fullest, enriching and encouraging the lives of those around him.

Typically in a film like this you expect to focus on how awesome the main character is, and hear from people who will testify to it. While that is a part of the film, you slowly get to know the people surrounding James, pulling you into his family and village of loved ones. Whether it’s his mother Gloria, who is trying to keep it together and be there for her son, while simultaneously missing out on being present for her daughter because of it. Or his sister Mecklin, who loves her brother with all her heart, and yet sacrifices attention and love from her parents at times because her brother needs it more. The doctor, who has to tell James (and one would assume other cancer patients) the bad news, while also viewing him as someone that he hopes his sons will grow up to be like. The list goes on, but the evidence of how cancer’s effects ripple out to those surrounding James is apparent.  Yet, a constant sense of love and resilience comes through in every frame. That’s what makes the film powerful.

Another thing that stands out about “Until 20” is the stylistic shot choices and poetic technical nature of the film. One would usually expect a film of this theme to be run and gun, with not much thought into the shooting style outside of capturing the events. While a couple of times the style choice feels a little too much (some scenes in which an interviewee is emotional and the camera continues to dolly side to side), it is aesthetically beautiful. The time and care given to the film by directors Geraldine Moriba-Meadows and Jamila Paksima is evident in the film’s construction from production value to the way the story is laid out. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel like the Ragan family came together and agreed to tell their story, unfiltered, as a unit, and that James wanted to document his journey for the world to see. Faced with that responsibility, Meadows and Paksima stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.

Sitting through “Until 20” is in no way a walk in the park. It’s unsettling at times, causes you to put your own life in proper perspective, and has its Kleenex moments. Grounded in the reality of life, the film puts a face to childhood cancer and allows you to experience the love, trials, and pain that a family affected by cancer must endure.  At the same time it’s uplifting and beautiful! It's cliche to say, but the film is truly more about living your life and embracing each moment. The love that the Ragan family has for one another is undeniable. I couldn’t help but think that the film is exactly what James wanted.  While our lives are but a mist, film is forever, and with this film his message lives on and speaks to the heart of a viewer in ways that a speech never could! Hopefully with this film, one family’s loss is the world’s gain, as it inspires us to get involved in some small or large way.

You can learn more at http://triumphoverkidcancer.org/.

Visit http://until20.com/ to find out more about the film and future screenings.

Rating: A+

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"The Mama Sherpas" Review

There are days and moments in our lives that we’ll never forget, whether good or bad. The day that you give birth (or for partners, when your child is born) is certainly one of those unforgettable moments that you want to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. Yet, for a growing number of women in America their extraordinary day has been scarred by poor bedside manner and/or a push for caesarean (c-section) births, which accounts for 32.7% of births in the United States. From executive producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, “The Mama Sherpas” takes a look at midwives and their collaboration with hospitals as a solution to this problem.

A midwife is a trained professional with expertise in supporting women to maintain healthy pregnancies and have optimal births and recoveries during the postpartum period. The documentary focuses on eight different women’s voyage to giving birth, spread across four institutions that provide collaborative care between physicians and midwives. We follow the patient and midwives at each institution to get a feel of the process for all involved.       

It’s evident throughout the film that midwives give a pure, caring touch to the women they support from pregnancy past birth. Each interaction that takes place on screen between midwives and their patients has the amount of encouragement, love, and aid that you would expect from someone in your immediate family. While natural birth is what midwives hope to achieve, and the majority of outcomes in the film, we’re also able to see an example of a midwife helping during a c-section. 

At times, the features of different births become repetitive rather than building to a stereotypical fiery conclusion. In fact, there is no real call to action by the end of the film. Instead, the audience is left with a number of facts and what was put before them on the screen. Perhaps that’s the point. The documentary serves as a glimpse at successful midwife collaborations with hospitals to offer its viewers exposure to an alternative.

There is a certain awareness and care that permeates each frame from the film’s director, Brigid Maher. Inspired out of her successful natural birth after c-section, the documentary is personal. Nothing about the film feels rushed or forced. Maher controls the camera with a less is more approach throughout clinical visits and birth scenes. She shows just enough for us to know what’s happening in a scene, but not enough to throw your attention off of the beauty of birth. With the camera’s sensitive eye and the midwives’ sensitive approach, the combination makes for a natural, respectful observation of different women’s journey.

In a day and age where we consume information online or through documentaries, “The Mama Sherpas” is an intimate tale that provides a glimpse at an alternative to the birthing process. Like many other events in life, bringing a child into the world can be daunting if you’re not educated on all aspects of it. This film serves as a tool that should go in every expectant mother’s toolbox right beside What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

Rating: B

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Call Me Lucky" Review

“Call Me Lucky” is one of the most powerful documentaries to come out this year! Director Bobcat Goldthwait’s gripping portrait of comedy legend Barry Crimmins is a must see! It’s impossible to sit through the film without laughing, crying and being disturbed in your soul on a subject, child abuse/pornography, that is talked around but not talked about in our culture.

Barry Crimmins was a beer-drinking, cigarette smoking, stand up comedian who gained notoriety in the 1980s. He founded two comedy clubs, The Ding Ho and Stitches, during that time. He is also credited with helping comedians like Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Dennis Leary, Bobcat Goldthwait and more get their careers going.

The film begins with friends and family re-capping Barry’s early life and start as a comedian. His satirical comedy routines focused on political and social change and were unique for its time. The interviewees highlight his impact on the industry with a slow build up to the viewer actually seeing the now secluded, simple living, 60 year old Crimmins. 

The emotional pendulum swing comes right in the middle of the film as Crimmins describes what happened to him as a child. From there, the tone of the film becomes serious as a historical drama unfolds. It turns into a David vs. Goliath battle for Crimmins as he eventually brings AOL to the senate an attempt to wipe child pornography off of the then burgeoning online chat room giant in the 90's. From there, we see the evidence of transformation and healing in Crimmins life. Crimmins interviews, like his comedy, are honest, genuine and fiery at times. 

Cinematographer Bradley Stonesifer masterfully paints with light throughout the film. The beauty of the image gives contrast to the ugliness of the subject of child abuse. The juxtaposition helps to digest the film more than if it were shot with moody lighting.

Goldthwait’s love for Crimmins is evident in every frame that comes together to weave this documentary into a portrait of a man who used his pain and scars as fuel to help others. He keeps a perfect balance of comedy and light-heartedness when needed, and raw emotional honesty through interviews with friends, family, and Barry himself. His use of the frame speaks volumes in shots, like one of the basement where Barry was raped as a child only lit from upstairs. It is quite apparent that there was a director behind the lens on this film and the precision used to tell the story with images, historical footage, interviews and all the other elements needed to create a documentary resounds from the first frame to the last.

In truth, Goldthwait’s enormous respect and love for Crimmins may have blinded him as the film could be cut down to a 90 minute running time. Goldthwait has Crimmins revisit his childhood home and the basement where he was raped near the end of the film. This could have been done for Crimmins’ healing, preserved for him, but it was not necessary for the story arch of the film, which this critic believes would have been more powerful without the pit stop.

Regardless of the overt bow from Goldthwait to Crimmins, “Call Me Lucky” is more than a portrait of Barry Crimmins. It’s a salute to his life as a comedian and an activist. The film, like its subject, is bold enough to speak clearly to the soul of humanity and call out its vile side with ferocious conviction at the same time. Now playing in limited release!

Rating: A

1 Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Capital C" Review

The first thing that stands out in “Capital C” is its cinematography and camerawork. With well placed framing for interviews, and pre-calculated set up sequences, it’s easy to get visually engaged. The documentary originated as a crowdfunded film on Kickstarter itself, and thus it’s fitting that it covers the adventures of crowdfunding. As a visually stimulating and technically sound film, the only question is, does it cover the crowdfunding phenomenon just as well?

“Capital C” follows Zach Crain, the maker of the Freaker USA, a one-size-fits-all koozie company; Jackson Robinson, an artist drawing the entire deck of the Federal 52 poker cards; and Brian Fargo, the developer of a video game called "Wasteland 2". While the risk to start their own company seems big for Zach and Jackson, Brian seems to be branching out after an already successful career.  

The issue with the film, is that each character has great success with their crowdfunding campaign, reaching their goals quickly. So the inherent tension of the drawn out journey of seeing their campaign reach its goal, or the heart-wrenching agony of not making the goal is lost in the film. The film paints a picture of small business entrepreneurs having huge success in crowdfunding, while 60% of Kickstarter (just one platform for crowdfunding) projects are not funded. Not being able to follow someone who puts everything on the line, only to come up short gives the illusion that everything is awesome in the world of crowdfunding. We get a brief mention of crowdfunding failure in a couple of interviews but as quickly as it’s mentioned it’s back to the mirage.

The film also feels stretched at times to get to its 86 minute running time. For example, we learn about Freaker USA’s opportunity to go on Shark Tank and then we're informed what the show is about three times as Zach defines the show to a family member, to the camera in a one on one, and his business partner talks about it again. The small repetitions in theme or information cause you too look at your watch rather than get lost in the film.

Writer/Director team Timon Birkhofer and Jorg Kundinger do a great job of making you fall in love with Zach (who is a character on any given day) and Jackson’s family. Zach’s confidence and loving spirit oozes off the screen and makes it easy to support him. The struggle for Jackson to keep his day job, while fulfilling his crowdfunding obligations can be boiled down to the universal experience of stretching yourself to provide for your family. They also cover the tension that the campaign created between Jackson and his wife as she deals with their two small children on her own so that he can work. So when Jackson’s story wraps up with an emotionally moving moment, it’s earned.

“Capital C” is a testament as to why indie filmmakers should be supported on crowdfunding platforms. Birkhofer and Kundinger delivered on a completed film that looks great and you can tell they invested lots of time and thought into making. It comes up short however, in giving a well rounded experience of crowdfunding which would have been more interesting than three success stories. While it's not perfect, "Capital C" is a solid prototype for the filmmakers to get feature film experience and learn from their directorial debut, which may not have been afforded to them without the power of the crowd!

In theaters and on demand now!

Rating: C

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

AFI Docs '15: "The Three Hikers"

Much like 2014’s hit “Citizen Four”, “The Three Hikers” informs us of a story that received national attention. While most of us remember the story of three American hikers- Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal- who were detained against their will in July 2009, we don’t know the story from an insider’s perspective. The documentary gives us an intimate portrayal of the journey of the families of the political prisoners.

On July 31, 2009 Iranian border guards took Sarah, Shane and Josh into custody for crossing into Iran while hiking near the border. As the film begins we never see the three in an interview setup, but hear them in voiceover with reenactments visually detailing what happened. Occasionally we see footage taken by the hikers in the days leading up to being detained. The parallel story that runs is the families’ reaction to the news of their child/brother/sister being detained, drawing us in to the conflict and keeping us on pins and needles even though we know the outcome.

In truth, “The Three Mothers” may be a better title for the film because the story follows their fight to free their children. It’s in their story that the universal truth of the impact that a mother’s love can have on a person, situation, event, and beyond is told!  The emotional journey is arduous, beautiful, and universally understood. The film also shows other family members (including Sarah after she was freed) who were truly integral in fighting for the hikers’ release. 

Writer/director Natalie Avital strays away from the typical talking head set up usually seen in documentaries and keeps it intimate by getting family member’s thoughts on the go or in their homes. Going against having family members constantly give feedback to the camera in a controlled environment allows viewers to get a fly on the wall view that feels more personal rather than clinical. Avital obviously had the families’ confidence and trust as evident by the openness of each person who gave an interview.

Many documentaries end after a climactic event, and in this case it’s the release of Shane and Josh. In fact, the emotional reunion of them with their families would leave viewers on a high note by itself in which we can assume they lived “happily ever after”. Yet Avital continued to capture their lives after their release showing Shane and Sarah’s marriage, Josh becoming a father, and the group’s pursuit of advocacy. By taking the film a step further, it answers the "what happened?" after their release and gives closure to the tumultuous part of their lives but instills the hope and power the hikers have from bouncing back from it.

The film has its slow moments and the reenactments feel rushed and disconnected from the film at times, but overall it’s a solid documentary. There’s no question that the hikers and their families are closer because of this traumatic period in their lives. For all involved, they answered the question of: how far would you go to save a loved one? 

Rating: B

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.