Sundance 2019: "Dos Fridas" Review

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Dos Fridas is a dualistic film that reflects upon life and death while toying with reality and imagination. The history behind Frida Kahlo’s life is not well known and Dos Fridas is inspired by traumatic events that happened to her towards the end of her life (she passed away at age 47). The film beautifully portrays how Kahlo dealt with those events mentally and physically. 

The film follows the relationship between Kahlo and her newly hired nurse Judith (played by Maria de Medeiros) who also suffers similar experiences as Frida.  Writer/director Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez also acts as Frida Kahlo in the film with a commanding presence that demands attention. The film mixes reality with imagination and the past with the present, which is developed through Mexican folklore, surrealism and existentialism. It is not a “feel good movie” in the least bit and the film even forces the audience to contemplate the meaning of life. It is important to note that the name Dos Fridas is a nod towards one of Frida Kahlo’s oil paintings called The Two Fridas, this painting is a double self portrait. The film cleverly reflects opposing things, which is also portrayed in The Two Fridas. 

An important part of Dos Fridas is the almost all female cast. The lead actors are female, the supporting actors are female and there aren’t that many speaking roles that are men. With that being said, most of this film passes the test for feminist film theory, women are in powerful roles, the focus of their conversations is not about men, and they are fully clothed. These minor details may not seem too important to an average viewer but this is a big change from the norm in traditional Hollywood films. Deliberate actions to uphold women positively in cinematic art is poetic in itself and Dos Fridas exposes a new realm of beauty. 

Alongside the strong casting decisions and feminist approach, the film is filled with Mexican Folklore, from Mexican sugar skulls, to the mariachi performing in Frida’s backyard; the film interprets the Mexican culture in a beautiful way that depicts the truth of Frida’s heritage. Through surrealism and expressionist techniques, Ishtar Yasin Gutierrez creates a narrative that is reflective of Luis Buñuel (the iconic Latino filmmaker) who created the 1952 film Mexican Bus Ride. Both of these films don’t follow a sequential timeline in regards to the narrative, which is common practice of Luis Buñuel; both films also create uncomfortable scenes through intense drama. Even though the stories within these films are both somewhat sad, they are told with such content of the Mexican culture that the beauty of it shines through regardless.

One relative piece of Mexican culture that stands out in the film is the traditions in embracing life as well as death, while not being afraid of the afterlife. Frida Kahlo oftentimes painted very violent pieces of work because it was her way of escaping the pain in her life; this film portrayed that sorrow in a realistic yet artistic way. This approach to portraying Frida Kahlo in her raw emotions makes this film incredibly expressionistic in a way that is unsettling but it also makes the viewer ponder the meaning of life. This is also portrayed through what is fake vs reality in the film; things dramatically change without any preemptive warnings- very much like Luis Buñuel films. If you are a fan of films that follow a strict narrative, this is not the film for you; however if you do enjoy that type of cinematic approach, you’re in for a ride. 

Ultimately, this film is a love poem to Frida Kahlo and the Mexican culture.  It reflects upon resilience through pain, freedom of artistic expression, as well as freedom of sexuality. The actors in the film create a wonderfully surreal story that exposes a new light into Frida Kahlo’s tough life. This film is truly a gift to the Mexican art community, and the Latino art community as a whole. It unapologetically speaks truth of things that are oftentimes overlooked within Frida’s life, and creates a reflective story through her trauma. I truly enjoyed Dos Fridas as a Latina filmmaker myself, and I would highly recommend viewing this film when you’re in an existential mood.

Rating: A

Comment

Julia Moroles

Julia Moroles graduated from Augsburg College (MN) with a Bachelors degree (BA) in Film Production and Studio Art Production with a minor in Religion. After graduating, Julia lived in El Salvador where she taught film editing, art, and photography in Spanish. While she resided in El Salvador, she studied Monseñor Romero and the liberation theology movement of Central America.

When Julia returned from El Salvador, she completed an internship at a Think Tank in St. Paul Minnesota, called Minnesota 2020. During her 9-month multimedia specialist position, she created two short documentaries focusing on different public policy issues. Her short documentary Colossal Costs closely analyzed higher education loan debt, and was screened in festivals from coast to coast. The second film was a documentary about the urban agriculture movement in Minnesota.

In addition to her studies, Julia has been a photo activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, urban agriculture nonprofit organizations in Minnesota, as well as numerous human rights campaigns (internationally).

In August 2016 Julia began a Masters program (MFA) in Film and Electronic Media for the School of Communication at American University. During her attendance at AU she created various documentaries that focused on social justice issues, female empowerment, and community engagement. Her documentary about American University's Eagle Endowment was honored at the house of the President of American University in 2017. On two occasions, Julia served as sound mixer while filming a documentary for the talented filmmaker Larry Kirkman. Larry is working with the Center of Environmental filmmaking to research the necessity of Science in politics. Julia worked on a 16 person team (8 crews) that covered the March for Science in 2017 and 2018; she also assisted in filming congressional house parties with Larry Kirkman while working on the documentary. Finally, she was a part of a team that filmed interviews with the Defenders of Wildlife in preparation for the 2018 March for Science. Julia's team covered the media tent for both years of the March for Science and conducted interviews with the scientists and speakers for the rally.

From June 2017-December 2017 Julia completed a Fellowship for the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. She worked alongside Mahtab Kowsari to create educational videos that taught students at a graduate level for the Religious Freedom Center. She worked in the fast paced media environment creating the educational videos, promotional videos, filming and producing the educational lectures and she even created an educational social media campaign.

On top of completing a fellowship and assisting with the Center of Environmental Filmmaking, Julia acted as a Teaching Assistant to classes such as Editing, Web Development, Digital Image Editing, and Direction and Video Production.

Julia is currently creating a documentary focusing on the urban agriculture movement across the United States. She has interviewed people on the East and West Coast and hopes to influence more people to be a part of the movement.

Sundance 2019: "Sweetheart" Review

One of the hidden gems to come out of Sundance this year is Sweetheart. Shipwrecked on an island, a young woman must not only survive the elements but fend off a malevolent creature that comes out of the ocean at night. On the surface, that description may not sound very appealing, but the execution is delicious!

Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) has just washed up on the shore of an island that she learns is deserted. Along with her, Brad (Andrew Crawford) has hit the sand, but the large piece of coral in his side spells doom. Before she can grab Brad some coconut water (literally), he’s gone. Alone on the island, Jenn quickly assesses what she has at her disposal for survival. The life jackets she and Brad wore, a flair gun, and a suitcase won’t get the job done, but it will do. 

After exploring the island a bit, she finds the remains of what seems to be a family that landed on the island as well (both skeletal and their material belongings). As night falls, she buries her friend, only to find blood soaked sand and palm tree leaves where he was in the morning. As the film moves forward she finds that she’s not alone and you may be able to guess what happens, but it’s not as predictable as you may think in getting to the end. 

Writer/director J.D. Dillard has written a smart, female heroine in Jenn. She is able to survive on the island by fishing, cooking, and eventually finding ways to analyze what she’s up against in this nocturnal monster. As an audience, all we know about Jenn is what we see from the shipwreck, but Dillard also brings in more characters to give us some backstory on Jenn and why she may be the survivor she is. 

Sweetheart would be a here today gone tomorrow monster tale if not for its creative screenplay. All jump scares are earned here, and the monster is scary in appearance and sound. In fact, Dillard understands that less is more and therefore creates an environment that audiences can be invested in because our imagination fills in the gaps of things we don’t see. Clemons gives a standout performance as most of the movie is on her shoulders. Sweetheart is a survive the night(s) camp horror/thriller that belongs in and bolsters the genre.

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.

Sundance 2019: "Luce" Review

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Luce explores the delicate line between the perceptions that people have of other people versus the truth of who they are. While our individual experience is on a spectrum, human nature and history has  placed its construction of race in boxes in order to “understand” each other. This film allows its main character to work within the constraints of those boxes to exploit the system in a powerful way that puts some of those ideals on trial.

Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) was adopted from war-torn Eritrea by his white parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) at the age of ten. His parents helped him get through years of therapy to heal wounds from being a child soldier, and sacrifice to provide him the best life possible. Now a senior in high school, he’s fully acclimated to America and in fact, is a stellar student! He’s a beacon of light for his fellow students, especially the black population, and the weight of that is heavy on his shoulders.  

The film’s inciting incident occurs when Luce’s teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), calls Amy in to talk about a discovery she’s made. After tasking the class with an assignment to write a paper in the voice of a historical figure, Luce chose the radical Frantz Fanon, who believed in hurting others for a cause. On top of that, Ms. Wilson searched Luce’s locker and found illegal fireworks that pack the same punch as a shotgun. Ms. Wilson’s motive for bringing Amy in before letting anyone else make the discovery is to protect Luce’s reputation and make sure he succeeds.  

With this information and the materials in her possession, Amy talks to her husband as soon as she gets home. This initial conversation is where both Amy and Peter start making judgements on Luce’s character, and we as audience members must make our own conclusions on the situation as well. As the story moves forward, little by little, we find out more of the big picture of what’s happening at school and see how characters in this world make judgement calls based off of pre-conceived and personal thoughts. 

Situations like Stephanie Kim’s (Andrea Bang) possible rape during a party, and Luce’s ex-teammate Deshaun (Astro) getting caught with weed in his locker are all brought to the forefront of conversation in the film. What does it mean for Luce’s reputation if he participated in either of these activities? Why does Luce get special treatment over his friends? What does it feel like to be the person that everyone looks at for hope and expects to be virtually perfect?

While the film does interrogate these questions and the American dream on a large scale, screenwriters J.C. Lee and Julius Onah nail what being black, talented, and on a pedestal in America feels like. The ideal of tokenism (the one black person in a room/organization/team/etc.) and pressure to be on is something that Luce feels constantly, and is spot on. They find a sweet spot in making their point without hammering it home, which is hard to do.

Ultimately, this play turned screenplay is brought to life by its stellar cast. Kelvin Harris Jr. is undoubtedly an actor to watch! He commands the screen and authentically connects with the ability to perform in different spaces with uncanny finesse. The scenes where Octavia Spencer and Harris Jr. face off are electric and the things award nominations are made of. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts embody the sacrifice parents make for their children, and the individual struggles of giving blind trust versus questioning your child. Even the supporting cast members like Andrea Bang and Marsha Stephanie Blake (who brilliantly plays Rosemary Wilson, Ms. Wilson’s mentally ill sister) are exhilarating to watch. Their characters are real, dimensional people that you can connect with. 

The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury swell with tension and put you on edge. It supplements the story that unfolds before your eyes in a way that hits on all cylinders. Luce is a film that you want to watch again to not only to catch what you may have missed in a scene, but also the ideals explored that you may want to ponder over more. It’s a must see!

Rating: A-

Sundance 2019: "Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary" Review

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The Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary is the story of two desperate men; one is trying to leave a legacy and the other is trying to create a legacy through his art. Its an extremely meta film that’s also self-aware and downright hilarious. Writer/director Benjamin Berman takes us on what eventually becomes a personal journey of how far one would go to leave a mark in the world.

The doc starts out as a portrait of comedian/magician John Edward Szeles who goes by the stage name The Amazing Johnathan. Stock footage shows his zany comedic style of performing magic and illusions and rising to the top of his industry. In 2014, Szeles is hit with devastating news that he only has a year to live, but three years later he’s still alive. Enter Benjamin Berman who reaches out to him to document his life and is granted access. Szeles decides that he wants to do a farewell tour as The Amazing Johnathan. Things run smoothly, until suddenly Berman and his team are made aware that another film crew will be shooting the same event to document The Amazing Johnathan. Things continue to spiral out of control from there as Berman learns there are even more documentary crews covering the person he’s dedicated so much time and effort towards.

The film merges into somewhat of a hunt to solve a mystery as Berman worries about the outcome of his documentary and whether he should continue. It doesn’t help that Szeles is extremely apathetic about it all. As Ben dives deeper into trying to salvage his documentary, he also begins to unravel; he takes questionable steps to make sure that it is created and even questions the truth of the ultimate prankster’s death sentence. 

The editing in the film is remarkable and your hat has to be tipped to editor Scott Evans. From the opening scene in the documentary you can tell that you’ll be on a self-aware joyride. Nothing is off-limits for sewing the film together to tell its story. From the typography to the sound effects to the quick hit jingles and cuts, this is a story being told from all angles. In fact, this approach in levity to tell the story is what makes the ability to handle this complex story easier.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the movie, but it’s death that looms in the background of both Szeles and Berman’s mind that informs their decisions subconsciously and eventually makes its way into the documentary. The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary is transparent, original and personal in its attempt at making it to the big screen. Berman’s ability to adapt and use his resources create a once in a lifetime moment in a documentary that, otherwise, may not have been made. 

Rating: B+

Sundance 2019: "Photograph" Review

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Photograph is a good example of how some stories in cinema are universal. It is a slow burn romance about a struggling street photographer named Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) in Mumbai who is feeling the heat from his grandmother to get married. He doesn’t just catch it from his grandmother, but his entire community seems to know how dire the situation is and they constantly remind him of it. After a chance encounter with prospective customer Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), whom he retains her photograph, Rafi does what any stubborn person would do in that situation; he makes it seem as though Miloni is his new boo.

For people of a certain age, the pressure from family and friends to get married is prevalent, and even more so in certain cultures. Both Rafi and Miloni seem to be stuck somewhere in between wanting companionship but wanting it on their own terms. After persuading Miloni to go along with the ruse, the two meet daily with Rafi’s grandmother Dadi (Farrukh Jaffar). As the film continues, little by little, the ruse seems to turn in to something real.

Farrukh Jaffar is absolutely stellar as Rafi’s grandmother! She’s too old to care how loud she is when she’s talking to you and her “mother’s heart”, as she calls it, doesn’t want to die without seeing Rafi married off. Every moment she’s on screen feels more like a documentary than a narrative film because she’s so authentic. Siddiqui and Malhotra give very reserved, internal performances as the main characters. Their eyes are the only way into their feelings.

While the film soars in building the budding love, writer/director Ritesh Batra asks his audience to take a journey that seems to start, stop, reverse and move forward. There  are multiple scenes that are shown and then shown again down the line with more details revealed in such a way that doesn’t continue pushing the story forward but rather makes you question why it wasn’t revealed before. As Rafi makes a major attempt at winning Miloni over, we’re left wanting. With an almost two hour run time watching this romance bloom, one could ask if the ruse is on the viewer? 

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.

Sundance 2019: "Troop Zero" Review

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Troop Zero is much like it’s main character, Christmas (McKenna Grace),it’s sweet, it’s heart is in the right place, but something is just a bit off. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the movie centers around standing your ground and being your oddball self even if the world doesn’t understand you. It’s saccharin, it’s formulaic, but sometimes a little sugar is good for the soul.

The world is a big place and space is even more vast, and Christmas dreams of exploring it. The only issue is she’s living in rural Wiggly, Georgia in 1977. She’s the kid in town that the older folks may say “bless her heart” as she runs by in oversized boots, and one leg that’s shorter than the other. She’s used to getting picked on, but somehow keeps a smile on her face. Which is why when she has the opportunity to have her voice projected into space by NASA through the Birdie (think Girl Scouts) Jamboree, she assembles a ragtag group of misfits from the neighborhood.

Christmas’s quickly enlists the help of her father Ramsey’s (Jim Gaffigan) secretary, Rayleen (Viola Davis) as troop mother. The newly minted group named Troop Zero includes: Hell-No (Milan Ray) the bully who wants the burn the world down because she doesn’t believe she’ll ever have anything beautiful, Smash (Johanna Colon) Hell-No’s muscle, the “girl/boy” Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), and the devout Christian, Anne-Claire (Bella Higginbotham). It’s no surprise that in a film like this, Troop Zero has to overcome challenges in the form of getting badges, and then go against the reigning champions in their town led by Miss Massey (Allison Janney) to win the contest.

This is one of those films where you know what it’s trying to do with your emotions as the kids’ chemistry on camera shines whether they’re facing challenges or triumphantly standing up for one another. The soundtrack of the film rocks, with songs like “Rocket Man”, “Little Green Bag” and more. Screenwriter Lucy Alibar keeps bumping the record player though with repetitive reminders throughout the film that Troop Zero should “find that life gets easier if you don’t want so much”. This film would have been much better if the viewers were allowed to catch the message without it being hammered home.

In the end, Troop Zero has some very touching moments that you may want a tissue nearby while burning some calories laughing in the next moment. McKenna Grace carries the film as Christmas. Her goofy smirk, giggle, and character choices feel so authentic that it’s obvious she’s a child actor who is gifted beyond her years. However, all of the sweetness in this movie can’t mask the fact that you want to yell “we get it!” just as the misfits yell “we’re here!” to the stars. 

Rating: C+

Sundance 2019: "Native Son" Review

Adapted from Richard Wright’s beloved classic of the same title, Native Son is the coming of age tale of a young man trying to make sense of the world. Ashton Sanders transforms himself into an intellectual, punk rock loving, existentialist caught in between worlds as Bigger “Big” Thomas. While the performances are strong here, the adaptation of a 1940’s story to modern times doesn’t quite work as well.

Single mother, Trudy Thomas (Sanaa Lathan), is trying to make it with her three children after being widowed six years ago. Her new boyfriend (David Alan Grier) has a connection to Henry Dalton (Bill Camp) and knows that he’s looking for a new driver. Seeing it as an opportunity to make a little more money than he has been as a bike courier, Big takes the job.

Big quickly finds himself in a world where money seems to be no issue and things start off well. He drives for the family, but particularly Mr. Dalton’s daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley). She introduces him to some of her friends, and he introduces her to his, including a little ecstasy. After Mary gets super high one night, Big finds himself in a particularly difficult situation and a decision that changes the course of his life forever is made.

Kiki Layne, hot off of If Beale Street Could Talk, shines as Big’s hairdresser girlfriend, whose hair changes in virtually each scene she’s in. Sanders proves that he is a young actor to watch as he gives an extremely tempered and introspective performance as Big. Director Rashid Johnson certainly controls the pacing and camera throughout the film. Unfortunately, Suzan-Lori Parks’ (Their Eyes Were Watching God) screenplay doesn’t translate well. Big lives at home with his mom one day and then is a live-in driver the next, and it feels like the family story is thrown away until the film needs them again. There’s a strange Get Out vibe that comes and goes throughout the story as the Dalton’s try to show they’re down for the cause. Most importantly, Big’s life altering decision just isn’t what a young black man as seemingly educated as he is would make. He would have cut the opportunity to get to that crossroad way before he got there.

The novel presents a character who is trying to stir things up in a whirlwind of prejudice that surrounds him. His surrounding are a pressure cooker in which he feels trapped. This adaptation feels like while Big’s character may be dealing with issues, there’s always a feasible way out. While you may enjoy the ride for the first part of the film you’ll quickly want to get dropped off at the nearest stop about half way through.

Rating: D+

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.