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Slamdance Film Festival 2020 & The Docs That Stood Out
by Erik Childress

Every year I am curious about what of interest may come out of the Slamdance Film Festival. After all, this is the fest that ceremoniously accepted Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary after Sundance foolishly rejected it. (I saw it at SXSW later that year.) Last year there was a little sci-fi gem called The Vast of Night that you can soon see on Amazon Prime. This year, there was not much to speak of amongst the narratives. Most of them consisted of characters doing random things hoping to draw us into their world of loneliness or confusion and they all started to bleed together until I clotted up. But there were some standouts on the documentary front and I chose to highlight four of them.

ASK NO QUESTIONS

Propaganda sounds like an ancient word attributed to the whisper campaigns of government's past, but as we have seen over the past three years it has only become new and improved. Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli's film does deal with one particular incident from the past related to a group known as Falun Gong. When a CNN reporter in Beijing happens to be in the right place at the right time (or wrong on both counts) she witnesses the public immolation of members of the group instantly sparking memories of the burning monk in 1963. But there is more to the story than one could even imagine.

Between a Westerner fascinated with Falun Gong's teachings and an insider from China's State TV, we begin to piece together a plot far more nefarious than what their government chose to tell the people. Loftus and Pedicelli let the narrative unfold without ever exposing their hand too soon. It's a compelling mystery that has human faces attached to it though; namely those that spoke out and were even tortured to stand by principles in the face of power. The film doubly serves as not just a wake-up call to the tactics used by authoritarian regimes but also how easy the media can pat themselves on the back for scoops all while being duped into following the exact information they laid out for them.


BASTARDS' ROAD

The tales of soldiers who have returned from battle could make up their own film festival at this point. Comparing one to the next critically even from an aesthetic standpoint is unfair when we implore that every one of these brave men and women should have a forum to share their experiences. Every once in a while one can stand out though and Brian Morrison's film is a distinctly powerful journey.

Jon Hancock was part of the Marines 2/4 Golf Company, known as The Magnificent Bastards. His return home was not unlike the common tale of confronting one's demons; a battle too often lost by veterans who served this country honorably. So Jon decided to walk across the country, stopping to visit the men and families of his unit and others along the way. This element of Jon's story may seem like the one to make this documentary unique but it turns out to just be the basis to confront some harsher truths about service and about himself.

Every soldier who is interviewed offers something of substance to the conversation and no boils are lanced in regards to Jon's personal struggles. While his mom offers words of encouragement we also hear from his ex who heartbreakingly reveals how difficult he made it for her. The tears are real up and down this story of a man who also has to come to terms that what he is doing does not instantly come with a happy ending that we may come to expect in a Hollywood movie. Though his reunion with the members of his team is a five-hankie sequence of joy that says without words the everlasting brotherhood these men possess and is essential to their well-being. This is an affecting, moving piece of work that is deserving of your attention.


HIGHER LOVE

Hasan Oswald's film paints another portrait of a desperate city, but particularly some of its inhabitants. Daryl Gant is involved with Nani, a woman who both addicted to heroin and pregnant with their child. The film opens almost as a search for her as Daryl takes us around the backyards of Camden, New Jersey, pointing out discarded drug paraphernalia. The filmmakers have a camera on Nani, though, hanging with a number of her fellow users, going through the routine of looking for their next fix.

It is never an easy watch seeing people destroy themselves like this, but Oswald gives us an opportunity to get to know them, mostly using Daryl's story to trace a period time well past the birth of their son. He wants to be a good father to young Darnez but is also saddled with substance issues of his own (i.e. alcohol that he would probably argue as recreational) and has to ponder the real circumstances of leaving Nani behind despite claims of wanting to get clean. ("If he never had the love of his mother, how could he miss it?") Another user we get to know is Iman who takes such a pledge seriously but has nothing else in his life to drive him to get better which provides a nice context to Daryl's hope to do right by his child. We are gripped by some of the same helpless feelings as these people and we can only wait to see who succeeds and who fails. Oswald leaves the judging to us but shows there can be some light at the end of the tunnel even while most of it is still very dark.


JASPER MALL

When I was growing up, my Uncle had a T-shirt shop in a suburban mall. It wasn't the largest and maybe that is why it always seemed busy. But over the years the businesses left. The crowds thinned. Yet he remained and I was there on occasion helping to maintain while also having free reign to run through a nearly empty area. Fun for a kid, not so much for adults trying to make a living and a community that had to go elsewhere to shop and commiserate. Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb's Jasper Mall is about one such place in Alabama and it's a sobering watch.

Primarily working as an observational piece we meet several store owners like the Jeweler who does guitar solos and the florist also faced with the decision to just pack it in and retire. Mostly we spend time around the mall manager/head of security going about his daily business and trying to attract new stores. His fascinating backstory works as one of several metaphors about a dying part of America. When he says the mall gets "about 30 walkers in the morning" it is hard not to think about Dawn of the Dead and Romero's satiric instincts about returning to what we knew.

But for the living this is a state of being living in a society that is left behind while the rich get richer. One mall regular literally on oxygen jokes about his "smartphone" only to watch how crappy a signal it gets. It is almost perfect that an Army recruitment office is also there to attract the young people witnessing empty capitalism and unsure of their own futures. Thomason & Whitcomb let the film unfold with a simple grace that recalls the early works of Errol Morris and the Maysles. There's a subtle sadness with the occasional laugh (courtesy at one point of the regular who seems to come in just to tell jokes) but ultimately it feels like real life and that is something worth remembering.
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originally posted: 02/28/20 06:15:35
last updated: 02/28/20 06:19:23
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