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Updated: 2017-04-29T10:08:00-05:00


Hot Docs 2017: “Bee Nation,” “Communion,” “Tiger Spirit”


One of the pleasures of a great film festival is the heightened attention of its audience. Small moments that would’ve likely escaped the gaze of more passive viewers are savored with audible glee at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival, held annually in Toronto, Ontario since 1993. Though this year’s installment—running from April 27th through May 7th—has plenty of unsettling and urgent selections to spare, the opening night film set a more optimistic and warm-hearted tone. Lana Šlezic’s “Bee Nation” had its world premiere on Thursday night, and proved to be an immense crowd-pleaser, serving as a love letter to both the indigenous people of Canada and to the city of Toronto itself. Though comparisons will instantly be made to Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 Oscar-nominated doc, “Spellbound,” what distinguishes this equally endearing portrait of a spelling bee are its participants. Šlezic set out to chronicle the journeys of various children at the Kahkewistahaw First Nation Reserve as they compete in their very first province-wide spelling bee, with the hopes of moving on to the national competition in Toronto, a metropolis that looks even more wondrous when viewed through the eyes of these kids. All of the pint-sized subjects are engaging, yet the one who all but walks off with the picture is William Kaysaywaysemat III, an eight-year-old whose wonderfully expressive body-language conveys his ambition in every gesture and squirm. His competitiveness has caused him to excel far beyond most of his peers, yet it has also resulted in him being too hard on himself. Rather than push him past the brink of exhaustion, his loving parents attempt to put things in a more grounded perspective. When his father insists that the outcome of the spelling bee doesn’t matter as long as he “tries his best,” William shoots him a sideways glance that affirms how no outcome other than winning will be acceptable to him. It’s a fleeting detail, but at Hot Docs, it brought down the house.  Like “Spellbound,” “Bee Nation” relies on the inherent suspense of watching kids carefully reciting the spelling of increasingly formidable words. One misplaced letter could eject them from the competition, and the more invested you are in the kids’ plight, the more nail-biting it is to observe their every stutter and hesitation onstage. Spelling bees can be empowering events, but they can also be rather pathological, forcing kids to agonize over words that would baffle most adults (“soutache,” anyone?). Such a rigorous dissection of language only amplifies its peculiarities and inconsistencies. It’s entirely understandable that William would replace the “o” in “fathom” with a “u,” since his vision of the word makes more sense phonetically. Yet Šlezic focuses less on the contest results and more on the First Nation community, which has triumphed in educating its youth despite a criminal lack of funds. The presence of three kids from the reservation at the national competition is a remarkable achievement, allowing the world to expand for these kids far beyond the boundaries of their home. During the post-screening Q&A, the principal of Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, Evan Taypotat, delivered an impassioned plea for Canadians to band together in support of closing the funding gap that causes his students to have less resources than those at neighboring schools. He and Šlezic want the audience to view these kids as if they were their own, and considering the crowd’s emotional response to every victory and loss endured by the contestants, there’s no question “Bee Nation” accomplishes its mission beautifully.There is a scene in Anna Zamecka’s Locarno prize-winner, “Communion,” where a 13-year-old autistic boy, Nikodem, is sternly informed in church that “anger is a sin.” The boy can’t help bursting into laughter, and though his reaction may seem inappropriate to the average bystander, it is—like everything he says—an entirely sensible and clear-e[...]

The Circle


The highlight of "The Circle" is producer-costar Tom Hanks' performance as the CEO of the titular company, a Google- or Apple-styled high-tech octopus that's spreading its tentacles into every nook of our lives. The brilliance of Hanks' performance as Eamon Bailey, founder of The Circle, is that it's not remarkably different from the humble, charming average guy performance he gives as himself whenever he goes on talk shows, accepts awards, or narrates a documentary about the unsung heroes of World War II. For whatever reason, you can't help trusting Tom Hanks. That's why "The Simpsons Movie" cast him in a voice cameo selling "The New Grand Canyon," a name for the hole that would have been left in the ground if the military went through with its plan to bomb the recently contaminated town of Springfield into oblivion. "Hello, I'm Tom Hanks," he says. "The US government has lost its credibility, so it's borrowing some of mine." The notion that Tom Hanks, a patriotic emblem right up there with apple pie and the American flag, would be hired to put a smiley face on an American Hiroshima is scarier than a lot of current horror films. You just know that if he ever used his considerable influence for evil rather than good, almost no one would resist him, and the handful that warned against him would not be believed. And yet Hanks has never played a straight-up bad guy who chills you to the bone whenever he shows up onscreen. The closest he's gotten to that sort of character was in "The Road to Perdition," where he played a mob hitman who was more of a morose antihero than a bad guy, and the "The Ladykillers," a slapstick comedy that cast him as an obnoxious, bumbling Satan with a Foghorn Leghorn accent. His performance in "The Circle" as Evil Tom Hanks is the best thing in the picture. That isn't saying much. James Ponsoldt's film based on Dave Eggers' same-titled 2013 book has a lot of good ideas and a few engrossing sequences, but it never quite finds a groove, or even a mode, and it ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying way. Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a young woman who gets a job at The Circle, a cult-like corporation based in the Bay Area that has a campus with man-made lakes and a sky filled with buzzing drones. You probably have a good idea of where this story is going even if you've never read Eggers' book or seen an anti-tech warning tale before. Mae is handpicked by Eamon and his right-hand man, company co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), to take part in an experiment to glorify a new tiny camera they've invented. She'll wear cameras on herself and plant them all over her apartment and in other significant locations of her life and embrace the idea of "total transparency" hyped by her boss. "Transparency" and "integration" and other multi-syllable words get tossed around a lot by guys like Eamon, who are really interested in getting access to our data so they can monitor our lives, sell us new products, and resell our information to third parties. "The Circle" gets this and uses it to generate low-level paranoia in every scene, and amps it up whenever Eamon strides onstage to give one of his TED-talk styled addresses to the company or to unveil a groundbreaking new product (such as the tiny spherical cameras that Eamon distributes all over the world, giving the resultant Orwellian surveillance network a granola-crunching progressive label: SeeChange).The problem is, "The Circle" never finds a good way to escalate its paranoia in anything other than a tedious, obvious way. And the meat-and-potatoes manner in which Ponsoldt has adapted and directed this material reveals the limits of his talent. A mad visionary stylist who paints with light and sound might've made a memorable film out of this story, but that's not the kind of director Ponsoldt is. He thrives in a low-key mode, telling stories of ordinary people interacting in ordinary spaces; "Off the Black," "Smashed" and especially "The Spectacular Now" were about as good as intimate character-driven indies could be, and "T[...]

Let's Talk About Femmes, Sex and Ebertfest


Friday night at Ebertfest, “Elle” illuminates the Virginia Theatre’s screen. The complex and active character of Michele, brought to life by Isabelle Huppert, is being forcefully assaulted and raped. Again. I hear a few “oh my gods” under the breaths of fellow viewers. I see someone turn their head down in my periphery; they can’t watch it for the second, no, third time? I’ve lost count. I gasp as her assailant bashes her head against a concrete basement wall. We are all cringing. Rape is uncomfortable, euphemistically, and spectating Michele’s assault does not make the topic of female sexuality any more welcoming. But in other scenes, she is not the passive receiver of violence. She is the instigator of her sexual well-being. And the amalgamation of films screened at Ebertfest represented other female characters in similar scenes (a lot of the times they’re in the dark, mind you). And it happened again, and again. Female sexuality is bursting from its clandestine conversations, and demanding our attention. The subject tests our capacity for empathetic relationships with these women and their evident sexual characteristics. It tests our compassion and forgiveness. Even the older films seemed to have gained a stronger resonance on the subject since their debut, echoing the social and political issues of our current climate. Some of these films shamed and punished women for their bodies. Others empowered female characters through their sexuality. Films coax us closer to understanding the experiences of others. One experience that gets some screen time (but not much talk time) is the oppression of women and their sexual dimension. “Flower” director Max Winkler said to IndieWire: “I think it’s irresponsible to say men can’t make good movies about women or that women can’t make good movies about men. The more we can place each other inside of each other’s narratives, the better.” He understands the gray area, how to backtrack the male gaze, and I appreciate this tremendously. But I also think that we are living in a time where a female-led discussion of female sexuality is needed more than ever. And females were a part of the discussions following the films at Ebertfest. But there was a universal reluctance to seriously talk about these aspects of the film. Even in a conversation with a peer who has seen “The Handmaiden,” I found myself incapable of bringing up the beauty of the love scenes without a comedic tone, to which she changed the subject to something else she appreciated about the film. Something easier to talk about. Sexuality is not often enough given consideration in post-screening discussions or otherwise. The one time that I can 100% confirm sexuality was discussed was after “Hysteria,” where it would have been silly not to talk about it. So, let’s venture into the hot, blush-inducing scenes of female sexuality that had audiences at the Virginia Theatre at this year’s Ebertfest squirming in their seats. Let’s talk about sex.In “Hair,” a film about a military-destined Midwestern man called Claude (John Savage) who galavants with a goony hippie squad in 1960s New York City, free love is in full swing with benevolent consequences. The two presiding women in this film are Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo) and Jeannie (Annie Golden), who are on completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of social class. But, both women are positive representations of female sexuality.  In one scene, Sheila uses her attractiveness to seducing a military captain in order to steal his uniform and car, in a frolicsome but carefully considered effort to “rescue” Claude from his military base. She empowers herself. She conflates her sexuality with her cleverness, and we like her all the more for it. It flips the dominant narrative of men having determining rights to a woman’s body. The consequences of her sexuality are decided by her. Jeannie’s character touched on the notion of “women’s intuition” when it [...]

“American Gods” Wants to be Your New TV Religion


“The world is either crazy or you are—they’re both solid options.” For years, Hollywood has grappled with how to adapt Neil Gaiman’s beloved, epic novel about power, religion, faith, and general insanity known as “American Gods.” Many people looked into bringing it to the big or small screen, and realized how difficult that would be. The book not only features many elements that some would call unfilmable—a female God who now takes a role as a prostitute and consumes people with her vagina, along with numerous asides and references to reimagined mythology—but it has a tone that does not make for typical entertainment. Thank Gods for Bryan Fuller. Working with Michael Green (the suddenly-hot scribe behind “Logan” and “Blade Runner 2049”), Fuller has grafted Gaiman’s vision with his own sublimely strange sense of visual composition, honed on “Hannibal,” one of the best programs of the ‘10s. The result is like nothing you have ever seen before. It will be as divisive as anything on TV this year—programs this strange often are—but it reminded me of the first time I saw a little show that’s returning next month, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” It is that stridently daring, unique, and unapologetically bizarre. You won’t be able to turn away. “American Gods” opens with a parable of Vikings stuck on a beach. Moving forward into the brush means death by a thousand arrows. But there’s no wind to get them to another island. And so they increasingly escalate their activities to get God’s attention to blow them in the right direction. It starts with prayer; it moves to sacrifice; it gets to all-out war. Are we, as a race, just trying to get our creator’s attention? Are we all just kids begging our parent to look at us? The first three scenes of the new season offer similar philosophical food for thought. The second chapter opens with a stunning piece of work by Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy (a play on Anansi), a God who encourages a slave ship to burn it down by telling them how fucked they are for the next few centuries. And the opening of episode three tops them all. “American Gods” is a show that already feels like it’s topping itself from beat to beat. I’ve seen four episodes, and liked each one more than the one before. Fuller’s work has always had that kind of cumulative power. You may have noticed that I’ve avoided the typical plot synopsis. “American Gods” does too. Fuller takes his time with the plot of the novel, moving around and back, taking pieces from here, expanding on ideas from there. The show opens largely the same, with a convict named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) being released from prison a few days early after his wife Laura (Emily Browning) dies in a car accident. On the way home, he runs into a mysterious fellow named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who hires him as a bodyguard/advisor/something. They hit the road to … well, it’s not really clear yet. There are other Gods sprinkled throughout the show, including appearances by Peter Stormare as a violent one and Gillian Anderson as, well, you just have to see it (she has an appearance in the second episode that stands among the most visually striking things I’ve ever seen on TV.) Once again, Fuller finds fascinating combinations when it comes to casting, even bringing Dane Cook and Crispin Glover into the cast. To say that “American Gods” intends to twist the way you traditionally approach television would be an understatement. It’s not just in the approach to storytelling that allows for asides with characters we know we’re likely to never see again—almost like chapters in a book that diverge from the main narrative—but in the visual and aural approaches as well. Notice how much Fuller and his team, including the great director David Slade (a vet of “Hannibal” and the film “Hard Candy”), use jazz and even atonal, Jonny Greenwood-esque compositions to play with their rhythms. It[...]

Hot Docs 2017 Interview: Theo Anthony on “Rat Film”


Theo Anthony’s astonishing debut feature, “Rat Film,” proves that the deeper one digs into a particular subject, the more universal it becomes. The movie may be confined within Baltimore, but its revelations about the history of oppression in impoverished communities resonate far beyond the city boundaries. I saw the picture last month at Chicago’s DOC10 Film Festival, and said that it was destined to be recognized as one of the year’s greatest cinematic achievements. In my review, I wrote that Anthony “sports the sort of unslakable curiosity, keen eye for detail and razor-sharp intelligence that forms a great storyteller.” He finds endlessly provocative ways to juxtapose the history of Baltimore with the emergence of rats in urban areas, charting how segregation moved to the private sector while forcing black and minority home owners into poor neighborhoods. The film is infuriating, provocative and thrillingly audacious, cementing Anthony’s status as a major new artistic voice. Now that “Rat Film” is playing at Hot Docs, it is guaranteed to earn more well-deserved acclaim.On the day of the film’s DOC10 screening, I spoke with Anthony about his approach to subverting the form of documentary filmmaking, his master class with Werner Herzog and the extraordinary initial reaction of Baltimore residents to the picture. What initially drew you to documentary filmmaking? As a kid, I was always curious about things and had fun researching them. I come from a science background, and thought I was going to be studying theoretical physics when I got to college. I was really into string theory and I liked math a lot. But once I was in college, I realized that it wasn’t right for me, so I gravitated more toward photography. Starting in high school, I was making skate videos and funny commercials with my friend Ben Goodman, who is now a cinematographer in L.A. I would watch him edit the footage at the computer, and I eventually wanted to learn how to do it on my own. So I taught myself how to use the camera and how to edit in Final Cut. Making music videos was helpful because it allowed me to edit to the rhythm of the song. In college, I made unofficial music videos and sent them in to artists who ignored me. I just kept pestering them until I got them to post it, or I sent them out to blogs, saying that they were official music videos. Then they posted them and it forced the artists into accepting the videos.  After graduating, I moved to New York and thought I was going to become a music video director. I started looking at fashion companies and did some videos for them, but I didn’t like the fashion world at all. New York just made me feel bad. It has this whole hierarchy of people in power and you can’t help but place yourself in relation to that hierarchy. It’s designed to make you feel bad, because you’re never going to be big enough or rich enough or famous enough, and friends are always going to be getting jobs over you. A girlfriend that I was seeing at the time was moving to Rwanda, and we wanted to find a way for us to be together, so we pitched a show to Vice. I had done some experimental narrative work in college, but had never made a documentary before. I ended up in the Congo for five months working as a freelance producer, and that’s pretty much how I started in documentaries.  Your short films, “Chop My Money” and “Coffin Maker,” were both made in the Congo. I consider “Chop My Money” my first short film. It’s the first one of mine that ever screened at a film festival. It premiered at TIFF, which was a total shot in the dark. While I was in the Congo working on a couple projects for Vice, I spent a month living with Russian pilots, who were the subjects of the series that we had pitched. One by one, all these stories that we were supposed to be pursuing fell apart. There were all these stories that I wanted to do and the formula of Vice wou[...]

How to Be a Latin Lover


After niftily compressing more than a quarter-century of its central character’s early life into a tidy five minutes and a handful of seconds before any opening credits flash by, “How to Be a Latin Lover” all too quickly devolves into a nearly two-hour slog showcasing Mexican comedy superstar Eugenio Derbez’s attempt to seduce U.S. audiences with a cheesy bilingual spoof of an ethnic stereotype long past its expiration date. Do we really need a South of the Border answer to Adam Sandler as a sort of Deuce Bigelow: Hispanic Gigolo? I vote no, even if the actor now and then flashes a bit of clownish panache as middle-aged gold-digger Maximo, who gets dumped by his abundantly wealthy 80-year-old wife (Renee Taylor in a Renee Taylor-made role) for a younger model in the guise of dweeby Michael Cera in a glorified cameo. When this tossed-out trophy husband protests that he should get half of everything, his soon-to-be ex reminds him that there’s a prenuptial agreement. He counters that what he signed was actually something called a “prenup.” His confusion is not unlike those voters who didn’t realize that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were one and the same—and is just about as funny.Nor do we require a farce that might have been more appropriate as an outright R-rated romp but instead awkwardly chooses to be a PG-13 bring-the-kids outing. Now-penniless, the mooch moves in with estranged sister Sara (Salma Hayek) and decides to tutor his shy and fatherless 10-year-old nephew, Hugo (Raphael Alejandro), in the art of being a junior Casanova. Of course, Maximo has an ulterior motive: The kid’s grade-school crush has a rich widowed grandmother who just happens to look just like Raquel Welch because she is Raquel Welch—and he is determined to make her his next designated sugar mommy.That means we are subjected to questionable cross-generational humor of varying degrees of silliness and stupidity. On one side are blatantly childish shenanigans including poop and fart jokes as well as a running joke where Derbez pours both Cap’n Crunch cereal and milk directly into his mouth so he can avoid washing dishes. On the other side is much more suggestive humor as Maximo employs such pseudo-naughty euphemisms as “poking” and gives Hugo—aka his “Minimo”—a demonstration on how to do a “sexy walk” that will drive the ladies crazy. When his uncle explains that women who witness his strut will think, “He must be great in bed,” Hugo smiles as he brags, “I AM great in bed. I don’t pee or anything anymore.”Such wince-able tries at verbal ripostes might be why Derbez seems so fond of sight gags, such as Maximo regularly being on the receiving end of bodily abuse or the repeated spectacle of him waking up on his flattened leaky air mattress on his nephew’s bedroom floor. There is also a spa visit whose variation on manly defoliation is nowhere close to the classic scene in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” To presumably better his chances of crossing over to English-speaking audiences, Derbez is joined by several Hollywood-bred second bananas including Rob Corddry as Welch’s wary chauffeur, Rob Riggle and Rob Huebel as two shady goons chasing after Maximo when he reneges on a business deal and Kristen Bell as an overly cheery manager of a frozen yogurt shop whose clawed countenance bears the scars of being a crazy cat lady.But someone—probably Ken Marino, the "Wet Hot American Summer" star making his feature directing debut—should have thought twice about bringing aboard Rob Lowe as Derbez’s frenemy of a fellow male strumpet, who provides arm candy for Linda Lavin’s lascivious matron of means who likes to indulge in role playing. Not because there are already three other Robs in the cast, but because the onetime Brat Pack member clearly has perfected the knack of not taking himself too seriously. As a result, he upstages the film’s a[...]



“Sleight” is an ambitious genre mash-up about a young street magician that pulls off a nifty bit of trickery itself.With his debut feature, director and co-writer J.D. Dillard deftly mixes intimate sci-fi thrills with dramatic, big-city dangers. The combination that kept entering my mind as I watched it was “Chronicle” meets “Dope,” both in terms of its substance and what it similarly achieves with a minimal budget. “Sleight” also has been described frequently as a superhero origin story—and sure, you could look at it that way, in that it’s about a young man growing up, discovering the full breadth of his powers and (hopefully) using them for good.But what might be the most dazzling feat of all is the lead performance from Jacob Latimore as Bo, a promising young man who puts his dreams on hold and starts selling drugs to support his little sister (Storm Reid) after their mother’s death. Glimmers of his charisma were visible in last year’s laughably self-serious ensemble drama “Collateral Beauty.” Here, with stronger writing and a more focused approach, Latimore is free to shine. He has a magnetic screen presence mixed with a down-to-Earth directness. And while he’s got swagger for days, he’s just as compelling when his character is quietly contemplating his next move.“Sleight,” which Dillard co-wrote with Alex Theurer, efficiently establishes its world within a very specific Los Angeles setting. A voicemail recording and a glance around Bo’s bedroom let us know he was once an accomplished student with a bright future in electrical engineering. Now, he’s wowing tourists on the streets with card and coin tricks by day and working as a gofer for would-be, big-time drug dealer Angelo (Dulé Hill) by night. The role is quite a departure for Hill, who’s mostly played nice guys; here, he can be frighteningly charming, but increasingly he’s just plain frightening.At first, Bo sells a little bit here and there to artists and dabbling college kids. Some coke, some Molly. He works the clubs. He gathers intel. But when Angelo realizes another drug dealer is brazenly moving in on his turf, he calls on Bo—whom he considers a protégé—to take part in the kind of violent activity that’s totally antithetical to Bo’s nature.In the tradition of slow-burning dramas like “A Simple Plan,” “Sleight” explores what happens when an ordinary person gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and the lengths to which he’ll go to keep himself from going under. Dillard doesn’t overdramatize this conundrum; he doesn’t need to. You can easily imagine how one bad decision could lead to another and then another, even as you convince yourself that you’re doing it all for the right reasons. And Dillard increases tension by keeping the action simple but escalating the pacing at a steady clip.The deeper Bo gets, the more his sense of isolation becomes palpable. Because—for a while, at least—he can’t tell anyone the secret behind his magical powers. That includes his inquisitive sister, Tina, with whom he has a warm rapport; his vivacious and supportive girlfriend, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), whom he met while performing in L.A.’s charming Larchmont shopping district; and his across-the-way neighbor, Georgi (Sasheer Zamata of “Saturday Night Live”), who serves as an auntie figure to the family and Bo’s much-needed voice of reason.Those hidden abilities come in handy—no pun intended—when it’s finally time for Bo to confront Angelo and seize control of his life. Ironically, though, as Bo gets stronger, the film gets weaker; when the action gets bigger, the emotions feel smaller. Dillard was wise not to try and pull off anything too massive or spectacular from an effects perspective on an indie budget, but what he did come up with for his climactic conclusion feels rushed.Still, it’s an auspicious [...]

Casting JonBenet


“Casting JonBenet” is not what you expect. It is not like the dozens of true crime episodes of shows like “Dateline NBC” or “48 Hours” that have analyzed the most famous unsolved murder of the ‘90s ad nauseam. With the 20th anniversary of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey still ringing in our ears, Kitty Green tackles not the details of the case but how we have responded to and almost interacted with it. Why is the world so obsessed with the death of a little girl in Colorado? Why does everyone have a theory as to who did it and why? To get at these questions, Green uses a similar approach to that employed by Robert Greene in his excellent “Kate Plays Christine,” viewing the case through the eyes of a group of actors auditioning to play the roles of John, Patsy, JonBenet, and other key players in this American drama. Their performances offer their personal impressions of the murder: one person plays John as completely innocent; another thinks he’s protecting someone in the house. We even see actors auditioning to play Santa Claus, as one theory posits that the Christmas party’s Kris Kringle may have been involved. It’s almost the inverse of a traditional crime doc. Whereas crime docs typically seek to offer everything that is known about a crime, “Casting JonBenet” proves how little we will ever understand about that night. Green has a methodical, fascinating approach that intercuts auditions/interviews with brief snippets of what could be called the “final product.” So, we hear from around a dozen women auditioning to play Patsy Ramsey, all offering their personal stories as well as theories on who Patsy was. And then we see clips of them playing out key moments in the crime, such as the press conference with John and Patsy or the horrible moment when John found his daughter’s body. We never hear from anyone else. There are no experts or officers, just people who answered the call to be players in a recreation of the murder of a child. Of course, everyone has a theory, and they range from the common—Patsy was mad over bedwetting and her punishment got out of control—to the extreme—John was involved in a child sex ring and that night was his turn to give up his daughter. As the film progresses, the auditions become more like confessionals. A man speaks about finding a dead body, and how that would play into his performance as John. A woman speaks about yelling at her child after bedwetting. Another actress admits to being abused as a child. And it dawns on us that the reason we are so obsessed with the mystery of JonBenet Ramsey—other than it having that elusive quality of being unsolved—is that we can relate to some part of it. We see our own darkness in stories like this and imagine how we would respond to the horror. Seeing this tale recreated and analyzed over and over again almost allows us to deal with our own nightmares. Green saves arguably her greatest achievement for last. In a way I won’t spoil, she essentially layers all of these stories, theories, and performers on top of one another, revealing again how no one knows exactly what happened. The world of true crime is an incredible industry. There are whole networks devoted to shows that recreate the worst days of someone’s life. Why do these shows keep getting made and why do we watch them? “Kate Plays Christine” gets deeper into the morality and sanity of it all, but “Casting JonBenet” is a nice companion to that film, further investigating our national obsession with what is ultimately an unknowable truth. [...]

Buster's Mal Heart


The 21st century has not yet produced a whole lot of noteworthy “what is reality?” movies, perhaps because we’re too busy wondering “what is reality?” in real life to be potentially entertained by a fictional iteration of the question. Or maybe it’s just because David Lynch hasn’t made a feature film in over a decade. It’s a shame that this movie has a title that sounds like the filmmaker’s dare to any indie distributor’s marketing department, because “Buster’s Mal Heart” is a genuinely noteworthy picture that deserves an audience. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, it’s a movie that puts the viewer into a bad dream, and is very canny in dispensing the keys to unlock the meanings of that dream—and in strategically withholding some of those keys. The movie begins with images of a man, the actor Rami Malek (whose popular television show “Mr. Robot” might usefully acclimate some viewers to the mind-bending properties of this work) running through a darkening forest. Before we can establish why he’s fleeing, Malek is seen with a long beard and long hair, stealthily breaking into a cozy mountain home while media reports on the soundtrack tell of a “hermit” “mountain man” named Buster, a mysterious breaking-and-entering figure who, the announcers insist, is of no genuine threat to the populace at large. And then some scenes depict Malek again, once-more clean shaven, as a married father with professional and personal challenges. He works as a “concierge” at a corporatized motel, he’s obligated to take on the night shift, he’s thus separated from his wife and daughter, which is on the other hand not too terrible because they’re poor and have to live with his awful moralizing busybody mother-in-law. Sounds stressful, right? It is. The role gives Malek ample opportunity to perform the silent, wide-eyed panic at which he’s practically a virtuoso. In small dribbles, details of this banal Midwest hand-to-mouth existence emerge. Jonah (for this is the concierge’s name) is married to Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil in a disciplined, enigmatic turn), a former drug addict who’s found God and a church. Jonah himself seems to have less certainty in his philosophy of life. This makes him unusually susceptible to the theories of Brown, who’s played by DJ Qualls with a chilled, spooky quality. Brown shows up at the hotel late one night, without ID or a credit card; he blatantly snorts cocaine in front of Jonah, who tries to throw him out but instead winds up pouring him some drinks from the long-closed bar. “The better the system, the more of a trap it is for the individual,” Brown avers to Jonah, in the process of spinning out an elaborate prediction of a cataclysmic event called “The Inversion.” This is tied into Y2K speculation (the film seems to be set in 1999), and also to theories Jonah has been getting from a weird local television program, proposing an interstellar physics that goes “from black holes to buttholes.” All this might lead one to believe that Jonah is head for a psychotic break, and that the movie’s intercutting between Jonah and “Buster” are temporal shifts between past and present, depicting one character. Only that’s not where this vision is heading. Writer/director Smith pulls off her difficult vision with exemplary flair; this is a very accomplished second feature. It’s not without glitches—a scene in which Buster evacuates into a saucepan while a Spanish-language version of the reggae classic “Rivers of Babylon” plays on the soundtrack was a little too gross-twee for my tastes—but where it counts, as in a scene in which Buster makes dinner for an older couple that he’s taken hostage in their own home, she imbues her scenes with both conventional suspense and an underlying discomfort that feels like a [...]



Doing cinematic justice to the immigrant experience and capturing the state of existence where one’s body and mind are split spiritually and geographically is no easy task. The intangibility of that constant hesitation and confusion requires the kind of humanistic touch few storytellers possess. From the early moments of the serene, true-to-life “Natasha," we understand we’re in the presence of one such storyteller with David Bezmozgis, as his film illuminates an ordinary tale of immigration with unexpected earnestness. Sure, “Natasha” on paper seems to only have the conventional makings of a coming-of-age tale: the kind where a teen’s routine gets forever altered by the arrival of a mysterious girl-next-door, with whom he embarks on a life-defining journey over the course of one special summer. But as Bezmozgis digs deeper into his themes—through a script written by him and adapted from his own 2004 short story—he manages to summon something richer out of this tale you might temporarily feel you’ve been told before. The story is set in modern-day suburban Toronto where we follow the misadventures of the 16-year-old Mark (Alex Ozerov). He is the son of a loving and close-knit Jewish Russian family, who immigrated to Canada when he was just two-years-old. We know from the get-go that he is bored and perennially stuck amid predictable sexual frustrations that are synonymous with his age. Wasting away his days smoking weed, watching porn and going against his mom’s wishes (like any parent would, she insists that Mark gets a summer job and make a meaningful contribution to his family), Mark seems like a typical teenager with commonplace problems. When his aging uncle gets married to a Russian mail-order bride named Zina despite his skeptical but understanding family, Mark’s life gets hit by a jolt of lightning, especially when the new bride’s sullen, clever and increasingly cunning 14-year-old daughter Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon) arrives from Russia to live with her mother and Mark’s uncle. Still without a job to fill his lazy days of summer, Mark accepts his mom’s proposal and agrees to take the uncomfortably quiet and observant Natasha under his wings: show her around, keep her company and help out with her adjustment process to Canada. But when Natasha proves to be a lot more mature and experienced than Mark, things take a shady turn, especially when the relationship between the cousins-by-marriage assumes an icky sexual dimension, further complicating an already tricky situation amongst the family. In shrewdly charting the relationship between Mark and Natasha (kudos to him for not making us feel his camera’s male-gaze on Gordon), Bezmozgis maintains a generous dose of suspense in his story. Natasha, who details out her troubled and prematurely sexual past to Mark (turns out, she was a porn-star-in-the-making in her own country), seems to detest her mom Zina and protests her close watch on her. The two passive-aggressively quarrel in several occasions, though we never become quite sure whom to believe. Natasha, after all, could really be a problem child with dark leanings, abusing the love of her lonely, desperate mother who would just like the warmth of a life companion. She might also be telling the truth about Zina being a dishonest deceiver, out to ruin Mark’s uncle’s life. The suspense Bezmozgis keeps between the mother and daughter is set against and heightened by the richly drawn conversations and situations amongst family members. In "Natasha," the generational differences (not only age-related, but culture-driven too) are acutely observed and opinions on the Israel-Palestine crisis, as well as ordinary musings on life are ceremonially shared in living rooms and around dinner tables. In this regard, “Natasha” carries traces of a[...]