AFFRetro Review: While Beautifully Filmed, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE Doesn’t Escape the Conventions of Holocaust Cinema

Posted on: Apr 1st, 2017 By:

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017); Dir. Niki Caro; Starring Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Before the Atlanta Film Festival screening of THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, an introduction promised the audience that this film was not going to be “just another Holocaust film.” Although it seems callous to think that films about the signature human rights catastrophe of the 20th century could ever be boring, it would be accurate to say that, over the years, a particular set of tropes has taken root when portraying the event on the screen. The situation will look bad; some will say that it will pass; the noose will tighten; and then comes the iconography of the horror—trains, camps, ash. Inevitably, choices must be made about who to help, and how. Sometimes the films end on a down note, sometimes on an up note. But no ending can ever accurately be called “happy.”

I’m sorry to say that, despite that hopeful introduction, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE doesn’t quite escape these expectations. Apart from a few key flourishes, the film follows the pattern mostly down the line. To garble a famous phrase, the people who don’t like this kind of thing will find this the kind of thing they don’t like.

Jessica Chastain plays the title character, Antonina Zabinski, principal animal caretaker at the Warsaw Zoo and wife to stoic Jan (Heldenbergh). We follow Antonina on an idyllic day through the zoo, which is presented as a utopian free-range menagerie where visitors can run alongside a camel or frolic with a set of baby lion cubs. Of course, this scene takes place in 1939, and within short order the German invasion has begun. The zoo is hit particularly hard—the animals are “liquidated” for soap and meat (mostly off-screen, with some startling exceptions—be warned), and the Germans place a permanent munitions garrison on the site. But the Zabinskis are concerned when a Jewish friend is forced to relocate into the Warsaw ghetto, and they decide to hide his wife, at great personal risk (“You can be shot for giving them a cup of water,” Jan reminds Antonina).

The situation is complicated by the presence of Lutz Heck (Bruhl), Hitler’s top zoologist who hopes to breed an extinct auroch from the Zabinski’s oxen. Heck has designs on Antonina, who spends most of her time at the zoo alone as Jan involves himself into the Warsaw resistance, helping as many as he can flee the ghetto to safety. As the war goes on, and as the tunnels beneath the Zabinski house fill with hidden Jews, it becomes harder, but ever more critical, to keep Heck from discovering their secret.

The film’s stakes are certainly high, and the drama is reasonably intense. But director Niki Caro [WHALE RIDER (2002)] fails to give the film the kind of visual tension it deserves. At its weakest moments, the film appears like one of the more inert of the Merchant-Ivory films, nicely decorated but somehow flat, with the performers stuck pantomiming rote material in a dollhouse. For example, as Jan becomes aware of Heck’s flirtations, he becomes bafflingly infuriated with Antonina. Surely he understands her need to keep the German distracted while on their property? And yet he seems to be angry simply because there’s not enough conflict in the second act, and the film still has the rest of the war to wait out.

Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

The star attraction should be the movie star Chastain, but she plays Antonina with a demure squeak of a voice that befits the muted passions of the movie she’s in. If there is any element to distinguish the film (beyond the costuming and production design, which are lovely), it’s the way in which the story is shifted to Antonina from her more traditionally heroic husband. While Jan is crossing into the ghetto, rescuing abused children, and taking up arms in an open fight, the film posits that Antonina’s role in protecting her family and the all-important hiding place is worth every bit the heroic acclaim. The film attempts to identify a female perspective on the life in occupied Warsaw, where Nazism is inextricably intertwined with toxic masculinity. The Germans don’t simply kill their victims, they displace and starve and rape them, dominating non-German bodies as outbursts of masculine bravado. If there’s a second element to distinguish the film, it’s that it seems eerily uncomfortable when compared to the modern mood in some of the more unsavory—but increasingly visible—corners of our national conversation.

Ultimately THE ZOOKEER’S WIFE is another holocaust movie. Your interest in that promise may vary, but let us be clear that the world, the trajectory, and the situations in the film are nakedly (and all too uncomfortably) familiar.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE screened this week at the Atlanta Film Festival on march 29. For more information, check out the official site.

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AFFRetro Review: Skateboards, Jet Packs & Silver Scream Spook Show Stars: SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE Is a Graveyard Smash!

Posted on: Apr 1st, 2017 By:

SAM & MATTIE PRESENT SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE (2016); Dir. Robert Carnevale; Starring Sam Suchmann, Mattie Zufelt, Madeline Brumby, Allison Maier; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Sam and Mattie are typical American teens. They like to skateboard and play video games. They chase girls. They have cybernetic implants coveted by the devil and his army of zombies, demons, and zombie-demons. The usual stuff.

SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE is an unexpected title for a heartwarming, feel-good picture. The real-world Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt hail from Rhode Island, inseparable best friends who became fixated on the idea of making a violent, gory zombie film starring themselves, an idea that may have seemed easy for their friends and family to dismiss before the boys revealed the elaborate storyboards they’d been building in their spare time. Director Robert Carnevale helped them launch a Kickstarter, thinking that a few bucks might allow them to put a film together. Sam and Mattie’s story, however, struck a nerve, went viral, and became a runaway crowdsourcing success story. The boys became stars of the mainstream press, and their project attracted talent from across the country, including Atlanta actors Madeline Brumby (Kool Kat here) and Allison Maier, and local special effects maven Shane Morton (Kool Kat here). 

Now, Sam and Mattie’s dream film is very real, and happily delivers more than just its great backstory. The Sam and Mattie of the film are the coolest, most interesting teens at their school, the kind of kids who tend to the needs of their knockout girlfriends before humiliating the local bullies with their sick skateboarding skills. Sam is the sensitive type and Mattie is his aggro best pal. They’ve literally known each other since birth, the moment made memorable when Satan appeared in the delivery room and murdered both of their moms—one of the downsides of having an epic destiny.

Now that they’re teens the Devil is back to finish the job, calling on all the bullies who hate Sam and Mattie’s unbridled awesomeness to join his undead army. The boys respond by unlocking their full superhuman potential, partying at Spring Break, and learning valuable lessons about the dangers of buying drugs. Also, Mattie has jet packs.

L-R: Madeline Brumby, Mattie Zufelt, Sam Suchmann in SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE (2016). Used with permission.

The project resembles less of a coherent narrative than a series of isolated vignettes strung together by the boys’ needs to kill zombies and have their hero moments. The emotional weight of the zombie outbreak is high in some scenes, while in others the monsters resemble irritating pests that have sprung up on Mattie’s lawn. What the film really provides is a bright and imaginative window into the way that Sam and Mattie see the world. Their script—every word of which Sam and Mattie wrote on their own, with Carnevale’s helpful translation—allows them to play out power fantasies and express their take on right and wrong. Sure, it’s a kick to watch Mattie shotgun zombies in the head (he has a surprising presence in the action scenes), but it’s hard to see the occasional quiet moment, such as the pivotal bit where Mattie and Sam stare into mirrors and remind themselves how valuable and special they are, and not think of the artists behind them. This thing is destined for endless cult screenings at midnight festivals and Halloween parties.

SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE may be a vanity project, but it finds its own heartwarming moments amidst its Michel Gondry-inspired cardboard hellfire. The word is that Sam and Mattie are hard at work on a sequel. That’s good. The movie screen is always hungry for real heroes.

SPRING BREAK ZOMBIE MASSACRE screened at the Atlanta Film Festival on March 25. For more information on the film, visit the official site.

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RETRO REVIEW: TICKLED Digs Deep, Becomes No Laughing Matter

Posted on: Jul 6th, 2016 By:

tickledBy Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

TICKLED (2016); Dir. David Farrier, Dylan Reeve; Starring David Farrier; Now Playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

Before we get started, just know that I enjoyed the new documentary TICKLED, and I absolutely recommend you take the time to see it in theaters. Know as little as you can. Don’t google. Watch the trailer only if you must.

If you’re unconvinced and still reading… well, here’s where it gets tricky. Because central to the experience of TICKLED is watching its twists and turns unfold. You won’t even believe how weird this thing gets, and many of the film’s best moments are tuned precisely to the shock and thrill of that escalation. To review it properly risks spoiling it. Spoiling it risks ruining it.

I’ll provide an overview. New Zealand journalist David Farrier (see Kool Kat of the Week interview here) is the kind of guy who trafficks in weirdness. Known in his home country as an entertainment reporter and personality, Farrier is the guy you send in to the field to witness the weird and off-kilter. His territory is the human interest story, the kind of thing that would show up at the tail end of a news broadcast to give you a light laugh and send you on your way. Need a guy to do a sit-down with GWAR? Farrier’s your man. In his quest for the odd, Farrier stumbled upon something he’d never seen before—a competitive endurance tickling league. Videos produced by an entity called Jane O’Brien Media lurked on YouTube, depicting young men in athletic gear tickling one another for sport. Farrier laughed, and sent out an email asking for an interview and a profile.

That’s when all hell breaks loose.

The film chronicles Farrier’s surprise as he becomes the target of seemingly crass, homophobic emails attempting to prevent him from writing his small article. Sensing a larger story, Farrier begins a collaboration with filmmaker Dylan Reeve, a partnership that takes them to some weird corners of the internet, across the Pacific to the United States, and into a web of harassment and hate that spans decades. At one point, the film shows Farrier engaged in an actual car chase.

Let me repeat that. From tickling videos to a car chase on American streets.

This movie is unbelievable.

Tickled VideosTICKLED is a slick, well-produced documentation of Farrier’s investigation that takes great pains to provide the context the story needs to avoid feeling like a hit job. Farrier takes time to meet with innocent tickling enthusiasts who demonstrate the innocent, victimless nature of their fetish that contrasts wildly with what’s going on in the YouTube videos, making it clear that this is not an attempt to shame a subculture, but rather a document aimed at defending it. The bad behavior on display in TICKLED is very bad indeed, stretching way beyond the studios where the videos are made and into a world that intersects at poverty and privacy, at benevolence and exploitation.

TICKLED is a living document, to an extent. Legal threats are all over this thing, and the recent LA premiere became a shouting match attended by some of the figures from the film. The story is not yet over. But TICKLED makes a very strong case for who should held accountable, and by bringing the film to the widest possible audience, Farrier and Reeve hope to bring a shadowy organization into the light.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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Kool Kat of the Week: When the Tickling Gets Weird: New Zealand Director David Farrier Investigates One of the Internet’s Craziest Fetishes

Posted on: Jul 6th, 2016 By:

tickled By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

TICKLED, now playing in Atlanta movie theaters, is a whodunit at heart. New Zealand journalist David Farrier had hoped to write a short article about some videos he found online depicting something called Competitive Endurance Tickling. He couldn’t have known that the response to his request for an interview would send him on a multi-year journey to uncover a dark underbelly to this seemingly good-natured sport and, perhaps, a real-life monster.

ATLRetro talked with Farrier about the making of this insane little film, improvisational journalism, fetish culture, and how it felt when he first realized what he was getting into.

Note: the reception on our phone call was patchy, but we worked around it for the most part.

You can read my review of TICKLED here.

ATLRetro: First of all, I really loved the film. I’ve never been so on the edge of my seat watching a conversation outside a coffee shop.

David Farrier: [laughs] I know, I know. And like the world’s [unintelligible] car chase.

Right. I think I even said out loud in my chair when it happened, “we are having a car chase right now.”

DF: [laughs]

It was just very surprising. So, obviously it’s difficult to ask directly about the fallout over the film without spoiling it. For instance, the event that happened at the LA premiere.

Yeah, yeah. On that I’d just say that, you know, it’s been a pretty interesting time. People from, I mean the movie is about Jane O’Brien Media, and it doesn’t paint them in a particularly great light, and at one of our premieres we had some key players from the film turn up. And at the end of this film, during the Q&A, [unintelligible] with more legal action. That’s been going on through the whole process.

Tickled VideosWhen I was done watching the film, I didn’t get the feeling that the story was finished. It felt like some things are just beginning. What’s it been like promoting a finished film when it’s still unfolding day to day?

It’s difficult mainly because that people we want people to see the documentary without knowing too much, and when people see this documentary, when they’re coming out to a screening, that’s out there now, so we have to talk about it. [unintelligible] people to not watch the trailer, not read a review, watch the movie, and get into all that afterwards. The story is very active, as you say, you know. We showed everything in the film that we wanted to show at the time, but since the company is still active, of course, they’re going to push back after the film’s out, so we just have to keep on going.

When you sent that first email off at the very beginning of the film, things quickly went off the rail. I’m curious to know what kind of story you thought you were going to make before that first response. Where were you headed?

Yeah, I mean, I was just looking to generate a one-and-a-half minute story about, you know, here’s this crazy sport about competitive endurance tickling. And I wanted to talk to a competitor and I wanted to talk to the organizer. And get some shots of the event and maybe an interview with the organizer and an interview with the New Zealand competitor. But, you know, that first response that was very aggressive about telling me not to do the story, you know, that changed all that. I didn’t have my nice one-and-a-half minute story, it turned into something completely different.

Right, I get the impression that if you had gotten an answer that was just “no, we’re not interested,” then all of this that has come to light wouldn’t have come to light.

Oh, totally. [unintelligible] I would have forgotten about it and moved on. I was in a quick turnaround situation, so each day I had to turn in a story. So I didn’t have time to investigate, I had to move on to the next thing. Had it been a more measured response, there wouldn’t have been a documentary.

What was the first moment where this started to get too real? Was there ever a moment where you were scared?

There were lots of moments, I mean I was apprehensive when I went to the airport, you know, they sent representatives and I was going to have a meeting. And there was the time I spent in America, approaching people on the street. So approaching them I found nerve-wracking, but [co-director] Dylan and I, we were in this together from the start, you know. We came across this crazy thing. We both got warned early on by this company that we expect legal action to happen, so we were united in that, I suppose. So if we hadn’t had each other, I probably would have run away from the whole thing.

Tickled filmYeah, you guys seem to have a good working relationship. It seemed that there were moments where each of you had a choice of whether to continue or stop.

There were lots of discussions. It was like that the whole way through. If one of us was coming under threats or attacks, you know, we’d talk to the other person and share what we’re going through. We’d share everything in the process, right? In a practical sense, it was really great having someone else in this with me.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you don’t have a background necessarily in investigative journalism.

No, no.

When you were doing this investigation, did you sit down and come up with a step by step plan, or were you kind of improvising as you went along?

I mean, the story happened really quickly. We did the Kickstarter campaign so we could start shooting it really quickly, and we did that initial shoot, and then we came back realizing the story was of a scope, was like, bigger. And we had a lot of time to prep and prepare for the second shoot, and I write entertainment, I was in the newsroom among all the hard current affairs reporters, and I always kind of admired what they were doing. [call completely breaks up at this point]

I think you actually broke up a little bit right there.

In the news room, I did, like entertainment, but I was sitting next to some really hardened current affairs reporters, so I absorbed a lot of what their techniques were. But really, it was just a lot of research, a lot of planning, and just being super aware of what could happen, what could not happen in any kind of situation, so I could react accordingly. So really just lots, and lots, and lots of preparation.

I’ve seen the film and I think you do a very good job of avoiding one of the concerns you might have going in, that this was going to turn into “fetish shaming.” I’m curious when you’re developing your approach on the film, was that something you were aware of, did you have to take pains to make sure that didn’t happen?

Oh, yeah, right from the beginning. Right from the beginning, we were super aware that we didn’t want to paint the fetish community with the same brush. It was the idea that, yes, there’s some bad stuff going on, but it’s less about the fetish and more about the harassment going on around it. One of the first people who reached out to us and supported our Kickstarter was Richard Ivey, who was filming in the fetish [community] and his whole career was built around it. And he came on board with the same concerns, like “I hope you’re not going to make a film that paints us,” you know, “in a negative light.” Yeah, it was right from the beginning that we wanted to make it super clear, and make it clear in the movie, you can be into tickling, there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, that’s great, it should be celebrated, but, you know, the dark world that we stumbled onto was somehow almost separate to the tickling.

Tickled PosterRight, in the video of the LA premiere, there was a debate going back and forth between you and one of the people involved about whether the tickling videos are pornographic.

Yeah, that was one of the rather obscure arguments. [laughs]

The idea that they’re just pornography with clothes. I’m just curious about that distinction. Why does that distinction need to get made by them that they aren’t?

That’s a whole other side of it…but that’s not what the film is actually about, and what the problem is. He claims that he doesn’t make fetish content. Now I would argue that Jane O’Brien Media is making, [are] not necessarily pornographic, but certainly, what’s the word? Erotic, and it’s really in the debate about what is erotica versus what is pornography. But, you know, anything can be erotica. If that happens to be young, good-looking, athletic men in sports gear tickling each other, that’s not all that surprising.

I have a question about the decision, and this was probably a conversation in the editing room, but the decision to show the tickling videos unblurred, showing all the faces of the people participating in them unblurred.

Yeah, the understanding was that we [had] many tickling videos, [but] we wanted to not focus on the tickling videos to an excessive degree. Because some of the people in the tickling videos, you know, we had to talk them about it. But all the videos were already online en masse, like they’re already out there. And our film explains why they’re in it. So while they’re online, hour-long tickling videos, the film provides context for why they’re there and how the people got there. I mean, I don’t want to give spoilers, but it kind of contextualized what was going on. The videos that were no longer online and no longer out there, we blurred those ones. Some of these videos were over a decade old and we didn’t want to bring those back for people, and also we didn’t know who was in them, so we thought about that a lot in the editing room.

To me, I find it an interesting dichotomy between the tickling videos as kind of a metaphor for everything else that’s going on. Somebody sitting on top of somebody else, and dominating them. Whether that’s physically happening in a video, or metaphorically happening in everything else.

Completely, oh yeah, definitely.

So the videos themselves are harmless and the [surrounding] behavior is bad, or are these videos themselves exploitative?

No, the videos… the people who were in those videos, if they knew who was behind it and why it was being created, if they knew all of that and kept doing them, that would be fine. What makes it exploitative is that they don’t know—the people that I’ve spoken to—they don’t know what those videos are for. And I think that’s wrong. In a nutshell, there’s nothing wrong with making tickling videos as long as you know who they’re for and where they’re going and what they’re going to be used for, etc. It becomes problematic when you don’t know the answers to those questions.

TICKLED is now playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Click here for showtimes.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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RETRO REVIEW: HIGH-RISE Aims High with Ballard Adaptation, Falls Low …Maybe

Posted on: May 12th, 2016 By:

high-rise-poster-ben-wheatleyHIGH-RISE (2015); Dir. Ben Wheatley; Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss; Opens Friday, May 13 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

When the credits rolled and the lights came up on HIGH-RISE, I wasn’t sure what to think. The audience around me murmured and shifted. The film didn’t seem to go over well on them. As I left the theater, one guy asked someone (the crowd?) repeatedly “Did you like that film? Did you like that film?” In the parking lot, I overheard two women trying to make sense out of it.

So, yeah, I think I liked it.

HIGH-RISE is an intentional provocation, an agitprop object. This thing has weight, texture, depth. A century ago, people tried to burn the screen after movies like this, movies that acted as angry screeds about the increasing stratification of the classes. HIGH-RISE acts as a period piece, but couldn’t be more perfectly suited to our times. Wow, this film is mad, and it makes a solid case that we all should be madder.

Based on the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel that was long considered unfilmable, HIGH-RISE plays out like an uppercrust LORD OF THE FLIES, with an insulating luxury apartment building standing in for the far-flung desert island. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a desirable young doctor whose search for solitude prompts him to move to the 25th floor of the ultra-modern building that offers all the amenities of the outside world, from swimming pools to supermarkets. At first, Laing’s new environment seems like a utopian paradise full of endless parties. People from all floors mix and mingle, despite the economic divide. You see, the lower floors are for the families and the poor, and it’s these people hit the hardest when the power begins to short out. It happens a little at a time, and then all at once. The building’s architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), offers no good explanation, and as the resources begin to dwindle, the utopia crumbles as the residents turn on one another.

2016_11_high_riseYou may be asking why the residents don’t just leave the building as it stops sustaining them? This is where we approach the novel’s unfilmable reputation. Those looking for a clean narrative like LORD OF THE FLIES or even SNOWPIERCER might find themselves thrown by HIGH-RISE’s allegorical approach. The residents do leave. They go to work. Occasionally. But when the day is over, they race back to the disintegrating nightmare of their vertical world. Dogs become food. Roving bands of the well-to-do raid their neighbors for cocktail onions so that the party can continue. Laing himself becomes intent on simply finding the perfect paint color for his apartment while the bodies pile up in the pool. The allegory is that capitalism and human nature itself is the root of the evil, and it never occurs to the citizens of the block that there might be another way.

hiddleston-xlarge_trans++3hVEJul2WVJXEjB3JWusSHndML-fnbpvlkWcWvKdhwUDirector Ben Wheatley has developed a reputation for off-center oddities, including 2013’s A FIELD IN ENGLAND, in which a group of men crossing a field becomes a trippy psychedelic mash. Wheatley (and his wife/writer Amy Jump) proves to be a great fit for this material, choosing to emphasize mood and meaning over the particulars of plot, which could never have come together satisfactorily without sacrificing some of the story’s deep symbolism. In this building, it’s not so easy that the rich prey on the poor, but that when the chips are down, they all prefer to eat each other. The only sane way to navigate this new world is to paint yourself into your own carved-out corner and hope to god it doesn’t come crashing through your door.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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ATLFF Review: SIREN Gets Weird and Makes It Work

Posted on: Apr 15th, 2016 By:

SirenSIREN (2016); Dir. Gregg Bishop; Starring Hannah Fierman, Chase Williamson; Justin Welborn; IMDB link here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

I’ll admit that SIREN didn’t encourage my expectations. Screening at the end of a long week of films, SIREN felt like a pitch from a carnival barker: “Did you like V/H/S (2012), that found-footage horror anthology? No, not really? Well, what about “Amateur Night,” arguably its most popular segment? You know, the one where some bros pick up a strange young woman for hotel porn, but get a rampaging monster ripping through their innards instead? Yeah? All right, well SIREN takes that premise but expands the world. This thing’s got a menagerie of fantasy monsters, a supernatural brothel, a southern-fried monster wrangler, and a fresh batch of victims with a fresh batch of innards. Step right up!”

Taking the original’s simple karmic reversal set-up and turning it into a NIGHTBREED-esque freakshow does not feel like a great idea. “Amateur Night” director David Bruckner had been swapped out for Gregg Bishop from the weaker V/H/S VIRAL (2014), and seeing the logo of Chiller—the notoriously cheap horror network—had me sinking into my chair and settling in for a long night. But, little by little, SIREN won me over, and horror junkies who discover the film are going to find an unexpectedly inspired bit of monster mayhem.

V/H/S Amateur Night.

V/H/S Amateur Night.

The script swaps out the assholes from the original segment for a (slightly) more sympathetic bunch. Jonah (Chase Williamson) is about to get married, and his standard issue buddies—the Asshole Brother, the Saintly Best Friend, and the Funny Guy—drive him out into the swamps for a bachelor party because, of course, that’s where the wildest stuff happens. The gang gets conned into visiting a wild house run by Nyx (Justin Welborn), who tracks and traps critters from legend, including a lady that munches on memories and a naked nymph (Hannah Fierman, reprising her role from the original) he keeps locked up in the back. In “Amateur Night,” the nature of this particular creature was unclear, but in this film she’s officially a siren, complete with a singing voice that lures men to their deaths, and which drives Jonah to do something incredibly stupid (he even says out loud, “I’m about to do something incredibly stupid,” so we know). He releases her from her prison, and the carnage begins.

The rest of the plot revolves around the bachelor party attempting to escape from the beast while Nyx and his posse try to reclaim their “property”. It should be noted that Nyx is one flamboyant sunofagun. Welborn realizes what kind of movie he’s making, chewing enough scenery to fill all the spittoons in his character’s brothel. Somehow it works, especially paired with the nearly mute, doe-eyed performance of Fierman who vacillates between innocence and savagery and back again without warning, raging all over the screen like an unchecked id.

But what I found myself enjoying the most is Bishop’s eagerness to make SIREN more than a boilerplate midnight monster movie, looking for ways to elevate the action in clever ways. When the guys take shrooms, for example, his depiction of the trip they’re on is surprisingly realistic and gives the brothel the funky intro it deserves. A later action sequence benefits from focusing on Jonah—hiding and ears plugged to avoid hearing the creature’s song—so that we only see bodies flying around the edges of the screen, and we only hear the muffled thuds of gunshots and the murky pitch of screams.

SIREN isn’t a new classic, and in many ways it feels like a step backwards from the original short film, abandoning most of the elements that made “Amateur Night” work. But by sticking with Fierman and spinning a wacky backwoods mythology around her beastie, the film manages to stand on its own, and Bishop’s clever staging wrings a lot of extra mileage from what could have been boring, standard horror set pieces. In that respect, I guess the carnival barker got it right. SIREN is a freak show, but sometimes it’s a whole lot of fun to see weirdness for weirdness’s sake.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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ATLFF Review: SPEED SISTERS Wins by Racing Against Expectations

Posted on: Apr 12th, 2016 By:
Noor

Noor in SPEED SISTERS.

SPEED SISTERS (2015); DIR. Amber Fares; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Website here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

SPEED SISTERS opens with a shot of a young Palestinian woman struggling with her car. Three men appear from nowhere to offer support, so she stays behind the wheel, grinning, as they push her where she needs to go. I read this scene as a mission statement. Amber Fares’s film is about the first all-female racing team in the Middle East, after all, and I live in a country with (incorrect) assumptions that women in that region rarely get behind the wheel. But if SPEED SISTERS is about gender equality—and in part, it is—the film gets there without preaching or proselytizing. These women can race, and so they get to race. Duh. The film is far more concerned with being kinetic, fast-paced and blisteringly entertaining, so if there are political points to be made, they’re going to have to learn to keep up.

Marah.

Marah.

Auto racing is a relatively new sport in Palestine, and thanks to the region’s network of checkpoints and crowded neighborhoods, there’s very little room to rally. Instead, races happen through tightly wound tracks, seemingly in borrowed parking lots. Cones mark the track, and racers drive their own modified cars—compact and nimble—through the twists and turns. The sport is dominated by the men who started it, but Maysoon, frustrated by traffic jams, founded the all-women’s team and acts as its captain. The team competes alongside the men and makes frequent media appearances to promote the sport. Most of the public reaction seems positive. Occasionally, an old-timer grumbles that the women don’t wear the hijab, or that racing isn’t a proper sport for a lady, but the girls laugh off these complaints. One younger man tells the camera that it took only a couple of races before the women had earned the men’s respect and acceptance. Racing is a community, it seems, and they’re all in this together.

Most of the personal conflict comes from within the team. Betty, a fashion-plate born into racing royalty, and the team’s public face, is a champion. Marah, young and hungry, fights to take Betty’s spot despite resistance, perceived or otherwise, from the organizers. Noor’s hot-headed nature triggers costly mistakes on the track. Mona is talented, but willing to toss racing away if her new husband asks her to. As the film follows the team from race-to-race, throughout Palestine and into Jordan and elsewhere, Fares does an expert job of keeping these storylines humming, shifting them between the foreground and the background with precision, punctuating the character drama with dashboard shots of the team whipping cars around obstacles, laughing with the freedom the track offers, enjoying the thrill of being behind the wheel. Their passion is for driving. It certainly can’t be the money; there doesn’t appear to be any.

Betty

Betty.

Above all, SPEED SISTERS is a blast. The races are thrilling, the characters are compelling, and the jokes are laugh out loud funny. But while the politics are backgrounded, they’re impossible to ignore. If the people the film presents to us are united, it’s because they see enemies all around them. Their country is claustrophobic. Marah sees racing as a means of announcing her freedom to Israel, who she sees as an occupying force in her homeland. Fares backs her by contrasting the energy of the races with the unimaginable slowness of everyday life in the region. Traffic jams. Inspections. Orwellian checkpoints. One racer waves to soldiers on patrol, and is shot by a tear gas canister for her presumption. For the women with more restrictive travel passes, the ocean is just a concept. “They took all our most beautiful places for themselves,” one woman says when she finally lays eyes on the sea.

Better, then, to make her own beauty out of asphalt and cones. Behind the wheel, squealing tires in hairpin turns, wind whipping their hair as they scream in excitement, the team takes back their agency. If they can only race fast enough, their problems get left in the dirt and the dust. The world belongs to them, and they keep it in a rearview mirror.

SPEED SISTERS is playing at festivals across the world. For more information, visit the official Website.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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ATLFF Review: Standing By: THE WITNESS Confronts the Controversial Circumstances of Kitty Genovese’s Murder

Posted on: Apr 7th, 2016 By:
KItty Genovese.

KItty Genovese.

THE WITNESS (2016); DIR. James D. Solomon; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Website here. ATLRetro’s Festival Guide here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

If you saw a person in need of emergency help, what would you do? Most of us would probably say we’d call 911, but would we really? Those trained in first aid know that the best strategy in an emergency is not to scream for somebody to call for an ambulance, but to choose a specific person and tell them to make the call. Otherwise, maybe nobody calls at all.

You may or may not know the name Kitty Genovese, but you’re certainly familiar with the cultural impact caused by her 1964 death in New York City. Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager, was murdered on the street, half a block from her home, randomly chosen by a man in the midst of a crime spree. Two weeks after her murder, the New York Times published an article detailing the unsettling circumstances of her death. It’s quite possible that Genovese’s life could have been saved, the story goes, if only the 38 witnesses who watched the attack had bothered to call the police. Although her screams ripped through the neighborhood, although she begged for aid, no help came because no help was called. The tragedy became an example of the ways that New York City—and perhaps even America itself—had lost touch with its values of community and compassion. How could Kitty Genovese bleed to death while her neighbors watched? How could so many witnesses produce no action? The case was a major impetus in the creation and marketing of 911 as a national emergency number, and became a centerpiece of a sociological theory of the “bystander effect,” in which the larger the group of people, the less likely any individual is to act in an emergency, due in part to the belief that surely somebody else will be the one.

The story is so well known, in fact, that one might be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, remains to be explored. THE WITNESS, a new documentary that screened Wednesday at the Atlanta Film Festival, spends its first section failing to make this case for itself. The film introduces Bill Genovese (younger brother to Kitty, and an executive producer on the film) who, after struggling with five decades of emotional trauma, finally decides to track down the 38 witnesses and ask them why they let his sister die. There’s a hint of redundancy around his quest. The news show 20/20 tried the same in the 1970s with poor results, and many of the witnesses, elderly even at the time, have long since passed. If this was all the film had up its sleeve, there would seem to be little reason for it to exist at all. But, as it turns out, THE WITNESS has many, many cards to play.

Bill Genovese

Bill Genovese in THE WITNESS. Used with permission.

Very soon after Bill Genovese begins his quixotic quest, inconsistencies appear. With the sight lines from the apartment building, it wouldn’t be possible for all 38 people to watch Kitty die. Some would have only heard her scream and seen nothing. Only five witnesses were called at trial, so who are the other 33? And what of the woman who raced to Kitty’s side and held her as she died? Why was she absent from the official news story? As the discrepancies pile up, Bill Genovese begins to question the canon, which is no small transition. Genovese, you see, enlisted in Vietnam in the years following his sister’s death, and suffered catastrophic injury, primarily because he refused to be like those people who ignored Kitty, the “silent witnesses” who let tragedy unfold without acting. Was it possible that his choice, and the trajectory of his life, had been based on a lie?

THE WITNESS is an engrossing exploration of the repercussions of trauma. Bill Genovese suffered not only the loss of his sister, but of his own future, and he’s not the only one. Through the careful reveal of information, the film probes how the official story shook the Genovese family, the supposed witnesses, and even the family the murderer, Winston Moseley (who coincidentally died this week in prison, putting the case back into the news), left behind on his way into prison. An astonishing meeting late in the film reveals the fear that the Moseleys have lived with for five decades and reminds us that murders often have more victims than we expect.

10294346_10153376281298424_3819900343571644880_nThe center of the film, however, remains Bill Genovese, who narrates and drives the action as he pieces together the truth, which is not so simple a thing as the ‘facts.’ He doesn’t only want to know what happened, but why, and even how. Confined to a wheelchair due to his war injuries, Genovese is a nonetheless imposing figure as he confronts reporters, lawyers, and even the aging witnesses in an attempt to set the record straight in his mind. (He has a journalist’s tenacity, often asking witnesses if they ever spoke to the police, and then regardless of their answer, revealing that he has their police statement right in front of him.) He is the witness of the film’s title, not present at the event itself, but willing to stand for his sister, to shine light on her vibrant and rich existence (and, in a particularly moving section of the film, her secrets) to reclaim her from the cold register of history and return her, in some way, to life.

If there is a complaint to be found, it’s in the final minutes, in which the filmmakers execute a macabre event that fails to do much more than provide a punchy ending for their film. But this is ultimately a minor complaint in what remains a compelling and complex exploration of the ramifications of “facts.” The Genovese family cannot bring Kitty back, but perhaps it is enough to remind the world that we are not so alone as we thought.

THE WITNESS opens in theaters in New York later this year before rolling out to additional cities. Further information can be found at http://www.thewitness-film.com/ and the filmmakers’ twitter account is @thewitnessfilm.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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Retro Review: High-Wire Countdown: EIGHT Catches the Free Fall of a Young Woman’s Fight for Sanity

Posted on: Mar 31st, 2015 By:

Snowdance_eight-333x187EIGHT (2014); Dir. Peter Blackburn; Starring Libby Munro; Screened at the Atlanta Film Festival, IMDB.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The term “high-wire act” is sometimes deployed by critics to describe a film or a performance that’s particularly high-risk, implying disaster should the performer slip up or go too far. EIGHT, an Australian film that just had its North American premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival, pivots on a performance that seems less like a high-wire act than a bungee-cord plunge. Star Libby Munro is in a perpetual state of free fall in the film, without a net to catch her, and the only question is just how hard she’s going to hit the pavement. Only when she doesn’t does the full weight of her accomplishment become clear.

Munro stars as Sarah, a woman crippled by agoraphobia and OCD that appears to have completely shut her in to her home. The entire film follows Sarah as she attempts to begin her day, and if that sounds like a premise that can’t support a feature, then be grateful for your perspective. Movie characters written into sweeping, plot-driven adventures rarely suffer as Sarah does just in the simple act of trying to get dressed. Her illness has trapped her in a paralyzing cycle of eights. She must tap her feet eight times to put on her slippers, make eight taps on the fridge door before opening it for water, and wash her hands violently eight times in a sink before she can convince herself they’re clean. Sarah’s body bears the scars and bruises from her daily struggle with tasks as simple as taking a shower, cleaning the sink, or making breakfast.

eightThe film doesn’t reveal much about Sarah. We see she has an absent family, but we never learn what triggered her condition or how long it’s been with her. What we know for certain is that she wants to get better. Her house is papered with encouraging notes, and an occasional caller checks in with her progress over an answering machine. With this knowledge every lapse, every small mistake that repeats a cycle becomes all the more tragic. Sarah is not insane, she’s ill. She’s fully aware of her condition, but trapped by it, and EIGHT honors the grip of her illness by refusing to cut away from it. Indeed, EIGHT is shot as a single, uninterrupted take that keeps Sarah in the frame for almost all of the film’s 82 minutes. Far from being a showy gimmick, EIGHT’s ambitious single-take style is essential to the understanding of what the film wants to convey. Sarah has no escape, and the film provides a small glimpse of what it means to actually live that kind of life. The film can be brutal, unflinching, and, quite frankly, difficult to watch, but it evokes sympathy for mental illness in a way a more traditional film could not. Unlike other famous one-shot films (ROPE, BIRDMAN), there is no editing trickery on display. It actually is one single, punishing take providing only rare moments of audience relief (words cannot express my gratitude when the camera decided not to stay on Sarah for a third painful, compulsive shower. The camera instead chooses that moment to glide past pictures of the family Sarah has lost to her illness, twisting the knife in another way.)

After the AFF screening, director Peter Blackburn talked about how mental illness—especially OCD—is too often used as a comedic character quirk in Australian film. (Americans who’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s hammy, Oscar-winning performance in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) can relate). Blackburn hoped that EIGHT would put the focus back on the reality of the disorder, and in that his film is a success. Munro’s performance is so raw and tortured that audiences will find themselves cheering for each tiny bit of progress Sarah makes. A stage actor in Australia, Munro masterfully depicts Sarah’s breakdown between the life she wants and the life her compulsions force her to live. Almost entirely without words—over 20 minutes passed before the first voice reminded me that the film is Australian—Munro is able to make Sarah a complete and pitiable human being. Her work here is remarkable, and despite that bungee-cord feeling that disaster could strike at any moment, she confidently sticks the landing.

I’m not entirely convinced that EIGHT does the same, saddled as it is with an ending that, although welcome, is a bit too tidy after the struggle that came before. But the film must still be considered an accomplishment, both in completing its incredibly difficult single shot and for depicting the real heartbreak of OCD through the power of the splendid, fearless performance that anchors the film.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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AFF Retro Review: Forbidden Lens: FRAME BY FRAME Focuses a Camera on Afghanistan

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2015 By:

maxresdefaultFRAME BY FRAME (2015); Dirs. Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Farzana Wahidy sifts through the books in her apartment, searching for one particular image among many. At last she finds the right one and holds it up for the camera. The picture is black-and-white and depicts three young, pretty Afghan women wearing shorts and loose blouses, their heads uncovered, arms cradling books. They are on their way to class at the university in Kabul. The picture is captioned: “Afghanistan in the 1970s.” When compared to modern Afghanistan, the picture seems to come from an alternate reality, not the relatively recent past. After the photo was taken came war, revolution, and the Taliban. Soon, taking another photo like it would become illegal. A generation of Afghan culture vanished under a Taliban regime that considered photography a crime. Today, without the archive of their struggles, people like Farzana sift through old books and wonder how they got here, and how they left so much behind.

FRAME BY FRAME, a new documentary from Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, is a look at a nation awakening to find itself. When the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, they came as redeemers and reformers under a banner of peace and with a mission to return the nation to the true Afghan people. As with too many such movements, it ended in suffering when the regime revealed its narrow, strict idea of who the true Afghans were. To retain control, the Taliban limited the media and made taking photographs a crime punishable by imprisonment, torture or even death. After the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban from power, a few took up cameras and began to take pictures once again and now, for the first time in decades, the visual history of Afghanistan is back in the hands of its people. Challenges remain. The Afghan media is still new, standing on shaky legs and trying to gain momentum. In the face of an uncertain future, FRAME BY FRAME attempts to mark the moment and legitim
ize it for the world.

frame_by_frame_stillThe documentary follows four Afghan photographers as they travel the country and encounter distrust, opposition, and bigotry. One man visits city slums to capture the face of opiate addiction. Another runs a photography school to develop the camera skills of the next generation. A journalist, Massoud Hossaini, runs into harm’s way to capture staggering images such as the photo of grief and violence that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Each faces cultural challenges as the lingering grip of the Taliban is still felt, but perhaps none more so than Farzana Wahidy, who seeks journalistic access and respect in a country where the rules work very differently for  women. Journalism is no longer a crime in Afghanistan, but even an act as simple as taking a woman’s photograph carries a deep social stigma, one that Wahidy bravely, and too often unsuccessfully, confronts.

Bombach and Scarpelli know what they have here. They’ve stated in interviews that the film began as a short subject, but refused to be contained, eventually swelling to feature length. There is something intoxicating about watching an oppressed people discover that the rights to their heritage are theirs. This is what the Taliban took away, the ability to define their country’s reality. Without photography, without media, there is no document of the now and no story of today except that which those in charge decide upon. This is the foundational idea behind a free press, that an informed populace can look past a false narrative and take action. By stealing away their right to document, the Taliban denied the Afghan people the ability to self-identify, made them conform to an identity of religious zealotry that still lingers at the edges of the frame. The film’s subjects point their lenses at poverty, addiction and bloody violence, but also at smiling children, marvels of Afghan architecture and an old man voting in his first election. There is both the destruction of the past and hope for the future—the country exactly as it is.

frame-by-frame-670x377But with hope comes anxiety. Afghans nervously discuss the upcoming exit of US troops, and with it the possibility of civil war. Warlords still rule and hold sway in the outskirts, and the new free press could disappear if the Taliban returns to power. In one of the film’s episodes, Farzana visits a hospital in a western Afghan town. Women are said to be self-immolating at an alarming rate. Although she’s arranged the proper permissions, she’s greeted at a hospital by a male doctor who speaks over her, talks down to her, and tells her that she will not be able to take the pictures she’s there to take. His concern is for his own life. If the local warlord hears that a woman has been taking sensitive pictures of other women—who, the film implies, are not self-immolating but are instead the victims of abuse—then the doctor could be killed or the hospital burned. Farzana tries to explain that the people have a right to hear the story, that it’s her job to report the news. He has no problem with her reporting the news, he says, just so long as the stories are about men. Even in freedom, progress is slow and precarious.

FRAME BY FRAME mirrors its subject by becoming a snapshot of an Afghan moment in time—informed by, but unmoored, from its past and anticipating an unknown future.

FRAME BY FRAME screened at the Atlanta Film Festival. Click here for a schedule of upcoming films. For more information on FRAME BY FRAME, visit the film’s website for more information.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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