Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book Club is one of those movies that works a lot better on paper than it does in execution. Bringing together Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen as four best friends who decide to spice up their mostly non-existent sex lives by reading E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, the film seems like a can't-miss proposition on merit of its cast alone. Unfortunately, it relies on them a bit too heavily, coasting by on their charisma and chemistry, but failing to deliver a particularly satisfying story.

It plays a lot of narrative connect-the-dots as it attempts to emulate other female-centric comedies such as Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated. Unfortunately, Book Club doesn't have a talent like Nancy Meyers behind it, and the result hackneyed screenplay that leans heavily on silliness, without doing its cast much justice. Keaton leads the pack as Diane, a Santa Monica widow whose overprotective children (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) want her to move to Arizona to live with them. Fonda is a wealthy hotel magnate named Vivian who loves sex but refuses to commit, even at 70. Bergen is a reserved federal judge named Sharon who believes she well past her prime, and Steenburgen is a retiree who wants to reignite the passion with her husband (Craig T. Nelson).

They all meet monthly for a book club meeting, but when Vivian introduces the BDSM romance, "Fifty Shades of Grey," they all find themselves looking for ways to rekindle the fire in their love lives. It isn't long before Diane meets a handsome pilot (Andy Garcia), which puts her at odds between her own happiness, and the happiness of her overbearing daughters.

It's a charming premise, and the cast throw themselves into it gamely, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The jokes are often hit-or-miss, and many are buried by the awkward way in which first-time filmmaker Bill Holderman tries to shoe-horn them into the action. Add that to some uneven editing and questionable green-screen effects and you have a film with a great cast, a great premise, and absolutely no idea what to do with either. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than in the company of these four fine actresses, but they deserve better than this; all four now in their seventies but just as vital and vibrant as ever. There’s something to be said about a film that celebrates the sexuality of women of a certain age, but ultimately it feels more like a missed opportunity. Come for the effortless rapport of the stars, but don't expect the film to fully deliver on their promise.


GRADE – ★★½ (out of four)


BOOK CLUB | Directed by Bill Holderman | Stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Alicia Silverstone | Rated PG-13 for sex-related material throughout, and for language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Cinema Obscura is a monthly feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

Including a film by a filmmaker as universally revered as Dziga Vertov in my Cinema Obscura series might raise a few eyebrows. While he is hardly a household name, Vertov is nevertheless regarded as one of the great filmmakers by cineastes and film historians, who consider his 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, to be one of the greatest films ever made. On the other hand, Vertov is hardly a household name, and while most film historians tend to focus on Man with a Movie Camera, his later work is often just as fascinating from a historical point of view, if for somewhat different reasons.

By the time Vertov made Three Songs About Lenin in 1934, Stalin's regime was already cracking down on what they saw as "revolutionary" filmmaking. The Bolshevik revolution was over, and the Communist Soviet government was well established at that point. Stalin demanded that films be of a simple language, easily understood by the masses, and so Vertov's Kino-Eye theory was suddenly out of step with the very government it once helped prop up.

The idea of Kino-Eye was that film should eschew the romantic narratives of bourgeois filmmaking and embrace a sense of realism that was beneficial to the public. While Vertov's editing style was decidedly avant-garde, he flouted the idea of narrative cinema in favor of filming life as it happened, rather than try to stage it himself. These ideas would later be embraced by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin when they formed the short-lived Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 in an attempt to radicalize modern filmmaking for Marxist goals. But as Three Songs About Lenin shows, even Vertov was forced to abandon his own ideals as Stalin moved away from the founding principles of the very revolution he helped implement.

Vertov made Three Songs About Lenin to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin's death, and peering through a modern lens, it almost resembles something one could imagine Fox News might make about Donald Trump. It is a shamelessly effusive hagiography of the Communist hero that makes him out to be more god than man, ironic given the atheistic bedrock of Soviet thought. It was also a deeply personal work for Vertov, who clearly venerated Lenin, but it's almost sad watching how the filmmaker's style was neutered by the government in order to make it more straightforward. In fact, its very core is a betrayal of Vertov's Kino-Eye principles. While much of the film is comprised of re-edited newsreel footage, much of it was staged for the sake of the film, a departure from the organic reality Vertov sought in his filmmaking.

The film is comprised of three segments, each featuring a folk song about Lenin from some far-flung corner of the USSR. It's interesting, now, watching a communist film decry Islam as a prison for women, and realize just how much the Soviet government shares with modern conservatives in the age of Trump. The first song is a celebration of a Muslim woman breaking free of her veil, its Islamaphobic undertones painting Muslims as barbaric and backwards, and the Soviets as benevolent liberators, a bit of agitprop self-aggrandizement that ultimately proved to be false.


And yet, even with its state-sanctioned roadblocks, there's something about Three Songs About Lenin that is hard to shake. Vertov was clearly a master of editing. Whereas his contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein, used montage as a storytelling tool, Vertov used it to illicit emotion. Much of the film was culled from newsreels, and Vertov managed to turn them into pure visual poetry. No one did propaganda films like the Soviets, and while government restrictions eventually tamped down the avant-garde elements that initially distinguished them, Vertov took the cards he was dealt and still managed to turn them into cinema magic. He conducts Three Songs like a symphony in three parts, eventually building to an ecstatic crescendo that admittedly veers into some pretty painful deification that seems even more cringe-worthy in retrospect, as the breathless pronouncements of the invincibility and permanence of Lenin's achievements now seem somewhat quaint.

Despite that fact, Three Songs About Lenin is often overlooked in favor of Vertov's more famous works. Man with a Movie Camera remains the ultimate representation of his Kino-Eye aesthetic, a pure union of captured image, found footage, and montage. But it is worth exploring the rest of his filmography. In his quest to find truth through cinema, Vertov often found the exact opposite, and is therefore a fascinating study in propaganda and where cinematic observation becomes manipulation through use of editing, cinematography, and music choices. Like the regime that gave birth to it, the film has been all but lost to history, forgotten and hacked to pieces in the years since its release. The most complete version, reconstructed from both the sound and silent versions, is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Jacques Demy only made one English language film - 1969's Model Shop. Inspired by a trip to Los Angeles with his wife, Agnès Varda, Demy set out to make a film about the city, capturing its rhythms and textures, through the many drives he made through its streets.

It turned out to be a creatively rich vacation for both filmmakers, inspiring Varda to make Black Panthers, Uncle Yanco, and Lions Love (...and Lies). While Varda was more fascinated by the people of Los Angeles, Demy fell in love with the city itself, and created a kind of travelogue about a struggling architect trying to discover where he fits into the world. Like Demy himself, our sanguine hero, George (Gary Lockwood), is something of a stranger in a strange land, an artist without an outlet, a man who wants to create works of art, but remains unemployed because he doesn't want to waste his talents designing gas stations.

He finds his inspiration in a seedy photography studio where men are invited to take pictures of scantily clad models - $12 for 15 minutes, camera and film included. It is there where George meets Lola (Anouk Aimée, reprising her role from Demy's 1961 film, Lola), a model trying to make ends meet so she can return to France to see her son. George becomes increasingly infatuated with her, leaving behind his frustrated girlfriend to pay visits to Lola's studio. When George receives his draft notice summoning him to Vietnam, he decides to make one last ditch effort to win Lola's affections, even if both of them are headed to opposite ends of the world.

Model Shop is a film of maybes and what ifs, as much about "the one that got away" as it is about finding a connection, no matter how brief, in a world of uncertainty. Demy eschews his typically vibrant color schemes here, employing them only within the confines of the photography studio (a fantasy world that represents a kind of escape), instead creating a kind of drab realism to accompany the drudgery of George's daily life. And yet despite the fact that George lives next to an oil refinery, Demy clearly loves the world he's plunging us into. There's a sense of Vietnam-era ennui at work here, a kind of innocence lost in a teeming, once vibrant city. George is a creative stifled by a world that simply wants him to conform and punch the clock (self-reliance, boot-straps, and all that), and the call of the Army makes his mortality come into sharp focus.

There's an almost neo-realist vibe to Model Shop, something that is very different from Demy's typical filmmaking vocabulary. And yet is always vibrantly alive, capturing the indelible rhythm and hues of the streets of LA with as much loving detail as anything in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Here, Demy shows that he doesn't need cotton-candy colors to create something memorable, here all he needs are the streets themselves, and the appealingly inscrutable face of Gary Lockwood, on which to paint something beautiful. It's a haunting and often deeply reflective meditation on the American dream that is as timely now as ever.

GRADE -  ★★★½ (out of four)


MODEL SHOP | Directed by Jacques Demy | Stars Gary Lockwood, Anouk Aimée, Alexandra Hay, Carol Cole | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

I've been putting off writing about Chloé Zhao's The Rider. Not because I didn't have anything to say about it, but because the more I reflected on it, the more I realized I perhaps had too much to say. By the time the credits rolled, I had so many thoughts and feelings swimming around in my head, that the task of filtering through them all and organizing them into some coherent form seemed like a Sisyphean task; no sooner than one thought congealed, then another idea appeared like a film critic game of whack-a-mole.

Such is the wonder and beauty of Zhao's sophomore feature (after her 2015 debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me), a rough-hewn elegy for the American west and the archetypal masculine mystique of the cowboy. At a time when toxic masculinity and its devastating effects dominate the news, Zhao, who was born in China before immigrating to the United States to study political science at Mount Holyoke College, has crafted something deeply special a film that offers more insight into wounded masculinity than just about anything else in recent memory. Forget "Hillbilly Elegy," The Rider is the profound exploration of rural ennui we need.

The plot itself isn't particularly remarkable - a star rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) takes a fall and finds himself unable to get back into the ring. With his livelihood shattered, so too is his identity, and he finds himself taking up odd jobs and working minimum wage jobs in grocery stores to make ends meet until he heals. But when he learns that he may never be able to ride again, he soon faces an existential crisis that will either lead him down a path of despair, or toward a whole new life.

We've seen films like this before, a star athlete gets struck down in their prime and must learn to reinvent themselves. But rarely do these films have such a quiet authenticity as The Rider. There's a heartfelt honesty at the core of Zhao's film, and it starts with the cast, each playing a fictionalized version of themselves. Brady, his father Wayne, and his sister Lilly, are the heart and soul of the film, and it is their careworn realness that makes the film so unique. Zhao's first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, was made after living amongst the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao followed a similar process for The Rider, resulting in a film that seems to live and breathe its subject.

Zhao deftly explores the wounds to Brady's masculinity after his injury, and how that feeling of helplessness ties into his own lack of direction and inability to cope with losing the core of his identity. This isn't one of those breathless, post-Trump "plight of the forgotten man" screeds, in Zhao's capable hands this is about what that very mentality has made us lose. Through Jandreau's achingly authentic performance and some truly breathtaking cinematography by Joshua James Richards (God's Own Country), The Rider paints a heartbreaking portrait of a generation of young men searching for their identity, set against the backdrop of the fading American West. It's a delicate and tremulous thing, at once confident and gentle, lyrically composed yet as stoic as the American masculine ideal it so carefully deconstructs. This is a major film by a major filmmaker, a stirring and compelling search for the idea of the American man at a time when toxic masculinity has brought us so much ill through its anger and fragility. Zhao seeks to find another path forward through the myths of our past, pining not for an America that once was, but for an America that still could be.


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


THE RIDER | Directed by Chloé Zhao | Stars Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford | Rated R for language and drug use | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Hong Sangsoo's The Day After is the third film in what has become an unofficial trilogy dealing with the filmmaker's much publicized 2015 extramarital affair with actress Kim Min-hee, following On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) and Claire's Camera (2018). Of the three, The Day After stands out the most because it is something of a return to form for Hong, embracing the elliptical narratives and unconventional sense of time that have often distinguished his previous films, but also because it is less an apologia for his infidelity and more of an exploration of the collateral damage surrounding the affair.

The Day After centers around Kim Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo), a publisher who has just ended a long-time affair with an employee. He hires a young woman named Song Areum (Kim Min-hee) to replace her, and on her first day she becomes the victim of mistaken identity as his wife at long last learns of the affair, and shows up at the office to confront the other woman.

Hong's use of fractured time creates an air of confusion that leads to Areum being mistaken for Bongwan's mistress, but it also allows the audience to observe the true ramifications of Areum's infidelity, as it not only affects the three people directly involved, but those around them as well. Of the three films, The Day After is the one in which Hong seems to take the most responsibility for his actions, and even though Bongwan serves as a sort of stand-in for Hong himself, his character isn't so much the focus of the film as it is the emotional fallout from his actions.

Hong continues to use Kim Min-hee herself in each of these films, and yet here, by casting her as the woman unfairly punished for another's actions, he seems to absolve her of her sins. Of the three films, On the Beach at Night Alone feels like the most personal and most accomplished, the work of two artists laying their souls bare, while Claire's Camera is the most carefree and self-effacing; but there's something deeply painful lurking beneath the surface of The Day After that is hard to shake. It is arguably the most damning of the three films, as if Hong is taking sole responsibility for his actions and acknowledging the ripple effect of the pain he caused. It is a film filled with sadness and regret - if On the Beach at Night Alone reflected on how everything went wrong, and Claire's Camera explored the absurdities of the public reaction, then The Day After finally lays all of Hong's cards on the table in a final mea culpa.

Hong's affair has proven to be creatively fertile ground for the filmmaker, but one can't help but hope that he leaves it behind after this. Three films, examining the event from multiples angles, has given the filmmaker a chance to exorcise his own demons and to explore the causes and effects of infidelity not just from his own perspective, but from Kim's as well, who has been a willing and able creative parter through it all. Seen as three parts of one whole, these films represent one of the most remarkable and personal works by any filmmaker in recent memory, taken individually, they are extraordinary reflections of their creator who is working through his own issues through his chosen creative medium, and the results are a kind of filmed therapy that offers a  unique window into the soul of an artist.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE DAY AFTER | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Sae-byuk, Cho Yun-hee | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, May 11, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The third and final film in the Fifty Shades trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed is the first film in the franchise to finally embrace its own inherent ridiculousness. Whereas Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker often took themselves painfully serious, Fifty Shades Freed takes the series in some wild new directions, moving away from the romantic tension between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and into action/thriller territory as Grey's past begins to catch up to him.

The film picks up on some threads that were first hinted at in its otherwise uneventful predecessor, Fifty Shades Darker, with a stalker who seems to have a grudge against the Grey family. It turns out that Ana's former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), was once in foster care with Christian, long before he became the lecherous editor who tried to rape Ana in the previous film. Now he's out for revenge against Christian for being adopted and having a great life that he feels should have been his, and against Ana for taking his job. It's a hilariously thin motivation, almost completely lacking in anything resembling logic, especially considering the ludicrous lengths he goes to in order to take down the Greys, but this isn't exactly a franchise known for its depth.

The problem has always been the source material, and while Sam Taylor-Johnson's original film tried to bring some class to the cringeworthy prose of its source novel, these movies have all been hobbled from the outset by substandard material. And despite their kinky reputation and gratuitous sex scenes, they're actually a remarkably conservative depiction of family relationships. The Fifty Shades series is a bourgeois, suburban take on sexual fetishes and BDSM that thinks it's being a lot edgier than it actually is. Which is part of what makes it so fascinating - it thinks it's being bold and sexual but it's actually about as vanilla as it can get, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Fifty Shades Freed, which ties down our kinky heroes in a bland, traditional relationship with the occasional spanking thrown in.

And yet, you have to hand it to director James Foley for going full-on pulp fiction camp in the finale of a series that never seemed to be aware of how ridiculous it was. With its kidnappings, extortions, and attempted murders, Fifty Shades Freed is just as silly as it needs to be - a quality that sets it apart from its predecessors. These movies were never going to be great art, but there's something delightfully entertaining about the way in which it finally stops trying to be taken seriously. Here, Fifty Shades becomes the over-the-top soap opera it always should have been. Ana and Christian's relationship still isn't particularly interesting, and it still treats sexual kink with all the depth of a snickering middle-schooler who just discovered the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, but at least this one bothers to be fun, which is more than can be said for its predecessors, as evidenced by the finale montage that desperately tries to make the adventures of the previous films look interesting. The new Blu-Ray release adds little insight into the film itself, featuring a few perfunctory behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as an unrated cut of the film with 5 minutes of new footage not included in the theatrical release.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


FIFTY SHADES FREED | Directed by James Foley | Stars Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Arielle Kebbel, Brant Daugherty, Fay Masterson, Max Martini | Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD May 8.


SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • An Intimate Conversation with EL James and Eric Johnson – A casual conversation between EL and Eric discussing the film, favorite moments, themes, etc.
  • Music Videos
    • "For You (Fifty Shades Freed)" - Liam Payne & Rita Ora
    • "Capital Letters" - Hailee Steinfeld & BloodPop®
    • "Heaven" - Julia Michaels
  • Deleted Scene
  • The Final Climax – Fans can follow not only Ana and Christian, but also both new and familiar characters behind-the-scenes throughout their journey of Fifty Shades Freed
    • The Wedding: Take a closer look at the beautiful wedding scene with the production and costume designers – from the breathtaking venue, gorgeous gown and the custom-designed floral arrangements
    • Honeymoon: Travel along with the newlyweds and soak up the sun in the gorgeous French Riviera. Discover the challenge production faced with accessing locations, and the search for the perfect honeymoon yacht
    • Mr. & Mrs. Grey: After the wedding and the honeymoon, what is it really like to be married? Find out how life in the penthouse changes once Ana moves in
    • Ana Takes Charge: Director James Foley and Costume Designer Shay Cunliffe explore Ana’s transformation and growth into a powerful businesswoman
    • Ana & Mr. Hyde: Go behind the scenes and find out the secrets about what makes Jake Hyde tick
    • Aspen in Whistler: Take a look at how the filmmakers and set decorator used Whistler, Vancouver as a stand-in for snowy Aspen, and discover the famous musician whose home was transformed into Christian’s mansion
    • Ana's Revelation: Ana and Christian face their biggest challenge yet. Author EL James takes us through the choice that Ana must make and how the couple’s power dynamic shifts
    • Resolution: The final showdown between Ana and Jack brings the two face-to-face and Ana will do whatever it takes to protect Christian, his family, and her future
    • The Meaning of Freed: The cast and filmmakers share what being FREED really means for both Ana and Christian
    • Christian & Ana By Jamie & Dakota – Revisit the previous films and learn how both Ana and Christian have changed… and how both actors have lived through the experience

Saturday, May 05, 2018


A struggling mom gets an unexpected helping hand in Jason Reitman's wise and altogether wonderful Tully. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Tully stars Charlize Theron as Marlo, a mother of three who is overwhelmed by her maternal responsibilities, barely keeping up with feeding and taking care of her kids' special needs, not to mention their issues at school, while her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), can barely be bothered to do their schoolwork with them at night before disappearing upstairs to play video games. Marlo is at her wits' end, when her brother, a man she had written off as pretentiously bourgeois, hires a night nanny for her birthday.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a young woman who can seemingly do everything. Like a modern day Mary Poppins, Tully swoops in to take care of not only Marlo's newest baby, but Marlo herself, allowing her to finally get some much needed rest. But that's not all Tully does, she also manages to reawaken Marlo's lust for life, her love for her family, and perhaps most importantly, her love for herself.

Using a kind of magical realism, Reitman takes a hilarious and often moving peek behind the curtain of motherhood, chronicling the every day struggle to keep all the plates spinning and all the balls in the air. Tully finds a distinctive beauty in the mundaneness of parenthood, when all the parenting advice, trendy techniques, and conventional wisdom fail and life throws constant, unexpected curveballs, that is where the true beauty of having a family often lies.

Yet Tully isn't so much about a woman learning to appreciate her family, it's about a woman learning to appreciate herself, and discovering that she had the strength to overcome life's challenges hidden within herself all along. It's also about the importance of self-care - Marlo sacrifices so much for her family that she often forgets to take care of herself, and the entire family unit suffers as a result. Much has been said about the third act twist, but rather than finding it cheap as some have, I found it quietly magical, a perfect cap for the film's thematic heart.

Theron is a marvel, as always, turning in a weary, un-self conscious performance as a woman at the end of her rope rediscovering the strength within herself. Her path of discovery anchors the film as a celebration of motherhood in all its messy glory. It's the kind of film that sneaks up on you, a drama disguised as a comedy that packs a powerful emotional wallop, and you may find yourself wanting to call your own mother afterward to thank her (or perhaps apologize). It's easily Reitman's best work since Thank You for Smoking, and features Cody's most mature and insightful writing yet. It treats the very idea of motherhood with a rare sense of dignity and humanity that never slips into schmaltz or patronization - this is just lovely, honest filmmaking; a special work whose memory will linger long after the credits have rolled.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


TULLY | Directed by Jason Reitman | Stars Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Colleen Wheeler, Elaine Tan | Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018


Betsy West and Julie Cohen's new documentary, RBG, begins with a litany of conservative commentators hurling insults at Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, calling her "a witch," "a monster," "an evildoer," "wicked," "anti-American," "an absolute disgrace to the supreme court," and even "a zombie."

Afterward, the film never really returns to this conservative backlash (except for one brief clip of President Trump whining about Ginsburg criticizing him), instead spending the next hour-and-a-half making them look foolish simply by demonstrating Ginsburg's character. Using her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing as a framing device, RBG charts Ginsburg's career from her childhood, to Harvard Law School, to her tenure as a law professor, all the way to the United States Supreme Court and her current status as a political rock star often referred to as the "Notorious R.B.G."

Ginsburg is a soft-spoken, unassuming figure, yet deeply committed to the cause of equality under the law. Her diminutive figure belies a tenacity and strength that has made her a fierce advocate for women and minorities well into her 80s. While her "notorious" reputation has mostly been a product of her status as a vocal dissenter on a conservative leaning Supreme Court, RBG examines her life and career as a lawyer during a time when women were looked down upon for pursuing a career in the male-dominated field of law. She argued in front of the Supreme Court six times (winning five cases) in the name of women's rights, and married a fellow law student who was never intimated by her greater reputation.

The film is a loving and at times glowing tribute to a great woman, but never tips into hagiography. Through her own words and the words of those who worked with (and at times against) her, RBG paints an indelible portrait of a woman dedicated to public service who worked to befriend those across the aisle so as to be a more persuasive voice for those with whom she disagreed. Despite their fundamental disagreement about the very nature of the Constitution, Ginsburg became close friends with conservative firebrand, Antonin Scalia, a rare showing of non-partisan camaraderie in an increasingly polarized world.

RBG will doubtlessly be a crowd-pleaser for the justice's legions of fans, but it will also be an illuminating piece of history for those who only know her as the "great dissenter" liberal hero she's become in the last decade. It's a big-hearted and wide ranging biography of a truly special woman, at last placing her in her proper historical context as a woman who helped break down barriers, quietly shaping the world we live in today with little fanfare. West and Cohen have crafted a inspiring and often gripping look at the history of modern women's rights through the lens of a humble and reserved woman whose unlikely rise to the highest court in the land mirrors her own ongoing quest for a world that's more equitable and more just than the one she came into.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


RBG | Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen | Not Rated | Opens Friday, May 4, in select cities.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

A woman who has just lost her longtime job as an in-home maid travels across the country to a new job faraway in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato's lovely Argentinian gem, The Desert Bride. Along the way, she accidentally leaves her purse in the trailer of a traveling salesman, and sets out to track him down.

The Desert Bride is a small, unassuming marvel, a beautifully understated work of disarming power. In the capable hands of actress Paulina García, who brought such life to Sebastián Lelio's Gloria (2013), Teresa's quiet desperation becomes the stuff of great cinema. It's such a pleasure to watch her relationship with the salesman, El Gringo (Claudio Rissi) grow. Her panic soon fades into begrudging contentment, traveling across the desert with El Gringo, the faint smile on her face suggesting a woman of a certain age feeling beautiful and desirable once again.

There's a certain wonder in her performance that is truly disarming - here is a woman who thought she was past her prime, always putting the needs of others first, who suddenly finds herself the object of desire for a man for the first time in years. It's an alien feeling that comes across as both joy and confusion, and watching the emotional rollercoaster play out on García's face is something special indeed, especially as she realizes that she does not necessarily need that validation to feel beautiful in her own right.

Atán and Pivato's style isn't flashy, but their lovely framing captures a sense of yearning and rekindled fire. Teresa never expected to take this journey, nor did she want it, but it becomes the detour that she needed. Here in the barren, windswept Argentinian desert, Teresa finds something she didn't realize she was missing, something that goes much deeper than her lost bag. The desert, often thought of as a barren wasteland, may seem like the location of a dark night of the soul for Teresa, but it becomes a fertile place of self discovery, its stark dangers and loneliness flowering into a rebirth for a woman who thought her life was over.

That's the magic of The Desert Bride, the pocketbook is ultimately beside the point, it's a Macguffin for spiritual and emotional journey that is at once deeply moving and powerfully told. Atán and Pivato take a story of endings and spin it into a story of beginnings. What begins as a drab earth tone palate turns to a film bursting with color as Teresa once again begins to bloom in the harsh landscape. Enough pressure eventually turns sand into diamonds, to paraphrase an old saying, and Atán and Pivato memorably evoke that idea here through García's wondrous performance; a hushed and restrained portrait of grief and confusion that finds, if only for a moment, a respite for a weary and lonely heart who discovers that it's never too late to start over.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE DESERT BRIDE | Directed by Cecilia Atán, Valeria Pivato | Stars Paulina García, Claudio Rissi | Not Rated | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Friday, May 4, in select cities.

Friday, April 27, 2018


The Marvel crossover of Avengers: Infinity War is an event 10 years in the making, a massive culmination of a series of 19 films spanning the last decade. Beginning with 2008's IRON MAN, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has redefined genre filmmaking and sent rival studios scrambling to create their own shared universes, to little avail.

So to say that Infinity War is a big deal, especially for fans, is an understatement. The film marks the long-awaited arrival of the MCU's ultimate big bad, Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose appearance was first teased in the end credit stinger at the end of 2012's The Avengers. Thanos is every bit as formidable as the franchise has promised, killing off beloved characters and laying to waste entire planets in his quest to acquire the six Infinity Stones that have provided the backbone of many of the plot threads that have made up the MCU thus far. Once the six stones are brought together, it gives the holder the power to end life at will. Thanos, obsessed with balance, wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe in an attempt to stop inevitable overpopulation from bringing about the complete end of all life.

That's what makes Thanos such a great villain - his philosophy actually makes sense in a twisted sort of way, not unlike Black Panther's Killmonger from a mere two months ago. Thanos' goal isn't just to kill for the sake of killing, or power for the sake of power, it's rooted in a deep-seated desire for order and preservation (as he see it) of life. His relationship with his daughter, Gomora (Zoe Saldana) takes center stage here, his conflicted love for her, and her hatred for him, adding another dimension to his character.

Infinity War mostly manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), an overstuffed spectacle that remains a low-point in an otherwise mostly successful series. Directing team Joe and Anthony Russo, who provided one of the series highlights in the form of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) as well as its sequel, Captain America: Civil War (2016), make an admirable effort to connect a massive cast of heroes in a cohesive and satisfying way, making sure each gets their moment to shine while serving a purpose in the greater narrative. They even allow for some nice character moments, especially with Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Thanos and Gomora, Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). The Russos faced a daunting task of mixing together so many iconic heroes and their distinctive styles, and the tonal shifts are handled with a surprising amount of grace, even as the film races on to its next battle.


The problem is that there's just so much going on, and so many plot threads being woven together, that it just doesn't have the time to have the same creative and stylistic verve that have distinguished Marvel's more recent films like Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018). The film moves at a breakneck pace, rushing from one apocalyptic set-piece after another, to the point that it becomes something of a test of patience in the final act. Characters travel long-distances instantaneously, arriving just where they need to be without much explanation, causing the film to lose all sense of time and place. After spending two hours at full throttle, the climax almost has nowhere to go. Instead, it builds to a surprisingly quiet denouement that allows the weight of what we've just seen to settle in, setting up the as-yet-untitled 2019 sequel that promises to wrap up all the loose ends.

Fans will no doubt be pleased by the epic spectacle on display here, and as a culmination of a decade's worth of adventures it's an undeniably entertaining mash-up. But there's something much less satisfying about Infinity War's "more is more" aesthetic than the more personal brand of pop exuberance evident in some of the more recent individual Marvel outings. It's a fun but exhausting superhero extravaganza that pulls out all the stops in delivering the spectacular showdown fans have been waiting for, but the tantalizing potential for how Marvel might deal with the consequences of Thanos' apocalypse prove to be more interesting than the large-scale CGI destruction on display here.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR | Directed by Joe Russo, Anthony Russo | Stars  Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Terry Notary, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Peter Dinklage | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, April 26, 2018


Before she became known as Adolf Hitler's favored filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl began her career as an actress, making her screen debut in Arnold Fanck's 1926 silent drama, The Holy Mountain. While Fanck did not subscribe to the Nazi philosophy as wholeheartedly as Riefenstahl did, he did become a member of the party in 1940 under pressure (he initially resisted before Hitler came to power), making some cultural films for the Nazis before ending his career as a lumberjack after the war.

However, during the Weimar era, before Hitler's rise to power, Fanck made a series of films that established a popular German genre known as the "mountain film," beginning with The Holy Mountain. Fanck was an outdoor enthusiast and noted skier, and he brought a sense of awe and reverence for the Alps, going on to make several films set against a mountain backdrop, most notably The White Hell of Pitz Palau (1929) with G.W. Pabst. Fanck was notorious for his grueling shoots, with actors often suffering minor injuries in his push for authenticity by shooting on location in inhospitable terrain. While Pabst was seen as a moderating influence on Fanck, the results of Fanck's perfectionism are clear - The Holy Mountain is a breathtaking visual achievement. Fanck shoots the mountain like it's a character in the film, setting up a dazzling downhill ski race set piece that is made all the more thrilling by its authenticity (a fact the film explicitly highlights in the opening credits).

The plot isn't anything special - a ski racer love triangle with Riefenstahl at the center that never generates much heat. Riefenstahl turned out to be a much better filmmaker than she was an actress (which is a shame, considering how she chose to use that talent to advance the Nazis' racist ideology), and her histrionics in The Holy Mountain seem like a distraction from what is essentially a glorified nature film. One can't help but wonder, however, if Riefenstahl didn't learn some of her technique from Fanck, who employs a surprising amount of slow motion for the era, especially during Riefenstahl's flailing dance sequences. But where Riefenstahl was fascinated by the motion of the human body, Fanck was enthralled by the by the sweeping vistas of the Alps. The bodies are just decorations for the natural world, and Fanck's camera frames them against stunning mountain backdrops, even going so far as to follow them onto the mountain itself.

This all makes The Holy Mountain something of a strange animal. Its story is relatively weak, propped up by the sheer spectacle of Fanck's outdoor enthusiasm. And yet he conjures such an indelible atmosphere, accompanied by some truly impressive outdoor photography (made even more so in the new 2K restoration on the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray), that it is impossible to write the film off as just another silent melodrama. Fanck had a strong visual sense, one that would have a profound impact on Riefenstahl, who went on to become a more important figure in cinema history. But it all started here, both in terms of her career and in her style. Fanck kickstarted a genre and unwittingly helped give rise to a great and terrible talent, making The Holy Mountain a truly fascinating historical artifact indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THE HOLY MOUNTAIN | Directed by Arnold Fanck | Stars Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen, Frida Richard | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Monday, April 23, 2018


The original Super Troopers, written and directed by comedy team Broken Lizard, didn't exactly light up the box office when it was released in 2002, but the film has amassed enough of a cult following on DVD in the 16 years since its release to warrant a belated sequel. As is common with comedy sequels, especially those that arrive so long after their popular predecessors, Super Troopers 2 doesn't quite have the same comic verve, spending its time either trying too hard to outdo the original, or "playing the hits" by referencing the jokes that everyone fell in love with the first time around.

Still, for fans of Super Troopers, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than in the company of these characters, who prove that there are still a couple of laughs to be had from this concept. This time around, the titular Vermont state troopers are called back into action after spending the last 15 years off the force for the events in the first film, to oversee the transition of a small tract of Canadian land that was found to actually be within America's original boundary markers. It isn't long before they're back up to their old shenanigans, as they face a town full of angry Canadians bitter about their newfound nationality, and a group of rival Mounties who aren't quite ready to give up power in their territory just yet. Those rivalries come to a head, however, when the troopers stumble upon a stash of drugs that leads them to an international smuggling operation that goes deeper than any of them expected.

Like its predecessor, Super Troopers 2 is an exceedingly silly film, with the inept policemen at its center constantly finding new and spectacular ways to screw up. The antics wear a bit thin this time around, as the film tries to be bigger and better than the original (to no avail), and newcomers to the franchise may find themselves a bit confused by all the references to the original's jokes. But when it does stumble upon new moments of inspiration, it's actually a very funny film. Like a modern day "Keystone Cops," the Super Troopers take routine policing and turn it into one epic failure after another. And while some of the intentionally obnoxious humor overstays its welcome (the film relies too heavily on Kevin Heffernan's Farva, a perpetual "that guy"), it actually manages to make their ineptitude somewhat endearing.

Was Super Troopers 2 necessary? Not really, no. Fans will enjoy seeing the gang back together, but it hews to closely to the original film to justify the 16 year long wait for a sequel. It's disappointing to see a sequel to a film almost defined by its anarchic sense of humor that plays it so safe. It's not a bad film on its own, but one can't help but wish it had taken the time to distinguish itself rather than returning to the same well.  It's kind of like going to a high school reunion - you're still telling the same stories from decades ago since you no longer have a common frame of reference, and they're still amusing, but not quite as funny as they were when they were fresh. It's a hit-or-miss comedy that has enough solid laughs to justify itself, but after a 16 year long gap between films, it's not quite enough to make the wait seem worth it.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


SUPER TROOPERS 2 | Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar | Stars  Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske, Paul Soter, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Kimberly Howe, Lynda Carter, Marisa Coughlan, Rob Lowe, Brian Cox | Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug material and some graphic nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Now in its 20th year, the RiverRun International Film Festival has been bringing quality foreign and independent films to the area for two full decades. I’ve been covering the festival for 10 of those years, and I can say without a doubt that they continue to outdo themselves, offering perhaps one of the most thrilling and diverse line-ups of films in their history. RiverRun offers something for everyone, but you can’t do much better than the five films featured here – representing some of my favorite highlights of this year’s festival.

“Angels Wear White” (Vivian Qu, China)

A giant statue of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch becomes a potent symbol of sexism and female objectification in Vivian Qu’s searing drama, Angels Wear White, her flowing skirt and exposed underwear suggesting the vulnerability felt by both its young female protagonists. The film centers around Mia (Qi Wen), a teenager working illegally at a hotel, and Wen (Meijun Zhou), a 12-year-old girl who is raped in one of the hotel rooms along with her best friend, by a powerful local commissioner.

Angels Wear White is a remarkably assured sophomore effort by Qu, who imbues her film with a sense of metaphorical weight without hammering on an obvious point. Anchored by two soulful performances by the young leads, the film attains a sense of quiet grace, buoyed by the dignity the young women are expected to show at all times, even in the darkest of circumstances. Qu bravely peels back the curtain of patriarchal abuses, robbing young women of their agency and dignity at every turn, and turns it into a poetic elegy for lost childhood and societal justice.

“The Desert Bride” (Cecilia Atán, Valeria Pivato, Argentina)

A woman who has just lost her longtime job as an in-home maid travels across the country to a new job faraway in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s lovely Argentinian gem, The Desert Bride. Along the way, she accidentally leaves her purse in the trailer of a traveling salesman and sets out to track him down. The Desert Bride is a small, unassuming marvel, a beautifully understated work of disarming power. Atán and Pivato’s style isn’t flashy, but their lovely framing captures a sense of yearning and rekindled fire. Teresa never expected to take this journey, nor did she want it, but it becomes the detour that she needed. Here in the barren, windswept Argentinian desert, Teresa finds something she didn’t realize she was missing, something that goes much deeper than her lost bag. That’s the magic of The Desert Bride, the pocketbook is ultimately beside the point, it’s a Macguffin for a journey of the soul that is at once deeply moving and powerfully told.

"Dragonfly Eyes" (Xu Bing, China)

An intriguing experiment completely falls apart in Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes, a film completely comprised of security footage taken from around public surveillance cameras from all over China. In the opening titles of the film, Bing claims that he has always wanted to fashion a story from surveillance footage, but the story here is tenuous at best, focusing on a woman who moves out of a Buddhist monastery and into a world of unexpected intrigue.

Xu had the opportunity here to make a fascinating treatise on the modern human existence under a constant state of surveillance, but in reality Dragonfly Eyes is more of a half-baked idea than a film, one that never really congeals around a central theme. Its avant-garde elements add little to a film that is desperately in search of a story or an idea that it never finds. You have to give Xu credit for ambition, but there's just not really anything here, and his early use of a woman's drowning is in poor taste. The film jumps from location to location, loosely held together by grating electronic voiceover narration, completely missing an opportunity to use its CCTV conceit to say anything of interest about its own chosen found footage aesthetic. It's a missed opportunity on almost all levels, a gimmick that really should be an avant-garde piece of existentialism that instead never gets off the ground.

"Garden Party" (Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, Lucas Navarro, France)

I'm not sure I've ever seen an animated film as photorealistic as this. Whie it has no less than six credited directors, Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, and Lucas Navarro, Garden Party doesn't really tell a story so much as showcase their incredible animation skills. Set in a house overrun with frogs and toads, the film follows their misadventures - looking for love, pigging out on leftovers - in their newfound home.

The film tells us little about why the house is abandoned, although it drops a few clues along the way (bullet holes in the glass, a phone off the hook, a surprise in the pool) that suggest a mob hit. But what makes it so wonderful is its stunning animation. It builds to an unexpected end, but the buildup is wonderfully disarming. It is a showcase of jaw-dropping animation that shows great promise for everyone involved. A 2018 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Short.

"Godard Mon Amour" (Michel Hazanavicius, France)

One of the most radical filmmakers of the 20th century gets a strangely conventional and inept biopic in the form of Michel Hazanavicius' Godard Mon Amour (formerly titled REDOUTABLE), a film that seems to both revere and loathe the legendary Nouvelle Vague pioneer without actually understanding him.

Hazanavicius has seemingly made an entire career out of emulating the styles of others, from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (easily his best film), to the Oscar-winning The Artist, Hazanavicius often falls into the trap of recreating outmoded styles without grounding them in their proper artistic context. In OSS 117 it didn't matter so much because the film was an outright lampoon. Yet The Artist, and perhaps even more egregiously in Godard Mon Amour, the filmmaker is simply playing the mimic. The black title cards with bold primary color writing, the non-diagetic sound, the droll, descriptive voice-overs, Hazavavicius deploys them liberally, but they serve no real purpose in the greater narrative. Godard stands naked pontificating on the  pointlessness of nudity in film. Garrel turns to the camera to sneer about actors saying any word you put in their mouths. Hazanavicius is using Godard's Brechtian techniques without any of the fire or zeal that made them work in the first place. Godard consistently used such dramatic irony, but never in quite such painfully obvious ways. 

"The Guardians" (Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran, USA)

Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran's lovely documentary chronicles the migration of monarch butterflies and the Mexican farmers who protect their habitat. The flight of the butterflies serve as a backdrop to examine the lives of villagers tasked with curbing the devastating effects of deforestation on the monarchs' habitat. The butterfly life cycle takes them from Canada to Mexico, while the local farmers spend their time planting new trees for them to come back to and protecting their forests from poachers.

It's all beautifully filmed, but there's really not much here. At barely over an hour, the film is brief and filled with gorgeous nature shots, but surprisingly little conflict or information, even when one of the farmers is arrested for having a gun to protect his land from poachers. This is perhaps a very strong 30 minute documentary short, or a longer film that doesn't dive deep enough into its subject and its people. Still, it's a compulsively watchable film, albeit slight, film that's easy on the eyes that works as a celebratory nature doc showcasing some of the unseen wonders of the natural world.

"Heaven Without People" (Lucien Bourjeily, Lebanon)

Lucien Bourjeily's ferocious family drama takes place over the course of one Easter dinner for a family of Lebanese Christians. After $12,000 goes missing from the family matriarch's purse, the family's seemingly idyllic facade comes crashing down, as old wounds are re-opened and the layer of hypocrisy and resentment is peeled away.

Heaven Without People is a slow burn, keeping its focus tight, the camera never leaving the confines of the small apartment in which it takes place. It almost recalls Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, as the family members discuss politics and religion over lunch, exploring their identity as Christians in a majority-Muslim nation. The political differences begin to show, but the true depth of the family's hatred for each other doesn't begin to be revealed until accusations over the stole money begin to fly. Bourjeily expertly builds up the tension before releasing it in a truly explosive familial implosion that makes the drama of August: Osage County almost look like a polite disagreement. It feels as though we're somehow intruding, witnessing something we should not bear witness to, as the film peeks below the facade of a seemingly happy family and examines the house of cards barely holding it up. Then Bourjeily politely asks us to leave the family in peace, with the haunting implications of the film still hanging heavily in the air. This is potent, sharply observant stuff that pulls no punches in its depiction of a family at war with itself on multiple fronts - generationally and politically.

“The Judge” (Erika Cohn, USA)

Erika Cohn’s documentary, The Judge, introduces us to Kholoud Al-Faqih, who became the first ever female judge of an Islamic Shari’a court in Palestine. Shari’a law and women’s equality aren’t exactly two things western audiences would see as compatible, but Al-Faqih is looking to change that perception, bravely leading the charge for women’s rights in the Muslim world.

The Judge may take place in Palestine, but it’s an eye-opening portrait of rampant male privilege and the struggle for women simply to be heard. And Cohn does not let western audiences off the hook. Inequality between the sexes may be more obviously pronounced in the Arab world than in the west, but it is no more insidious. In a world of seemingly exaggerated, normalized sexism, Cohn finds a universal plight among women struggling against a system created by men for their own benefit.

“RBG” (Betsy West, Julie Cohen, USA)

Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary, RBG, examines the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in recent years has gained a rock star level reputation for her soft-spoken yet withering dissents that have earned her the nickname, “The Notorious R.B.G.” RBG will doubtlessly by a crowd-pleaser for the justice’s legions of fans, but it will also be an illuminating piece of history for those who only know her as the “great dissenter” liberal hero she’s become in the last decade.

It’s a big-hearted and wide-ranging biography of a truly special woman, at last placing her in her proper historical context as a woman who helped break down barriers, quietly shaping the world we live in today with little fanfare. West and Cohen have crafted an inspiring and often gripping look at the history of modern women’s rights through the lens of a humble and reserved woman whose unlikely rise to the highest court in the land mirrors her own ongoing quest for a world that’s more equitable and more just than the one she came into.

“The Workshop” (Laurent Cantet, France)

The topic of white radicalization and the rise of the far right has unfortunately become a major issue in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Europe has been suffering the consequences of white unease in the face of increased diversity and changing demographics for longer than America has, as previously majority white nations struggle with how to deal with an influx of immigrants and shifting viewpoints on civil rights.

It is into that witch’s brew of simmering white resentment that Laurent Cantet (“The Class”) dives in his latest film, The Workshop, a work so frighteningly timely that it’s easy to become lost in the details of the drama, trying to fit each piece into a contemporary political context. And yet Cantet manages to deliver a story that is as universal as it is specific, offering a chilling and ultimately hopeful portrait of a world looking for a common connection in all the wrong places, when the community and belonging they so desperately seek has been right in front of them the whole time.

"YouthMin: A Mockumentary" (Jeff Ryan and Arielle Cimino, USA)

An overeager youth pastor takes his youth group to a weekend Christian camp in Jeff Ryan and Arielle Cimino's lovingly silly YouthMin, a mockumentary that will be readily identifiable for anyone who was raised in a protestant church. YouthMin pokes gentle fun at the tropes and cliches of youth ministry camps, as the group navigates through their teenage years under the supervision of a dudebro counselor who just wants to be their best friend. Yet his competitive spirit and and rivalry with the group's new female youth minister threatens to completely derail the weekend, as his young charges each struggle with real issues of identity and sexual awakening that he is woefully unprepared to handle.

YouthMin is satirical without being mocking, clearly made by people who have experienced this world firsthand, and it really nails the self-seriousness, the stereotypes, and the painful attempts to be hip that one encounters at a Christian youth camp.  Whether they're playing "Bible Jeopardy" or "Battle of the Worship Bands," the fearless youth leader, David, turns everything into a competition with a rival youth group, completely missing the reason they're all there in the first place. Its silliness is at times a bit over the top, but there is an earnestness behind its goofiness that is surprisingly endearing.

The RiverRun International Film Festival runs from April 19-29 in Winston-Salem. For a complete line-up of films or to purchase tickets, visit www.riverrunfilm.com.