AFI Docs 2021 Film Festival Review: Stevie (2002)

Written by Taylor Baker

90/100

Stevie starts off with Steve James, the director of the film–best known for Hoop Dreams and Prefontaine; framing his guilty conscience of leaving his little brother Stevie(Stephen Fielding) from the “Big Brother” program as he went off the college and it taking 7 years for him to return. It’s roughly twenty years after the film’s initial release now, but the sense of place, isolation, and humanity that must have been ripe at it’s release are still laid wide today. Hearing Stevie’s Grandmother recount his mother whipping him when he was a little boy, his hip turning green, and him losing his ability to speak feels otherworldly. It’s untenable. She lays it out as plainly as she remarks on his difficulty with speech to this day. We revisit this and many other stories from the Fielding family as the Documentary progresses. It’s contents are heartbreaking, gut wrenching, painful, and seemingly insurmountable. To say Stevie’s lived a hard life, is just the beginning of his story.

The film takes a hard turn, after the initial visit we see in the introduction Steve once again finds ways to avoid coming back to see Stevie for two years. And when he finally does turn up Stevie has been booked with charges for sexually assaulting a minor. The minor is Stevie’s cousin. These charges are the backdrop of the rest of the film. Will Stevie go to prison or not? Should he go to prison or not? It’s hard to frame the previous minutes with Stevie after this revelation. The rug is not only pulled out from under us but we’re seemingly rolled up in it. How do we personally reconcile the previous time we spent hearing what happened to Stevie and his own abuse as a child now? This is a question that doesn’t go away but rather continues to perpetuate the film.

We meet Tonya Gregory, Stevie’s Fiance. She ponders occasionally at the prompting of others and sometimes at her own thinking as to who Stevie is and whether or not he’s a “good” guy. Her voice and how she sees him often frames him better than any narration Steve offers. Insightful, guilty, longing, and clear; the rivulets of thought she sheds through to the very end of the film often seemed as if they were my own. We discover that after Stevie’s initial foster parents left for better prospects he was sexually abused. And while meeting with those initial parents years later toward the end of the film we come to find they’d barely stopped multiple sexual situations from happening to Stevie before they’d left. We also learn that Stevie has hurt his own sister, though the events are never clearly described leaving us to wonder horrified at each interaction they share.

We meet some of Stevie’s friends during the film and people from town that have been around him his whole life. They go fishing, his sister helps with his Social Security money, he stops into the Post Office and talks with the clerk who’d been there since he was a boy. But likewise there is a dark side to Stevie of vitriolic hurt and anger, we learn he used to hit his first wife, that he has a lust to see someone dead before moving on when he feels he’s been wronged. He has a conversation with a White Nationalist Leader about getting protection inside prison if he’s convicted. There’s so much to the film that can’t be properly summarized in words. It’s better seen than explained, felt than read, experienced than heard. It’s a personal meditation of what friendship and family look like, and how you to stick by someone even when they’re in the wrong and show them love.

Stevie Trailer

Recommended

Stevie was screened as part of the AFI Docs 2021 Film Festival.

AFI Docs 2021 Review: Naomi Osaka: Episode 1

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100 

Naomi Osaka is a phenom! I have been invested in Naomi’s story since her victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final. This first episode of a three part documentary series, directed by Garrett Bradley, is even more important after Naomi’s recent forced withdrawal from the Roland Garros after she released a pre-tournament statement saying she would not agree to post-match interviews because it was detrimental to her mental health. Subsequently, she has also withdrawn from Wimbledon so she can take time to focus on herself. However she still plans to represent her native Japan in the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics. These decisions made me admire Naomi even more. 

In this first episode, we are able to see the growth of a young woman and athlete that is coming into her own both on and off the court. As Naomi puts it she is still trying to figure stuff out and keep adjusting to whatever life throws at her. This awareness is very clear when Naomi states that the amount of attention she receives is ridiculous. “This is the one aspect no one prepares you for.”, she says. Naomi finds this idolatry around her is really weird. 

Episode one also gives insight into Naomi outside off the court. We see her adjusting to living by herself, in California, after purchasing her first home. Her close relationship with her father, her first coach, her mom, and sister which will hopefully be explored more in subsequent episodes.

We also see the work Naomi put in to remain on top as she returned to defend her title among spectators like Kobe Bryant, a mentor which she would later form a strong bond with, Colin Kaepernick, and her musician boyfriend Cordae. Just as important, this episode starts to give us insight into Osaka’s relationship with the press and the fan fair that surrounds her. It is really incredible that through it all Naomi remains humble as she starts to understand when she should push her limits. Naomi also starts to realize what she means for young girls around the world and how challenging life in the limelight can really be. I recommend this first episode and am excited to uncover more about Osaka’s journey and offer a complete detailed write up once all 3 episodes are out. 

Recommended

The Naomi Osaka Limited Docu-Series will begin streaming on Netflix on July 13th.

Son

Written by Alexander Reams

49/100

Horror films have always had the good old reliable tropes that they can rely on. Such as haunted houses, killer on the loose, and one that recently seems to be used more than any other, possessed children. Whether that is demonic, medical, vampirism, or witchcraft. Son, from fairly new director Ivan Kavanagh, relies heavily on the latter trope. The film’s plot, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past. Sounds familiar? Well that’s because it is a rehash of countless horror films, most prestigiously being The Conjuring 1 & 2

A pair of performances in the film shine brightly. Matichak (Halloween) as the mother of the possessed child brings something that has been seen before, but her delivery of the script seeps care and love for her son throughout. This is shown especially in the home invasion scene. Matichak’s facial expressions and body movement as she tries to rescue her son from forces in her home. Hirsch (Speed Racer, Once Upon a Time.. in Hollywood) as the detective chasing them brings a no nonsense aura that fits perfectly in a film filled with worthless dialogue and nonsensical performances. His kindness towards Matichak develops to a romantic interest, but not in the traditional sense, his feelings towards her never get in the way of his job. A trope that is not shown enough with detective characters which does add a layer of freshness. 

The screenplay, also by Kavanagh, is mediocre and filled with vapid lines that truly mean nothing to the story and try to draw your attention from the abysmal performances by everyone except Matichak and Hirsch. The actor playing “David”, Luke David Blumm is another reason why there is such a negative stigma against child actors. He overplays every scene, losing any chance at building stakes and emotional connection. Emotional connections between characters is a two way street, and while Matichak has one with Blumm on screen, he has nothing, no connection, or any resemblance to a relationship with Matichak echoing back. Even with great performances from Andi Matichak and Emile Hirsch, the film stumbles in its pacing, direction, screenplay, and every performance outside the top billed duo.

Son Trailer

Son is currently streaming on Shudder.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Long Shot

Written by Michael Clawson

70/100

Voting in favor of this one. Gets away with making Fred (Fred Flarsky that is, what a name) both a mildly schlubby pothead constantly in the same athleisurewear (which becomes a joke in itself) and a principled journalist with a flair for speech-writing, because Rogen evenly puffs life into both sides of the character. Early stages of the relationship are sweet and pleasant because they’re more platonic than romantic; intimations of stronger feelings are wisely put off until the end of the globetrotting portion, most of which is free of real conflict and instead concentrated on Fred and Charlotte simply becoming good friends. The soundtrack is just right in that stretch, with gentle but upbeat tunes (The Cure’s “Close to Me” is the first that comes to mind) playing quietly below the dialogue, never too emotionally emphatic. 

Laughs come at an impressively regular cadence, the highlights being small-scale quips and gags (e.g. Fred’s half-complete swastika tattoo becoming a stick figure dubbed “Adolf Stickler”, Jackson’s character revealing he’s a Republican: “I’m in the GOP…yeah you know me”, Fred’s astonishment at Charlotte asking for rough sex). The broader, physical bits – Fred diving out a window to escape neo-nazis, falling down the stairs after telling off a corrupt media tycoon, Fred and Charlotte together fleeing from a hotel under siege – feel a tad lazier, but still earned chuckles. Super fun to see Theron be so goofy, ducking behind aides to scarf a chicken skewer or managing a hostage crisis while high on molly. No complaints about the film championing integrity and humorously deriding how women are expected to present themselves in the public eye, but the script needed a much sharper pen for those aspects to culminate in any emotional way. As is though, a perfectly diverting rom-com.

Long Shot Trailer

Long Shot is currently available to rent on major VOD platforms.

F9: The Fast Saga

Written by Alexander Reams

56/100

The laws of physics have unknowingly or knowingly been the backbone of the human race since the dawn of time. Countless times films have tried to disregard those laws, with some succeeding even without them, and some have crashed and burned spectacularly (looking at you Transformers: Age of Extinction and Transformers: The Last Knight). Ever since its resurgence in pop culture in 2011 with the wildly successful Fast Five, the Fast & Furious franchise has continued to be less and less realistic (I’m sorry but Dwayne Johnson moving a torpedo’s trajectory with his bare hands is amazing, but a stretch at best). This continuation of less grounded films peaked in 2019’s Hobbs & Shaw and now they have gone too far. 

The film is continuing the story of Dominic Toretto and crew, including his wife, Letty Ortiz, Tej Parker, Roman Pierce, sister Mia Toretto, and mysterious hacker Ramsey. The plot of the movie is one that we’ve seen thousands of times, the crew needs to get a “thing” so that the bad guys don’t. That’s it. That is the entire plot. The twist here is that the “bad guy” is Dom’s long lost brother, Jakob Toretto. Yes, they are continuing their streak of doing soap opera tropes but with a budget, and the script certainly feels like one at times. The question that has been asked since the film came out is “Who is at fault?” The answer is clear, the screenwriter, or in this case, screenwriters. This is the first film in the franchise since The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift that Chris Morgan has not written, and he was a driving force behind keeping this series in control of itself and never going too far fetched and keeping the stakes real. This time Justin Lin, Daniel Casey, and Alfredo Botello are the writers of the film and it reads as if they scoured the reddit forums and just threw countless ideas at a wall and saw what stuck. 

Read Alexander’s Fast and Furious Franchise Retrospective

Justin Lin is not only a writer on the film, he returns after a 8 year hiatus from the franchise. His return not only brought a level of hype back to the franchise that I had not felt since 2013 when James Wan was announced as the director of Furious 7. It also brought a level of expectation of quality that I had associated with Lin’s work in the franchise. He is responsible for two of my favorite entries of the franchise Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. Unfortunately I felt that we did not get the maturing and exciting Justin Lin that did Star Trek: Beyond here, it seemed like we got Fast & Furious (2009) Justin Lin, which as you might know, is the only entry that does not work for me on any level. While his quieter moments do not work, he undeniably has a great eye for shooting action set pieces. Particularly a car chase with Dame Helen Mirren and Vin Diesel through the streets of London and an early jungle chase in Montequinto with the crew. His pacing throughout these scenes is masterfully done and is never too frenetic or too quick to jump cut.

Han’s death in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift was a shocking and heartbreaking moment in the franchise, even more so after seeing him in entries 4-6. His character was my personal favorite and his constant snacking became one of my first thoughts whenever Fast & Furious comes into conversation. When it was revealed that he would be back for F9 my excitement went through the roof. However my excitement was reduced when I began to think about how he would be brought back. I should have tempered my expectations far further than I had. I won’t delve into spoilers but, the explanation given is one of the biggest half baked explanations of the entire franchise. Bringing Han back also took away any sense of stakes and consequences, now anyone can be brought back, no matter dead, disintegrated, melted, etc. 

F9 is a muddled mess, from the story, to performances, Charlize Theron is acting like she is in a completely different film and constantly made me feel like I was watching a Razzie Awards clipshow of horrendous lines. While I do not believe this film to be anywhere near the greatness of entries 5-7 or Hobbs & Shaw there is enjoyment to be found throughout. If you go into the film thinking of it not as an action film, but as a comedy, you might find much more enjoyment. Let us all hope that the 2 part finale will be far superior, Chris Morgan, please, I beg of you, please return to the franchise. 

F9: The Fast Saga Trailer

F9: The Fast Saga is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Eat a Bowl of Tea

Written by Patrick Hao

73/100

Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea begins with narration discussing the predicament that Chinese American communities found themselves in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 had prevented many Chinese men from bringing to America their wives and daughters. This created a “Bachelor Society ” in the various Chinatown’s, stunted by the lack of single Chinese women and the taboo of inter-racial dating. However, with World War II, China as allies, and the returning Chinese G.I.’s, America was loosening its immigration policies and beginning to allow veterans to bring home Chinese wives.

This socio-political dynamic is the backdrop of Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a woefully underseen film by a woefully under-discussed filmmaker. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Louis Chu, the film centers on Ben Loy (Russell Wong), a GI returning from WWII in New York City’s Chinatown, who is sent by his father Wang Wah Gay (played by frequent Wang collaborator Victor Wong), back to his hometown in China to bring back an arranged bride, Mei Oh (played by Wang’s wife Cora Miao), the daughter of one Wah Gay’s gambling buddies. As one of the first couples in New York Chinatown of child bearing age, they are expected to produce offspring to continue the survival of a community. 

“I feel like everyone is watching,” Ben admits to his Mei at one point in the film. This concept of a community gawking is prevalent throughout the film. When Ben goes to China to meet his bride, he is met with the curious eyes of many of the Chinese villagers who have never met an American Chinese before. Rumors abound that an American GI would not have all four limbs, and be mangled by war. At the wedding banquet back in New York City, the young couple are met with the prying eyes of hundreds of geriatric Chinese men as they represent the future of a dying community and as the source of Ben’s father’s newfound reputational prestige within the community. The pressure from the community for a baby manifests itself in Ben’s impotence. And for Mei, being in a new country with no true community of her own, loneliness.

Yet, despite the weightiness of these themes, Wang’s film is breezy and casually funny, couching the politics of diaspora and gender in the structure of a Classic Hollywood romantic comedy. Wang’s power as a filmmaker is his richly textured observation of a people in a time and place. His subtle gestures and characterizations of the community gives them specificity, which in turn, becomes universal. The film almost becomes a series of vignettes as it jumps from a gaggle of old men joking and gossiping in the barbershop to Ben stopping fights in the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant he comes to manage. In doing so, Wang paints a beautiful tableau of a community in transition, affecting family, sex, and culture. 

Eat a Bowl of Tea seems particularly informed by Classic Hollywood films in more ways than just genre. Wang seems to be in conversation with films of Classic Hollywood. In one particularly clever critique of Classic Hollywood, Ben and Mei share their first kiss silhouetted by Ronald Colman’s face from Lost Horizon. In another scene, during the height of his impotence, Ben is especially titillated by Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point he rushed home with his wife to take advantage. These two films being used is especially pointed for being representative of pop culture’s blatant exoticisism of the “Orient.” The two films are also representative of the two desires that inform the themes of Eat a Bowl of Tea – the desire for preservation of a community and the desire for sex. 

However, this is by no means a perfect film. Russell Wong is in the Henry Goulding camp of handsome but uncharismatic leading men. The original novel is also sadder and more caustic. Wang and screenwriter, Judith Roscoe, purposefully sanded off some of the edges of the source material to be lighter and more winsome. The results are the loss of some of Mei’s interiority and a third act that feels a bit too tidy. Wang himself has tinkered with edits of the film in re-screenings, including a less “happy ending” that was foisted upon him by the studio.

However, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wayne Wang’s career feel ripe for rediscovery. The recent retrospectives on The Joy Luck Club and focus on AAPI-centric filmmakers always feels light in its consideration of Wang and his career. Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wang’s other works such as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, Chan is Missing, and more recent independent works like Princess Nebraska should make him a name that is worth considering in line with Ang Lee and the recent crop of Asian American filmmakers like Alice Wu, Lulu Wang, and Andrew Ahn.

Eat a Bowl of Tea is especially notable for its place as one of the first studio films to have an all-Chinese cast. The only white person with a speaking role is an uncredited Jessica Harper. More importantly, the film feels enlightening in its depiction of a period of Chinese American history that is often ignored, and its frank depiction of the politics intersecting sex, gender, and tradition. Yet it never becomes a film that feels like its purpose is to deliver a didactic “message” or a history lesson. Wang’s film is lived in with all the thorniness and haphazardness of real life. Much like a bowl of tea in its idiomatic title, all that bitterness of the film’s themes goes down surrounded by the warmth of Wang’s rich filmmaking.

Eat a Bowl of Tea Trailer

Eat a Bowl of Tea is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

AFI Docs 2021 Review: Storm Lake

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

60/100

Storm Lake directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison is more timely than ever. On the surface, it is a documentary about the struggling local news industry in the United States. But, in reality, it goes much deeper than that. While it explores the rising phenom of “news desserts”, as news shifts away from local newspapers to online coverage, it just as importantly explores the significance of community and family.  

In the doc, we are introduced to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times. The Times, as it is affectionately called by the locals, was founded by Art’s brother John in 1990 by delivering an essential public service to the people of Storm Lake, Iowa, by covering news from a local perspective. As eloquently put by Art “without strong local journalism to tell a community story, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.” 

It seems that The Storm Lake Times is much more than a newspaper. It’s family! Art’s wife, Dolores, is a photographer; his son, Tom, is a reporter; his sister-in-law, Mary, is in charge of recipe features. Even their dog, Peach “the Newshound”, is part of the Storm Lake Times Team. Beyond this incredible family dynamic we get to learn more about the community which gives the documentary a very “lived in quality” although it really starts to drag at the end. 

Spanning a period of 4 years, from 2017 to 2021, this documentary unpacks how civic and democratic processes work in Iowa and Storm Lake, in particular, through a local lens. Throughout this experience the primacy of local journalism is emphasized as news shifts online and becomes increasingly polarized. Risius and Levison do an exquisite job of making you feel like you are living in Storm Lake and sometimes even a member of the Storm Lake Times. In the end, The Times is almost like a key into the soul of the city. I recommend this one for news junkies out there or anyone who just wants to get reacquainted with the power of local storytelling. 

Storm Lake Trailer

Recommended

Storm Lake was screened as part of the AFI Docs 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

The Souvenir

Written by Michael Clawson

100/100

Sometimes the smallest painting in a gallery or museum is the one that moves you most, the one you find yourself thinking about more than any large piece you might also have come across. Similarly, size doesn’t necessarily correlate with impact at the movies. The Souvenir, director Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her 2013 feature Exhibition, may be one of the smallest movies exhibited in Seattle theatres by certain measures, but it’s a masterpiece whose scale belies its immense, wrenching beauty. 

Set in 1980s Britain, it portrays the toxic relationship between Julie, an earnest but timid film student from an upper middle class family, played with magnificent, deeply moving nuance by relative newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne (the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother), and Anthony (Tom Burke, also very good), pretentious, manipulative, and unbeknownst to Julie when they get together, a heroin addict. 

Hogg elides the sensationalism that premise might ordinarily entail. She approaches her main two characters and their relationship elliptically, attuned with supreme sensitivity to how moments of no great size – afternoon tea, dinners with their parents – reveal the contours of Julie’s and Anthony’s relationship, and, in particular, Julie’s naïveté and ignorance of Anthony’s selfishness and deceit.

Hogg demonstrated a keen eye for striking compositions in Exhibition (that movie also took art and a dysfunctional relationship as its subject matter, albeit with a very different, absurdly comic tone) but her work in The Souvenir with cinematographer David Raedeker is exceptional, and consistently so. The images are grainy, the color palette muted. Hogg shoots from various angles and distances (her camera’s typically fixed) to best allow the emotion implied by Byrne’s gestures and mannerisms – her clutching a stuffed animal, her struggling to articulate the idea behind her film – to reverberate within the frame. A tiled mirror in Julie’s flat is often used quite effectively, as are other reflective surfaces – puddles, windows – but the occasional landscape shots are equally breathtaking.

A work of supremely intelligent restraint, The Souvenir may be deemed a small movie, but it’s an essential one.

The Souvenir Trailer

The Souvenir is currently streaming on Hoopla, Kanopy, and Prime Video.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Capsule Review: Graceland

Written by Alexander Reams

60/100

Never before has a rock legend been used as a metaphor for gender identity until now. This is the driving force in Bonnie Kathleen Ryan’s Graceland. Led by a familiar face in Anna Camp(Pitch Perfect & True Blood) as a traditional, uptight southern mom who has to come to terms with her daughter coming out as transgender. This story of parents having to accept their children coming out as part of the LGBTQIA+ community has been told countless times, especially in the last 10 years. What sets this film apart from all the rest is the use of the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. In spite of all the goodwill that the film opens with, after a character completely changes their thoughts and shatters believability the film turns into an after school special from the 1980s. In light of this massively juvenile mistake, the film cannot drag you back into the film and thus flubs the ending, even with a fantastic performance of Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes.

Graceland Trailer

Graceland is currently playing as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival you can purchase a Shorts Pass to view it here.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.