Hot Docs 2021 Review: The Big Scary “S” Word

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

50/100 

The Big Scary “S” Word, is Yael Bridge’s first full length documentary feature. This documentary is incredibly timely given Bernie Sanders’ recent promising presidential campaigns,  the rising stars in the progressive-wing of the democratic party including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and IIhan Omar,  Amazon’s recent union busting campaign at warehouse workers in Alabama, the 2018 Oklahoma teachers strike, and the role of big money in politics. There is a laundry list of items and examples that the documentary provides. The premise here is that capitalism is not working just fine and, in fact, it is creating a less humane society.  

On the other hand, you have conservatives, moderate democrats, journalists, and pundits that insist that capitalism is the only way forward for America. In a clip featured in the documentary, MSNBC contributor Donny Deutsch states “I find Trump reprehensible as a human being, but a socialist candidate is more dangerous to this country as far as the strength and well-being of our country than Donald Trump.” How is it possible that Americans are so scared of socialism? How is it possible that there is so much inequality in the richest country in the world? These questions inform the crux of this doc as Bridge explores what socialism means for ordinary people, scholars, and politicians. 

There is nothing incredibly innovative to see here. Although, I have to admit that, a quarter of the way through, we are provided with beautiful visuals that trace the history of capitalism, the transition of capitalism into an economic system and a way to organize the production of goods and services, up to its modern form. In the end, it asks more questions than provides answers. This approach is completely okay but at times it “reads” a bit too academic.

The Big Scary “S” Word Trailer

The Big Scary “S” Word screened as part of the Hot Docs 2021 Film Festival. You can visit their website to check for a screening near you.

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

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Director Asad Farooqui Talks ‘Congratulations’

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: Amir (Asad Farooqui) is a struggling actor, meddling with lowly, wordless terrorist roles. More importantly, he struggles with his parents not taking his career choice seriously. Amidst the party chaos highlighted by politics, cricket, and community gossip, a revelation brings Amir a new challenge—just making it through the day.

Congratulations played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can check Anna’s review of Congratulations here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Hot Docs 2021 Review: The Face of Anonymous

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

50/100 

What is an information terrorist? The Face of Anonymous (2020) directed by Gary Lang provided an inside look into the work of cyber-activism through the eyes of Anonymous hacktivist Christopher Mark Doyon also known as Commander X. Christopher appears to resent the information terrorist moniker and instead asks how can I terrorize the world with the truth? Visually there is nothing extraordinary to see in this documentary. What somewhat makes it work is the story told by a compelling and questionable set of Anonymous activists allies, and Doyon crisma in particular. The throughline in this story starts with 4chan in 2004 or as defined in the documentary the crucible for Anonymous. 

What started off as a joke and protest against Scientology grew into something bigger as hacktivists set their sights on bigger targets. The first Anonymous operation that gained significant notoriety happened in 2010 and was a DDoS attack on Visa and Mastercard websites in response to donation denials for Wikileaks payment in response to leaked video footage that showed a US military strike against civilians in Iraq. One of the motivations for Anonymous’ anger was that Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal still authorized donations on websites like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church but would not allow them to continue on Wikileaks. The documentary also detailed how Anonymous allegedly helped protesters in Tunisia and Egypt during the early stages of the Arab Spring.      

This documentary is also the story of big egos and FBI raids that curtailed Anonymous progress and made US hacktivism move underground. Christopher Mark Doyon, however, is an Anonymous true believer to the bitter end. As of today, he has received political asylum and emergency refugee status in Mexico where Doyon claims he refound his freedom. I finished this documentary itching for more. Particularly I wanted more details about how online activism occurs and how it is then translated online. By itself this documentary does not add a lot to the discourse on hacktivism and cyber intelligence. Nevertheless, this documentary would make a good double feature with the HBO series Q: Into the Storm which offers a much more detailed account of the rise of another online movement who, coincidentally, also started on 4chan. 

I would recommend this documentary with a small caveat: do some prior research or reading going in. I’d suggest starting with a piece by David Kushner featured in the New Yorker called The Masked Avengers

The Face of Anonymous Trailer

The Face of Anonymous is currently screening as part of the Hot Docs 2021 Film Festival. You can purchase a ticket to view it here.

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

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Landlocked

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

So often, stories about transgender individuals in media are riddled with gloom and doom, ending in tragedy; so often, too, these individuals are played by cisgender actors gunning for that Oscar glory. Landlocked eschews these conventions, opting out of overwrought drama and into something gentler and far more affecting. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean there is no drama at all—quite the opposite. Landlocked opens with Nick (Dustin Gooch) attending his mother’s funeral, and it’s clear he’s fraying as he grapples with the death of his mother and the numerous roadblocks hindering his restaurant opening. His personal life spins into even more disarray after he—with his wife Abby’s (Ashlee Heath) encouragement—phones his father, whom Nick has not seen or spoken to since age 13, to tell of his mother’s passing. 

His father, we learn, is a transgender woman named Briana, played by trans actor Delia Kropp, who also serves as executive producer. Director, writer, and producer Timothy Hall performs a tricky balancing act here: Briana’s transition clearly affected her relationship with Nick’s mother, and changes her relationship to Nick, but while the story does not shy away from Briana’s gender identity, it is not about her trans-ness. It’s a story of a parent coming to terms with the effect their absence had on their child, and of the child coming to terms with his abandonment, each having the scales fall from their eyes over the course of the film. Nick wants to hate Briana, and Briana wants to be involved in Nick’s life with no baggage; slowly, they make their way to a middle ground.

Gooch and Heath give excellent, natural performances. There are no Oscar-bait speeches here, but this turns out to be a good thing, making Nick and Briana’s relationship almost tangibly real. They discuss the beach, bridges, cooking, the church—interestingly, Briana has a very strong faith, a refreshing change of pace from many stories where the church and the LGBTQ community are portrayed as being at odds. There are no scenes of passersby hurling slurs, or pastors preaching about going to hell. Briana’s life is not the tragedy that some would play it as; she has a stable life with strong community ties, and has come to terms with her identity long ago. This makes her a much more compelling character: instead of a walking tragedy, she is a living, breathing person. (Unfortunately, the car ride where Nick and Briana talk about their faith is marred somewhat by poor sound design, the sound of the car alternatingly muffled or overly loud and the actors’ voices too quiet, though to be fair that could have been a computer issue.) 

Landlocked is a pleasant film, deftly avoiding the standard tropes and traps that populate this kind of storyline. It’s not perfect, most noticeably with regards to the audio, and Hall also sidelines Abby, using her primarily as a mouthpiece to get Nick to answer questions we audience members might be wondering. But, Landlocked remains fully worth the watch, offering a needed sense of optimism and demonstrating the importance of LGBTQ stories that don’t focus on the tragedy, only the humanity.

Landlocked is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. You can buy a ticket to a virtual screening here.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Rideshare

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Rideshare, written and directed by Charlene Fisk, takes an everyday situation—getting into a rideshare after a night out—and injects an unsettling layer of claustrophobia. Gina (Brittany Wilkerson) is tired, and not really in the mood to talk to driver Mark (Josh Daugherty), but she makes small talk anyway. Already Gina is stuck in a hellish scenario, forced to chitchat with just one other person while wanting nothing more than to leave. We’ve all been there.

But we have not all been in an experience as gendered as this one. The minute Gina climbs into the car with a male driver, the balance of power shifts, and we become more and more aware of this as the film continues. Mark asks Gina questions, which she responds to; he fails to pick up on the fact that Gina would like to be quiet and continues to talk, his questions getting more and more personal. Fisk takes care through most of the film to never let Mark drift into caricature, instead giving him enough plausible deniability to where he could reasonably say he meant Gina no ill will and was just making conversation, a defense that seems to come up very often in these types of scenarios and one that immediately deflects blame on the woman for being too sensitive or, dare I say, hysterical.

It feels a bit odd to give Rideshare a numerical score, in large part because some of my quibbles came from me thinking, Well, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if someone said this to me (at least towards the beginning) therefore the script has flaws, but I fully recognize that many other people—women—might have a different opinion. Are they being overly sensitive? Am I being overly apathetic? But, to its credit, Rideshare doesn’t try to discuss if Gina’s fears are unfounded. It only says: here is a woman feeling threatened in a one-on-one situation with a man, her experience is very much shaped by her gender, and it doesn’t really matter that much if you think she’s overreacting because her fear is very real—and, of course, as the film goes on, doubts about Gina overreacting get smaller and smaller. 

Fisk does an excellent job at keeping the feeling of claustrophobia throughout the film, helped by the fact that most of it is confined to a single car. For much of the film, we only see Mark from the back and the side, looking at him through Gina’s eyes, a clever and effective choice that keeps him unknowable and menacing. It never becomes too outlandish, except possibly at the end, but I am a sucker for ambiguous endings and easily squashed any incredulity I might have felt. Fisk never beats you over the head with the film’s messages, but they ring loud and clear nonetheless, bolstered by the subtler moments, and I would certainly share a ride with Rideshare. (I’m sorry I couldn’t think of a better pun.)

Rideshare is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. Click here to buy a ticket to its virtual screening.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Episode 106: SXSW 2021: Violation / Here Before / Language Lessons

“I selfishly like a lot of first-time directors because they over-prepare, they’re super eager, and there’s very little ego.”

Mark Duplass

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Oxygen & Every Breath You Take and the SXSW 2021 Feature Films: Violation, Here Before, and Language Lessons.

You can read Taylor’s Reviews of Violation, Here Before, and Language Lessons.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Violation is currently available to stream on Shudder

Here Before and Language Lessons are currently seeking distribution and are not yet available.

Visit us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Limbo

Written by Anna Harrison

85/100

Limbo is the first film I have seen in theaters in over a year, and the euphoric rush I felt as I walked in and inhaled the smell of popcorn would carry over as I watched the film—though perhaps “euphoric” isn’t quite the word. Limbo follows Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), stuck on an isolated Scottish island while his asylum request is processed, familial contact relegated to limited calls in a frigid phone booth (remember those?). It doesn’t quite sound uplifting, and indeed the film gets very dark, but with its deadpan humor and superb performances, Limbo remains full of charm and heart.

The film takes its time to get going, cinematographer Nick Cooke letting us sit in still wide shots that showcase the harsh landscape, the island’s population mere specks against the wild backdrop. At times, Limbo goes a little too slowly through its purgatory, but looks so desolately gorgeous that you don’t mind all that much. The lingering shots, only occasionally interrupted by a pan or tilt, add a hefty dose of charm or humor when needed, or force us to remain is discomfort or despair in the film’s darker moments. 

While the island on which he has been stranded is isolated, Omar himself lives with three roommates: the upbeat Farhad (Vikash Bhai), stealer of chickens and lover of Freddie Mercury, and apparent brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), the former with dreams of becoming a soccer star for Chelsea and the latter with a more realistic take on life. The title of the film proves apt as we watch Omar trudge around this inhospitable island. He goes to cultural awareness classes taught by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who display a lack of awareness themselves, teaching the refugees the past tense by saying phrases like, “I used to ride my elephant to work” or “I used to have a home before coalition forces blew it up.” (As an example of their own, one of the other refugees offers up, “I used to be happy until I came here.”)

Omar, almost always clad in a bright blue jacket, holds on desperately to the one piece of his old life he has left: his grandfather’s oud, a guitar-like instrument he carries around in a case everywhere he goes. Yet he finds himself unable to play, despite his father’s constant refrain—“A musician who does not play his instrument is dead”—ringing in his ears. Omar himself seems drained of life, dragging his untouched oud, mournfully staring at the ignorant locals who ask him not to “blow up shite or rape anyone” before offering him a ride to town. 

Writer and director Ben Sharrock carefully balances melancholy with charm here, playing off Omar’s stoicism against roommate Farhad’s relentless cheer as well as the absurdity and ignorance of the locals. El-Masry delivers a performance that is by equal measures funny and heartbreaking even as Omar’s face remains passive for much of the film; the moment when Omar finally begins to react is all the more effective when contrasted with his earlier stoicism. Bhai’s Farhad provides a joyful foil, and while Wasef and Abedi share less screentime than their other roommates, Orebiyi and Ansah more than make up for it with a pair of wrenching performances.

Limbo seems like an impossible film, especially when many refugee stories today are treated by Hollywood with a somberness and self-seriousness better befitting a funeral than something involving living, breathing people. Yet Sharrock easily breathes a new life to this story, bolstered by El-Masry and his co-stars (yes, I have repeatedly mentioned how good El-Masry is; yes, he is that good), finding a deeper empathy in Limbo by focusing on the small scale and the irrefutably human, refusing to give us the standard shlock and making a film all the better for it.

Limbo trailer

Limbo played at the Atlanta Film Festival and releases theatrically on April 30.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Congratulations

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Asad Farooqui’s smart and deftly funny short Congratulations (originally called Mabrook, an Arabic word meaning largely the same thing) opens with Amir, played by Farooqui himself, filming a self-tape for a movie, hoping to land the lauded role of… Terrorist Number Two. Amir is a struggling actor, trying to make it in a world where Muslim performers are delegated to suicide bombers and hijackers; on top of this, Amir still lives at home with his badgering but well-meaning parents (Rajiv Vora and Rabinder Campbell) who like to keep interrupting his audition tapes.

The family is getting ready for Eid, the celebratory breaking of the Ramadan fast, and are joined by Amir’s uncle Abbas (Navin Gurnaney) and his family, including nephew Dr. Jameel (Manahar Kumar), who respectfully looks down upon Amir’s soon-to-be MFA, and Jameel’s fiancée (and cousin), Maaria (Nasim). 

Farooqui milks the awkward family dynamics for all their worth, creating an instantly familiar feeling for anyone who has ever had any sort of family gathering. Here, the lines in the sand are drawn not between generations, as often happens, but between geographic locations: Abbas and Jameel, who have both lived in Pakistan, versus Amir, who has not. Abbas and Jameel both praise former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and insult Hindus, and Amir’s criticisms fall on deaf ears, his comments weightless because he has not lived in Pakistan himself. (Farooqui milks humor out of these conflicts, too, not only through the script but through the shot setups and staging, so we squirm along with Amir and his father as Jameel and Abbas judge us from above.)

Farooqui is careful never to let any of his characters drift into caricature, unlike whoever wrote Terrorist Number Two: Jameel and Abbas are not the hyperconservative, misogynistic monsters that many Western movies would have us believe. Their flaws come out in smaller ways—a comment here, a snide glance there. They are the family members whom you encounter every Thanksgiving with outdated and problematic beliefs, not cartoonish cronies. Nor is Amir hyper-Westernized; he prays with his family in traditional clothing, embracing his faith while simultaneously advocating more liberal ideas. 

Therein lies Congratulations’ biggest success: it juxtaposes the players in Amir’s real life—educated, civil (by and large)—and Amir himself with those he has been delegated to play in the movies—unnamed, fanatical. And, as Congratulations shows, the former proves far more interesting and watchable than the latter. We watch Amir interact with his family, watch conflicts and personalities that mirror everyone else’s, and then see the MFA hopeful trudge back upstairs to resignedly refilm his audition for Terrorist Number Two, a role that strips him of all the humanity we have just witnessed.

It’s funny, but it’s a punch to the gut, too.

Congratulations is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. Click here to buy a ticket to its virtual screening.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Hot Docs 2021 Review: Dark Blossom

Written by Taylor Baker

62/100

Often staring into a screen or mirror as they billow out more vapor there is an unsatisfied anger intertwined with a yearning at the heart of primary subjects in this Danish Documentary. Dark Blossom begins with quick cuts of skulls, and people in black running between vibrant flowers up to a dead and decomposing fox covered by a common plastic bucket piled with bricks. Not more than a few minutes later we see Jay, one of our main subjects, request to listen to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” while getting a stick and poke tattoo, notably it’s his first tattoo. The music fades as he answers a phone call from his Mom and deceives her as to what he’s up to.

The assembled footage in Dark Blossom primarily shows the activities and social situations that our three subjects navigate through. Their predilections and aversions. With a constant focus toward the asymmetry of their outcast-like experience and temporary intimacy as a group. Elucidated by voice over, stark images, and their general behavior. The discomfort in their own skin is physically apparent in how often we see them applying makeup, modifying their bodies, and dying their hair. All while they continue to grow.

Repetition. Josephine, Jay, and Nightmare(Mareridt) repeat physical actions, sentences, and emotions. A smaller repetitive moment occurs midway through the film where after a long day lugging around outfits and caked in makeup they’re brought the wrong soda at a restaurant. Which ensues a debate about whether to complain, Jay is experiencing fatigue and eventually the argument peters out. This scene is later followed by a quieter scene in Jutlund where Coke is being surreptitiously drunk in the far corner of the table. It’s a small creative choice but in the context of the film it’s a moment that lingers and speaks volumes about the dispersion of these friends. Dark Blossom narrowly shows the broadness of a small group of young adults disaffected with life in their small town and the status quo.

Dark Blossom Trailer

Dark Blossom is currently screening as part of the Hot Docs 2021 Film Festival. You can purchase a ticket to view it here.

SXSW 2021 Capsule Review: Soak

Written by Alexander Reams

51/100

I was not a fan of this film. The filmmaking is juvenile, and the story director Hannah Bang is trying to tell is presented poorly and sloppily. Though South Korea’s night time looks gorgeous, and the production design and lighting is great. Other than that, the film was extraordinarily middling. A 16 year old tries to bring her runaway mother home. A simple plot, and oftentimes those can be the best executed because they can be open to new ways of telling the story as well as the viewers interpretation. The most complimentary thing I can say about this film is that DP Heyjin Jun does a fantastic job of showcasing a rain soaked South Korea. My main issues lie with the screenplay and the lead actress, Do Eun Lee. Lee does her best with what she is given, which isn’t much. The film wants to convey ideas of forgiveness and loss, but it’s dialogue between Do Eun Lee and Chaewon Kim is basic and only operates at the surface level. I wish I had enjoyed this film more the poor writing and acting that constantly bombard the film kept me from ever being able to lean in.

Soak Trailer

Soak played at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.