AFI DOCS Film Festival – Part 2

Try Harder
These movies like TRY HARDER! about teens waiting on college admission decisions stress me out to no end. When I got into college, I waited for an envelope stuffed with confetti that exploded all over my living room. Nowadays, they wait by their phones or laptops refreshing a webpage to see what their future holds.  A nightmare.  For the students at the prestigious Lowell High, the pressure is on to live up to a reputation of being the best of the best and realizing you’re just one of many swimming upstream in a narrow pond. Director Debbie Lum follows a handful of overachieving (could you even call it that?  It just looks like they are really invested in getting into college…) juniors and seniors planning for the future and a few of their parents as well. Lum surprisingly gets in deep quickly with the students and teachers — an early exit for one key player caught me so off guard as to choke me up more than I could have imagined. By the end, you’ll be holding your breath along with each one as they find out their fate, sharing in their victory and their loss…and also wondering what you could have done with just one more AP course on your transcript.

Cusp
In the age of reality television, Instagram, Tik-Tok, etc. where people are acutely aware of cameras, it can be difficult to truly get that cinema verité style of filmmaking that makes certain documentaries have such a palpable realism.  So, it’s no small miracle that directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill have given us CUSP, an eye-opening look into the lives of a group of girls in a small Texas town over the course of one summer as they all do some growing up.  Featuring the kind of personalities that only exist in narrative features, these young women are bold, mouthy, independent, vulnerable, and don’t edit themselves for the camera. The directors are present for some tough conversations and revelations and with the amount of underage illegal activity going on you can see why there is some controversy surrounding it.  Yet the brilliance of the piece is illustrated by the directors featuring one of the mothers of the girls as a supporting character, almost a grown-up version of themselves…still a bit of a wild child, not quite tamed.  It’s a sign to the teens that growing up doesn’t mean losing that part of themselves that’s strong-willed, it’s just adding in responsibility on top of it all.

North by Current
This was one doc that I missed at the Tribeca Film Festival and heard good things about so was excited to see offered here.  I wish I had come away attached to NORTH BY CURRENT a bit more but director Angelo Madsen Minax’s reflection on his family using the death of his niece as a catalyst never hooked me like I thought it would.  There’s certainly fine filmmaking on display here and ideas at play that will appeal to audiences seeking out non-traditional storytelling methods for their documentaries. I can get on board with that as well, but I never felt like I was understanding what was fully being explored.  Was it the death of his niece? The potential abuse of his sister at the hands of her husband?  The family adjustment to Minax’s life as a trans man?  That last piece is actually where Minax finds the most emotionally resonant moments in his film, two of the most powerful and knock you off your seat rattling statements are made by family members in relation to this and you wish there was more of a dive into that.    

Courtroom 3H
I love a good courtroom drama like anyone else, but we all know that the reality of court is nothing like they show it in the movies. Director Antonio Méndez Esparza’s COURTROOM 3H takes viewers inside a family court in Tallahassee over three months and offers a glimpse at what goes on during difficult proceedings to determine the welfare of children.  This is a simple doc that offers deep rewards over two hours. Initially, it takes some getting used to because the camera set-up is basically point and shoot.  Cases and faces go by at random with little weight put on one over the other and Esparza has wisely chosen to omit any footage that is overly histrionic, opting instead for cases that alternately show success and failure.  Divided into two sections, the first covers short hearings that last several minutes while the second hour is devoted to two lengthy trials.  It’s a truly fascinating bit of insight, if only for a brief moment, and a completely captivating watch.

Movie Review ~ Till Death

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma is left handcuffed to her dead husband as part of a sickening revenge plot and must survive two hired killers on their way to finish the job.

Stars: Megan Fox, Eoin Macken, Aml Ameen, Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth

Director: S.K. Dale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Let’s just face the facts about something. It’s going to be hard for us to admit it collectively so I can go ahead and speak for the group: we all missed the boat big time on Megan Fox and gave her a raw deal back in the Transformers days.  Don’t bother to argue or pretend you don’t agree.  Don’t point to the Transformers sequel and go “But, look!”  Don’t hold up your used copy of Jonah Hex with it’s not quite torn off Blockbuster label and for goodness sake please don’t even start with Jennifer’s Body.  If you are still claiming Jennifer’s Body is a bad movie you need to go back and watch it again and then come back and apologize. There is no space for Jennifer’s Body deniers here.

What I’m trying to say is that Fox achieved a certain amount of fame for something other than her acting and that somehow rendered her a bad actress, which I just don’t think she is.  Now, what I do think is that she’s an actress that has to be in the right movie to be successful and Till Death is her bread and butter.  The Bulgaria-filmed thriller has a dynamite concept, one of those situations you read on paper and think it could never be stretched to a feature length but which, miraculously, manages to work beautifully as a zesty little bit of bloody fun which keeps you alert and on your toes.

Emma (Fox, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) is not in the happiest of marriages, as evidenced by her ongoing affair with an employee (Aml Ameen, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) at her husband Mark’s office.  While she recently ended her relationship with Tom, her thoughts continue to drift to him even as she’s out with Mark (Eoin Macken) for an uncharacteristically romantic evening.  Whisking her away to their secluded lake house, Mark has the luxuriously furnished dwelling all set-up for a seductive evening and appears ready to recommit to their union.  With her affair over and her once aloof spouse now showing renewed interest, Emma feels as if this may be a positive step in reclaiming her life.  Then she falls asleep.

When Emma wakes up, she’s handcuffed to Mark who has a gun in his other hand.  Before she knows it, he’s killed himself and she’s left all alone tethered to her dead mate.  Then things get weirder.  Not only has Mark committed suicide in front of her, but everything in the furnished house has disappeared overnight.  Anything she could use to free herself or call for help has vanished.  Realizing she’s been set-up, Emma has to use considerable strength to move about the house and find a way to literally get rid of her dead weight of a husband.  What she doesn’t realize is that Mark has also connected with someone from Emma’s past, a stalker (Callan Mulvey, Shadow in the Cloud) who attacked her and was sent to prison but was recently released.  And he’s on his way over.

Fans of talking to the screen will have a field day with Fox and Till Death because the numerous predicaments screenwriter Jason Carvey puts Emma into are enough to drive you bonkers.  One moment, you’re cheering her on for her ingenuity and the next you’re screaming at her for blowing her cover by knocking something over.  Director S.K. Dale works within these tight constraints of the house and the small surrounding area, never letting things get too claustrophobic while always reminding you just how alone Emma is without any form of help coming to save her.  Several well-done sequences of near misses are nicely thought out and, even better, believably executed.  It never looks like Fox is just dragging a cloth dummy around after her, either.  The poor guy playing her husband really takes a beating as the corpse…it’s like a horror version of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Stylish thrillers with strong female leads are the types of films that Fox should make more of and recently she’s been headlining a number of titles in this genre, which suit me just fine.  Right now, I have another film in my queue to watch she’s co-starring in with Bruce Willis that’s due out in a few weeks so the jury’s out if that will produce the same rewarding fruit that Till Death found.  For now, it’s worth it to take note of how this well-done feature uses its star to draw the suspense higher and maintain it through to the very end.

Movie Review ~ Long Story Short

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Teddy wakes up the morning after his wedding to discover that every few minutes he’s jumping forward to the next year of his life.

Stars: Rafe Spall, Zahra Newman, Ronny Chieng, Dena Kaplan, Noni Hazlehurst, Josh Lawson

Director: Josh Lawson

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  For a while there in the ’80s, ‘90s and early 2000’s, the U.S. was infiltrated with a number of import comedies from Australia that highlighted the zany sense of humor from our friends Down Under.  Titles such as Crocodile Dundee, Muriel’s Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom, The Castle, and heck even Babe were those slightly off-center movies that were riotously funny in one moment but could turn on a dime and find a way to tug at your heartstrings like a koala bear climbing up a drooping vine.  I miss venturing to my local art house cinema and seeing what was arriving that week – nine times out of ten I’d always take a chance on an Aussie film because good or bad, they were never the least bit predictable.

Sadly, with the decline of major independent studios to champion these international films (yes, I’m talking about Miramax…sorry!) a number of films from Australia, China, and even a wealth of UK indies has failed to find a major release in the U.S. and that’s a right shame because every now and then there’s a winner you wish more people would get to see.  That’s certainly the case where Long Story Short is concerned. If you skim its surface, it could feel like a familiar jaunt of a rom-com and come across at first like it lacks the oddball quirk which gave earlier exports such notoriety. However, by the end it’s clear that it possesses the same heart, game performances, and genuine charm to earn a warm reception stateside. 

At a packed New Year’s Eve party Teddy (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) mistakes Leanne (Zahra Newman) for his similarly dressed girlfriend and plants a kiss on her before he realizes his mistake.  A classic “meet cute” for a Sydney pair that will soon be a couple we see sharing their lives together over the next several years.  Teddy puts off marriage though, convinced he has loads of time to put a ring on it…that is until he and Leanne are visiting a seaside cemetery and strike up a conversation with a curious stranger (Noni Hazlehurst) who takes a particular interest in Teddy’s non-commitment and apparent disregard for living in the present moment.  The stranger manages, in only a way a fantasy like this could, to prod the two into a quickie wedding and even promises a gift that will be delivered the night of.

Cut to the best-looking “hastily” planned nuptials you’ve ever seen and Teddy indeed receiving a mysterious gift from the stranger after the guests have all left.  The thing is, he can’t open it for ten years.  Some gift, right?  Teddy closes his eyes and when he wakes up…his unfurnished house he went to sleep in is now furnished and his new bride is quite pregnant with their first child.  A year has gone by in an instant.  Time waits for no man…not even Teddy.  So begins a journey through, you guessed it, ten years of Teddy watching his life pass by as he becomes a father to a child he doesn’t really know, a husband to a wife he barely has spent time with, and merely an observer of his life as friends and family go through struggles of their own he never had paid attention to.  And he has no control over it.

Well, that sounds bleak. Trust me, while Long Story Short has it’s moments of sadness where you’ll feel the mist forming in your eyes, there’s plenty in actor/writer/director Josh Lawson’s (who earns a reprieve in my book for his annoying performance in Mortal Kombat earlier this year) that’s light and fresh.  Facing one’s fleeting life and realizing all the little details you’ve missed and took for granted is a lesson we can all hear and often but Lawson wraps it in a package that’s frequently disarming.  Said package is Spall’s performance which has to walk a thin line between consistently doing/saying the wrong thing but still keeping the audience on his side.  Spall continues to be an impressive presence in film and television, nicely flying under the radar in most of his work so far.  Small stuff like this isn’t going to elevate him to A-list status but it does earn him credit as a dependable player in romantic comedies that don’t follow the same dusty paths.  He has a Hugh Grant vibe at times but doesn’t fall into that mumbling bumbling fodder that only Grant can get away with.  It’s a nice balance with Newman’s supporting role as his wife who largely has to go it alone the more Teddy is absent and detached from his family. 

As with any time-traveling film (like the just released The Tomorrow War), the rules are often bendable but not quite breakable and Lawson thankfully has planned ahead with plot. That being said, audiences will likely spot how Long Story Short will close its circle far before it arrives – but darn it all if it still doesn’t have a significant emotional pang when it does.  Until then, it’s feather-light watch featuring an engaging lead performance and solid work done behind the scenes which turns it up from just being a sleight television project to a worthy date night watch.