Santa Fe Reporter
10th Annual Santa Fe Independent Film Festival
Wherein SFR dives into a cross-section of films screening during the 10th Annual SFIFF
By Matthew K Gutierrez and Matt Grubs and Layne Radlauer and Aaron Cantu and Alex De Vore
Matthew K. Gutierrez
Time catches up with us all, and for 93-year old America, the twilight of her life culminates in gathering her three grandsons to care for her in the feature-length documentary debut from co-directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside. It's a sobering look at a family full of old dreams who now confront new, often heartbreaking realities.
Diego, leaving Puerto Vallarta to travel to his family's hometown of Colima, Mexico, is by far the most doting and soulful grandson. He jokes with his grandmother, takes her on trips and is always ready to keep her on her diet. Rodrigo, the brooding sort, runs his own meditation group with his girlfriend Christina; he stresses over money and lack of support from the extended family, while Christina as a feminine presence is a breath of fresh air. She chats with America about sweeter things; hair care, boys and the like. Bruno, a sideshow performer and the last to arrive, is arguably the most abrasive family member and doesn't seem to care much for his grandmother at all.
America's best moments show the brothers bonding through mutual athleticism. Rodrigo and Diego laugh while keeping rhythm during push-ups, Diego and Bruno perform sideshow tricks at a birthday party and all three stand on each other's shoulders in their backyard, smiling. Later, however, their darker sides emerge, culminating in fistfights and frustrations over financial woes. Despite America's dementia and other ailments, however, her sass, wit and charm shine in every frame. Diego remarks that she'll be a famous movie star. She certainly has what it takes.
Camera work and editing serve familial tenderness well. An uncomfortable scene where Diego and Rodrigo give America an enema is presented with respect, the camera panning away as the audio remains. It's also successful in capturing Colima, objectively displaying the town's poverty and corruption. Unfortunately, background shots and cutaways often serve as a distraction; closeups of a tree in spring or a resting landscape could and should have been replaced by more scenes with America and her boys.
And so America is best when it emphasizes the beauty in the little moments; a quiet stroll in the afternoon, a giggle at the dinner table, a cathartic weep in the back of a car. Only then do we realize we have more in common with this family saga than initially perceived.
All Creatures Here Below
It's been a while since a movie has asked so much of its viewers, and though All Creatures Here Below opens with a pastoral scene and the hummed choral strains of the doxology, viewers don't have a prayer. And though you may appreciate this movie, you certainly won't feel good walking out of it.
Ruby (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Gensan (David Dastmalchian, Ant-Man) are a couple eking out an existence on Los Angeles' Skid Row. We immediately find out Ruby has a past, though we don't know much about it, and when Gensan (which is pronounced exactly like "Jensen," though there's never any reference to the random spelling in the movie) loses his job making pizzas, he makes the unwise choice of betting his last paycheck on a cockfight. Don't worry - you get to see the cockfight. You also get to see the cops show up and the real adventure begins here. Ruby and Gensan have to get out of town, because they both do something they shouldn't have.
Director Collin Schiffli (Animals) deserves some credit for coaxing good performances from Gillan and Dastmalchian, but his plot development feels sluggish. For nearly an hour after the cockfight, we're immersed in a dreamy travelogue that's not peppered with enough exposition. Tense moments come too rarely, and when they do, they're telegraphed and last too long. The result is a film that feels too often like someone told Schiffli he needed to hit a 90-minute running time. He did not. Dastmlachian wrote the screenplay, and while his turn as a leading man is solid enough, he should take some of the heat for the pacing, too.
This is a tough film about a couple that hasn't caught much in the way of a break from a rough, ugly world, and Schiffli presents it in an unvarnished fashion - and while it makes for some thought-provoking art, if you want to feel awful about the world, you can always just turn on the news.
Shakedown is a documentary about a team of exotic dancers who perform in an underground black lesbian nightclub in Los Angeles called The Horizon. This documentary, directed by NYC fashion designer Leilah Weinraub, attempts to shine a spotlight on these women. Does it succeed? A little.
Through interviews and footage of the dancers, Weinraub showcases various women on their journey to dance glory. Egypt, one of the film's focal points, tells her tale of self-discovery: She's got a partner and a little girl, but supports her family through dancing. Or take Ronnie Ron, who identifies as a "stud," a lesbian who dresses like a man - she's the emcee and lighting technician of The Horizon and creator of Shakedown Productions, but her background isn't explored to any great affect, except that she mentions she used to be a "violent femme." There are other dancers featured, of course, but Shakedown doesn't delve too deeply into their stories, either.
This could be because there's a lot of footage - too much, almost, and naked (or soon-to-be naked) women fill up the bulk of this fairly short film to the point that it saturates any real backstory behind these women's lives. There's only so many times one can watch a certified diva have one-dollar bills shoved in their underwear. Shakedown thus comes perilously close to too-risque on a few occasions - without being too graphic, one lady straps on a replica of a male appendage and goes to town on another lady in front of a crowd of 50 people - which is fine, because it illustrates the extent of what they do during their average workday. Yet, most of the film is just ladies dancing and ripping off their clothes. After a point, it feels more like watching pornography than a documentary, and a repetitive one at that.
In director Daryl Wein's White Rabbit, Sophia (Vivian Bang) is a performance artist stringing together gigs to make ends meet in modern-day Los Angeles. TaskRabbit and YouTube revenue are supposed to supplement tips she makes doing public monologues that draw on her experience as a child immigrant from South Korea. She lives to bear her soul to the world, something she can't confine to her artistic work - with painful consequences.
If you've ever attempted to live in a big expensive city and make it mostly on your craft, part of Sophia's experience is familiar. New York and Los Angeles are full of creative young people trying to monetize their insights and muses so that they can tow the line between a life of meaning and and survival. It's always precarious, especially for women of color, and Sophia finds that the intense passion driving her work also drives others away. And that makes her both emotionally clingy and too distracted to engage with a partner - a killer combination.
Elsewhere, White Rabbit's script confronts LA's legacy of racial violence between black people and Korean immigrants. In one of Sophia's public performances at a park, she criticizes the media's coverage during the 1992 riots for always racializing the conflict between the two. Instead, she suggests the lootings happened because of geographical proximity, itself the result of a conspiracy by higher white powers. A woman named Victoria approaches Sophia afterward, and the stage is set for more heartbreak.
To engage with the film you have to acquiesce to its representation of Sophia's worldview, which sometimes engages with plot devices that are really on-the-nose. This includes Victoria's jacket emblazoned with "Black Lives Matter" or a scene featuring a white casting director engaging in blatant racism while shooting Sophia for a small role. Micro-aggressions and political expressions are often more subtle in real life, but in a film so tightly coiled up in the protagonist's personal story, maybe they're necessary to progress the narrative - for better or worse.
Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin
by Alex Devore
Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin from director Arwen Curry does a fine enough job celebrating the life of the groundbreaking sci-fi novelist through interviews with family and those she impacted like Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood, but rather than feel like a love letter to a personal hero, the documentary reads almost like a sales pitch to people who already bought what Curry's selling ages ago.
Le Guin, who died earlier this year, of course shattered barriers in the sci-fi world at a time when the bulk of its tales lay firmly in the hands of male authors and hidden in 10-cent pulp paperbacks shoved into bookstore back rooms. By the late 1960s, she had a bevy of stories under her belt and novels like A Wizard of Earthsea tearing up sexist preconceived notions and making her a bit of a literary and feminist hero.
And that's fantastic. But other than a handful of moments about how critics didn't get her and how she was unparalleled when it came to world-building, we mostly get a bunch of people saying the same thing over and over again: Le Guin was amazing; Le Guin wasn't appreciated when she was at the height of her powers; Le Guin influenced writers we all love today; Le Guin was a champion.
This is all very true - Le Guin was a brilliant writer, and though Curry's footage of the author herself and some light biography is fairly interesting, we aren't told much that would be valuable to anyone who isn't a newcomer. Thus, the film feels like a bit of video Cliff's Notes or a nice way to kill about an hour in a junior high classroom somewhere. We were hoping for a deeper look at her history or maybe even a little less gushing. Either way, Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin does have some cool animated sections and will surely dazzle longtime fans or maybe win over a few new ones. We just don't think it'll go down in history quite like Le Guin did.
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