Denver Film Festival Roundup
This certainly has a lot of interesting elements about cycles of substance and emotional abuse and lingering trauma, but it didn't quite coalesce into a fully effective story.
The Great American Lie
I can't say I've been overwhelmingly impressed by prior documentaries from Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and this continues the trend. It's main purpose is to show how the concept of the American Dream has crumbled, tying together a bunch of strands. But it is very superficial in how it tackles each.
Koreeda directs a largely French film that, in typical Koreeda fashing delves into restrained family drama. In this case that between renowned actress mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). It has some parallels to Clouds of Sils Maria in how the presence of young inginue actress Manon creates a bit of jealousy for Fabienne. Not absolute top level Koreeda but still a very strong film.
Watching this made me retroactively add a grade increment to my Just Mercy rating. That film may be overly conventional, but it is extremely effective in delving into problems with the death penalty. Clemency is less of a rollercoaster of emotion, fixing in on pure bleakness in all respects. There is some value to this approach with a system that is purely evil, but while Just Mercy finds the power of activism, Clemency seems a nihilist acceptance of bureaucratic misery. Also, if ever a film was designed for 1.5x viewing, it is this one.
Happy New Year
I saw a trailer for an Italian film that played at the AMC earlier this year. It's premise is that a group of friends gather for dinner and decide to play a game where they all set their cell phones out and will make all texts and calls public that come during the dinner. It seemed intriguing but I never made it to the film. Just six months later comes a Hungarian remake. Having not seen the Italian one I cannot speak to which is more effective, but did find this version extremely effective. Now, for the sake of cinema, this particular friend set lead extremely interesting lives full of secrets, both of wrongdoing or simply uncomfortable. I could imagine playing this among my friends and it being completely uneventful. That's if anyone actually got a text or call in the duration of dinner. Anyway, I feel like all the reveals were well orchestrated for emotional effect and to betray any simple moral judgment...a good study of humanity.
I almost feel the need to call this a "documentary." It tells the real life story of members of an activist immigrant-rights group that had members turn themselves over to ICE so they could get inside detention centers and provide assistance. While we get momentary glimpses of the real people involved, the bulk of the film is dramatic reenactment. Obviously they were not able to film inside active detention centers so the filmmakers had the choice of reenactment or just talking head retelling. The result is certainly effective in creating a sort of espionage caper film, but I ponder if abandoning the documentary label and just making it a full-on narrative film would have been better. Of course, individual triumphs feel good, but the context of this needlessly cruel system, given that immigration is an unqualified benefit for the country, makes it hard to get too happy.
This is a fascinating film undertaking. Filmed at the 2018 Winter Olympics with a crew of just the director/camera operator and its two actors, with what I imagine was a significant amount of improv, a lot of its power comes from the authentic backdrop that couldn't be as accurately recreated with extras. Instead, beyond Nick Kroll's dentist and Alexi Pappas' cross-country skier, we just get cameos from various olympians, most notably Gus Kenworthy. Interesting to note that Pappas, was a former Olympian (in track) so she has that first-hand experience to contribute to the story. In what I'd describe as Before Sunrise goes to the Olympics, though without the unrealistic polish and intellectualism of the Linklater films, we follow these two as they get to know each other over a few days in the Olympic Village. Amid this throng of humanity, both come with their own unique sense of loneliness and questions about the future. There are a few really good, raw moments, but on the whole it may show that awkward realism sometimes is less effective in film that something more polished.
The Right To Rest
The smallest film I am seeing at the festival, this is a local Denver documentary around advocacy for homeless rights. There are a couple eyeroll-inducing moments like one of the activists seemingly bemoaning empty lots that got turned into mid- and high-rise housing...because the housing is "luxury." I tend to be a bit hand-wavy about the concept of gentrification, because the alternatives always seem so much worse. The main project that the film documents is the creation of a tiny house village built (temporarily) on an empty lot. I appreciate the ingenuity to place 11 homes (housing 11 people) on the empty lot, and to the degree that they talk about it as a somewhat mobile village that occupies these lots while they are in a transitory phase I praise it, but to the extent they express disappointment at having to move the village because a 16-story apartment building is being constructed on the lot, I just hit my head against the wall. A 16-story apartment building houses way more people on a lot than 11 tiny homes. You can get into debates about overall supply versus affordable housing supply, but at the end of the day, the best way to fight high housing prices is to boost the supply. This film is too much within the activist community to present any of the contrasting views.
The other aspect of the documentary is the political fight over the titular right to rest. Denver criminalized unauthorized camping which means homeless populations are constantly being swept up. This aspect is probably more effective, and the use of the tiny village and its residents is important in providing stories of who the homeless population is. I know oldkid can speak to this in the Portland context, but a very liberal city like Denver overwhelmingly voted down the Right to Rest this spring. Matthew Yglesias of Vox has a twitter bit about suggesting Democrats embrace the popular liberal positions and not emphasize the unpopular ones, because doing popular things is a good way to get political success. Yet at some point, there is a moral requirement that unpopular things be done, and it is so clear that a equilibrium where housing is vastly undersupplied and yet homelessness is criminalized cannot endure. And this film ultimately is necessary to put it on the agenda.
P.S. There were some just awful Karens in the audience. Wealthy white liberal women who proclaim their tolerance but simply can't live in certain places because there are too many homeless people who are dirty and make them feel unsafe. It's not ideal but I suppose it's good they were at least exposing themselves to the arguments?