Preparation and conflagration of a two-day incendiary festival in a fireworks producing town. Day one is the Castles of Fire, then day two is the Bulls. We spend time with participants, mostly paying attention to stories about when things have gone wrong during past festivals leading to death and disfigurement, then watch the pretty sparks with the tension of hoping not to see anybody caught aflame. Missed this at True/False but it played on PBS in an apparently edited version. Lindy Lou, Juror Number Two seems to be cut even more, so this calls for investigation.

A fictionalized version of horseman Brady’s life and family. We only skipped this at True/False because I was pretty sure it would open here, and thankfully it did, with Brady and Lane in person on opening night. All respect to Zhao for making a lovely film, but it doesn’t work without Brady – he’s a nonactor who not only manages to carry a film, but does so with such grace and soul. Opening in the aftermath of Brady’s head injury after a rodeo fall (we see him watching the real footage), he struggles to envision a future where he can’t ride anymore. For a long time the film title seems like a cruel joke, since he never gets on a horse, until one beautiful scene shot in long takes through a fence (because it was essentially a documentary moment) as Brady demonstrates to a rancher that he can tame his skittish horse. At that moment, watching someone with a born talent for working with horses, every western movie we’ve ever seen felt more fake than ever.

Woof, this was bad, but I should’ve guessed from the trailer I saw in NYC with all the “you won’t BELIEVE what happens NEXT”-style quotes in huge print across the screen. A seemingly endless (but only 70 minutes!) string of car crashes and weird happenings captured by Russian dash-cams and ripped off youtube.

“Danger in 200 meters” says one car’s navigation system just before encountering a truck driving slowly in reverse, wiping out all the cars in its path. I rewound a couple times the exploding light poles leading to a blackout after a truck tumbles over. “Fucking asshole,” deadpans the driver witnessing this – there are a couple heroes, but mostly the drivers act annoyed but unsurprised by the damage on display.

Typical/hilarious subtitle:

Quick montages of smashes and explosions are used as buffer material between longer single-take segments. With every new edit, you brace yourself anew for something terrible to happen. Along with Caniba, the other True/False movie Katy wisely avoided, the movie gives us nothing and lets us draw our own conclusions – and at least one person probably died in the making of each. I don’t typically click around youtube looking for the best car-crash videos, so I appreciate that someone has spent the time to curate them for us (and some are incredible) but that’s all this is.

Part of a double-feature of misbegotten True/False movies that Katy didn’t want to watch, with The Road Movie. Katy was right – they were both very bad!

The directors of Leviathan have found themselves a potentially interesting subject: almost forty years ago, Issei Sagawa killed a woman and ate her, got free on insanity, and has lived at home fixating on his naughty self, how awesomely perverse he is, writing about his crime and making a comic book version. He apparently lives with his brother, who complains about the manga (“there’s no reason to publish this”) but reads the entire thing, chuckling to himself. The brother shows home movies of themselves as kids, and more recent movies of himself attacking his arms with barbed wire and shears.

Our sensory ethnographers react by placing the camera too close to focus, creating distorted images with long stretches of silence, making me wonder at times whether the movie was still playing. It’s probably the most experimental movie to play True/False this year, but the experiment doesn’t work for me. Feels like with the camera placement, the blurring and extreme close-up, they’re trying to take us inside the head of a killer, but this killer seems more amused by his own celebrity (this is at least the fourth documentary about him) than anything else, so the movie goes on for long minutes, just staring at his elderly, psychotic face, hoping some insight will arrive.

After another good True/False fest, and a killer first half of the day with Bisbee and Shirkers, we ended on a lightweight heist film, with strong truefalsian elements, but whose protagonists made Katy fully angry. Tim Grierson nailed it in Paste:

Crafted to be a breezy, self-conscious heist film — the characters study Rififi for inspiration, and a key fantasy sequence is scored to the remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation,” which was memorably used in Ocean’s ElevenAmerican Animals uses a lot of giddy flash to make a sobering point: These callow losers are incredibly privileged white males with little reason to execute this crime except for the fact that they’re bored. But despite strong performances from Peters and Keoghan, who both hook into their characters’ suffocating vapidity, Layton never entirely makes the case that his movie has much more intellectual heft than his protagonists. American Animals is a zippy, forgettable film about dunderheads, which isn’t the same as having a sharp perspective on those boobs.

The real fun comes in the first half as we meet the real boobs via interview footage and see their stories played out – sometimes in multiple versions if the narrators mix up their details – by the great Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and his wild buddy Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the X-Men movies). Peters flies to Amsterdam to meet Udo Kier and see about fencing some rare books, which they clumsily steal with the help of two more dudes (including Everybody Wants Some!! lead Blake Jenner) in the more sordid second half. Katy wishes we’d closed with the Mr. Rogers movie instead.


Musicians seen this year: Mary Lattimore, Lomelda, Esme Patterson, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Burney Sisters, Nevada Greene, Samuel James, The River Arkansas, Ohmme, Molly Healey, Skyway Man,

Food and drink from our old favorites: Craft Beer Cellar, Cafe Berlin, Cafe Poland, Main Squeeze, Nourish, International Tap House, Gunter Hans, Pizza Tree… plus good stuff from Seoul Taco, and next time we’ll skip Flat Branch and not venture into 44 Canteen unless we have no movies scheduled afterward.

Esme Patterson at the Missouri Theater:

We followed up Bisbee with another great one, the story of an indie film shot in Singapore in Summer 1992 that disappeared without a trace, taking a few friendships along with it. Creative punk kids Sandi and Jasmine and their friend Sophie got the support of a French New Wave enthusiast professor/mentor named George, spent the whole summer shooting their would-be classic, then George vanished with the film, which only resurfaced after his death twenty years later, the sound reels having been lost or destroyed along the way. So Sandi uses scenes from the original Shirkers (with added sound effects) to illustrate her story, reassessing the original drive to make this film, what they accomplished, and the aftermath. Sophie is now chair of a film department, Jasmine still holds a huge grudge, and Sandi claims in the Q&A that she doesn’t blame George, which sounds crazy after he ruined their young dreams. There’s some owning up to past misdeeds and betrayals, some exploration of George’s life and his other creative partners (he stole their work, too) but Sandi still respects the guy, and she’s the one in charge of the Shirkers saga now, so perhaps this movie lets him off easy. This was a blast to see from the balcony of a sold-out theater, but we might have been its final proper audience, since it’s been bought by netflix.

Tim Grierson in Paste:

In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, making a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly … the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout — her voice has just the right sardonic tinge — but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot.

This feels more mainstream than Kate Plays Christine or Actress without compromising Greene’s interest in blurring the lines of performance, and while bringing up tons of new and timely issues. The photography is very good (some epic travelling shots, most notably when introducing our young star Fernando) and Greene has graduated from filming lone actresses to an entire town. I came in with high expectations and couldn’t be happier – this was the standout hit of True/False.

In July 1917, striking workers in an Arizona mining town were rounded up and herded out of the town, told they’d be killed if they returned. For the hundredth anniversary, Greene films a town-wide re-enactment of the event, as portrayed by locals with hundred-year roots, by ex-miners and their families, businessmen and government officials, and town newcomers. Few had heard of the “Deportation” before the anniversary committee got underway, but as they research their roles it leads to much discussion and some uncomfortable parallels to still-current problems – deportation and communist agitation were rearing their ugly heads again right as filming began. Two brothers whose grandfather exiled their great uncle play opposite sides, a friendly young dude plays an ambivalent miner who gets swayed to become a flag-waving striker, and a descendant of a town leader insists the deportation was right and necessary until the moment when he finds himself rallying his neighbors onto desert-bound railcars at gunpoint. Minds don’t exactly get changed, but people soften their hardline positions. The whole ensemble piece is beautifully assembled and shot in widescreen, cutting between documentary behind-the-scenes footage and staged-reenactment scenes without radically changing the visuals, breaking down the boundaries between them in true Greene-T/F style.

After lunch we went to the Journalism Institute on campus because we heard there was a Strong Island exhibit. It must have been closed on Sunday, but we came across this instead:

Our second Black Audio Film Collective film after Testament, this one a collage-style doc about the 1985 Handsworth riots – with at least one scene from the 1977 Handsworth riots, the country having failed to solve racism during the intervening years. A good mix of music and sounds, collaged like the visuals. Interviews with community members about mistrust of cops because of bad policing, combined with the story of an innocent woman shot by police in her own home give the sense that nothing has changed between Handsworth Songs and Crime + Punishment. Racism remains unsolved.

I’d been wanting to see this for ages, it having appeared on some list somewhere of great films, and am glad I held off on the bootleg VHS copies to see it properly projected in a theater. Not that there are such splendid visuals – it’s mostly news and interview footage – but there’s at least one innovative move in here: lit photographs hung in a dark room, the camera slowly moving through the room in 3D like an early version of the Ken Burns effect.

Vikram Murthi:

Akomfrah sought to redefine blackness in British culture for a new generation as a reaction against conservative Thatcherite policies along with the respectability politics of their immigrant parents. In turn, the Collective demonstrated that the best way to examine the noxious ideologies in the culture was to trace their historical lineage. As a middle-aged black woman tells a British reporter, “There are no stories in the riots. Only the ghosts of other stories.”

At great personal risk, the director of this doc embedded himself with a jihadist family, allowing us to see how these people really live, to feel their personal struggles. Unfortunately, my feeling was “fuck this family” (the opposite of an empathy machine) as we watch the creepy-doll-faced oldest son Osama go from beheading and flaying little birds to military camp. His dad gets blown up by a mine and loses a leg, and it’s alarming to see him so quiet and dazed after getting used to him as a blowhard strongman. I guess this comes down on the side of “documentary that might be useful to someone,” not “movie I actually liked.”