Film Review: Tick Tock (Tik Tak)

July 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Animated short; Written and Directed by: Zeynep Kocak

The early life of the gentle, elderly man at the center of Tick Tock is represented by a wall of photographs. They provide the film’s opening visual, hanging in his living space, featuring groups and couplets of happy, posing folks. The movie then deftly navigates the passage of time in seconds, allowing all of the photos to collect time-lapsed dust, attract some flies, and just generally age gracelessly. The rest of the movie finds our protagonist trying, sometimes desperately, to connect with someone, to recreate even a fraction of the company he once kept.

There is no spoken dialogue in this animated short, just a comforting and occasionally poignant score and, more often than not, the constant and consistent sound of a clock tick-tocking away. The elderly man decides, after watching potential renters show up on the doorstep of his neighbor, that he should consider renting part of his place, just for the company. He hangs a sign and, when no one bites, he begins the onerous task of tidying a space made dull and filthy after years of neglect and lack of social circles.

At last, convinced that he has cleaned and polished appropriately and created an area worthy of tenants, the elderly gentleman tends to himself. He puts on a suit and combs his hair. He sets out coffee and cookies. And he waits.

Tick Tock is a lovingly-drawn film, full of empathy and bittersweet sentiment. All tasks in the film, including that of simple functionality, are accompanied by the sound of the clock. And while the lack of company (and the desperation for it) are sad to watch, one wonders if the real message has more to do with finding joy in the mundane. Or at least appreciating the ability to exist within the day-to-day. I’ve watched the film a couple of times now and, while the tick-tocking is tough to navigate the first time around, it eventually becomes a natural part of the environment, floating breathlessly in the background. It’s almost completely unobtrusive until it’s not, reminding the viewer that the passage of time isn’t an insignificant thing.


– Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg

July 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

Released: September 2014; Documentary; Written by Kelly Rundle, Tammy Rundle, Gary McGee; Directed by: Kelly Rundle, Gary McGee

Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg is a fascinating, little peek into the world of one of America’s most haunted and beautiful actresses. Jean Seberg grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was discovered by Otto Preminger at the age of 17 during a nationwide casting call for his much-ballyhooed Saint Joan. The film was a critical ess-storm, but Preminger and Seberg got back in the ring for Bonjour Tristesse the following year. Although mesmerizing, and more of a critical darling than SJ, Tristesse didn’t quite provide the professional boost Seberg was after. Finally, in 1960, with Jean-Luc Godard at the helm, she made the French New-Wave masterpiece Breathless, and became an adopted daughter of the French cinema and a Hollywood sensation in one fell swoop. As the story typically goes, though, Seberg’s personal life went…awry. She married the wrong men, made the wrong friends, and went head-to-head with J. Edgar Hoover.

There is a tenderness in this telling of Seberg’s story that lends itself to a broader sympathy for the actress. It’s not the most objective of documentary techniques, but it’s genuine and the sympathy isn’t just an act. The film backs itself up with a real humdinger of a tale about the aforementioned Mr. Hoover and his neutralization of Seberg that’ll make you weep.

It’s clear here that the real beauty of Jean Seberg was in her intentions. Set against a backdrop of footage, old photos, and gentle conversations with her nearest and dearest, Seberg’s pure objectives are apparent. Her sister, high school drama teacher, friends made later in life, and extended family remember Seberg vividly and fondly, and that’s the real meat of the film. The Jean Seberg depicted here was a woman who made decisions based on frank assessment of the trials, tribulations, and advantages of others, who loved with little limitation, and whose self-awareness seemed almost the stuff of legend, especially considering her place in the limelight.

The movie breaks Seberg down into personas (actress, activist, icon) and divides her life as such, but it also maintains a chronology so the end result denotes a growth through her personal roles. It makes for a sharply delineated film that maintains an uncluttered delivery.

A lot of the film is a montage of footage and photos, and the rest is composed of interviews and Seberg quotes which cleverly shepherd the viewer through her life’s roles. The interviews span almost two decades and include everyone from her sister to admirers, but no interview is without momentum. This is a smartly-edited film, ushering us from beginning to end and helping us to draw the only conclusion there really is to draw: that Jean Seberg was a well-loved woman who probably deserved a life a little more well-lived than she got.

In what amounts to a moving and (documentarians, take note!) comprehensive piece with a strong rhythm, Movie Star is an intimate collage. It is stirring, but not schmaltzy, revelatory, but not disrespectful. It is precisely the kind of documentary that results from the truest admiration of the subject.

– Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Molly

August 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2014; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Craig Elrod; With: Byron Brown, Molly Karrasch, Jason Newman

Molly is a darling, hilarious piece of “shorted” filmmaking that is well-worth your time. Written and directed by Craig Elrod and produced by Michael Bartnett, the founders of Pepper Island Films, this little movie packs a lot of bang for its narrative short buck.

Molly’s lovely, dewy face sits paralyzed by sadness and framed in close-up during the first 30 seconds of the film. She then, quietly and with little fuss, walks away. Molly’s ex-boyfriend, whose name we never quite come to learn, begins to oafishly cry, a cry that continues for the next several scenes, while he drives in his car, while he stands in line in a convenience store, and while he sits in a dive motel, the Seashell Inn Motel, to be precise, on the edge of a bed, in the dark. As the sun rises on the “best view in the bay” advertisement slapped on the side of the Seashell, we see that he’s still crying. It’s at this juncture that Molly’s ex-boyfriend’s partner-in-crime shows up, a dear friend whose goal it is to work him through this difficult time, to lend an ear, to follow suit, to soothe.

Together the two young gentlemen work out the smoothest way to navigate a break-up. There might be a break-down, either obscene food consumption or intense starvation, and possible a foam party. It’s as simple as that.

Byron Brown and Jason Newman, as Molly’s ex and his buddy, are a real joy, full of total commitment, sly delivery, and wicket comedic timing. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, hilarious. Molly Karrasch’s titular Molly is lovely, quiet, apologetic, and heart-breaking.

The film is shot in black-and-white and, while it looks great, I get the very distinct feeling that the reason for this has so much more to do with allowing the comedy genius at work here to really shine. It’s an understated humor employed by this film, and, as such, it needs a clean canvas, with very little visual frenzy, to allow for the real weight of what the two yahoo main characters are up to.
Molly is a little nugget, a real peach of a film, that had me chuckling (knowingly?) and shaking my head at the end.

– Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Lomax

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: June 15, 2014; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Jesse Kreitzer; With: James Y. Jones, Georg Koszulinski

Lomax is the tale of Alan Lomax, a folklorist who traveled to the Mississippi Delta in 1941, at the behest of the Library of Congress, to record an oral history of the blues. He took 500 pounds of recording equipment with him which he powered with his car battery. This account of one little snippet of his travels has him meeting and recording Bill Henley, a man whose spirit and voice are given real depth by James “Tail Dragger” Jones, a protégé of none other than Howlin’ Wolf.

The story is simple: Alan finds Bill, he coaxes him from his home, asks him to sing, and he records it. Prior to the recording, they talk. Bill is clear that he isn’t visited much and that that’s all right by him, perhaps even preferable. The viewer gets the impression that Alan finds it helpful and possibly even necessary to talk to his subjects before recording them, to know them just a little before collecting their voices. He takes careful notes during his conversation with Bill.

The dialogue is stark, the music bonding the two men, as opposed to their conversation, in sort of a warmer expression of a mutual goal. It might also be that something larger than language is supposed to be the focal point. Or it might be that what we see in this film is the course of a conversation between a black man and a white man in Mississippi in 1941. Regardless, it’s moving; there are obviously just larger elements afoot than words. And it doesn’t mean that sound isn’t important here. There is the haunting use of music by way of both the musical choices, themselves, and the minimal background sound when someone sings. A voice, the oddities of its owner’s mouth movement, and a symphony of cicadas are all we’re left with.

The Southern landscape has a similar effect, the richness of a gothic, bittersweet history serving as the backdrop for a blunt skyline with a clipped line of trees. This movie is, at its core, a love letter to the region and to the history of a beautiful and disquieted place. It might be the most nuanced film I’ve reviewed thus far, which is saying something.

Because Alan Lomax is a man as important as his mission, this film doesn’t shy away from admiring, doting, on his equipment, his microphone, his automobile, and a shiny new record, both before and after it has been grooved by Bill’s voice. And because Bill is a man as important as his song, which happens to be about his mule, the film also allows for some really fantastic attention on the animal in flashback. There’s a truly uncomfortable and, still, lovely shot of the side of the mule’s head while it walks, its eye black, the effect a little chilling. The film is shot in super 16 mm, a really appropriate medium, both because of the visual produced, and because it’s a really lovely way to showcase the era.

Jones and Koszulinski are perfect, engaged yet awkward, and allowing the satisfaction in the music to surface. Jones is genuine and a little curious. Koszulinski is thoughtful, and a little withdrawn.

This movie is presented by the Association for Cultural Equity, the organization responsible for founding Lomax, and it is billed as a reimagining of the meeting between the two men. I urge you to do yourself the favor of checking this one out. It is an absolutely stunning movie, the kind of film that only really gets made because someone cares so deeply for its subject matter.

– Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: The Chaperone

August 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: September 11, 2013; Animation Short; Written & Directed by: Fraser Munden & Neil Rathbone; With: Ralph Whims, Stefan Czernatowicz, Fraser Munden, Chris McMahon

The Chaperone lays out the previously untold true tale of Ralph Whims, a teacher who defends a group of middle school kids at a dance against a biker gang in 1973. The movie bills itself as “a hand drawn story,” but it’s an absolute work of art, a collage of drawn animation, perfect small-scale set pieces, puppets, and live-action martial arts sequences.

Ralph and Stefan, the DJ at the dance-in-question, narrate the story. One of the most endearing and truly riveting elements of their storytelling is Ralph’s propensity to expand on a given situation or setting, whether it be in terms of the way children view teachers or what it really means to be a chaperone. Ralph’s not telling a story, he’s telling his story, and Munden and Rathbone fall in line, capturing every quirk and tick and turning them into something truly lovely. One of my favorite representations of this is when Ralph mentions how the biker gang entered the dance and saw that he and Stefan were “dressed in the very modern style of the late-60s, early-70s.” The visual accompanying this observation is a hand drawn magazine opening to feature a dual-page display of precisely what those styles are. But, it doesn’t stop there. The magazine is then lowered and the viewer sees that it’s presumably being held by a woman in a beauty parlor. What’s really lovely about this sort of “train-of-thought” approach is that it’s exactly the way we tell stories. We don’t ever just give facts, we give our experiences, and those experiences might lead us to talk about other things or to wax philosophical a little bit. That’s the nature of a story, and it’s such a pleasure to watch it play out onscreen here.

While the nature of the story Ralph tells isn’t comical, there are liberties taken with the visuals because it’s a tale told in retrospect and it’s a tale told with a very specific point of view. When Ralph explains how he began fighting the motorcycle gang, first looking for the leader by posing a question to the group (the man they all look to before answering is the guy in charge), then throwing punches, the sequence that follows is full of piñata gang members whose heads pop off with each punch, exploding into shreds of crepe paper. The whole arrangement is run under a grindhouse blaxploitation film score.

While this is a cautionary tale, it’s not for those minding their own business and enjoying the middle school dance. It’s for those cowardly enough to relegate themselves to gang activity. Ralph’s lessons aren’t necessarily of the unconditionally love-thy-neighbor variety, but they are practical and full of self-respect.

From the sunny beginning to the relief-filled end, this film is beautiful, hilarious, and bittersweet. Please be sure to make time for this total treasure of a movie.

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: State of Bacon

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: May 15, 2014; Comedy; Written & Directed by: Jason Cook; With: J.C. Collier, Caroline Fink, The Iowa Bacon Board, Chuck Grassley, Terry Branstad, Kim Pfannebecker

State of Bacon, a reimagining of the 2013 Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, is an idiosyncratic whirlwind of bacon-flavored fun. Most of its chief characters appear as themselves in a mockumentary delivery that really suits the story.

Firstly, let’s get the basics out of the way. A) The Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival is a real thing. In 2013, it sold out in 3 minutes and some odd seconds, and it continues to be one of the highlights of the winter season in Des Moines. B) There is such a thing as a Bacon Queen. She is crowned by the Iowa Bacon Board (also real) at the Festival each year. While I wasn’t there, it appears Kim Pfannebecker won her crown by wearing a skirt made of raw bacon and rapping her own bacon-centric lyrics to Run DMC’s It’s Tricky. It’s all there in the movie. And it’s boss. C) In 2013, 11,000 pounds of bacon were served at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, and 9,500 ticket holders attended. The idea behind SOB is that several groups of eccentric, wily, fascinating folks each spend the film preparing for the BRBF in their own bizarro ways and, eventually, cross paths in front of those ticket-holders while the ends of their tales unfold for the viewer. It’s chaotic as all get-out, and it’s supremely amusing.

Brooks Reynolds, the Chairman and President of Bacon for the Iowa Bacon Board narrates the film to a group of attractive, young women in a bar. He’s got his own brand of charm and I suspect (although I’m certainly not sure) the times when he’s the most charming are those when he’s got very few scripted requirements. The rest of the Bacon Board didn’t become the governing entity behind a bacon festival for nothing. They all also have their own charming moments. I’m partial to Seth Hall, but I’m sure you’ll identify your favorite after seeing the movie. Their mission might be suited by making trading cards with their photos and stats on them – just a thought…

The film intertwines the tale of the Bacon Board’s plan for the 2013 Festival with the intentions of a group of Icelandic gentlemen, who insist upon attending so that they might prove their bacon’s superiority. Additionally (and the real gem of a storyline here), Logan and Grace, two grade-schoolers with a hidden agenda (they have to get into the BRBF, just to prove they can; the age requirement is a whopping 21 years), create their own investigative food-and-restaurant-based news program to obtain press passes. Logan also really wants Grace to go out with him and he may have promised her entry to the Festival and a shot at television exposure in exchange for a date. They are positively adorable and full of charisma and camera-comfort.

Technically, the movie runs like a doc. It’s a combination of what I assume is actual footage from the 2013 bacon fest and the “mock” footage Cook shot (namely the Icelandic folks and the children, as well as an obnoxious food critic, and two dudes who passed out in a tent “camping out” for early entry to the Festival). It’s not necessarily supposed to be “clean,” but the last eight minutes of the film are edited really cleverly, with each scene bleeding into the next via some great audio manipulation. It’s cut quickly and cleanly and watching it pan out is worth the cost of admission in-and-of-itself. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned, the movie includes several other fantastic elements, so the ticket price is a steal. Plus, from what I’ve heard, it includes some complimentary bacon.

It would be thoughtless of me if I didn’t also mention that, while the PETA folks do show up at the BRBF (and I’m not sure if they’re genuine or not, as is the burden borne by the mockumentary film), their presence is handled with cool even-handedness and they eventually enjoy a Coors Lights, the beer of all bacon-eating champions.

– Leah Gehlsen

Film review: My Date with Adam

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: November 2013; Written & Directed by: Dennis Schebetta; With: Tressa Glover, Brian Morvant, Julianne Avolio, Dennis Schebetta

My Date With Adam is the darling story of Sarah (Tressa Glover), a wedding planner whose camel’s back depends on the success of her upcoming date with Adam (Brian Morvant), a computer science PhD candidate she met online. In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I will say that Adam is so much more than a man. Unfortunately for Sarah, a good ol’ man is all she really wants. Her bestie Julie (Julianne Avolio) provides the requisite (and charming) snarky commentary while Sarah navigates a sticky wicket of a situation.

MDWA is, at its heart, an homage to ‘80s rom-coms, full of romantic gestures, a female protagonist who is always a bridesmaid…, a little bit of suspension of disbelief, and a super-catchy soundtrack. It references Say Anything on three separate occasions, and features a sidekick who is thisclose to having a few too many and crooning her own version of Joe Lies, such is her put-on disdain for the rougher gender.

Glover is low-key and lovely as Sarah, but she’s clearly got a handy and spot-on knack for comic timing. Her explosions and expletive-tossing are well-measured and hilarious. Avolio is the perfect associate, cleanly responding to Glover’s cues and developing an honest character in the process. Morvant is adorable as Adam / Philip (See the film to witness the reveal of the dual role!). His physicality is perfect here, stiff and uncomfortable as is appropriate and relaxed and earnest later as he woos Sarah.

This movie is, visually, laid out just like a good, solid, happy romantic comedy. The brights are bright, the floofs are floofy, and, due to Sarah’s and Julie’s jobs in the wedding business, most scenes are festooned with white fluff and tiaras, cakes, garland, and champagne flutes. It’s a seamless counterpoint to Sarah’s intense desire to find Prince Charming by her self-set deadline, and a perfect way to set this little gem.

All the elements are in the right places in this film. It’s truly just good fun.

-Leah Gehlsen


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