Film Review: Clown Service

August 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Released: April 16, 2015; Short, Comedy; Written and Directed by: Tig Notaro; With: Stephanie Allyne, Tig Notaro, Nathan Barnatt, Angela Trimbur

Do you love Tig Notaro? Did you love her when she did all of these things? Did you love her when she wrote for Inside Amy Schumer and appeared in the brilliant Cancer Excuse sketch? If you answered yes to at least one of these questions (AND EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T), please, please, do yourself a favor and check out the completely charming Clown Service.

Clown Service is the story of a woman (Notaro) who, couch-bound and pizza-ful after a nasty break-up, decides to hire a clown. Just for her. Just to cheer her right up. Giggles (Nathan Barnatt) is dispatched by the psychotically-cheerful receptionist (Stephanie Allyne) whose melodious use of the clown company’s tagline (“Hi! Thanks for calling Funny Business where it’s our business to be funny…and that’s no funny business!”) will stick right in your head for hours after the film’s over. It’s immediately clear that Giggles has troubles of his own (likely both personal and professional), but he really gives Tig’s gig his best shot. And Tig finds a little bit of a kindred spirit in the winsome, albeit not terribly funny, Giggles.

This is a clean film that’s shot without any technical bells and whistles. Its real visual power is in its representation of standard protocol. Giggles and his dispatcher communicate with a two-way radio, like any good employee would with any good dispatcher. Giggles hops into his clown car (wearing his clown shoes, natch) and tosses a clown head on the car’s roof to signify his intention to deliver some hilarity. Tig never flinches in her request for a clown or in her lie to the dispatcher about having a party so that she can order one. There are no clever winks, nudges, or asides to the camera. This film is clear and honest through-and-through. And that’s why it’s funny.

When Giggles enters Tig’s house, he gives a great clown laugh and says, “Who’s ready to have some fun?” Without batting an eye, from her couch flush with junk food, wearing yesterday’s pajamas, Tig announces, “Me.” Because she is, man. She needs to laugh. And, as it turns out, she may also need to hang out with someone who’s even sadder than she is.

I should give a quick shout-out to Jonathan Dinerstein, the music producer who brilliantly crafts a score that is part sweeping drama and part carnival. It pairs beautifully with the subject matter here, which is kind of a feat.

While this short is delightfully absurd and a little surreal, at the end of the day, it’s about the healing power of a little connection. You will smile your face off.

  • Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Wildlike

August 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Released: October 2015; Feature, Drama; Written and Directed by: Frank Hall Green; With: Bruce Greenwood, Ella Purnell, Brian Geraghty

Mackenzie (Ella Purnell), the young woman at the heart of Wildlike, is sent by her troubled mama to spend some time with her Uncle (Brian Geraghty) in his home in Juneau, Alaska while mom gets clean. Mackenzie finds herself in a bind, placed there by Uncle, and opts to take her show on the road, heading back to Seattle to find her mother. And thus the (very simple but totally compelling) premise of Wildlike is born.

While Mackenzie, all puffed lips and petulance, eventually finds herself in the quasi-care of silent-yet-kind drifter “Bart” (Bruce Greenwood, taking this movie from an 8 to a 10, like he typically does), the movie isn’t about what he, specifically, does for Mackenzie, it’s about the development of a healthy relationship. Between Mackenzie and a man who provides her with care-sans-sex. Between Mackenzie and Alaska, a vast expanse that is initially the chasm between she and her mother, but becomes a refuge. Between Mackenzie and herself, what she’s capable of, and her growth, who she is by the end of the film.

This movie is primarily about two elements: performance and place. It is supported fully by a lonesome (yet increasingly playful, as the relationship between Mackenzie and Bart grows) score, an ostensibly filtered lens, and an absorbing story. But, at its root, it sits firmly on the backs of its stars and in its own backyard.

Mackenzie belongs to Purnell, sullen and damaged, grumpy and kohl-rimmed. And then not. She’s a 14-year old girl who’s been forced to grow up painfully quickly and her moments of fear and glee bookend her sustained brooding. She’s brilliant to watch and she and Greenwood have a lovely chemistry, making a father-daughter relationship seemingly out of thin air and allowing it to swell over the course of the movie. Geraghty is also fantastic, a manipulative, cunning villain who spends most of his performance worried and frantic, the real danger in him sitting just below the surface. Greenwood is a dream. This movie has potential and grace, but in his hands, it’s realized.

Alaska, a true fourth character, is this movie’s home. It’s representative of every moment of relief, every second of joy, doubt, fear, and anxiety. It borders, it backdrops, it’s an enormous, immersive family and a stumbling block full of bears and dampness. It’s perfect and this movie is a love letter.

See this movie. See it for all of the things I’ve mentioned here, but also for its incredibly satisfying ending (think Spielberg, not Tarantino). You will not be sorry. Happy viewing!

  • Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Touch

August 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Released: 2015; Narrative short; Written and Directed by: Lulu Wang; With: Ben Lin, Joshua Chang, Cici Lau

Touch is the heart-wrenching story of a Chinese immigrant who must come to very real terms with a cultural clash that plays out in a devastating way, bleeding into his social world and into his household. Mr. Chen (Ben Lin) is an older gentleman, a neighborhood mainstay, it would seem. Children love him, adults both appreciate his generosity and likely steer clear beyond acquaintanceship. One day, while using the restroom at the same time as local child Joey Thompson, Mr. Chen does the unthinkable and touches Joey in a way that is later deemed inappropriate. The reasons for his actions are explained as the film progresses and as he discusses the incident with his family, but two things are made explicitly clear in the aftermath of the Chen-Joey incident: 1) A group of adults who must dig down deep for their niceties most days, find their venom with ease as Chen is charged with the inconceivable and 2) A man who appears to have melted into the background of his world, even to his wife and grown son, is plunged into the spotlight in the most uncomfortable of ways.

Touch is, at its core, an exploration of culture and of family. It’s a study on the children of immigrants and how identity can make or break one’s spirit during trying times. And, I think, most importantly, it’s an examination of the assumptions we make when left to our own devices.

Touch is a well-made film, its moments of POV really stealing the show. Chen’s interactions and observations are all given a little bit of a visual of discomfort – it’s not a short-coming of the technicality, but an obvious choice to help us climb right on into Chen’s clunky shoes. At the beginning of the film, we are made to understand that the narrative is based on a true tale and at the end, that thread is pulled through and we are provided with the end of Chen’s story, as it panned out in real life.

Touch is a product of Project Involve, Film Independent’s signature diversity program. It is “dedicated to cultivating the careers of filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry.” In a true parallel to its heritage, this film does the same for Chen, for an understated population, and maybe, more to the point, an understated issue.

  • Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Eat White Dirt

July 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Released: May 15, 2015; Documentary Short; Directed by Adam Forrester

A couple of words about Eat White Dirt before I jump into the review proper here: 1) EWD is a really (really) good film and 2) it is really (really) about eating white dirt. So 1) go see it and 2) don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was initially convinced that the title had to be a euphemism or allusion to something I didn’t quite understand, but this movie is legit about geophagy. For the un-initiated (read: me), geophagy is the deliberate eating (and possibly craving) of earth, clay, or soil. The titular “dirt” is actually kaolin, or a clay mineral deposit, and – fun fact – the domestic kaolin industry makes one of its homes in Georgia as a belt of kaolin runs along the state, the result of an ancient fall line.

EWD covers the history of the kaolin source in Georgia, the uses of kaolin (paint, clay, and even as an active ingredient in Kaopectate), and the seemingly bizarre habit of snacking on it. Although, it appears that the snacking isn’t quite the oddity we’d like to think it is as its availability is widespread throughout the American South. Adam Forrester interviews four different women regarding their tastes for white dirt, and, via interview, he himself has indicated that it was hard to find folks willing to speak about their cravings on camera, despite white dirt’s popularity.

Visually, this short is a little piece of Southern-fried genius. It runs a little like an informational film on kaolin and displays projections of its more dated bits of footage prior to allowing them to fill the screen.

The film opens with a scene from Designing Women wherein Dixie Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker informs someone from the New York Times (incidentally, regarding an article about the dirt-eating predilections of Southerners) on the other end of her rotary phone that Southerners do not “eat dirt!” The scene is introduced on a television set in a small living space, a large pink chair to its right, a picture of a cat hanging on the wall above it. Space and place are really beautifully developed throughout this short. Prior to every new space, every new introduction, the viewer is allowed a series of shots of the area. And it never fails, dutifully we are gifted a shot of a playground, of shelves of china and tchotchkes, of the outside, snow-covered steps of college campuses. This film is fantastically backdropped by the eyes of someone who understands its place…and the importance of place in everyone’s lives and partialities.

There’s a bit of a collage quality to the film, in the form of quirky animations that accompany the more academic assessments of white dirt’s location, history, and nutritional value.

Sera Young, MA, PhD, from Cornell University’s Nutritional Sciences Division gives a proper breakdown on cravings for substances that are not foods. During her discussion of her initial research on maternal anemia (and her studies off the coast of Zanzibar which led to her fascination with pica, “an umbrella term for non-food cravings”), the viewer is treated to a hand-drawn map pin-pointing Zanzibar’s exact location. During her discussion of pica, itself, a breakdown of the types of non-food cravings are listed (and drawn) under a tiny umbrella labeled, “Pica.” Adorable.

An explanation of the geographic location of white dirt is accompanied by an animated map of the original continental break-down and fall line.

Stephen Hawks, a visual artist and lecturer at the University of Texas at Brownsville, walks through his first experience with white dirt as a young man on a tour of the Sandersville Kaolin Mine with his father and sister. He describes finding shark’s teeth (“this big,” accompanied by an animated shark’s tooth placed between the measurement of his fingers) in the mine, a reference to the original shoreline of the state.

Obviously, this has been one of my favorites thus far, and I encourage you to check it out at this year’s fest.

– Leah Gehlsen

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