Archive for the ‘festival dispatches’ category

The Asian American International Film Festival Returns in Fine Form

July 16, 2009

This year the AAIFF ’09 is leaner and more focused as a condition of our new economic reality. However, it is also an experiment on the viability of a community-minded event—spread by word of mouth and quality selections rather than by star filled premieres or flashy, usually forgettable, narrative bombs. The showcase will include 14 feature films and 50 short films during the weekend of July 23 – 26, 2009. Opening night of the festival starts with Ivy Ho’s reverse chronological narrative, Claustrophobia. Ho is a veteran Hong Kong screenwriter whose directorial debut trowels in the turmoil created by a clandestine work affair. Following is the much ballyhooed Sundance premierer, Paper Heart. Charlyne Yi, of Knocked Up notoriety, steers this faux documentary in a search for true love. Michael Cera also shows up as …himself?

Claustrophobia, Directed by Ivy Ho, 2008

The first full day of programming places displacement on center stage. One of the standouts is Hubad. Based on the play by the same name, Mark Gary and Denisa Reyes have aggressively adapted it for the screen. On first glance it is an all too familiar work of meta-fiction about the play rehearsals and the parodic explorations of sex from which the play draws its comedy. However, as the layers of pretense are peeled away, we are slowly exposed to the sexual repression supposedly endemic to Filipino society.

Hubad, Directed by Mark Gary and Denisa Reyes, 2008

The lead characters, Carmen and Delfino, inhabit their characters wholly and the line between fiction and reality never materializes. At moments, the film hazily drifts into documentary, as though the audience is witnessing real people slowly self-destruct. Once they start a poorly concealed affair, the actors brazenly jeopardize their perfectly curated existences. Ironically, the play becomes the only space of solace as their significant others begin to reject them. The third night is the presentation of the centerpiece film, Children of Invention, which has been handily racking up awards and praise on the indie festival circuit for most of this year. No small part of this is due to its timeliness. The impasse that separates an immigrant mother from her two young children is a classic pyramid scheme. The director, Tze Chun, expresses some disdain over these get rich schemes, but also recognizes them as a part of the defective American Dream.

Children of Invention, Directed by Tze Chun, 2008

I can’t say that watching this film was an enjoyable experience, but it was a poignant one. Following the two young children Raymond and Tina as they roam around Boston is as close to cinematic purity as one is likely to see this year. The two young leads are free of the common child actor tics like cloying sentimentality or broad over-acting. Drawn faces and slumped shoulders tell a story much more nuanced than dialogue could ever approximate. Chris Teague’s cinematography is deceptively simple. Moments like the realization of the “Sold” sign on the lawn of their old house or a slice of pepperoni pizza being eaten on the street resonate as seminal moments in the lives of these youngsters. The framing captures the intimacy of their cut-out existence, cut–out from society, from normality, from reality. They will never forget this time, and nor will we.

The final night of the festival is a celebration. The closing film this year is Fruit Fly. It is unlike anything else you will see in a theater I guarantee. Here are just a few reasons why: insanely catchy pop tunes that will swim in your head relentlessly for days after viewing; dazzling, funny special effects that re-imagine the San Francisco skyline as an electronic game board, Asian characters devoid of clichéd stereotypes, and an infectious sense of freedom which enlivens everything from the dialogue to the title sequence.

Fruit Fly, Directed by H.P. Mendoza, 2008

H.P. Mendoza has crafted a pitch perfect (literally) homage to post-college bravura. The lead, a Filipino-American named Bethesda (L.A. Renigen) is on a sojourn to finish her one-woman play about the search for her biological parents. En route she realizes that she is a fag hag, criminally horny, and a pretty vulnerable performer. Watch this film with a big group. It has that sort of energy that can only be dissipated by bantering back and forth and talking to the screen. You will leave just a little lighter on your feet.

– Wayne Lorenzo Titus

Tickets for the festival can be purchased here. And a longer version of this report is available on the Cinemism blog.

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From Christian del Moral, a look at Premiere Brazil at MoMA

July 15, 2009

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When it comes to Brazilian cinema, NYC audiences are adventurous and love taking chances–that’s according to Jytte Jensen (curator at The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film), who, along with Ilda Santiago (director of the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival) is organizing Premiere Brazil, which begins tomorrow at MoMA.

But there’s one theme in Brazilian culture that will make New Yorkers go to MoMA. “The films on music are perhaps the most popular overall,” she said. ‘This is perhaps the most beloved aspect of Brazilian culture –certainly the most well-traveled–and we have had numerous great films centered on music and musicians every year.”

And with that, Premiere Brazil will not only present a vast work from the giant of South America, including two documentaries about music, but live performances of Brazilian music in the museum’s Sculpture Garden. On opening night, Porto Alegre diva Adriana Calcanhotto, who also appears in one of the films in the line-up (Helena Solberg’s Palavra (En)cantada), will delight fans. “I can’t wait to hear her live myself!” said Jensen.

Also making its world premiere, and keeping up with the new generation of music lovers, Beyond Ipanema: Brazilian Waves in Global Music, which explores that world from Carmen Miranda to Bebel Gilberto to CSS.

Celebrating its seventh anniversary, Premiere Brazil is becoming one of the trademarks of MoMA, but what makes it so special? “The movies are making it special”, said Jensen. “There’s a surprising crop of new filmmaking talent premiering every year, and the energy of the overall filmmaking also by established filmmakers is consistently high.”

For example, this year documentary lovers will be treated to the first US retrospective of the maestro of non-fiction, Eduardo Coutinho.

Aside from that high point, is there any movie from Premiere Brazil that might get US distribution? We asked Ilda Santiago: “Definitely! Opening night’s Last Stop 174, which was acquired recently for the US. And also Beyond Ipanema, a documentary which “talks” directly with the American audience. But I would love to see a film like That’s It, a coming-of-age story, get released. Let’s see how the MoMA public reacts. And a film like Should Nothing Work Out, a true urban film with characters so full of life and drama. It would be great to see that happen.”

–Christian Del Moral, Cine Latino en Nueva York

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NYAFF FESTIVAL DISPATCH #3: Sion Sono’s Gleefully Sacrilegious Four-hour “Love Exposure” (Japan, 2008)

July 9, 2009

Each year, the last week of the New York Asian Film Festival shifts uptown to Japan Society where programming overlaps with the first week of co-presenter sister fest Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. This year I caught of number of my NYAFF’09 favorites here (Vacation, All Around Us, and unexpectedly delightful Magic Hour), as well as picking up a handful of tickets to Japan Cuts.

I’d challenge viewers seeing any pairing of these films to come up with a “Japanese contemporary film is [x]”: the range of themes, topics, and styles ever tacks “Japan” to the top of my national-cinemas-to-watch list. But as has happened to award-winners at NYAFF the past few years, some of the more unusual, passionate work will never get US theatrical distribution (Sad Vacation, Funky Forest, Princess Raccoon, etc.). But if you hunt far and wide (and graymarket), DVDs at least may be obtained.


LOVE EXPOSURE (Japan, 2008)

I am going to have a difficult time speaking about Sion Sono’s gleefully sacrilegious four-hour Love Exposure without resorting to extremes. This partially due to the film’s intentionally tripelbock hot-button content, but mostly because (for all of its pile-it-on plot hijinks) this was my favorite experience of the festival.

Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a quiet, dutiful son born unto zealous Catholics. One of the last thing Yu’s mother tells her son before she dies of illness: she hopes Yu will someday meet his very own Mary. Yu’s father enters the priesthood in the wake of his wife’s death. Haunted by a disastrous love affair, he forces his goody-goody son to make daily confession to him, berating his son for insisting, timidly, that he hasn’t sinned that day.

Yu responds as any quiet, dutiful son placed in this position must: he makes confession. After getting caught out for his initial, awkward fabrications (“I didn’t help an old lady cross the street” when in fact he did) he commits himself wholeheartedly to true sin. The worse the sin, the more his father revert from his priestly deportment to Yu’s red-in-the-face, screaming dad. So in a sequence evoking Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Yu transforms himself from altar boy into the King of Perverts: a blackbelt upskirt panty photographer. (Asked about research for this work in the q&a, Sono talked about getting arrested a few times when going out shooting with his photographer consultant.)

On the other side of the story, swaggers tough-as-titanium Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Raised by an abusive, ceaselessly philandering father, she achieves an epiphany looking around her bedroom at posters of female pop culture icons: she resolves to hate men and love women. She runs away from home with her father’s latest ex-lover (also the object of Yu’s father’s disastrous affair) determined to invent a new life for herself, not as a daughter but as the ex-lover’s peer.

And then comes The Miracle (anticipated by a series of countdown title cards):  the collision of Yu with Yoko in a city park — while the two of them face off against a gang of scores of male thugs. Preparing to fight the entire world single-handedly, or die trying, Yoko draws a gauzy scarf down around her face and steadies herself — evoking for Yu his mother’s demand to meet his own “Mary.” (Yu: “Who is this woman!”) However, Yu joins the fray dressed in drag as the costumed exploitation hero “Lady Scorpion” (his fighting skills honed by hard training as a committed sinner) having earlier that day lost a game of upskirt-photo high-card with his friends. (Between punches, Yoko asks herself: “Who is this woman!”) Love at first fight.

This inciting incident, one hour into the film, is followed by the film’s opening title sequence. (Greeted with cheers at the screening I attended.) Much of the rest of the film backs into this sequence and the consequences that follow, to reveal the Miracle not as an act of God, but as the master manipulation of giggly, white-clad schoolgirl Koike (Sakura Ando), a Zero Church capo, in the service of a deep dark religious cult purpose (inflected by her own personal craving for sadism, mayhem, and destruction).

–Matt Griffin

Closing Night at Human Rights Watch: The Yes Men Fix the World

July 3, 2009

The Human Rights Watch 20th International Film Festival closed last week with a righteous guffaw.

The Yes Men Fix the World left a packed Walter Reade Theater in tears of laughter… and social awareness. The documentary drew its comic prowess from the hysterical deformity of corporate America’s moral compass.  And while it’s hard not to laugh at a lodestone that points to a bottom line, it’s also hard not to see the danger in such a perversion.

The second documentary created by “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, Fix the World begins with a voice over explaining that Andy is getting ready to impersonate a DOW spokesperson on the BBC in front of 300 million people, “…and that’s why he looks so nervous.”  Some well-assembled backtracking shows us how The Yes Men function. For the most part, they create fake websites said to represent the various unjust organizations of the world, and wait until people fall into the trap and contact them. They then take various opportunities, for example, to participate in conferences, or to appear on international television.

Early in the film, Mike presents at a conference as a so-called representative of DOW. He claims to have created a model by which a company can calculate whether the human life an enterprise may cost is worth the probable monetary benefit. A character they have created personifies the model: Gilda, a gold skeleton. Alluding to a tragedy that occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984 when a plant belonging Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of DOW, released 42 tons of toxic gas into the air, Mike explained how a worthwhile “gold skeleton” can be differentiated from a futile “skeleton in the closet”: Mike asks, “how many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twelve. One to screw it in, and eleven to file the lawsuit. How many Indians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Oh, just one.” The Yes Men hoped that the concept of such a model would shock and disturb a room full of white collars, but instead the group embraced it with applause.

Unfortunately, all of the Yes Men’s other attempts at unearthing hearts beneath suits are similarly futile. It is thus that the documentary becomes not a story of problems fixed, but of problems illuminated. This is best illustrated by the pair’s biggest stunt. Masquerading as “Jude Finisterra,” a representative of DOW, Andy went on the BBC and promised at long last to compensate the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Upon realizing the hoax, DOW immediately released a statement saying that no such compensation would be provided, even though the hoax made it pretty evident that this would be the right thing to do.

Despite this stunt’s impotence when it came to actually changing corporate policy, Andy said in a Q and A following the evening’s screening that he saw the BBC appearance as the Yes Men’s biggest victory, because it succeeded in arousing awareness about the Bhopal tragedy. According to Green Peace, hundreds of articles that would have otherwise went unwritten came into being as a result of the hoax. While Andy concluded in the Q and A that, “DOW would never do the right thing” on its own, he sees a possible solution in further regulation of corporations on the part of the government.  The hope is that the Yes Men’s reawakening of public awareness will somehow translate into public policy.

The most optimistic move the Yes Men make is the mass distribution of a “special edition” of the New York Times.  Researched and compiled by a huge team of Yes Men, the paper is a vision of what the world could be like at a point in the future. Given that the future date chosen for headlines such as “Iraq War Ends,” and “Maximum Wage Law Passes,” is this Saturday, July 4, 2009, it’s obvious that the paper’s socialistic optimism is more than a little bit cock-eyed. But that’s the big upside of keeping your tongue in your cheek: outrageous hope.

The Yes Men Fix the World has its television premiere on HBO July 27. It will be screening at Film Forum beginning October 7.

-Morgan H. Green

NYAFF Festival Dispatch #2 – For Better Summer Fun, Grab Blockbusters from Elsewhere

July 2, 2009

It’s summer, yay! You could be watching Transformers 2, but you would be better entertained catching the spirited critical lambast hoisted at it (especially here and here).

Thankfully, There are other options: I’ve been attending Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center. Here’s another tasting menu of mini-reviews from the festival bringing to New York City some of the most interesting contemporary Asian cinema you have never seen before.

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20th CENTURY BOYS, Chapter One / 20th CENTURY BOYS, Chapter Two: The Last Hope (2008)

Do you remember inventing stories about the future with your grade school friends? What secrets would adulthood hold for you, your friends, your playground enemies? Naoki Urasawa‘s manga epic — manga’s The Watchmen — considers: “what if you were confronted with your childhood playground fantasies as an adult?” Not the fluffy talking bunny pal or the castle-fort in a local park, but the scariest nightmare that you and your little friends came up with: the villain mastermind your gang would band together to overcome. Would the pushing forty adult-you be up to the challenge of saving the world, the task you assigned yourself as a child?

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s three-film epic treatment of this epic subject offers audiences a remarkably close adaptation — in terms of narrative, casting, and even camera framing — of the original manga. While this film might be poppier fare than Shūsuke Kaneko’s mature, challenging Death Note adaptations from NYAFF ’07, and less crowd-pleasing than Shimako Sato’s K-20, Tsutsumi’s summer blockbuster-scale production nonetheless brings to the subversive, culturally critical source material compelling performances and memorable images unlike any $800 million dollar blockbuster you will ever see again. Confronted with the challenge of compressing 4k manga-pages into even a generous 5 hours, Tsutsumi reorders the narrative to deliver jaw-dropping, paradigm-switching end-sequences for the climax of both Chapter One and Chapter Two. An improvement over occasional meandering “why is this story not over?” feeling of the original.

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K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (Japan, 2008)

Drawing from a number of masked man action/adventure references, from Fantomas to Zorro, director Shimako Sato compiles a new blockbuster franchise from the character “K-20: the Fiend with Twenty Faces.” In an alternative universe 1949 (in which World War II never took place), Tesla has survived to invent his electrical energy broadcast technology, and the division between the Japanese aristocracy and the disenfranchised poor resembles, well, contemporary America. A new loud-cackling villain is on the loose: a man assuming perfect false identities in order to steal precious objects and technology from the aristocratic and scientific community. Because no one knows what K-20 looks like, the naive wrong-place-wrong-time circus acrobat Hekichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) gets fingered as the bad guy. His efforts to escape and redeem himself lead him to train in the very skills the real K-20 mastered. Sato’s film is a surprisingly successful crowd-pleaser, a Speilberg-at-his-prime steampunk adventure film.

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TACTICAL UNIT: COMRADES IN ARMS (Hong Kong, 2008)

Milkyway veteran director Law Wing-cheong‘s feature joins other broadcast and theatrical films created with the same team of actors and creative staff over the past few years in the wake of  Johnnie To’s successful Hong Kong police franchise PTU (2003). Comrades in Arms follows two infighting factions of a Hong Kong PTU assigned to pursue armed bank robbers into the mountains. While in many ways this film is simply the latest pressing of a well-respected, well-oiled creative team, the performances and solid filmmaking effortlessly set this film above Hollywood police action fare, and I admire the piece enough to track down To and Law’s other Milky Way “Tactical Unit” pictures.

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EYE IN THE SKY (Hong Kong, 2008)

Another police procedural offering from Hong Kong-based Milkyway. This debut film directed by veteran screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi (wr. Election (2005), The Mission (1999)) leverages its subject matter, the Hong Kong Police Department SU (surveillance unit), to permit a compelling (if frenzied) camera-and-cutting style that distinguishes it from the PTU series and any other police/crime films in the NYAFF series. Locating itself in style and content somewhere between the unspeakably dangerous (Bond-free) UK contemporary espionage/counter-terrorism series Spooks/MI5 and Greengrass’s overdriven, grab-at-a-glance Bourne Ultimatum, Yau’s film manages to turn the media-as-metaphor suggested by surveillance footage into an engaging, accomplished feature that I continue to recommend.

-Matthew Griffin

NYAFF Festival Dispatch #1: Films from the Other Side of the Universe

June 29, 2009

Subway Cinema‘s New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center is one of three festivals in New York City I attend every single year, because this curatorial collective consistently find the wildest, most interesting contemporary Asian cinema you’ve never seen before. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been seeing.

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The Clone Returns Home

THE CLONE RETURNS HOME (Japan, 2008)

The Japanese space program, already hurting for resources and budget, faces the demise of a veteran astronaut in a minor space station repair operation. Vowing to prevent similar tragic, public occurrences in the future, the space program asks astronaut Kohei Takahara to consent to a cloning/memory recording process in the off-chance of a repeat tragedy.

When Kohei dies on an outer hull space walk, the clone policy is activated — and the moral question of the film comes into focus. One of the reasons Kohei had been uncomfortable about cloning policy stemmed from the childhood death of his own twin brother. When Kohei (the Second) is restored to life, with the body and memories of the original, his consciousness tangles up in these memories of the past — memories he had spent a lifetime repressing — and he is unable to progress internally through his past memories to reach his clone-template’s own present. Most painfully, he is unable to recognize his emotionally shattered wife. While the cloning facility successfully modeled the astronaut’s body and memory, what of the astronaut’s consciousness and soul?

This film was a Sundance Film Festival darling this year, and was one of the strongest films I have seen at NYAFF so far. While thematically (at times aesthetically) the film echoes Solaris, Lem’s excellent novel as well as Tarkovsky’s feature (playing at the Walter Reade in early July), I’d caution the viewer from thinking too much about Tarkovsky or Kubrick when catching Kanji Nakajima film. The film establishes its own rhythm and breath separate from its predecessors. Still, Michael Atkinson’s write-up about Solaris/Clone at Criterion.com is worth a look.

Written By

Written By

WRITTEN BY (Hong Kong, 2009)

As a huge fan of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai ‘s Mad Detective (2007) from NYAFF ’08, I highly anticipated catching the international premiere of Wai Ka-Fai’s idiosyncratic, emotionally devastating Written By at NYAFF ’09.

A tragic car wreck ends the life of the father (the inimitable Lau Ching-wan), blinds daughter Melody, and leaves mother/wife and son injured and inconsolable. Some years later, facing the unlikelihood that her mother will ever again be happy, daughter Melody comes up with a plan: she will write a novel. In this work of fantasy, the father will survive the car wreck, though blind, while the rest of the family instead dies.

But given that this is a Wai Ka-Fai film, it is not enough to stop there. In her novel, her father attempts to console himself for his loss by writing a novel. In this novel-within-a-novel, it will be possible for his wife to return as a ghost, the son to be reborn as a puppy, and the daughter to apprentice herself to Meng Po (figure from Chinese realm of the dead) to make this wizardry possible. But a second tragedy reverberates across the structure of both novels. As the film spirals deeper and deeper through its impact, director Wai Ka-Fai creates a remarkably mature and challenging portrait of the limits of our success to assuage experiences of deep loss through our fictions.

Dream

Dream

DREAM (Korea, 2008)

When I heard the English title of Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk‘s (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 2003) latest film, I felt a twinge of concern: given the eccentric, elliptical quality to his previous narratives, what wildness was in store for me this time? With Samaritan Girl (2004) and The Isle (2000), Kim switches narrative strategies midstream, dropping central POV characters and dollying back to the critical distance of parable just when I  hope to learn more about character’s internal lives. (As much as I protest at the time, Kim’s decision tends to connect with me by the time I make it back to the subway.)

While the atmospheric landscapes and striking images are there as ever, the narrative at the heart of Dream is atypically coherent, even pitch-able high concept: When Jin (Joe Odagiri, Plastic City) dreams, a woman he has never met before, sleepwalker Ran (Lee Na-Young), acts out his dreams, with a crucial qualification: When Jin dreams of catching up to his ex-girlfriend who broke his heart, Ran acts out his fantasy by stumbling back to the horrible man she ran away from and seducing him.

As with all of Kim’s films, this film has a deeply serious metaphysical and moral inquiry at its heart — are we responsible for our dreams, what effects do our dreams have upon other people? And spending time with Jin and Ran, complementary opposites struggling to keep each other from sleeping at the same time, I come to a similar conclusion to the dream shaman: she  advices them to fall love with each other instead of resolving their issues with their exes. Ah, but it is a Kim Ki-duk film, so easy solutions are unlikely to do the trick here.

— Matthew Griffin

Decisions to Be Made, Developments to Come: Beeswax and The Glass House at BAMcinemaFEST

June 26, 2009

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There’s a  haziness to Beewswax, Andrew Bujalski’s third and most recent feature, which appeared in this year’s BAMcinemaFEST and had its North American premiere at SXSW in March. But haziness and languor are the pervasive feelings in Bujalski’s distinctively diminutive on-screen universe, a place that schleps awkwardness and twenty-something listlessness toward an unusual level of palbability. Like director Hamid Rahmanian’s The Glass House, also included alongside the nearly twenty features selected for this year’s festival, Beeswax is a film about young people in limbo, about decision-making when the idea of having to make decisions carries with it all kinds of unwanted anxieties and implications.

Unlike Bujalski’s film, however, the people of The Glass House are all young women – most of them from broken homes, some of them runaways – enrolled in an experimental Iranian rehabilitation center that encourages, rather than disciplines, their creativity. Moving between the stories and situation of a handful of these girls, following them through their homes and streets in working-class Tehran, Rahmanian’s documentary is a refreshingly non-partisan portrait of inner lives desperately trying to develop under pressure.

Compare again to Bujalski’s film, which feels ardently partisan, hopelessly romantic in its endearing evocations of Texas hipsters under duress. Twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (Tilly and Maggie Hatcher) bemoan their professional and sexual relationships, their career misgivings, their friendships and their family obligations while mutual friend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) uses his expertise as an aspiring lawyer to help Lauren, his love interest, escape a legal fiasco instigated by her business partner. The Hatcher sisters are expectantly charismatic personalities; Bujalski – a filmmaker whose naive fetishization of the quirks and mannerisms of generation raised on late Eighties pop cultural residue helps to secure his spot in the leagues of Swanbergian mumblecore – would have nothing less.

However, charisma is what keeps mumblecore away from the honesty and relevance of more provocative – and ultimtely more serious- films about men and women navigating the contestory zones of young adulthood (think of Nanni Moretti’s Ecce Bombo, for example). The Glass House is, perhaps, an appropriate counterpoint to Bujalski, a film more alert to the nuance and features of a group of young people in need of guidance. And yet, Bujalski’s voice has matured since the days of Funny Ha Ha, he’s become more assured and comfortable behind the camera (unlike his previous two films, he’s nowhere to be found in front of the camera this time). He shares with Rahmanian an interest in the shifts and shuffles of personal lives, and the tensions they leave behind.

-Ricky D’Ambrose