MSPIFF Double Documentary Reviews: Chavela and Untouchable (2017)

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CHAVELA

Directed By: Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Like most 20-something-year-old Midwesterners, I had never heard of Chavela Vargas. I might have heard some of her music in college, but I didn’t know her name-or her incredible history-until I saw Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary chronicling her unconventional musical career, heartbreaking personal experiences, and massive impact on Mexico’s LGBT community.

Chavela tells the story of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rican-born Mexican ranchera singer who gained popularity in the 50’s and 60’s, then disappeared into obscurity until the her career was revived in the early 90’s. Through a collection of interviews of individuals who knew her, as well as an interview of Chavela herself, we learn of her life-her lonely childhood with her loveless parents, per move to Mexico to pursue a music career, her struggle to find mainstream success due to her masculine style and being a known lesbian, despite not publicly labeling herself as such until her later years, her nearly crippling alcoholism, and her comeback in the 90’s that led to a huge, 2-decade-long success until her death in 2012.

I obviously can’t discuss this film without first discussing Chavela’s music, which acts as the perfect soundtrack to the story of her life, because it is so genuinely emotional. Every note in her strong, smoky voice carries a passion that you don’t realize is absent in other artists until you hear the real thing. It’s integrated so well into the movie too- each song, with its lyrics subtitled in English in a script-like font over concert clips and snapshots, introduce the different parts of Chavela’s life. It’s a beautiful and creative way of incorporating her music into the storytelling instead of just playing it in the background.

My only critique of this documentary is that, while for the most part it is very well-organized, it occasionally introduces a topic or piece of information in a seemingly unrelated spot, which can be a little jarring in an otherwise smooth narration. I understand there’s only so much they can fit into an hour and a half-long film, but that doesn’t completely excuse messy structure.

Despite minor organizational problems, I would highly recommend you see this fascinating movie if you get the chance, and if you don’t, at least listen to some of Chavela’s music, and if you don’t have tears in your eyes by the time you’re done, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.

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UNTOUCHABLE

Directed By: David Feige

David Feige’s documentary Untouchable is a difficult film to review, mostly due to the painful and complicated subject content. Documentaries are difficult enough to critique since they’re more informational than entertaining, and one about the sex offender registry is even more challenging to discuss. As Feige said when introducing it at MSPIFF, “it’s hard to watch, but easy to remember.”

Untouchable explores the national sex offender registry, using the stories of individuals affected by it to show its intricacies. Interviewees include Ronald Book, a lobbyist who has been fighting for the toughest sex offender laws possible after discovering his daughter Lauren had been assaulted by her nanny; Shawna, a mother of two who has been on the registry since she was 18 for having drunken sex with a 15-year-old boy; and Patty Wetterling, the Minnesota mother whose son Jacob was kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered by a complete stranger who had no history of pedophilia on criminal record.

This film does an excellent job of showing all sides: the victims and their families as well as the sex offenders and theirs. They never try to excuse the behavior of the worst criminals, but they show that nothing about the registry is simply black and white, despite how a lot of the laws are set up.

Untouchable’s biggest problem is that they don’t explore sexual assault prevention; they make a point that it’s important but don’t really discuss it past some clips of Lauren Book reading her children’s book on the subject to a group of kids, and, as Patty Wetterling pointed out during the Q&A after the movie, just holding your hand up and loudly saying “No!” isn’t a solution. Granted, the majority of the film was about the intricacies of the sex offender registry laws, not sexual assault itself, but discussing prevention would have provided a good balance, especially since it is brought up during the film.

Despite this, Untouchable is an important documentary, and hopefully its release will lead to more exploration in and work on sex offender registry laws.

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Have you seen either one of these documentaries? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF Review: In Between (2017)

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Directed By: Maysaloun Hamoud
Written By: Maysaloun Hamoud
Runtime: 1 hour 36 minutes

There aren’t many female-led films in Hollywood that aren’t cheesy romantic comedies or Lifetime Network-levels of stupid femme fatale stories. Fortunately, there are some that break the mold, including In Between. Writer and director Maysaloun Hamoud has created a film featuring three women with unique, compelling stories.

In Between follows the lives of three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv. Layla (Mouna Hawa), a carefree party girl by night and shrewd lawyer by day, has recently started a relationship with a young man whom she eventually realizes isn’t quite as accepting of her wild lifestyle. Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a bartender with dreams of being a famous DJ, suffers through her conservative Christian family’s attempts at finding her a husband while she develops a romance with another woman. Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a devout Muslim and university student working toward a degree in computer science, struggles to maintain her independence and work toward her own dreams while her controlling fiance pushes her to abandon her big city life for an obedient, domestic one.

This movie’s greatest strength is its three lead characters. They are all so well-written and well-acted. The flatmates have wonderful chemistry, especially polar opposites Layla and Nour, who develop an almost sister-like bond throughout the movie. Both Layla and Salma are refreshingly unapologetic about their lifestyles while still being incredibly likable, and Nour never gives up her sweet, demure nature, even after escaping her abusive relationship. She does come out of her shell a bit by the end of the movie, but her personality isn’t drastically changed, which I really like; in too many movies, they have the “shy” character do a complete 180, so it’s nice having a character who becomes a stronger person without giving up who she is.

That said, this film had one major problem: its pacing. It never stays on one character’s conflict long enough to establish the problem. For example, we only see Salma’s home life once at the very beginning before everything comes to a head toward the end, and there isn’t even hint of any romantic interest until right before that, so there’s not much time for the tension to build when she brings her new girlfriend to visit her family. Layla’s plot line feels similarly rushed; she mentions about halfway into the movie that she and her boyfriend have been dating for a while now, but nothing has indicated that passage of time, and when it becomes apparent that she is too liberal for him, it feels like it comes out of nowhere because no time was spent establishing that earlier in the movie. The majority of the focus of the film is on Nour, which is understandable as hers is the storyline with the highest stakes, but that doesn’t excuse the other two women’s plots being rushed.

Despite some lack of focus, In Between is an impressive film that is worth checking out. Maysaloun Hamoud shows a lot of promise, and I hope this is the beginning of an illustrious career for her.

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Have you seen ‘In Between’? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF Review: The Sounding (2017)

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Directed By: Catherine Eaton
Written By: Catherine Eaton, Bryan Delaney
Runtime: 93 minutes

Writing a story where the main character communicates solely through Shakespeare quotes could be disastrous. In the wrong hands, it could feel like a cheesy theater warm-up or a high school English assignment. Fortunately Catherine Eaton, co-writer/director/star of the independent film The Sounding, is able to take an idea that could have been so hokey and turn it into something unique and beautiful.

The Sounding follows Liv (Catherine Eaton) a woman who has chosen not to speak her entire life. Her dying grandfather, Lionel (Harris Yulin), who raised and cared for her, invites his friend and neuropsychiatrist Michael (Teddy Sears) to the island to protect and advocate for Liv after he dies, insisting that her muteness is intentional and not related to any mental health issues, although Michael is skeptical. Once Lionel dies, Liv finally starts speaking-but only in quotes from William Shakespeare’s works. This, coupled with Liv disappearing for three days to grieve for her grandfather, leads Michael to commit her to a psychiatric hospital, where she struggles to make the staff and Michael understand her new choice of communication.

The acting in this movie is exceptional, and while the entire cast is impressive, the film’s lead (and University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Company alum!) Catherine Eaton is easily the stand-out actor. She doesn’t speak for roughly the first half hour of the movie and still gives a lovely, emotional performance. When does finally speak, it’s exclusively in quotes from Shakespeare’s works, which already requires incredible skill to do within the actual plays; making the lines come to life out of context takes serious talent. Harris Yulin also gives a wonderful performance as Lionel. During a Q&A after the movie, Catherine said that Harris wouldn’t perform a single line until he was absolutely sure he understood it, and that dedication shows in every moment of his screen time.

In addition to the strong acting, The Sounding is beautifully filmed with lots of intimate closeups balanced with wide, scenic shots of the East coast. These shots, paired with an incredible soundtrack, create a gorgeous tone. There’s one scene right after Lionel dies that might be one of my favorite shots in film I’ve seen this year: Liv is standing at the rocky edge of the water, her back to the camera, as she scatters Lionel’s ashes. It alternates between long shots of the crashing waves and closeups of the ashes smeared on Liv’s hand, all while this booming, echoing, a capella folk song (which we later see is being sung by a few of Lionel’s friends- including Roland, played by Frankie Faison– at the funeral) plays in the background. It’s stunning.

My biggest concern writing-wise was how accurately the psychiatric field and mental health would be portrayed in the movie, since it’s not an easy topic to write about, but fortunately my worries were unfounded. Catherine did extensive research on the subject, visiting several psychiatric facilities and having two professionals on set as consultants throughout filming. My one nitpick regarding this is that some of the conversations between Michael and his friend and fellow psychiatrist Ed (David Furr) definitely violated HIPAA, but I might only be bothered about that because I work in health insurance and I can’t suspend my disbelief where protected health information is concerned.

My one real critique of this movie is that the way Liv ends up in the psychiatric hospital seems a little contrived. Having Michael be the one to have her committed and then immediately regret it and try to get her out doesn’t make much sense, regardless of his skepticism of her mental stability. There are other ways Liv could have ended up in the hospital that would have still been believable, and Michael trying to get her out while at the same time trying to make sense of her behavior wouldn’t have felt so conflicted.

Overall, though, The Sounding is a fantastic film, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Catherine Eaton in the future.

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Have you seen ‘The Sounding’? Well, what did you think?