After a series of accomplished shorts and one medium-length feature, the magnificently opaque Notes on an Appearance, Ricky D’Ambrose has returned with The Cathedral, a loosely autobiographical saga surveying two decades in the life of a dysfunctional family. As Phil Coldiron has pithily stated, “D’Ambrose, for his part, believes unfashionably in art,” an assessment borne out by D’Ambrose’s fidelity to classic modernist influences — “Bresson, Resnais, Antonioni, Duras, Akerman,” according to Coldiron. But Michael Sicinski has suggested a more contemporary bedfellow, namely German filmmaker Angela Schanelec. Indeed, The Cathedral can sometimes play like an academic exercise, albeit a fascinating one. By deemphasizing traditional performances and largely eschewing shot-counter-shot and continuity editing, D’Ambrose is one of our few young, contemporary filmmakers really thinking about how to sequence shots and confer meaning through images. Beginning with a monotone female voiceover, the film unfurls a complicated familial genealogy, charting a phalanx of grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, leading to the marriage of Richard (Brian d’Arcy) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), who will in turn conceive the film’s ostensible protagonist, Jesse (played at age 12 by Robert Levey II and as a teenager by William Bednar-Carter).
The film’s precise structure presents one isolated scene at a time, in chronological order, jumping from year to year as archival footage of momentous events are inserted between the narrative fragments to chart the passage of time. We see the first WTC bombing in 1993, footage of Hurricane Katrina, and miscellaneous period-specific commercials and news broadcasts. These brief interjections function as a marked formal contrast to the fictional story that is unfolding, as D’Ambrose favors static master shots and precise framings, zeroing in on small details that act as synecdoches for unseen moments. Taking Bresson’s axioms on sound and image to heart, D’Ambrose constructs an entire secondary world through implied, offscreen space and careful deployment of sound. InRO contributor Morris Yang says that it “feels akin to flipping through a family album, examining the foundations, structures, and seams,” an impression articulated throughout via D’Ambrose’s emphasis on clipped, brief interactions. Family dynamics and interpersonal conflict are only alluded to, or established after the fact.
Richard gradually emerges as a foolish egomaniac who mismanages money and alienates his wife’s extended family. For her part, Lydia remains mostly an enigma, particularly once she and Richard divorce and both remarry, the addition of step-parents further complicating the plot. For all it’s formal austerity, what Lawrence Garcia has dubbed D’Ambrose’s “archival sense,” The Cathedral gradually opens up once Jesse reaches high school and begins experimenting with filmmaking. One can only assume that D’Ambrose has the most insight into these scenes, as they are based largely on his own coming of age. The filmmaker has occasionally inserted old video footage of his own making into his shorts, and there are interludes here that are likely from the same cache of that years-old material. At one point, teenaged Jesse speaks to his class about an old family photograph, detailing how the light on the floor made an impression on him, as it reflects across various other surfaces in the photo. The Cathedral, then, reveals itself ultimately to be about how we use images to organize our memories, how we make sense of our lives through the gradual accumulation of information, photographic or otherwise. It’s a bracingly vigorous work, occasionally alienating but precise in its survey of emotional turmoil. Call it D’Ambrose’s portrait of the artist as a young man.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Over the past two years, audiences have been forced to more comprehensively acclimate to the TV screen viewing experience. Living through the golden age of prestige television and under the monolithic influence of all-pervading streaming platforms means viewers were already fairly deep down this particular rabbit hole, but with theater closures and companies shifting blockbuster properties to their digital distribution hubs across 2020-2021, the home-viewing conditioning took further root. Theater purists are likely to find no consolation in this trend — and not for nothing — but given a decent home theater rig, your average movie-watcher watching your average movie is going to be just fine; if you’re concerned with seeing the latest digital Marvel smear on the biggest screen possible, that’s more about the experience than concern for the preservation of artistic intent.
And then there are films like Utama, which practically begs for theatrical exhibition when viewed within the constraints of a virtual festival bow. Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut feature is one that thrives according to its singularly cinematic qualities — not that there is a comprehensive definition of what exactly constitutes cinematic, but in this case it’s the striking, immersive compositions put to screen. Playing out against the rugged beauty of its Bolivian Altiplano setting, Utama’s narrative framework is appropriately simple, the better to allow its visual character to assert itself. Grisi understands the easy splendor of his location, and counters its immensity with a fine precision. His compositions befit the locale, set with a clean linearity, reveling in horizon lines of cracked plateau meeting clear sky, and the director splashes his scenes with swaths of color: pastel clothing against the parched, ochre land, all-white llamas trotting dusty earth while bedecked with hot pink ribbons on their ears. It’s vivid, picturesque image-making, thoughtfully entering into a kind of dialogue with the terrain and supplementing its natural beauty with subtle, intelligent flourish, postcard-worthy without emptily relying on the Altiplano’s spectacle.
Utama’s thematic and narrative expressions, unfortunately, are less consistently impressive. The film’s spare storyline follows an elderly Quechua couple, Virginio and Sisa, as they endeavor in their spartan, subsistence existence of animal husbandry and daily routine. Opening as the existential threat of drought is becoming unignorable, their estranged grandson, Clever, soon arrives from the city, seeking to convince the elderly couple to forsake their traditional, hardscrabble living and return with him. Virginio is skeptical, embittered toward those who have left (including his son, Clever’s father), resolute in his determination to live and die of his own volition, and nursing an increasingly grievous cough. From here, the film initiates a number of compelling studies: the merits of survival in the absence of beauty, the fundamental unknowability of others, the value of progress on a dying planet. But while Grisi smartly contains his film to mostly physical, visceral spheres, largely eschewing unnecessary dialogue and keeping to the quotidian, Utama ultimately relies on too familiar tensions — tradition vs. modernity, pride vs. destruction, stewardship vs. conquest. It results in a film that feels exsanguinated, its human interest too beholden to a familiar slow cinema template, all of it consistently buffeted by the gentle grandeur of the film’s visuals across its runtime. Utama occasionally upsets this distancing effect — a late moment that finds one character shifting his gaze between an old photograph of a youthful man and that same individual’s now deceased body in repose is especially moving in the haunting interiority it suggests — but there’s too little of the like to fully course correct the film. Still, Grisi has here delivered one of the more visually impressive recent debuts, and if his handle of story and character does not yet match his quality of craft elsewhere, he’s put plenty enough to screen to make it worth seeing where he goes next.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Call Jane, the directorial debut of Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, opens with something of a feint. In a near mirror of that film’s first sinuous tracking shot, complete with pleasingly warm 16mm, it follows Joy (Elizabeth Banks) as she strides through a hotel lobby, passing the party that her lawyer husband Will (Chris Messina) is attending, before walking out onto the street to find a police line and the shadows of Yippie protesters in the distance: the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the ensuing chaos are literally just around the corner for these relatively sheltered suburban residents.
However, Call Jane isn’t about strictly the collision of culture and counterculture. It belongs, broadly speaking, to the recent resurgence of abortion dramas which includes fellow Sundance-Berlin selection Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020, Eliza Hittman) and Golden Lion winner Happening (2021, Audrey Diwan). But Joy’s search for an abortion, prompted by a life-threatening condition during the first trimester of her pregnancy, forms a surprisingly minimal part of the film. Requisite attention is given to the board of doctors who refuse to grant a termination on probability grounds and the furtiveness required to obtain the money, but the screenplay by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi is refreshingly clear of the moral dilemmas and twists of fate that so often characterize this specific subgenre.
Instead, Call Jane finds something of a utopia within this milieu. Joy gets her termination through the Jane Collective, a real service in the Chicago area that provided discreet abortions, complete with a hotline and, at least initially, a dedicated but overcharging doctor named Dean (Cory Michael Smith). Leading the charge is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, given several substantial showcase scenes), honed from decades of aggravating activism, who presides over a motley crew of women from different walks of life assembled for this single purpose. The rest of the film is as much dedicated to Joy’s growing fascination and involvement with the program — and her growing frictions with her husband and daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards) — as it is with the internal dynamics and multiple viewpoints at play in the collective.
A good deal of Call Jane’s charge comes from this interplay, the respect paid to the fundamentally good intentions of almost every major character that nevertheless does not shy away from the limitations of clandestine operations and the day-to-day problems, from the number of abortions that can be allotted per week to the prohibitive $600 cost. Joy — and Banks, who turns in a strong and cagy performance — provides a useful viewpoint, not only because of her considerably more privileged vantage point, but also because of her tenacity and latent domestic frustration that finds its outlet through the Jane Collective. Innovations pop up throughout the film: Joy learns how to perform the abortion procedure herself, the little cards of information from applying women are supplemented by an answering machine. But the focus remains on the people over a relatively brief period, with taking deep interest in both the lively, ping-ponging debates within the group and the more uneasy, coded interactions that Joy has at home, captured most vividly in a scene with an undercover police officer (John Magaro) who ends his interrogation by asking Joy to contact “Jane” on behalf of his friend.
Call Jane’s overall outlook, and especially its post-Roe v. Wade epilogue, can certainly come across as overly satisfied and tidy, but Nagy’s facility with actors and camera movement ensures that this proceeds with assurance; in many ways, the relative lack of dire conflict acts as a benefit, making the ideological battles come across with greater weight. And there’s something oddly lovely and resonant about Joy’s final decision, its own form of compromise that comes with a recognition that most individuals are destined to follow a certain calling, but that it doesn’t prevent one from helping the work of others.
Writer: Ryan Swen
Documenting the most downloaded phone app of all time is a daunting task. Director Shalini Kantayya is aware of such a prospect; right at the beginning of her documentary TikTok, Boom., we hear that “it’s a cybersecurity story, it’s an algorithm story, it’s a bias story, it’s a geopolitical story.” One of the first images we see is of popular influencer Charli D’Amelio dancing with a darker skin complexion, edited as if to hint at how her meteoric rise is due to dances made by Black choreographers. Such provocation ends up being mere suggestion, though, as this notion isn’t elaborated upon at length. This, then, is the problem of Kantayya’s documentary: There are far too many ideas tackled, and all have been written about countless times — including by one of the film’s talking heads, culture writer Taylor Lorenz — and so watching this feels like speed-reading any dozen articles about the app from the past few years.
It’s also hard to determine who this film is for, exactly. Many viewers who are interested in watching are likely familiar with TikTok already, but many of the points expressed have gone viral across social media, including on the app itself. Those completely unaware of its many facets and narratives, however, would be better off finding alternative info-dump prospects as the doc is too scattershot to be much compelling. It’s also far less thrilling than using the app itself, making zero attempts to mirror its addictive endless stream of content, the importance of its popularity to the wide acceptance of vertical videos, or mirroring the surreal experience of finding one’s For You Page tweaked in real time.
One of Kantayya’s clear strategies with TikTok, Boom. is to focus on content creators. We learn about Feroza Aziz, Deja Foxx, and Spencer X. The former two have humanitarian interests, while the latter is a beatboxer whose success has led to a collaboration with Jason Derulo. Stories of acceptance, community, and the terror of always being perceived — especially when young — are familiar to the point of banality in 2022, but more than just being commonplace, their respective lives are uninteresting here because Kantayya rarely allows their stories to breathe, to depict them beyond straightforward interviews and previously made TikTok videos. When we hear about Deja Foxx’s anxiety or how Trump’s proposed banning of TikTok would leave Spencer X without a career, such tragedies are treated with the same blandness as overarching points regarding China’s increasing tech dominance in America, predatory users, and childhood fame.
What results is a film that’s consistently shallow. There are even points where the film leans toward Sinophobia, doing little to question the supposed “horrors” of Americans needing to adjust to Chinese cultural customs. While censorship is touched upon, everything present is handled with little nuance, and the film’s inability to tackle such complex topics is obvious when we see Deja Foxx’s work on Kamala Harris’s TikToks — there’s a noticeable myopia here. At one point, when we hear that recommendation systems, something inherent to TikTok’s algorithmic foundation, are making decisions for generations of people, such consternation is met with a shot of teenagers in a living room, staring at their phones — safe to say, it’s not the most harrowing stuff.
The film’s final passages sum up its inarticulate, inelegant nature. The emotional climax arrives with moody synths as Spencer X starts to cry and confesses, “Being a beatboxer, it was so hard for me to be accepted.” Such a statement feels inert after the more distressing realities of the other influencers, but even worse is that it feels like Kantayya is willing as many emotional beats as possible. After this, and learning of Spencer X’s success, we learn of the LOG OFF movement, which is at direct odds with the fact that TikTok led to these influencers’ success in the first place — the struggle between churning out content and enjoying one’s career is touched upon earlier, but has by this point disappeared. “TikTok won,” is the anticlimactic revelation at the end of TikTok, Boom. This was, of course, obvious since the beginning of the film, and points to how much of Kantayya’s documentary is dead on arrival.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim
Speak No Evil
Like an unholy amalgamation of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and the most squirm-inducing cringe comedy one could possibly imagine, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil expertly navigates the very fine line between passive-aggressive social niceties and outright horror, pushing uncomfortable glances and awkward miscommunications to their breaking point. The film begins innocuously enough; Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), her husband Bjorn (Morten Burian), and their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are vacationing in Italy. A chance encounter brings them to the attention of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), his wife Karin (Karina Smulders), and son Abel (Marius Damslev), a family staying at the same resort and who are as gregarious and outgoing as Louise and Bjorn are reserved. Still, they get along well enough, and Bjorn in particular seems fascinated by Patrick’s almost boorish charisma. Curiously enough, Tafdrup scores these low-key, even banal early scenes with an ominous, droning soundtrack, low hums building to loud clanging. It’s our first (very obvious) clue that something isn’t quite right here, a creeping unease that underscores and seeps into these otherwise picturesque moments.
Some time later, after returning to their home in Denmark, Louise is surprised to receive a postcard from the other couple. She and Bjorn have been cordially invited to spend a weekend with Patrick and Karin at their home in Holland. Louise is reticent — after all, they don’t know these people very well — but Bjorn is excited at the prospect of seeing them again. And both are concerned about being perceived as rude by declining the invitation. They make the trip, and upon their arrival strange occurrences begin immediately. Patrick and Karin are almost aggressively eager, their energy manifesting as a kind of smothering politeness. But Patrick is also loud, drinks too much, and constantly snaps at young Abel. They forget that Louise is a vegetarian and serve only meat at meals. When the adults go out to a restaurant, it’s a rundown roadhouse and Patrick sticks Bjorn with the tab. It’s a grueling bit of narrative misdirection, vacillating between horror and pitch black comedy as Patrick and Karin constantly butt up against Louise and Bjorn’s stubborn desire to be gracious guests. Something has to give, and eventually the Danish family leaves, fed up. But fate conspires against them, and soon enough they return to Patrick and Karin’s home. The couple apologize profusely, insisting that any misunderstandings are attributable to the difference between their cultures, and anyway won’t they stay one more day. They really want to make it up to their guests.
In his own way, Tafdrup turns the screws on his hapless family even more insidiously than Haneke. There’s no schoolmarmish hectoring of the audience, and while it seems that Tafdrup is invoking Scream here — giving the characters (and by extension, the audience) clear indications that they should turn-around, go home — there’s no third-wall breaking to situate the film comfortably within postmodern irony. Instead, it’s a bit of cleverness that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, content to toy with the audience’s expectations. Incidents continue to pile up as scenes stretch to almost unbearable lengths, constantly building from moment to moment to unfathomable levels of cringe before finally having a character back down and apologize, allowing the cycle to continue. Maybe it is all just a misunderstanding, after all. Eventually, Bjorn stumbles across the truth, and the film switches gears into something entirely more sinister. To reveal more would be a disservice to audiences; suffice to say that Speak No Evil earns its place in Sundance’s hallowed Midnight section. It’s a grueling experience in the best sense possible, with a pitch-perfect ending that giddily revels in its own mean-spiritedness.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Three Minutes: A Lengthening
In 1938, David Kurtz traveled from New York to Europe with his wife and three friends. Their gallivanting lasted six weeks and involved sightseeing in numerous countries: Holland and France, Belgium and England, Switzerland and Poland. Equipped with a brand new 16mm camera, Kurtz shot 14 minutes of black-and-white and Kodachrome color film, three of which were of a small, predominantly Jewish town in Poland called Nasielsk. Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes — A Lengthening begins with this exact footage, and no sound is heard beyond the hum of a projector. The images are incredibly ordinary: everyday people out in the streets, many of whom are excited by the novelty of a camera, which is no different than what’s seen in several other films from the early 20th century. After these scenes end, it’s revealed that this is more than documentation of a fun vacation; it’s some of the only existing footage of one of many Polish towns destroyed in the Holocaust.
Glenn Kurtz, the grandson of the amateur filmmaker who captured these important images, is the reason Stigter’s documentary exists. The similarly titled Three Minutes in Poland, a book published in 2014, details the painstaking and inspiring trek that led to the revelations also unveiled in this documentary. We learn the names of specific people onscreen, of the text written on a grocery store sign, of the types of trees lining the town’s cobblestone streets. Hats signify specific social statuses, and the coat buttons come from a local, successful factory. Every detail of the film is put under a microscope, and every trail is followed until an ostensible dead end is reached. Despite the inclusion of audio interviews, Stigter makes the crucial decision to source the entirety of the film’s images on the titular three minutes. Indeed, a “lengthening” is exactly what occurs: she zooms in on specific parts of a frame, repeats certain scenes, and pauses on specific moments for emphasis. This reduced visual palette keeps us in the same mindset as when Glenn Kurtz was unearthing this information, but also keeps the focus on the people in this town, making it feel as alive as possible; a cut to a talking head would’ve been disruptive if not outright disrespectful.
Three Minutes is a film that succeeds simply because of its source material. The story here is miraculous in more ways than one: the discovered footage would’ve been impossible to preserve had it been found even a month later, and the fact a random person was able to identify an ancestor after viewing the video when posted online is remarkable. There’s little sense of the film feeling like a mystery to be solved, though; it’s far too cut-and-dry in presentation to be more than mere storytelling. This is ultimately fine as the repeated viewing of these limited images goes hand in hand with the reality of loss that permeates the film. The most harrowing passage involves an account of the Nazis coming to Nasielsk, whipping the Jewish people, holding them in the synagogue, and forcing them on trains that would lead them to Treblinka. That all we see is a slow zoom-in on the town square where part of this took place is enough, albeit less impactful as a visual accompaniment than is intended. Still, this is nowhere as misguided as when the film waxes poetic or philosophical. The most befuddling moment involves a knowingly manufactured dialogue between narrator Helena Bonham Carter and Glenn Kurtz; it overexplains implicit ideas about the three-minute film and our experience of it. Even odder is how brief these instances are, feeling puddle-deep in their explorations as to render them superfluous. The upside is that they never steer the film off its core focus: Three Minutes ultimately serves as an adept filmic take on the book it’s informed by, functioning as an important, loving memorial. [Previously published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 2.]
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim