Lost Holiday | Michael Mathews, Thomas Mathews | Photo: Michael and Thomas Matthews

Lost Holiday
Slamdance Film Festival

Directors: Michael Matthews, Thomas Matthews

What better way is there to spend the holidays than with an acid-fueled investigation into the disappearance of your drug dealer’s girlfriend?

There really isn’t one, at least, not according to our unlikely heroes, Margaret (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Henry (Thomas Matthews), who would be best described as belonging to the most reprehensible class of rich, white Americans. They are young, carefree and self-absorbed with entirely too much free time on their hands.

The film begins quietly with a poem reminiscing about the past summer and the joy and freedom they all felt as a group of old friends who broke into a local pool. We see Margaret and Mark (William Jackson Harper) kiss, Sam (Keith Poulson) and Henry laugh as they splash in the water, a security guard chases them out, the group is clearly happy. There is an immediate sense of nostalgia and loss. Things have changed since then—the friends have drifted apart, Mark is getting married, Margaret and Henry have moved away, they are all growing up, and their lives have changed since their school years.

The film manages to retain these emotions even as the comedy picks up and their adventure begins. Acting on a whim and fueled by an ardent dislike for cops, Margaret and Henry decide to take it upon themselves to track down Amber Jones (Ismenia Mendes), who was recently reported missing by her father. They recognize her from a recent sex tape made by Sam’s drug dealer. Suffice it to say, this is not your average, amateur detective story.

The immaturity of the characters and the absurdity of their situation plays to the film’s advantage, keeping the audience engaged and allowing us to root for the success of our heroes while still acknowledging their many flaws. The artistic and often abstract narrative choices keep the story engaging and work to sell the absurd as plausible. Rather than a traditional narrator, short poems are used to bridge the narrative gaps and provide insight. The quiet conversations and attention to detail in the background add depth to the world, and the lighthearted score brings a constant reminder of the whimsy and playfulness of the story—it’s a film that works well to subvert our expectations and bring originality to what could otherwise have been a thoroughly formulaic structure. –Lois Brady

Jan. 30 // 8:15 PM // Ballroom

Photo courtesy of Big Time PR

Markie in Milwaukee
Director: Matt Kliegman
World Premiere

The Slamdance Film Festival celebrates 25 years and runs Jan. 25–31 in Park City. Here, find featurettes about Slamdance ’19 films. Go to slamdance.com for more info and SLUGMag.com for more Fest coverage!

This documentary follows Markie Wenzel, a transgender woman and former fundamentalist Baptist preacher, on her journey discovering her gender identity. It begins with her initial transition then, as the strain of rejection from church and family wear on her, the process of de-transitioning.

Director Matt Kliegman first began this project over a decade ago, filming over the years of Markie’s transition. “I met Markie in 2007 when she was working at the airport in Milwaukee as a TSA officer,” Kliegman says. “I almost walked by without stopping, but I had a genuine empathetic response when I first saw Markie and felt like I was picking up on an emotional signal she was putting out. Over the next few years, we got to know each other by filming short, inspirational videos for Markie’s blog and a Tumblr account I started to chronicle the process. We did all sorts of quotidian Wisconsin things—went to the state fair, visited the Brewers stadium and explored the various scenic nature spots around Milwaukee.”

Throughout the Film we see snippets from Wenzel’s past as a preacher and interviews with her family and community, most of whom believe that Markie’s choice to transition is a mistake and an act against God. They all serve to give the audience a better sense of the world Markie is coming from and the isolation she is feeling.

Markie in Milwaukee offers an uncertain but hopeful tone, especially as Wenzel re-introduces herself to the audience as both Mark and Markie and announces her resolve to move forward in life, accepting herself without fear or restraint. Wenzel says, “Several things have changed my situation since finishing filming the documentary in 2016. I have a restored relationship with my family. I have a great ability to be able to reach out to others experiencing hurt and try to help meet their needs. I have a renewed compassion for others and a strong desire to try and make a difference.”

Kliegman remained persistently committed to telling Markie’s story through this film. “In 2012 I was planning to accompany Markie to her gender affirming surgery appointment and had made plans to come to Milwaukee and travel with her to Green Bay where the procedure would take place,” he says. “A week before I got a call, [when] she told me she would not be undergoing the surgery and would start living as Mark again.” Markie had thought that Kliegman would no longer be interested in filming her story, “but we soon realized what a powerful story we had on our hands, and filmed extensively throughout 2013,” Kliegman says. “At this point, we knew we had a story to tell that could only be told as a feature-length film.” –Lois Brady

Director: Marc Turtletaub

Sony Pictures Classics
In theaters: 07.13

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a housewife straight out of the 1940s, from the clothes she wears to the way she spends her life dredging through the constant monotony of housework. When the film opens, it initially appears to be set in the ‘40s with Agnes preparing a birthday celebrationdecorating, tidying up, bringing people food—that is until Agnes blows out the candles and is given a brand new iPhone,  because it’s actually 2018. It’s a jarring transition which makes clear that, in many ways, Agnes has been left behind. She has spent her whole life caring for other people, seeming to have no hobbies or interests simply going through the motions, until one day she picks up a jigsaw puzzle, a gift from the party, and rediscovers her talent for solving them.

This sets Agnes off on an adventure of self-discovery and growth.  She meets Robert (Irrfan Khan) who solves puzzles competitively and who needs a partner to enter his next competition and Agnes is perfect for him with her ability to complete advanced puzzles quickly. Things take a turn for the romantic as Agnes and Robert grow closer; meanwhile her husband Louie (David Denman) becomes distant and aggressive with their mounting financial troubles.

What this film does beautifully is it captures the feeling of being caught in a role and the terrible boredom of housework. It becomes clear as the film progresses that Agnes has a knack for logic and reasoning. At one point, she mentions to Louie that if she had gone to college she would have majored in math, and yet she spends her days cooking, cleaning, and caring for her husband and two, grown sons and there’s no clear way out either. With this film, Turtletaub tells nuanced story that explores Agnes’ motivations and acknowledges how hard change can be, especially when it means stepping away from the people we love. –Lois Brady

My Life with James Dean (Ma vie avec James Dean)

Damn These Heels Film Festival
Director: Dominique Choisy

My Life With James Dean is charming, funny and sweet. The slow pace, small-town setting and care with its characters work together to give this film an atmosphere of kindness as aspiring indie filmmaker Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse) befriends the people he meets in the coastal town where his new film is being shown for the first time.

Things begin poorly for Géraud when his phone is stolen by a child on the bus into town. They continue in a similar fashion when there is no one there to greet him once he finally arrives at the theater, which—to the knowledge of the staff—is not actually scheduled to play his film. Adding insult to confused injury, when they do show it, only one ticket is sold. The morning after his poorly attended screening, and the night at the bar that followed it, Géraud wakes up in his hotel room. He has been carried there by Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), the projectionist from the theater, and Gladys (Juliette Damiens), the hotel receptionist. There, he is greeted belatedly by Chairwoman Sylvia van den Rood (Nathalie Richard), who invited him to show his film, and who explains over breakfast that she is currently going through a bad breakup that caused her to forget about his film entirely.

At this point, My Life With James Dean becomes a rom-com of sorts with trains of people all following each other around town, sudden declarations of love and tirades against the idea of happiness in life when it doesn’t work out, with Géraud right in the middle of everything.

My Life With James Dean’s strongest element is how well it approaches its tropes, particularly that of the film within a film. When creating an homage of any kind, it can be easy to fall into tired clichés or mere repetitions of past work. This film doesn’t waste time trying to explain Géraud’s film to the audience—or worse, showing it. Instead, we see enough to get the idea—an artsy romantic drama that the locals classify as difficult cinema—before shifting focus back to Géraud, his artistic journey and his relationships with the people around him. Similarly, the sillier elements aren’t painted with the broad slapstick comedy strokes often seen in rom-coms, though they still maintain many of the better elements of romantic comedy. And finally the characters are well-written and fully rounded. Each character is odd enough to be funny but small enough to feel real. They all have their little eccentricities, but they don’t fall into the trap of coming off as superficially charming and quirky one-liner machines—they feel like people with real feelings and desires, even when those desires lead them to do ridiculous things. The overall effect is a film with a uniquely sweet story and a cast of characters who—though strange—are relatable and fun. –Lois Brady

Saturday, July 21 // 11:45 a.m. // Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

Read more of SLUG’s coverage of the 2018 Damn These Heels Film Festival.

The Wild Boys (Les Garçons Sauvages)

The Wild Boys (Les garçons sauvages)

Damn These Heels Film Festival
Director: Bertrand Mandico

The Wild Boys is a distinctly odd film, in both style and content. So much so that I’m not sure even now whether or not I like it, though as is often the case with film, liking isn’t necessary as long as it brings something new. Whether you find it enjoyable or uncomfortable, watching this film is a visceral experience, as it focuses on the repulsive, tactile and even outright disgusting elements of violence and sex.

The Wild Boys dives straight into its themes of violence, sexuality and gender performance, with a surreal and graphic scene in which five rich delinquent school boys—Romuald (Pauline Lorillard), Jean-Louis (Vimala Pons), Hubert (Diane Rouxel), Sloane (Mathilde Warnier) and Tanguy (Anaël Snoek)—sexually assault and kill their literature teacher (Nathalie Richard). Following an even more surreal trial scene, the boys are sent with a man referred to as Le Capitaine (Sam Louwyck) who claims he can reform them, making prison time unnecessary. The Captain’s methods prove to be brutal: When he brings them on board his ship, he ties them up by their necks to a contraption that allows him to strangle them should they disobey. They are beaten, left exposed to the elements, their books and other possessions thrown away, and fed only small hairy plums.

At the end of their journey is a strange and dangerous island, full of phallic flora and sexual pleasures—a paradise after their arduous time on the boat. There they meet Le Docteur Séverin(e) (Elina Löwensohn), a naturalist who first discovered the island years ago. Séverin(e) has been working with Le Capitaine for years to use the magical, gender-altering effects of the island to reform delinquent boys, believing that the answer to the extreme violence experienced in the world is feminization. The boys’ pleasure on the island soon turns to alarm as their penises fall off and their breasts grow, leaving them with female bodies, and with those, a new perspective.

Exploration and examination of gender as a performance, and in particular the violence associated with masculinity, is at the core of this film’s philosophy. While at times bordering on lewd, Mandico’s approach to the human body and sexuality is refreshingly frank, void of the romanticism and mystique that often veils sex in cinema. The camera doesn’t shy away from the vulgar, instead glorifying it. From slow-panning shots of semen, blood and dirt flying through the air to the viscous membranes and fluids of the plants on the island, everything is shown in extreme, and often glittery, detail.

The cinematographic approach taken in this film is just as odd and interesting, shifting between gritty black and white and hazy chromatic hallucinatory visions. The visual style is dissonant, even chaotic at times, but somehow, it works. The chaos that erupts on the screen helps to convey the overwhelming feelings and experiences of the boys as the island transforms them. It all works together to create a world and a powerful experience, and while the philosophy may be a little heavy-handed toward the end, the message is clear. –Lois Brady

July 20 // 10:30 p.m. // Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

Read more of SLUG’s coverage of the 2018 Damn These Heels Film Festival.

Photo Courtesy of Katapult Films

Director: Ferenc Török

Menemsha Films
In theaters: 05.25

1945 is, in many ways, a perfect little film—one of the rare great stories in which nothing really happens, yet tension constantly builds. Based on a short story written by Gabor T. Szanto, it’s an intimate drama with the entirety of the film taking place over the course of a few hours in the late summer of 1945 in a small Hungarian village. It has the look of a Western, the atmosphere of a murder mystery and the tension of a thriller. Two strangers come to town, setting off a wave of unease throughout the town and exposing the secret crimes of its inhabitants. One of this film’s strongest elements is its subtlety. It doesn’t hit you over the head with its point; instead, it invites you to observe a series of events that, to anyone with any knowledge of Europe at the time, become increasingly obvious.

Another of 1945’s strong suits is the solid use of symbolism and the way it seems to look away from itself, mirroring the way the world seems to look away from history. The main plot, the wedding of the town clerk Istvan’s (Péter Rudolf) son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi), fades into the background as the subplot—the arrival of two Jewish men (Iván Angelusz and Marcell Nagy) and the town’s reaction to their appearance—unfolds. It perfectly captures the sense of paranoia and guilt in the town. The villagers, after betraying their neighbors to the occupying German forces, know how easily everything can be taken away, and now, with the approaching occupation of Soviet forces and the apparent return of the Jewish people, they fear retribution for their crimes.

With the recent rise of neo-Nazis and attempts to rewrite history and erase the blame of many countries complicit in the murders of their own citizens, 1945 is a timely and important reminder of the past and a rejection of the new narratives being told. –Lois Brady

Rock Steady Row

Slamdance Film Festival
Director: Trevor Stevens

In a world where society has collapsed, tuition has skyrocketed, fraternities have taken over and bicycles dominate the campus economy, one freshman is on a mission to retrieve his stolen bicycle. This is the world created by Trevor Stevens in his debut feature film, Rock Steady Row.

This film plays beautifully with the conventions of genre and the expectations of the audience, adding a twist to the end of every act. The classic American action film has a general narrative structure so ubiquitous that you can generally tell where the story is going after the first 10 minutes and, while there is comfort in that familiarity, it’s nice to have that monotony broken up from time to time. That’s where this film really excels, taking every predictable moment and saying, “But what if we flipped that around?” There is a balance needed between fulfilling expectations, giving the comfort of the familiar and preventing predictability, and Rock Steady Row sits right in that happy middle ground.

There is also a nice balance in how this film deals with its own absurdity. At Rock Steady University, pencils are deadly weapons, fraternities rule like gangs and bicycles are worth dying for. It takes a commonplace problem, a stolen bike, and adds flair and oddity in perfect proportions to be humorous without reaching the level of self-parody. By taking a more serious approach to what is admittedly a pretty silly concept, Stevens is able to tell a compelling and moving story without ever losing the tension needed to make the audience really care about the characters. The sad moments are genuinely sad, in spite of their humorous context, and great care was taken to preserve the integrity of each scene.

That same level of care was carried into production. What the film lacked in resources, it more than made up for in its attention to detail. It is clear that this was a labor of love with intention spread throughout every moment. There is a sense of fun in this film that shows through in everything, particularly when it comes to the lighting and sound design. It almost needs a second viewing just to fully appreciate all of the subtle choices made to replace the expected with a surprise. My favorite example of this happens fairly early, in the opening sequence, when the sound of a pencil being sharpened is replaced with the sound of a knife.

I went into this film not knowing what to expect, even a little skeptical, and was surprised to find myself drawn completely into this strange alternate reality where I feel genuine concern for a man about to be hit with a pencil. Rock Steady Row provided a refreshing disruption to the tired old clichés and conventions I’ve come to expect from other films of its genre, and I am excited and hopeful to see more from Stevens. –Lois Brady

Jan. 22 // 7:30 p.m. // Gallery

Preceded by narrative short Welcome to Bushwick (USA), directed by Henry Jinings.

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.


Slamdance Film Festival
Director: Bert Scholiers

Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out is as fun, strange and magical as the title implies. It starts off in a fairly ordinary fashion, introducing Charlie (Evelien Bosmans) and Hannah (Daphne Wellens), best friends in their mid-20s on their way to a house party with friends. For Hannah, a night that would probably have started out with some awkward conversations among acquaintances and ended with another one-night-stand with the nice, though dull, Fons (Patrick Vervueren) becomes a wild adventure when Charlie suggests they spice up their night by taking some reality-altering candy (not drugs, just magic) and putting Fons through a series of tests including fetching Tilda Swinton’s scalp and swallowing a nuke. Because what better way is there to know if you’ve found the right guy? As the night progress, the story diverges into two distinct storylines: one following Charlie and Fons, who are making their slow and ponderous way home from the party; and the other Hannah, who has remained, as both girls experience their newly altered realities, reflecting on their lives and exploring new possibilities.

This film is truly charming. It does so many things and so well, from the artsy sets that resemble illustrations from a storybook, to the constant shifting and changing of narrative style, to referencing other film genres. It incorporates sudden changes in cinematography and visual style, and uses historical figures and characters from classical literature, all elements that are pleasantly surprising without being jarring or seeming out of place.

Director and writer Bert Scholiers uses a sense of playfulness and surrealism to explore dark and serious topics in a way that nicely parallels the way Hannah and Charlie deal with, or fail to deal with, the many problems they face in their lives. This surreal take allows for both greater accessibility to these topics and a more direct line into the minds of the characters. In many ways this film is surprising and does a wonderful job exploring Hannah’s character and the traumas she has experienced, but at the same time, the story itself is disappointingly predictable. The things it does well are done so well that it is hard not to overlook the lack of originality in Charlie’s storyline—but in the end, the whole point of an absurdist film is ruined if it doesn’t surprise.

As the film reached its end and the characters made their final decisions, I was waiting for it to subvert my expectations once more, to lead me somewhere before showing me something new. But it didn’t. It went down the same road quirky love stories with quirky female characters who have quirky personalities and problems always seem to go, leaving me nowhere. With a film that was told in such a unique and surprising fashion with so many original twists and turns, I was expecting an equally unique and exciting overall story. This film is excellent in almost every regard, but when all is said and done, Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out doesn’t present the challenge and excitement it promises at its start. –Lois Brady

Jan. 25 // 1:00 p.m. // Ballroom

Preceded by narrative short Goodbye, Brooklyn (USA), directed by Daniel Jaffe.

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.