Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: January 2021

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January 2021

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Sundance Series: Hive

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Our Sundance coverage rolls along with a film from with World Cinema Dramatic Competiton. Hive is the story of Fahrije, who is struggling to provide for her family after her husband’s disappearance in the war in Kosovo. We are delighted to welcome director Blerta Basholli to discuss her work, based on a true story. Hive is a powerful narrative of perseverance in the wake of incredible hardship.

Poster image of Hive by Blerta Basholli, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

 

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Sundance Review: Eight for Silver

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In a world where vampires have gone completely mainstream, there’s something refreshing about Sean Ellis’ effort to craft a classic horror tale centered around their furrier counterparts. Werewolves are pretty frightening, inspiring terror not only from the external threat imposed by their stature, but also the implications of a monster transformed from of a non-consenting body.

Werewolves can’t control who they are, unlike the men crafted to oppose them in these narratives. Eight for Silver spends much of its first act depicting men at their worst, featuring a 19th century slaughter of an indigenous settlement that provokes the events of the film. Ellis hints that revenge is on the mind, but his muddled storytelling prevents the narrative from ever really delivering on this premise.

Eight for Silver doesn’t really have a protagonist in any true sense of the word. Much of the action revolves around the home of Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), a brutal landowner with seemingly no personality. The introduction of pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) gives the film something to drive the action, but he’s hardly much of a hero to root for.

A big part of the issue seems to be the constant struggle of style vs. substance. This dynamic is on full display with the early slaughter of the indigenous people. Ellis opts to depict the brutal events from a wide panoramic angle. At the time, it’s unclear what message Ellis wants to send by depicting this brutality for a distance, far too much going on for the eyes to focus on any one point. It’s beautiful cinematography that ends up feeling a lot like a cop-out, coupled with the film’s penchant for extreme gore and violence.

Ellis crafts an absolutely beautiful film that has no substance. He has a great sense for framing a scene, with no ability to elicit emotion. The runtime of just under two hours is far too long for a film with no one to care about, a remarkable absence of anything resembling character development. The horror scenes lose their scare value early on, leaving the audience with little but a sense of diminishing returns.

The acting is serviceable in the sense that there’s little to complain about in any of the performances. Petrie, Holbrook, and the others aren’t really playing characters. Rather, Seamus and John are pieces in Ellis’ broader dollhouse, elaborate manor houses that play well into the film’s period setting. Such a travesty to see such beautiful filmmaking undone by an absentee script.

Eight for Silver might impress genre fans on a technical level. Ellis clearly has a gift for building the frame of a fantastic movie. With this one at least, it’s not at all apparent that he has any idea how to tell a story.

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January 2021

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Sundance Review: A Glitch in the Matrix

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Technology has undoubtedly increased the sheer number of people who believe that we’re all living in one big computer simulation. Maybe we are! Rodney Ascher’s documentary A Glitch in the Matrix certainly seems to think so, even if the director isn’t too terribly concerned with presenting a cohesive case for why anyone else should follow suit.

Ascher anchors his film around a 1977 lecture that novelist Philip K. Dick gave in France, using points Dick raised to divide up his case for a simulated reality. Dick’s extensive bibliography continually grapples with what it means to be human in the age of artificial intelligence and mind-altering drugs, powerful work that reflects his deep passion for questioning the nature of reality. If Ascher has actually read any of his books, the notion is not well-presented, tailoring his thesis to the specific confines of a single talk.

Dick died in 1982, largely underappreciated throughout his life and career, then often considered a mere pulp genre writer. The subsequent decades have elevated his legacy to a more fitting stature, though explaining the scarcity of video footage featuring the man himself. A simple YouTube search of Philip K. Dick’s interviews produces the interview that Ascher used right at the top.

Whether Ascher engaged with Dick on a level beyond the first video that popped up or a few paragraphs of his Wikipedia page is unclear. A Glitch in the Matrix substitutes intellectual rigor with the seemingly-spontaneous musings of some random people Ascher found on the internet, usually cloaked in filters that make them look like bad CGI from a 90s B movie. There is far too little substance to be had in a documentary that’s just shy of the two-hour mark.

Ascher is clearly fascinated by the personal experience of these unidentified individuals, rambling ad nauseum about their own supposed experiences. As a director, he has no interest in curating these interviews, presenting their mumble-filled rants uncut for long periods of time. Extensive footage from films with reality-questioning premises gives the eyes a break from peering around these people’s bedrooms where they conducted Skype interviews with Ascher, complete with poor audio quality.

The director does curate an interview with Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, a revered figure among computer-simulation theorists, who receives a small fraction of the focus enjoyed by Ascher’s broader collection of crackpots. Ascher never really digs deeper with Bostrom, producing a pretty surface-level reading of his paper’s abstract. His heart clearly lies with the internet-dwellers better suited to indulge his wildest fantasies.

Fitting for the documentary’s title, the film spends much of its runtime talking about The Matrix. Like his attitude toward PKD, Ascher engages with the popular film at its shallowest level, prioritizing the feelings of his interviewees at the expense of any substantive exploration of the material. The Matrix is often taught in philosophy courses, using the Wachowskis’ work as an entry point for broader discussions about Descartes, Kierkegaard, and countless others.

While the film has been a popular tool for academia since before either Wachowski sister came out as transgender, it seems a bit ridiculous that Ascher droned on for an hour about their film without ever bringing this topic up. Maybe the message board where he found his subjects didn’t allow that to be mentioned. Gender would be an interesting point to discuss with regard to simulated reality, but perhaps a bit too dense for Ascher’s shallow approach to storytelling.

Ascher’s greatest stunt comes in the form of the sole interview to be conducted over the phone rather than Skype. For a few extended segments, this interview talks about how he watched The Matrix hundreds of times, inspiring him to buy a trench coat and a movie poster. For a while, this extended rant seems to fit in line with the non-sequiturs provided by Ascher’s other subjects, but he lets this one ramble for what feels like forever, no purpose or end goal in sight.

The big reveal turns out to be that the voice belongs to Joshua Cooke, who murdered his parents after becoming obsessed with the idea that he was living in the world of the film. “The Matrix defense” was even planned by his lawyers as an insanity defense, before Cooke simply pleaded guilty. Ascher provides detailed animation to match Cooke’s recollection of the murder, which might have landed with more of an impact if he’d bothered to edit it down by about five minutes. For too long it felt like trolling done by Ascher to make the audience question the reality implications of a film like this being made.

Ascher proudly entertains the half-baked musings of the same sorts of dudes who worship Elon Musk tweets. Breathtakingly bad. The same random dudes Ascher found might find ent in this shallow approach to complex issues, but this film has no appeal to anyone who spends less than ten hours a day on Reddit.

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January 2021

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Sundance Review: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

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It is impossible to underestimate the global impact that Sesame Street has had on countless children across the world. Seeking to provide a counterbalance to advertisement-centric programming, a group led by Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, and Jon Stone crafted a show that led with inclusivity and sought to empower children rather than speak down to them. The documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street explores the first few decades of the series that has remained on the air since the early days of the Nixon administration.

Director Marilyn Agrelo blends extensive archival footage with contemporary interviews with key players who built Sesame Street, as well as family members to speak for those who are no longer with us. The film provides a great primer for understanding the show’s formula, research-based education strategies blended with entertainment provided through Jim Henson’s Muppets and the unforgettable musical numbers.

Agrelo’s most impressive strength is her ability to juggle the stories of so many figures in the shows history, from the creative leads to the on-screen talent to the musicians who all worked to make the magic. The political nature of the series receives extensive focus, breaking down barriers and giving marginalized groups some much needed positive visibility. The show’s central demographic has always been inner-city kids, teaching letters and numbers to those who may not have had the same opportunities before kindergarten.

Many of the show’s bigger moments have been covered extensively over the decades, but the film manages to elicit plenty of emotions, even in well-trodden territory. The on-screen depiction of Mr. Hooper’s death following the real-life passing of actor Will Lee remains a powerful milestone in children’s television. Even with so much else to get to within the film’s 107-minute runtime, Agrelo ensures that the floodgates reopen with an extended viewing of the episode’s saddest moments.

Such pacing reflects the director’s firm grasp of the vast material. She builds a sense of trust in the audience that doesn’t cause too much second-guessing toward the film’s extensive, perhaps excessive, focus on Stone and composer Joe Raposo, at the expense of other figures. The time really does fly by as you sit and watch all these years of memories unfold on screen, the kind of documentary that you wish would have been a multi-part series.

While clearly a victory lap of sorts, the film does turn a critical lens toward the show on a few occasions. A few scenes featuring interviews from the family of Matt Robinson, the original actor to play Gordon, demonstrate conflicting opinions as to how to represent black characters on the show. The Muppet Roosevelt Franklin disappeared from the show over concerns from black families that the character reinforced stereotypes, causing a rift that eventually led to Robinson’s departure from the show.

The film’s title lays out its specific intentions, a carefully curated segment of Sesame Street history from its formation in the late 60s to around the early 80s, plus some brief coverage of Henson’s death in 1990. Elmo only make a minor cameo, never directly mentioned by name. In that regard, it’s a little puzzling to see a Sesame Street documentary that covers a shorter range of the show’s lore than 2014’s I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. While that alone shouldn’t be held against the doc, Agrelo does whiff on anything resembling a cohesive conclusion for her film.

The idea that they all hate Elmo sorts of hovers as the film comes to a close. It’s understandable that no one would want to say that, sandbagging the current talent in the process. The film thoroughly explains the power of the show’s founding individuals, but doesn’t particularly care to lay out what it feels the show is missing in their absence.

There’s a natural sense of incompleteness that would be inevitable considering that Sesame Street is still on the air. Bert and Ernie will live forever, but Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street as a documentary concerns itself with an era that does have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The doc definitely missed an opportunity to offer some semblance of an opinion on what it meant for the show to lose most of its remaining original cast members in the last few years.

Though Spinney appears in original footage in the documentary, his 2018 retirement and 2019 death receive no mention at all. There’s another missed opportunity in choosing not to cover the controversial exits of longtime cast members Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado (who plays Luis), and Roscoe Orman (the third actor to play Gordon) following the show’s acquisition by HBO, which also produced this documentary. All three appeared in the documentary, suggesting that there’s little behind the scenes drama, but it feels weird that none of this was ever brought up within the film.

Conclusions aside, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is just about everything you’d want from a Sesame Street. The behind the scenes footage is a delight and the interviews provide a lot of context into the shows mechanics. Fans of all ages will find much to enjoy spending two hours with the architects of an American institution.

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January 2021

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Sundance Review: First Date

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First dates can often provoke irrational lines of thought, the kind of mindset that makes buying a beat up ’65 Chrysler seem like a great idea. It’s only natural to want to look cool, especially when you’re a high school student with no idea what that concept actually means. First Date uses this concept to anchor its premise, before launching off on a crazy thriller full of dirty cops, shady con-artists, gang members, and an angry cat lady.

Mike (Tyson Brown) just wants a sweet ride to impress Kelsey (Shelby Duclos), a passionate fan of old technology and of putting horny jocks in their place. Mike sort of gets half-conned into buying a junker, complete with a Kelsey-endorsed 8-track player, apparently not a fan of Uber or any other form of transportation. While Mike just wants to pick up Kelsey on time for their 8 p.m. date, the world seems pretty interested in throwing just about everything it can at Mike to derail his youthful romance.

Part dark comedy, part high-octane thriller, First Date’s greatest strength is its ability to subvert expectations from scene to scene. Directors and screenwriters Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp do a wonderful job crafting the tempo, sparking a lot of different emotions. The humor never comes at the expense of the broader ideas at hand.

The film has a unique relationship with its protagonist. While Mike is certainly the one who sets the plot of the film in motion, the ’65 Chrysler often serves as the centerpiece of the narrative both an as object of desire but also as a character in its own right. Brown gives a strong performance, grounding the often-absurd narrative with a sense of realism through his realistic portrayal of a lovesick teenager who’s in way over his head.

While the laughs keep rolling at a pretty steady pace throughout the film, the pacing does hit a couple of speed bumps in the third act. At 103 minutes, the film’s absurdity starts to wear a bit thin. Crobsy and Knapp do ties things together nicely, particularly with regard to confronting some questions that are bound to be on the audience’s mind.

Crosby and Knapp bring a level of sincerity to the world-building that elevates First Date beyond being just a fun thriller with some great humor. Mike and Kelsey are both given a relatable sense of depth, teens with more on their minds than sex or fast cars. While hardly an enviable night out, First Date is the kind of film that would make a good date movie, something for everyone to enjoy.

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Saturday

30

January 2021

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Sundance Review: Ma Belle, My Beauty

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Society is thankfully turning the corner on treating polyamorous relationships as taboo or unsavory. People should be allowed to love who they want. Perhaps more importantly, they should be allowed to enter into relationships that maybe aren’t the best thing in the world for them, too. Part of how we learn what’s right for us is to have had the chance to know what isn’t right.

Ma Belle, My Beauty centers its narrative largely around this concept. Set against the backdrop of the beautiful south of France, the film follows Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Fred (Lucien Guignard), musicians who relocated from New Orleans. While Fred is desperate to get back on tour, Bertie’s depression complicates their plans, as does the arrival of an old lover, Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), whose presence stirs old emotions.

Director Marion Hill, making her feature debut, crafts a complex dynamic between the three leads. The tension is palpable in the air, a stark contrast with the awe-inspiring scenery. As a director, Hill impresses with her camera angles, constantly finding new ways to present the house that serves as the setting for a large chunk of the narrative.

To a certain extent, it makes sense that Ma Belle, My Beauty evokes a sense of discomfort in watching this uncomfortable scenario play out. Lane’s reappearance is almost immediately regarded as a bad idea, as is often the case when old lovers reconnect. Breakups rarely exist in vacuums.

The narrative is fundamentally unpleasant to watch, old lovers picking at the scabs of their failed romance. The three leads don’t really have much chemistry at all, a major obstacle for the film to overcome. It’s one thing for Bertie and Lane to be fundamentally wrong for each other, battling back the tides of passion. Trouble is, it’s not really clear that there was ever any passion here at all.

Johnson gives the most impressive performance of the three, giving Bertie a subtle hero’s journey that does play out in a satisfactory manner. Bertie is easy to root for, albeit with a degree of frustration for the avoidable reality of her current situation. Anyone who’s had any prolonged undesired contact with an ex might find it hard to relate to a ninety-minute narrative that could have been easily solved by leaving well enough alone with regard to the breakup.

Ma Belle, My Beauty is a beautifully shot film that suffers from an underdeveloped premise and a lack of chemistry between its leads. Hill has a lot of talent as a filmmaker, but maybe took too hands-off of an approach to the story. It’s hard to get invested in watching three people interact on screen together when it’s clear that none of the characters want to be there.

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January 2021

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Sundance Review: On the Count of Three

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Depression crafts such a deep sense of loneliness, a concept. If misery truly loves company, On the Count of Three makes a compelling case for curating the kind of companionship one should entertain in their darkest hour. Whether internal or external, the drive to try and get better certainly isn’t aided by a Greek chorus echoing songs of hopelessness.

Val (Jerrod Carmichael, who also directed the film) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott) are two best friends teetering on the brink of suicide. Both find comfort in the idea that they’ll have each other for the end, making a pact to kill themselves in a manner best illustrated through the film’s title. Their exact degrees of despondency remain a bit of an open question, allowing the two characters to work each other up into a frenzy.

Carmichael and Abbott carry the film largely through their impeccable chemistry. The audience can clearly see how Val and Kevin became friends, and also why they’re absolutely terrible for each other. There are plenty of moments where you don’t think you should laugh, but Carmichael and Abbott force it out, backed by strong performances from J.B. Smoove and Henry Winkler in bit roles.

The dark comedic tone works pretty well for the narrative. The film earnestly engages with the subject of mental health, something many men struggle to open about. As a director, Carmichael has a firm grasp of pacing, but struggles to paint a clear picture of what the film wants to be. The script isn’t exactly up to the task either, though the acting provides ample cover.

The choppy messaging is bound to rub some people the wrong way, but the film impresses through its meditative engagement of the material. Mental health is a deeply complex subject, one that lends itself to no easy answers. Therapy doesn’t always work. Sometimes, nothing works.

On the Count of Three misses the mark more than it should have. It doesn’t feel like a completely earned sentiment, but Carmichael will undoubtedly provide a needed wake-up call to many depressed people who watch his film. Depression can create the sense that things have spiraled beyond your control, agency stripped from one’s future.

The film works best when it stops to grapple with these broader concepts. Carmichael is a thoughtful filmmaker who understands the power that comes not from arriving at answers, but the value of the pursuit of getting better. Getting help won’t always solve the problem, but the alternative doesn’t offer any solutions.

 

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January 2021

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Sundance Review: How It Ends

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The COVID-19 era of filmmaking will largely be defined by the countless delays in releases or the many blockbusters forced to abandon theatrical releases, rather than the works produced during this awful period in practically everyone’s life. Shot in against a quiet, dreamy Los Angeles backdrop, How It Ends brings some levity to this hellish timeline.

Using an impending meteor crash as a COVID stand-in, the film follows Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) as she treks around LA, meeting quirky people and gradually accepting the end of her life in just a few hours. Accompanying her for the ride is a metaphysical version of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny), mostly there to provide perspective for some of her life decisions.

The narrative is mostly comprised of a series of socially distanced vignettes as the Liza’s walk through a deserted LA. The apocalyptic setting is captured quite well, bringing about those random interactions that seem increasingly scarce in this strange era. A never-ending stream of veteran comedy actors including Fred Armisen, Lamorne Morris, Charlie Day, and Whitney Cummings provide plenty of entertainment, even as some land better than others.

Directed by Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, How It Ends leads a nonstop charm offensive that manages to pack in a healthy degree of sincerity toward its bleak subject matter. Regrets are bound to be on anyone’s mind. The film engages the concept of closure, particularly in heavier scenes with Olivia Wilde and Helen Hunt, never losing sight of the reality that time, particularly borrowed times, only moves in one speedy direction.

The film’s crowning achievement might be the way it makes you miss meeting people, if only for a moment. You gain a new appreciation for the random stranger on the street who strikes up a conversation, maybe out of loneliness or maybe because they think they have something to share with the world. COVID has changed the way we connect to each other, giving added weight to How It Ends’ random conversations.

It may be a bit unfair to label the film as a vanity project, but the script isn’t quite strong enough to skirt those notions, particularly in the third act. The film waits too long to pivot away from vignettes toward its deeper plot obligations, exacerbated by the diminishing returns from the comedy that increasingly feels like improv as the film progresses. How It Ends certainly carries the aura of the early pandemic, when celebrities broadcasted messages of “solidarity” from their Hollywood mansions.

There are definitely times where the film feels like the cinematic equivalent of Gal Gadot’s infamous “Imagine” video, cringeworthy feel-good vibes from bored millionaires unable to see how out of touch their look from behind their manicured hedges. It is a deeply privileged narrative that exudes the avoidable smugness of its intentions by never really trying to convince the audience that the film exists as anything more than a project to cure pandemic boredom.

Despite all of that, How It Ends is an undeniably charming movie saved by the chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny. When film historians inevitably study this era, assuming we survive this mess, this film will provide a valuable tool for exploring the state of popular culture, especially some of its flaws. The script definitely needed more time in the oven, but Lister-Jones and Wein deserve a lot of credit for the way they crafted a feel-good narrative that entertains in spite of its flaws.

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January 2021

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Sundance Series: Weirdo Night

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Continuing our Sundance coverage with a film from the New Frontiers program. Weirdo Night is a cinematic presentation of the iconic LA comedy show of the same name. We are delighted to welcome director Mariah Garnett and star Jibz Cameron, also known as Dynasty Handbag, to talk about their work.

Weirdo Night is available throughout the festival to Explorer pass holders. Mariah and Jibz will be hosting a virtual party at 8:00 pm PST on January 31st. Please follow @dynastyhandbag on Twitter for more information.

Poster image of Weirdo Night by Jibz Cameron and Mariah Garnett, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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January 2021

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Sundance Review: Son of Monarchs

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The migration patterns of the monarch butterfly span from Canada all the way to Mexico. There’s something oddly human about the travel habits of this particular type of insect, ever relatable to anyone who’s traveled a great distance from home. Even thousands of miles away, it’s easy to feel an almost instinctual connection to one’s hometown.

Son of Monarchs anchors its narrative in this terrain. Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) is a biologist studying monarch butterflies in New York City. He returns to Mexico for his grandmother’s funeral, reconnecting with his brother, Vincente (Lazaro Gabino Rodriguez), who stayed in their hometown. The brothers’ childhood was marred by tragedy, as their parents drowned in a flood. To Mendel, butterflies represent both a form of escapism in his grief-stricken youth, as well as a source of inspiration for him to spread his wings and travel across the continent to pursue his passions.

Director & screenwriter Alexis Gambis presents a dreamy narrative that frequently jumps between past and present. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, presenting the Mexican landscape in a way that fully evokes its sense of awe and wonder. Watching Mendel as a child, it’s easy to see his passions captured in real time.

In many ways, the landscape functions as a kind of secondary protagonist, with Mandel operating with a fair bit of distance from the audience. Huerta is a skilled actor, capable of giving Mendel exceptional depth through subtle expressions. Gambis guides the narrative with a soft hand, rarely showing his cards earlier than needed. Much of the movie takes place in present-day New York City, featuring Mendel interacting with his coworkers at the lab, scenes that almost naturally pale in comparison to those filmed in Mexico.

Son of Monarchs explores the nature of passion from a three-dimensional lens, a rewarding journey from a confident director. Our life obsessions can be powerful tools for self-discovery. They can also serve as crutches, shielding us from grief that we’d rather not confront. Passion is messy, often hard to put into words.

The film is occasionally a bit clunky in its delivery, particularly with regard to some of the narration choices. A lot of analogies are made between humans and butterflies. While this emphasis plays into the film’s broader objectives, the methods through which they’re deployed do get a bit repetitive over time.

Most impressive about Son of Monarchs is the depth to the narrative. It’s the kind of film that keeps you thinking long after the credits have rolled. While Mendel’s journey, one can easily use him as a conduit to explore how the concept relates to our own ways of using passions to deal with grief. There is much beauty to be found in this film.

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