Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

slamdance Archive

Wednesday

17

June 2020

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Queen of the Capital

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Pride coverage rolls along! We are thrilled to welcome Josh Davidsburg and Muffy Blake Stephyns, director and star of the new documentary Queen of the Capital, to the show. Queen of the Capital follows Muffy’s campaign to be elected Empress of the Imperial Court of Washington, an organization of drag performers that raise money for charity. Josh and Muffy share plenty of insights from making the film and the history of drag in Washington D.C. One of Ian’s favorites from the Slamdance film festival, Queen of the Capital is definitely one you won’t want to miss.

Queen of the Capital is available on Alamo Drafthouse VOD starting June 20th. https://ondemand.drafthouse.com/film/queen-of-the-capital/. You can also check out the film’s website http://queenofthecapital.com/.

Be sure to follow Muffy and Josh on Twitter @MuffyBStephyns & @jdavidsburg

Cover art by Karolyn Popat

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Wednesday

29

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: 1986

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The tragedy of Chernobyl has been depicted many times in film. 1986 takes a bit of a different
approach, a modern day drama featuring characters with bigger problems than the aftermath
of the disaster. For them, what happened is just another fact of life, something of intrigue and
occasionally, opportunity.

Elena (Daria Mureeva) is a student living in Belarus, juggling a few unfortunate predicaments.
Her shady father is suddenly arrested, leaving her to carry out his illegal businesses that take
her through Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. To make matters worse, she’s in a complicated
relationship with her boyfriend Victor.

Director Lothar Herzog keeps most of the film’s focus on Elena. She is the film’s sole compelling
character, a young woman who has to put up with the disrespect of a male-dominated criminal
underground. She’s strong-willed and proud, intending to show her father’s associates that
she’s more than up to the task of carrying on his business.

Mureeva is a compelling lead, showcasing her range quite a bit through the film’s short
runtime. Elena is constantly thrown into vulnerable scenarios, full of conflicting emotions in the
realms of pride and passion. 1986 does a good job of keeping the audience guessing with how
Elena will react to each scenario.

Where the film is less effective is in presenting a complete story. Herzog throws the audience
right into the thick of things, a refreshing approach light on exposition. We don’t really need to
know the full backstory of her father to relate to Elena. The film runs into trouble with the
progression of its own story.

1986 is effective at presenting scenes in Elena’s life, but the film struggles to tie them together
as a complete narrative. The story feels rushed, hindered by a half-baked love story that
doesn’t do much for Elena as a character. It’s not a crime thriller or a romance narrative, but
the emphasis on those two strands comes at a cost to the development of Elena.

The film’s relationship to Chernobyl is also kind of puzzling. Herzog doesn’t use the tragedy as a
plot device, but Elena’s connection to the disaster-zone doesn’t feel entirely earned either. It’s
as if 1986 had nowhere else to turn but the serenity of a quiet forest, albeit one brimming with
radiation.

1986 is a complicated film to digest, one that stumbles a bit too much down the stretch. At only
seventy-six minutes, much of this can be blamed on the runtime. Herzog’s film has a lot going
for it, but it’s easier to admire its individual pieces than to love its collective whole.

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Maxima

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of underdog narratives, which trace as far back as storytelling itself. There’s an inherent reliability in the plight of “David vs. Goliath” situations, people up against unthinkable odds. Documentaries like Maxima walk the same path, except with very real stakes at hand. As uplifting as it is to see people standing up for themselves, it is often quite difficult to see the hardships that are endured in the process. verify with the air conditioner service in vadodara

Máxima Acuña is a simple farmer with a big piece of land in the Peruvian Andes. On the surface, the terrain she calls home doesn’t seem like all that much. She’s able to grow some crops and raise some animals, but it’s a difficult life in a region rife with poverty. She needs her land to survive.

Máxima’s property, close to a lake, is under siege from the American-owned Newmont Mining Operation. The Peruvian Andes are home to plenty of gold that Newmont wants, spending billions of dollars to uproot the region in search of its precious commodity. Illegally occupying Máxima’s land, Newmont has been harassing her since 2011, a case that still hasn’t seen justice.

As a documentary, Maxima is quite effective at explaining the stakes at hand. The film includes some expert commentary on the nature of foreign mining operations to exploit land. Their corrupt practices are fully laid out, demonstrating the seeming sense of hopelessness that many feel against such powerful leviathans.

Newmont destroys Máxima’s crops and kills her animals. The local government doesn’t seem to care. The courts generally support Máxima’s position, but she’s forced to seek justice in the American legal system because of the shortcomings of the Peruvian government.

The documentary serves as a powerful indictment of the flaws in the legal system. Despite the many occasions that Newmont is shown to be in the wrong, they persist, both on Máxima’s land and in appeals courts. Máxima has the help of lawyers eager to fight on her behalf, but American nonprofits can’t stop a mining conglomerate from ripping up crops on her land in Peru.

The film also exposes the smaller-scale problems with the justice system. Court dates are frequently pushed back and rulings can take months, if not years. For people like Máxima, who have to walk seven hours to the nearest courthouse, these delays have real-time ramifications, time wasted and spirits crushed.

Máxima is a compelling lead figure who has inspired many to protest the injustice she’s faced. She’s not out to change the world, only to stop a company that wants to pillage her home. Maxima is a powerful story of resiliency, a finely crafted documentary that thoroughly explains the stakes at hand from both a political and a human perspective.

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Monday

27

January 2020

1

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Slamdance Review: Shoot to Marry

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What’s the best way to find true love? Entire industries are dedicated to pursuing that elusive answer. Director Steve Markle took an unusual approach to the question, filming the documentary Shoot to Marry as an effort to move past a failed proposal.

The film has a fairly simple plot. Markle reaches out to women he finds interesting and flies to their city to interview them. The interviews tend not to focus much on the women, often to their annoyance, but rather Markle’s own musings. It’s a fairly silly premise, but one that he commits to quite well.

Markle has a gift for comedy. Shoot to Marry aims for laughs more than enlightenment, a hilarious narrative that never takes itself too seriously. Markle is very self-deprecating, completely owning the film’s bizarre premise. The story of his break-up is told in vivid detail, a tragic event that obviously made a big impact on his life.

There are some that may find the nature of Markle’s deception off-putting on the surface, though it’s hard to say there’s ever a point where he paints his subjects in a negative light that takes advantage of them. The documentary does grapple with this subject, delivering a satisfying outcome. He’s a weird, lonely man with a seemingly good heart able to craft a narrative out of his quirks. It’s quite an impressive feat.

Markle also knows when less is more. The film’s seventy-seven-minute runtime is an asset, not letting the narrative overstay his welcome. Though he’s not forthcoming with why he’s interviewing women, he does present full portraits of those who agreed to be in the film, essentially delivering the outcome he initially promised them.

Though the film does at times struggle with what exactly it’s about, Markle does manage to introduce some food for thought to his audience. Shoot to Marry is a unique film. You may not learn a whole lot watching a grown man fly around North America to film women with the off chance that one might be attracted to him, but it’s a worthwhile experience. Few documentaries manage as many laughs as Markle achieved.

 

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Monday

27

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Queen of the Capital

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Years ago, the idea that drag culture would someday enter the mainstream seemed fairly absurd, much like most of the tremendous progress that the LGBTQ community has made. For some, drag is a fun way to spend an evening. Others have built their entire communities around drag, finding family when their biological ones have turned them away. The documentary Queen of the Capital showcases the way that drag has served as the pillar of a gay community in Washington, D.C.

Daniel Hays works for the Department of Labor, a stable government job that provides a decent life. That’s not his true calling. Hays’ drag persona Muffy Blake Stephyns has a thick Southern accent and hair that stretches to the heavens.

Queen of the Capital largely centers around Muffy’s quest to be elected “Empress IV” of the Imperial Court of Washington, a nonprofit made up of drag kings and queens largely centered around charity work. Campaigning for the Court is no easy task, as those elected are expected to serve as fundraising powerhouse for the group for their one-year term. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of pageantry involved as the film depicts.

Muffy is a compelling protagonist for the documentary. Daniel shares a lot about his personal life, from his time as a drag performer to the health issues and depression he’s faced along the way. For Daniel, drag is the center of his whole world.

The film also spends time explaining the history of the Court and various figures who helped cement its status in D.C. This aspect of the documentary is particularly compelling, a strong reminder of how far gay rights and acceptance has come in this country. It really wasn’t all that long ago when men could be arrested for wearing women’s underwear.

Queen of the Capital is an intimate kind of documentary. Muffy is not a household name by any means. The scope of the film drives home the familial bonds of drag communities. You don’t need to know who Muffy is to feel warm inside at the loving nature of the Court that cares for its own.

The appeal of the documentary largely rests of how you feel about drag as a whole. Fans of drag will find much to enjoy in the narrative’s way of bringing out the humanity of the artform. Skeptics will likely not find much to sway their minds. The Court isn’t a very big charity, either in its membership or its fundraising power. Despite this, Queen of the Capital manages to present a compelling narrative through the caring lens it shines on the nature of drag to bring people together.

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Saturday

25

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Thunderbolt In Mine Eye

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High school is a pivotal time for many American adolescents, a period when many experience their first whiffs of freedom outside their parents’ looming eyes. Young people’s initial tastes of sex, weed, and alcohol often leads to cringe-worthy memories, which some might say is an important part of growing up.

Thunderbolt in Mine Eye captures a first awkward first for two young high-school students. Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) is a freshman with a good group of friends and loving adoptive parents. She starts a relationship with her neighbor Tilly (Quinn Liebling), who’s also a close friend of her brother Adam (Alex Jarmon). The politics of teenage relationships naturally proves a bit troublesome for Harper, exacerbated by rumors that have a habit of finding their way through high school corridors.

The film does an excellent job of portraying a snippet of its character’s lives, representative of the era itself. Directors Sarah Sherman and Zachary Ray Sherman have a firm grasp of high school culture. One’s teenage years may be a formative time for many, but it’s by no means definitive. Young love rarely translates into lifelong love, nor does it need to.

What’s particularly impressive about the narrative is the realistic way it unfolds. The characters behave largely as you’d expect them to. As with any plot, some antagonists are required, mostly in the form of predictable nasty classmates, but the conflicts feel natural. If you neglect your friendships in favor of a significant other, you’re bound to get a bit of cold shoulder. That’s life.

The young stars are very talented. Azhar and Liebling have a natural sense of chemistry, highly believable in their puppy love. Both actors are quite gifted at drawing out quiet moments of brilliance in their scenes, comfortable in the awkward nature of many of the scenarios. The film recognizes that much of its audience has been in its characters’ shoes, not needing to oversell the emotion.

The film also deserves credit for keeping technology out of the narrative as much as possible. Phones are sadly a major component of high school life these days, a breeding ground for FOMO and its associated anxieties. The film includes a couple scenes of text messaging, but it stakes its ground in the humanity of its characters.

Thunderbolt in Mine Eye captures the spirit of teenage angst, a refreshing narrative that celebrates the subtleties of an awkward era. High school doesn’t have to define anyone, but in real time it often feels that way. The mature young cast are an absolute treat to watch. Sherman and Sherman have crafted quite an impressive film.

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Tuesday

21

January 2020

1

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Slamdance Review: Jasper Mall

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As films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless demonstrate, shopping malls used to be a pillar of American culture, especially for teenagers. Mallrats succinctly captures this zeitgeist in its title. The world has changed quite a bit, with e-commerce wiping out plenty of shopping malls throughout the country. Jasper Mall is a documentary that showcases a year in the life of a mall on the brink of closure.

Directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Wittcomb have crafted a clever, quiet film about an institution in slow decay. Much of the narrative unfolds through the eyes of Mike, a former Australian zookeeper who serves as the security guard/caretaker for the mall in rural Alabama. The film does showcase some of the mall’s tenants, including a florist and jewelry repair shop, but this is mostly Mike’s story. He displays a genuine love for the mall and its tenants that’s easy to identify with.

The film does not spend much time trying to diagnose the root cause of the Jasper Mall’s decline. The word “Amazon” is never once uttered. In many ways, this makes perfect sense, as the audience is bound to understand the reality that brick-and-mortar stores face in the e-commerce age. The specific circumstances of the town of Jasper could have used a bit more exposition, though the film takes place entirely on the mall grounds.

The departure of two of the mall’s “anchor stores,” large retailers intended to draw traffic to the mall, has had an unfortunate trickle-down effect on the tenants. Without K-Mart or JCPenney, two retailers who are in severe decline nationwide, the food court and service-oriented stores don’t see enough customers to sustain themselves. Several stores close during the narrative.

The beauty of Jasper Mall is through its ability to retain an upbeat narrative while never losing sight of the inevitably bleak outcome. Mike constantly talks about various ways to draw traffic back to the mall. The film presents his voice without endorsing his words. There is almost certainly not going to be a great renaissance for the Jasper Mall.

The mall itself looks pretty terrible, the kind of place you might visit if you needed something specific but wouldn’t go to for window shopping. Thomason and Wittcomb are respectful of the fact that there are people, mostly older patrons, who have a sense of community in the mall. The death of retail is a slow process.

While Mike is the perfect lens to present the documentary, the frequent shots through the corridors do you leave you wondering about the many tenants that weren’t featured. This can be explained to a large extent by the presence of national brands such as GNC or AT&T, but the film only focuses on a couple stores out of the whole mall. For all of Mike’s charm, he does get a little repetitive after a while.

Jasper Mall is a moving narrative about perseverance in the absence of a future. Barring a total remodel that seems highly unlikely, the Jasper Mall doesn’t have much left in the tank. To many, that’s not sad, only indicative of the times. The documentary does an excellent job capturing the essence of those who rely on the dying establishment and what exactly they’re going to leave behind.

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Monday

20

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Tapeworm

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Films like Tapeworm force one to examine the very nature of the medium. The idea of taking what is essentially a collection of vignettes, in this case four fairly unrelated stories, and tying them together into something that looks like a film could sound like a puzzling proposition to a person who only engages with movies that follow the typical beginning-middle-end trajectory. There are no inherent rules governing how a narrative must work, even if we can understand that the vast majority of films play by this fairly accepted set of rules.

Set in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Tapeworm follows a number of fairly unhappy people being miserable. One character is a bad amateur standup comedian. Another plays video games in his mother’s home, refusing to help her put away the groceries.

The closest thing Tapeworm has to a protagonist is Adam (Adam Brooks), a man who’s convinced his wife is cheating on him. Like the others, Adam is a sad guy. He also thinks he’s sick. It’s kind of hard to blame his wife. After spending a little time with Adam, you’d probably want to cheat on him too.

The film is well-crafted. Shot on 16mm film, directors Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco did a good job making Tapeworm look like the kind of indie film you’d stay up late watching in college. The Winnipeg scenery is also used well, exacerbating the misery that encompasses each of its characters. After watching the film, you’d probably never want to step foot in Manitoba.

The problem with Tapeworm isn’t that it’s a joyless experience. The film doesn’t make you feel anything at all. The characters aren’t compelling. They don’t do anything of note.

As the film progresses, you get the idea that the mundane is supposed to be the point. Trouble is, there’s simply nothing to be gained by watching characters kick soccer balls or buy Canadian flags with a marijuana leaf instead of maple. For a film hell-bent on presenting everyday life, it simply has nothing to add to the equation.

To its credit, Tapeworm isn’t a completely miserable experience. With a runtime of seventy-seven minutes, it can hardly be said that the film overstays its welcome. It’s the rare kind of awful film that’s so bad you can’t even really muster up any anger toward the waste of time. You can’t call Tapeworm overwhelming because the film isn’t capable of overwhelming anything.

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Monday

20

January 2020

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Slamdance Review: Beware of Dog

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The question of social media’s value is one that’s talked about every day across the world. For all the ways technology has seemingly brought us together, plenty of people feel increasingly isolated. Nadia Bedzhanova’s Beware of Dog focuses on three characters in three different countries, each struggling to cope with loneliness exacerbated by mental illnesses.

Marina (Marina Vasileva) struggles with OCD in Moscow, faced with a boyfriend who doesn’t care much about her. Paula (Paula Knüpling) meets a traveler in Berlin who’s interested in her romantically, though her bipolar disorder causes problems with her communication skills. Mike (Buddy Duress) is doing his best to stay clean, desperate for his girlfriend to reciprocate the attention he’s trying to give.

Bedzhanova juggles her film’s three leads well, a director with a keen sense for detail. Filming in three beautiful cities, she often uses the landscape to accentuate the isolation that her characters feel. New York, Moscow, and Berlin are beautiful yet deeply intimidating cities. In many ways, the settings feel like characters themselves.

The film has a knack for communicating mental illness in nonverbal ways. Bedzhanova shows off her skills as a director to craft surrealistic sequences that illustrate the hardships that her character’s face. The audience gets a front row seat to the conflict, understanding the flaws of the protagonists while retaining a large degree of sympathy for them.

Beware of Dog captures the universality of humanity. You get the sense that Bedzhanova could swap the characters’ surroundings and the end result would be the same. The film makes easy work of cultural boundaries, showing its audience all the things we share in common.

The ideas that the film addresses are quite complex, without easy answers. The supporting characters help the narrative grapple with the leads’ imperfections. Mike in particular is a sympathetic guy who’s also essentially his own worst enemy. Paula is quite frustrating in her behavior. Bedzhanova presents these dynamics in a way that helps the audience understand where these people are coming from without condoning their actions.

In some ways, Beware of Dog is a frustrating narrative. Focusing on three leads is a tricky proposition for a film with a runtime of under ninety minutes. That line of thinking can also apply to narratives with only one lead, but the audience is left with a sense that there were plenty of elements of the film left to be explored.

Beware of Dog is a thought-provoking film that handles its many moving pieces with grace. There’s a lot left on the table, but Bedzhanova crafted a narrative that examines the many facets of mental illness in a way that never feels trite or exploitative. Loneliness knows no borders.

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