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'Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street'

photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival

'Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street'

Short reviews of every Florida Film Festival movie we were able to see in advance 

Just eight months after the Florida Film Festival became the first major movie fest to be held in the Southeast United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is returning to its traditional April timeslot. The festival will again be held at just one location, Maitland’s Enzian Theater, because its pre-COVID partner, Regal Winter Park Village, didn’t announce its reopening in time to coordinate with Enzian. This means that, like last year’s event, movies will be shown on just one screen. So to accommodate the 164 films, the 30th annual fest will again last 14 days (April 9-22), instead of its pre-COVID format of 10.

Ticket options include a single film or shorts block ($12), a five-pack ($55), a 10-pack ($105) and a 20-pack ($200). Visit floridafilmfestival.com for more information. To guide you through the copious choices, we present the following reviews of films we were allowed to screen in advance.

'Workhorse Queen' - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLORIDA FILM FESTIVAL
  • photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival
  • 'Workhorse Queen'

The Catch

An old Hollywood tradition called "day for night" allows filmmakers to shoot night scenes in daytime by either underexposing them or darkening them in post-production. Conversely, The Catch appears to be that rarest of movies that shoots night for day. Snarky insults aside, the plain truth is I simply couldn't see a lot of this film.

Using natural light is noble, but not if you can't see what's in the frame. Compounding that problem, first-time writer-director Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer's drama is narratively challenged, with needlessly confusing character backstories and motivations. And despite the talent of Katia Winter (Sleepy Hollow TV series), her and her fellow actors' performances are often reduced to a contrived and unending chain of curse words, emotional brutality and unpleasantness.

Inspired by real events, the story's sincerity isn't in question. Indeed, there's some good content to be uncovered in this tough-minded study of a dysfunctional family in a hardscrabble lobster-fishing village in Maine, but it's hidden in darkness — literally and figuratively.

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over

You could make a documentary on author/performer/artist/hellraiser Lydia Lunch's exploits in Orlando alone: a fiery appearance at Rollins College in the late 1990s, cold-cocking a fratboy who was talking over her set in the early '10s, down to her most recent foray, riveting and scandalizing a packed Maxine's in 2019.

Until that day comes, the hagiography that is The War Is Never Over will more than suffice. Tracing the career of this American icon through the decades, from no-wave beginnings with Teenage Jesus in the 1970s through books, solo albums, films and now leading a savage ensemble that includes noise-lifers Weasel Walter and Bob Bert, Lunch has done it all and, crucially, never lost her fire, focus and anger. Filmmaker Beth B. gives this icon the filmic portrait she richly deserves.

Lorelei

From first-time writer-director Sabrina Doyle comes this occasionally impactful look at an ex-con, his former girlfriend and the non-traditional family they cobble together on little more than a chicken wing and a prayer.

Produced by the team that brought us The Florida Project, Lorelei is similarly gritty and socially relevant. However, it lacks the previous film's vibrancy and originality, and much of the dialogue feels forced, even cheap.

Buoyed by a charismatic lead performance from Jena Malone (The Neon Demon) and solid support by its juvenile actors, Lorelei, like Project, makes an interesting pivot from pluck to whimsy in its final act. But by the time that finale arrives, the film has worn out most of its overly long 111-minute runtime. Most significantly, in Pablo Schreiber (First Man), as the ex-con, it lacks a strong male lead on the scale of Willem Dafoe.

Mandibles

If you're one of the few people who thinks Dumb and Dumber would benefit from a giant insect, Mandibles is your film. But even if that thought never crossed your mind, this French-Belgian absurdist comedy from writer-director Quentin Dupieux might still be your slice of brie.

After dimwitted friends Manu (Grégoire Ludig) and Jean-Gab (David Marsais) discover the world's largest housefly in the trunk of their stolen car, they name it Dominique, feed it cat food and train it to be their personal drone. Take that, Amazon!

As with Dupieux's other films, such as 2010's Rubber — featuring a murderous car tire — Mandibles hits rough patches. But its playfulness and surreal humor is tough to resist. It's admittedly an acquired taste and, therefore, a tough film to fully endorse. But I suggest you try it and see for yourself what all the buzz is about. Mandibles is preceded by the even better and equally absurd French-language Squish, a short, pitch-black farce about the accidental smooshing of a child. Magnifique!

Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed has cornered the market on portraying musicians with unusual health problems. Hard on the heels of his well-deserved Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal, Ahmed is again exploring the genre. But this time he substitutes rap for heavy metal, England for America and an autoimmune disease for deafness.

If that summation is cursory, my apologies, as Ahmed and director Bassam Tariq (who co-wrote the script with Ahmed) deserve better.

So how's this for praise?: Ahmed gives the best performance I've seen at this year's festival. His acting (and rapping) seem particularly suited to the script, which alternates between socially provocative (even incendiary) and personally heartbreaking. Those pivots lead to unevenness, but Tariq's confrontational filmmaking style retains its power throughout. Though the third act is somewhat underdeveloped, Tariq's embrace of surrealism and contemplation of cultural identity — plus a wonderful supporting turn by Alyy Khan as the father — make Mogul Mowgli a festival must-see.

'My Wonderful Wanda' - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLORIDA FILM FESTIVAL
  • photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival
  • 'My Wonderful Wanda'

My Wonderful Wanda

Impeccably crafted in a formal three-act structure — complete with epilogue — My Wonderful Wanda (literally, Wanda, My Wonder in its native German) is my pick for best flick of this year's fest.

The story of a Polish caretaker and her unconventional relationship with a wealthy Swiss family has more than its share of unsettling and heart-rending moments, but writer-director Bettina Oberli balances that drama with levity by occasionally emphasizing the story's absurdity. And by doing so, she trades the darkness of many of this year's festival dramas for an irresistible blend of satire, social commentary and perfectly placed pathos.

Agnieszka Grochowska deserves praise for her eponymous role, but the film is chiefly an ensemble triumph, with André Jung as family patriarch, Marthe Keller as matriarch and Birgit Minichmayr as the eldest daughter, all dancing together in a Cassavetes-style choreography that would make Bob Fosse swoon. Here's a film that lives up to its title.

No Ordinary Man

When paramedics were called to the home of jazz pianist Billy Tipton in 1989, attempting to resuscitate the dying musician, they discovered that he was a trans man — a secret unknown to anyone, including his wife and children.

This revelation set off a wave of lurid news reports and television segments, culminating in a sensationalist book by Diane Middlebrook. The touching documentary No Ordinary Man reframes Tipton from a posthumous tabloid headline to a forefather and hero to the trans community. There's precious little archival documentation of Tipton to draw from — a handful of photos and two very good albums — but this film still ends up feeling like a fully realized portrait of a complicated man. Why did this driven musician give it all up as he was on the cusp of stardom to live a quiet life as a family man?

Tipton's story, and by extension, the story of people living trans, is told through interviews and mock (but not mocking) auditions for a Billy Tipton film with a number of trans folks across generation and color lines and Tipton's eldest son — who was taking care of his father at the end of his life — intercut with Tipton's music, home recordings of a long-ago family Christmas and talk show segments aired in the wake of Tipton's passing. What emerges is a tale of reclamation and redemption for a gifted musician and father and man.

Les Nôtres (Our Own)

In small-town Quebec, Magalie is a seemingly normal 13-year-old, until she faints during dance class. At the hospital, doctors reveal the cause of her collapse, and their revelation reverberates throughout the close-knit community. Director Jeanne Leblanc's dark, uncomfortable drama gets points for intrigue and provocation, but it too often coasts upon its intriguing premise. Indeed, the ending of Les Nôtres seems trapped between ambiguity and total absence.

But Emilie Bierre, as Mag, gives arguably the best juvenile performance of the festival. And the script, which Leblanc co-wrote with Judith Baribeau, who also lends her acting chops to the production, is both suspenseful and agonizing. You might not always like where the story is going, but you will be compelled to follow.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

The sociocultural context of Sesame Street is rarely understood in full, even by those of us who were around the day it went on the air. Once upon a time, the federal government threw an ass-ton of money at public television, to do with as it pleased; a bunch of concerned and forward-thinking adults used that money to create a series they hoped would bridge the literacy gap among preschoolers, particularly Black ones. (Yes, things like this actually used to happen!) The riveting doc Street Gang shows how this revolutionary undertaking was embraced by its audience but criticized by others as too loud, too frantic and too ... well, "integrated."

The doc is a for-serious goldmine of interviews, archival footage and show outtakes, all flying by at a pace that never lets up. It's consistently fascinating and often hilarious — and then it takes a turn into the truly affecting as it recounts the personal toll Sesame Street wreaked on the committed creative team that sacrificed so much to make it, many of whom are no longer with us. As a eulogy for those fine folks, the movie carries a message that's as easy to understand as your ABCs: They were here, they're gone now, and they gave a damn.

The Stylist

Here's something to make you nostalgic for all those months when you had to be your own barber: an artsy thriller about a hairdresser (Najarra Townsend) with the curious habit of killing and scalping anyone whose lifestyle she resents and/or covets. (And she sets that bar pretty low, given that one of her victims is a barista.) As the story and her spree progress, Townsend's Claire gradually focuses her obsessive tendencies on a customer who's preparing to get married — whereupon the film becomes a sort of Bridesmaids with a body count.

The Stylist is a feature-length version of director Gevargizian's 2016 short of the same name. But while it's better acted and more technically sophisticated, there just isn't enough going on narratively or philosophically to justify the expansion. The picture feels padded, moving slowly enough between developments for the implausibilities of the storytelling to matter far more than they should.

Some very nice cinematography is what you'll enjoy most while the movie meanders toward its ultimate point that ... well, who knows, really? Despite some passing references to the glass ceiling that figures into both this feature and its source short, ascertaining a coherent feminist message will be a daunting prospect even to folks who found Monster a rallying cry. Like your hair during lockdown, The Stylist was better before it got all long and hard to manage.

'Tiny Tim: King for a Day' - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLORIDA FILM FESTIVAL
  • photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival
  • 'Tiny Tim: King for a Day'

Tiny Tim: King for a Day

Herbert "Tiny Tim" Khaury might have tiptoed through the tulips, but he unapologetically galloped through life, forging a path unlike almost any other entertainer in the history of showbiz. And by doing so, he inspired a generation of underground artists, sexually androgynous performers and loveable oddballs — including Weird Al Yankovic, who partially narrates director Johan von Sydow's documentary.

Combining extraordinarily personal interviews, old clips and darkly expressive animation, Tiny Tim: King for a Day is an irresistible portrait of a man we may never fully understand. Alternatingly offbeat, funny and tragic — but ultimately inspiring — the doc is never quite as strange as Tim himself. But that's OK. No one was. And that's Tim's legacy, a legacy this film joyously cements.

The Truffle Hunters

Like the mysterious food that inspired it, The Truffle Hunters is inscrutable. You can't quite grasp the documentary's journalistic backstory, even after attempting to read between its minimalistic lines. Perhaps directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw should have lengthened their movie to provide more historical and culinary context. Or perhaps, at 84 minutes of observational mesmerism, their film is perfect.

The truth lies closer to the latter, as the film's humor and beauty overwhelm its vagueness. You will be particularly overjoyed to spend time with Birba, Nina, Fiona, Charlie, Yara, Vasco and Leo — the truffle hounds — and their elderly masters, as they hunt the forests of northern Italy for everyone's favorite subterranean fungus. The movie, which is not available online, will be followed by a Zoom Q&A with the filmmakers, including Dweck, who attended the 2018 Florida Film Festival. At that festival, his documentary, The Last Race, won the Special Jury Award for Artistic Vision.

Workhorse Queen

The runaway success of RuPaul's Drag Race, once considered a niche-interest show at best, proves that it's Ru's world; we all just live in it. Workhorse Queen is the poignant tale of what happens in the drag queen salt mines, if you will — how RPDR has affected regional drag preforming circuits and those hard-working queens themselves.

Increased visibility can be a good thing, but spotlights can fry as much as amplify, and the first half of Workhorse seems almost like a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of drag's commodification. When it takes a turn into the more personal story of Ed Popil, aka Mrs. Kasha Davis, the doc finds its heart. In the end, Mrs. Kasha Davis seems like someone you'd want to know. And Ed Popil seems like someone you'd want to know, too.

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