Little Richard was a Rock ‘n’ Roll icon. He called himself the “brown Liberace” but really he couldn’t be compared with anyone else. He was a groundbreaking in his delivery and had a style all his own. He rocked a pencil thin mustache, a tall bouffant and his signature wardrobe. Songs like Good Golly Miss Molly, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally have become bonafide classics. But Little Richard was never really given his due for just how influential he was.His explosive energy made him a force to be reckoned with on stage and inspired countless musicians including The Beatles, Elvis, David Bowie, James Brown, The Rolling Stones and more.
A new documentary sets out to set the record straight about who Little Richard really was. Directed by Lisa Cortés, Little Richard: I Am Everything paints the portrait of a man who was a walking contradiction. The film goes into depth about his music career, his early influences, how he molded his image and took the nation by storm and the many times he went unrecognized for being a trailblazer. It also explores LIttle Richard’s sexuality and how it often conflicted with his deeply religious beliefs.
The documentary is a bit on the long side and includes some stylistic elements and flourishes that seemed unnecessary. And ending felt rushed. With that said, the film was quite engrossing. It does a tremendous job demonstrating his impact on the industry as well as the dichotomy between his private and public life.
Talking heads include Mick Jagger, John Waters, Billy Porter, Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers, scholars, historians, family members and more.
Little Richard: I Am Everything premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will air on CNN and stream on HBO Max at a future date.
Office worker Fran (Daisy Ridley) lives a simple and quiet life. Her days consist of work, cottage cheese, glasses of wine and Sudoku. She’s painfully shy which makes partaking in office culture, her only social sphere, all that more awkward. During quiet moments she daydreams about death, imagining the various ways her dead body could be discovered. Things change when Robert (Dave Merheje) joins the office. He’s sociable, funny and he’s taken an interest in Fran. Thus begins a courtship that requires an incredible amount of patience for Robert as he tries to lure Fran out of her shell.
Directed by Rachel Lambert, Sometimes I Think About Dying is on the surface a story about female loneliness. Fran, brilliantly played by Daisy Ridley, is an introvert severely lacking in social skills and awareness, preventing her from establishing meaning relationships with other people. However, the movie’s strength lies in how it captures corporate monotony and contemporary work culture. Lambert’s film examines every minutiae when it comes to work interactions. There is much to take away from how the film depicts the intricacies of office politics from meaningless rituals to strict expectations on behavior. Ridley and Merheje play off each other beautifully and it’s easy to become invested in their relationship. I appreciated that Lambert leaned more on a slow build up with the two protagonists rather than rely solely on the shock value of cringey behavior.
Sometimes I Think About Dying premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The hybrid Sundance Film Festival kicked off this week. I’ll be attending virtually with coverage on a variety of feature films and documentaries. In the meantime, let’s kick off my coverage with some of my favorite short films from this year’s Sundance line-up.
Inglorious Liaisons (Les liaisons foireuses)
directed by Chloé Alliez and Violette Delvoye
Starting off with my favorite from this year’s festival, Inglorious Liaisons is a superb stop-animation short about attraction and expectation. Youths convene at a party and they go through the traditional rituals of drinking, dancing, flirting and playing a game of spin the bottle. An attraction sparks between two young women but societal pressure forces them to be matched boys they’re only mildly interested in. The characters are all light switches with wigs and painted on clothes. There are lots of small details to enjoy in the form of carefully designed miniatures. But what impressed me the most about this short was how it perfectly captures the subtle intricacies of physical attraction.
Help Me Understand
directed by Aemilia Scott
cast: Kali Raquel, Deirdre Friel, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Dana Powell, Rachel Harris, Kate Flannery, Ken Marino
When a group of corporate women are tasked to decide between two bottles of laundry detergent, it’s clear that the man leading the study wants them all to pick A. And most of them do pick A. That is until they all realize that there is one outlier. One of the women prefers B. Can they come to a consensus? Help Me Understand is like a modern day 12 Angry Men (1957) in a corporate setting. It demonstrates the dangers of caving to a single mindset and showcases the benefits of female solidarity. Thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable.
Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie
Directed by Nicole Bazuin
Cast: Kitoko Mai, Dustin Hickey, Myfanwy Charlesworth, Morgan Bargent, Grace McDonald, Andrea Werhun
As a fan of Nicole Bazuin’s short films Modern Whore and Last Night at the Strip Club, I was excited to see another offering from this director. Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie has the same style and vibe as Bazuin’s previous work—and even includes a small role for Andrea Werhun who was the subject of two of her shorts. Thriving is about a Black, nonbinary , disabled artist and her experience with DID (dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Based on Kitoko Mai’s real-life experience, Mai plays the host and alter Cheyenne, while other actors play the remaining alters. Stylish, sex-positive and educational, Thriving treats a sensitive subject with great reverence.
Directed by Mike Donahue
Cast: Adina Verson, Michael Braun, Florian Klein, Dylan Baker, Dana Delaney
New York City couple Thea (Adina Verson) and Charlie (Michael Braun) share a wall with their neighbor Troy (Florian Klein). The trouble is Troy is loud. VERY loud. He’s a full-time escort serving a male clientele and Thea and Charlie can hear every single sound. The couple soon becomes invested in what’s going on on the other side of the wall. Troy is a lighthearted film about the social complexities of urban life. It does a fabulous job demonstrating how we learn to adjust to our environment.
The Family Circus
Directed by Andrew Fitzgerald
Cast: Elyse Dinh, Michael Ironside, Scott Subiono, Michael Nguyen Manceau, Blake Dang, Christian Seavey
A mixed Vietnamese-American family faces a crisis when their wayward son gets into a drunk driving accident. No one is hurt but if the police catch on to what happened their son will go back to prison. The father concocts a plan to have their other son pretend to have caused the accident. When they call the police, their plan seems to work. That is, until the police officer becomes a little too comfortable. The Family Circus has a terrific build-up that leads to an incredibly satisfying ending. Pay close attention to Elyse Dinh’s performance as the family matriarch.
We Were Meant To
Directed by Tari Wariebi
Cast: Tim Johnson Jr., Amin Joseph, Karimah Westbrook, Jordan-Amanda Hall, Skye Barrett, Luke Tennie
Directed by Tari Wariebi and co-written with Christina K. Licud, We Were MeantTo imagines a world where young black men sprout feathers and wings and take flight in a cultural rite of passage. Akil (Tim Johnson Jr.) is a teen in high school who just came into his new wings. He and his friends travel through their community looking for the perfect spot for their first flight. However, No Fly Zone signs are posted all over town and a drone follows their every move. Akil prepares for his big day but unfortunately the odds are stacked against him. We Were Meant To is symbolic of the plight of young black men in American society. Even something joyful as a first flight is seen as a threat by a drone meant to represent an unnamed law enforcement. It’s an inherently political film with a strong social message skillfully disguised as a coming-of-age story with a touch magical realism. This short could easily be expanded to a feature length film.
Directed by Maisha Maene
Cast: Sefu Weber-Kal, Faustin Biyoga, Ibrahim Twaha, Sarah Bahati
When an “afronaut” (Sefu Weber-Kal) emerges from his spaceship, he finds himself in the volcanic crater of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This mysterious figure travels to Goma where he encounters locals and goes on a spiritual journey of enlightenment. Mulika is written and directed by Africanfuturist filmmaker Maisha Maene. Sefu Weber-Kal plays the lead role of the afronaut wears a silvery suit adorned with switchboard like plates and an illuminated helmet. The suit suggests that the afronaut symbolizes technology and DRC’s mineral rich land. An encounter with an older man dressed in more natural garb suggests a coming together of both the old and the new. Cryptic and thought-provoking.
Pro Pool (Piscine Pro)
Directed by Alec Pronovost
Cast: Louis Carrière, Alexis Martin, Sylvie de Morais, Sébastien Rajotte, Oussama Fares, Louis Girard-Bock
Charles-Olivier (Louis Carrière) recently graduated with a degree in history and a minor in Viking studies. With no real job prospects in his chosen field, he reluctantly applies for a job a pool store. The film follows Charles-Olivier as he becomes purposefully terrible at his job and releases his frustrations by singing to hardcore metal in his car. Written and directed by Quebecois filmmaker Alec Pronovost, who himself used to work at a Club Piscine, this irreverent comedy gives a big middle finger to those meaningless jobs many of us have to endure at one point in our lives. Pro Pool is reminiscent of both Billy Budd and Office Space and offers modern sensibility that Gen Z-ers will easily identify with.
Jason Derek Brown has been a fugitive from the FBI since November 2004 when he shot and killed Robert Keith Palomares, an armored car guard, outside of an AMC theater. A few years after the murder, he was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, alongside notable criminals like Osama Bin Laden. But Jason Derek Brown wasn’t like the other people on the list. He was a young blonde-haired surfer guy and former Mormon missionary who had an uncanny resemblance to Sean Penn. Not who you’d expect to be a top fugitive. Brown has eluded the FBI to this day and his whereabouts are unknown. Recently he was taken off the top ten list and replaced with another criminal who has since been apprehended. While we don’t know what happened to Jason Derek Brown in the days that followed the murder, there is still much to gather about his journey from grifter to fugitive.
Written and directed by debut filmmaker Matthew Gentile, American Murderer examines Jason Derek Brown’s origin story and the extenuating circumstances that led to his crime and eventual disappearance. Tom Pelphrey stars as Brown, a charismatic con man who portrays himself different depending on whom he’s interacting with. We learn about his estrangement from his mother Jeanne (Jacki Weaver), his criminal father’s disappearance, and his relationships with his trusting yet weary siblings David (Paul Schneider) and Jamie (Shantel VanSanten). Brown develops a relationship with Melanie (Idina Menzel), his landlady and neighbor, who believes that Brown is a trustworthy guy who loves kids and is flush with cash. But the truth is Brown is in serious debt and always working on his next scheme to get the money he needs to pay off his debtors. His story is told in flashback sequences along with present day, 2004, when Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe) of the FBI searches for Brown with full confidence that he won’t be a fugitive for long.
American Murderer is a fantastic character study that offers a nuanced look at the making of a criminal. Tom Pelphrey does an incredible job portraying Jason Derek Brown as an anti-hero rather than a villain. He brings an intensity to the role that is much desired and needed. While the performances overall were a mixed bag, I did enjoy Ryan Phillippe’s portrayal as the FBI agent. He plays polar opposite to Pelphrey’s manic intensity with a fierce determination to get his guy. The cat-and-mouse chase between Pelphrey and Phillippe drives the plot whereas the interpersonal relationships enriches the overall portrait of the protagonist.
The movie is mostly set in 2004 but also flashes back as far as 1994. With the setting, there are subtle hints about the era including a Bush Cheney keychain, flip phones, older computers, etc. While I don’t have a trained eye for filmmaking techniques, I did notice that there was more of a classic approach to the camera work and editing; no drone shots, no flashy cuts and no aesthetic overlays. I felt that American Murderer really captured the era without being too obvious about it.
Filmmaker Matthew Gentile has said he was influenced by noir film including Ina Lonely Place (1950) which I can see especially with the relationship between Jason Derek Brown and his neighbor Melanie.
American Murderer is available to rent on digital.
Directed by Byron Hurt, Hazing explores the brutal culture of hazing with a particular focus on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Hurt meditates on his own experience with hazing in a fraternity to explore why hazing, despite it being illegal in many states, still persists in college culture. Several victims who have died as a result of hazing are profiled. Their stories are harrowing and you can’t help but feel for their families. These needless deaths are a result of an ingrained culture in which young people are socialized to endure violence as a means of attaining respect in their given group. The initiated blindly trust the upperclassmen who then put them through barbaric rituals for no reason other than attaining pleasure from their own gross abuse of power.
Hazing has an important message to convey but it can get lost in a documentary format that is too long and a bit muddled.