The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Young Bodies Heal Quickly

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Andrew T. Betzer’s debut feature Young Bodies Heal Quickly (2014), a bizarre road movie about two brothers on the lam, might not be the most legible film, but it more than compensates through its weirdness, unpredictability, and sheer visceral impact.

The film begins with a toilet sitting atop a tall sculptural contraption. We see a musclebound guy wearing a red wrestling helmet, identified in the credits as Older (Gabriel Croft), struggle to escape over a barbed-wire fence. After he and his brother, Younger (Hale Lytle), a cute kid with short blond hair and striking blue eyes, demolish a car with baseball bats, Older shoots a BB gun at two young heavy-set women as they ride ATVs. The women retaliate by attacking him viciously, but Younger comes to the rescue. A constable (Judson Rosebush) finds Older’s red helmet at the crime scene, which propels the brothers on their road odyssey.

The two brothers are a study in contrasts. The brooding Older has the muscular build of a mixed martial arts fighter, whereas the scrawny ten-year-old Younger, who is half his brother’s age, somehow manages to maintain a buoyant personality despite the dark events that occur. On their first stop they visit their sister (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her family. Older enjoys upsetting his twin sister by scaring her chickens with loud blasts from an air horn. After he deliberately sprays her with foam while opening a can of beer, she shouts, “Just get the fuck out. Just take your shit and go! Please, I don’t want you near my kid.”

At a beach resort, Older drinks beer and sets off flares on the boardwalk the first night, creating spectacular shots of him illuminated by radiant red light, which slowly fades as he walks away from the camera toward the water. The next morning, Younger sees his brother’s body on the beach and a French cleaning maid (Julie Sokolowski) responds to his call for help. Once they manage to get him back to a hotel room, the maid administers to Older, while Younger imagines himself being on the receiving end of her affections.

The maid and Younger bond while Older recuperates. As they ride a bus, she laments in French that a compatriot hotel chef has turned her into a sex slave by threatening to kill her with a meat cleaver, while Younger stares innocently out the window. The chef (Alexandre Marouani) engages Younger in a hilarious conversation about the quart of milk he buys at a store. The milk turns into a sexual metaphor as Younger waits patiently outside the room while the maid makes it with Older. The violent chef turns up, forcing the two brothers to hit the road again.

Older eventually drives the car into a ditch. Carrying their belongings in large black garbage bags, the two brothers walk to a deserted beach mansion where the cantankerous caretaker of the property turns out to be their estranged father (Daniel P. Jones). An older guy with long shaggy hair and a gray beard who speaks with an Australian accent, their dad lays down the ground rules – they must be punctual and can’t use the inside bathrooms – and begins to boss them around.

The discovery that this man is their father is a bit disconcerting, especially when it’s revealed that the former military medic sells Nazi memorabilia on the Internet. He asks Younger, “Does this bother you?” When it doesn’t, Dad tells him, “Good. . . because it’s only history. And history, good or bad, can’t hurt you.” The father snaps photographs of the young boy modeling a Nazi t-shirt. But this is nothing compared to what is in store for the brothers when Dad takes them to a Vietnam War reenactment camp, forces the two boys to dress as Viet Cong, and proceeds to engage in war games.

Betzer appears to be uninterested in realism or conventional storytelling. His film is far more reliant on images than on its sparse dialogue. He prefers ambiguity by often withholding exposition, such as never letting the viewer know the destination of the road trip or the identity of Dad, who is not introduced to us in a way that conveys his relationship to the two brothers clearly. The filmmaker prefers to keep the viewer guessing. In a sense, this makes the ensuing events appear much more mysterious. Betzer told an interviewer: “When I write a script, it’s a little more wordy, and as I go along I like to strip away when I find an opportunity to be able to sum up what’s going on with an image or a succession of images rather than words.”

In the beginning of the film, for instance, Betzer employs what amounts to synecdoche as an economical way of depicting Older’s escape from prison. There are no sirens or prison guards. An image of his efforts to escape over the barbed wire fence proves sufficient in terms of narration. By the same token, the chef at the motel is depicted as sleeping with a raw whole chicken next to his bed, followed by a shot of him chopping it up with his meat cleaver in the kitchen, and then playing a trumpet in bed. We never see him working in the restaurant of the hotel where he works, but he nevertheless wears a chef’s uniform.

Some scenes occur in long takes, such as the constable’s slow walk into and out of the woods to retrieve Older’s helmet at the crime scene. Another example is the extended shot of Older lighting flares on the boardwalk. Other scenes are constructed through elliptical editing. For instance, when Younger sees his brother passed out on the shore, he runs and calls for help. Betzer cuts from a shot of a young French cleaning maid watching a boardwalk attraction to Older lying prone by the ocean. We then see a shot of the maid and Younger running down the sandy beach. Later on in the film, the father pulls up a box crab trap, checks it, and then pushes it back into the water. The scene cuts to the dad and the two boys sitting at a table eating crabs with small hammers, during which Older and Dad get into a heated argument about whether crabs can swim.

In Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Betzer explores the hyper-masculinized world of violence and power relations, which Older initially embodies, but which find its greatest expression in his father, who embraces violence and brutality, yet prides himself on being a medic. At the re-enactment camp, the father and Older watch the spectacle of a woman, dressed in a black Viet Cong outfit, having sex in the field with one of the American soldiers. Dad might insist that history can’t hurt you, but we are all the products of our own personal histories, and what we see in Betzer’s film is the result of that blatant denial, which makes his highly personal and idiosyncratic film so affecting, as well as deeply disturbing to watch.

Shot in super 16mm by Sean Price Williams, who has been the cinematographer on so many great indie films – from Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland (2007) to Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip (2014) – Andrew Betzer’s Young Bodies Heal Quickly played at Tribeca and has been picked up for distribution by Factory 25. It is scheduled to be released theatrically sometime in February.

Posted 4 January, 2015

The 8th Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) International Conference Call for Papers

The 8th Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) International Conference Call for Papers Screenwriting: Text and Performance

The 8th Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) International Conference will take place at the University of London, UK on Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th September 2015. It is organised by a committee from different institutions grouped around the London Screenwriting Research Seminar – including the University of Bangor, the University of East London, The University of Greenwich and Royal Holloway, University of London.

The key theme of this year’s conference is Screenwriting: Text and Performance. We invite discussion about screenwriting as process and practice, and how it engages with and can be understood in relation to text and performance across a wide field of media and practices, including film, television, games, online, transmedia and other digital platforms.
We are particularly interested in abstracts for presentations on the following topics:
Interpreting screenplays – how do producers, directors, actors work with screenplays?
How screenplays affect and invoke performance?
What can performance reveal about writing screenplays or screenplay structure?
Screenwriting and literature
Screenplays and screenwriting by authors best known in another field
Case studies on individual writers or texts

We would also like to invite abstracts for presentations on (but not limited to) the following topics:
National traditions of screenwriting and storytelling
Different screenwriting practices and formats
Historical perspectives on screenwriting and screenplays
Screenwriting, the screenplay and different production structures
Screenwriting and adaptation
Practice based research in screenwriting
Screenwriting for television, games and animation
Screenwriting for new media forms, online, transmedia etc.

Please send abstracts (250-300 words) as a word or pdf document, with the email subject heading “SRN Conference abstract” to: srnconflondon2015@gmail.com

Abstracts may be submitted until March 2nd 2015. Earlier submissions are welcome. Remember to state your name, affiliation and contact information. Also include a brief statement (100 words) detailing your publications and/or screenwriting practice. We aim to let you know by mid April 2015 whether your paper has been accepted. Keynote speakers will be announced early in 2015.

Screenwriting Research Network website – http://screenwritingresearch.com

Note to Readers: I have given presentations at the previous seven SRN conferences, which have been held in Leeds, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Brussels, Sydney, Madison, and Potsdam. Attendees in the past have come from five continents. If you have an interest in the burgeoning field of screenwriting studies, whether as a practitioner or scholar, this represents a rare opportunity to gather with colleagues from around the world. David Bordwell has written extensive blogs about 2 previous conferences. Here are links (click here and here) to the two blogs he wrote about the conference in Brussels. David also wrote another lengthy blog about the Madison SRN conference, which is the only one that was held in the USA. The upcoming conference in London promises to be one of the very best.

Posted 3 January, 2015

Butter on the Latch

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Josephine Decker’s evocative feature Butter on the Latch (2013) manages to create and sustain a palpable sense of anxiety, dread, and foreboding throughout its riveting 72 minutes. Using a five-page treatment rather than a traditional script and employing improvised dialogue from its three main characters, Decker’s film probes the psyche of a young woman who slowly becomes unglued. Butter on the Latch explores the space between dream and reality in a way that recalls Maya Deren and Sasha Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), especially in the way the film engages our perception of events. Butter on the Latch is shot in an impressionistic and elliptical experimental style – a mixture of fluid camera work and choppy cutting – that relies more heavily on poetic details than conventional narrative.

After attending a play, Sarah (Sarah Small) receives a phone call from a friend, Pony, who finds herself in a threatening situation at an unknown location. The news freaks out Sarah, who begs Pony to flee immediately. Decker’s gifted cinematographer, Ashley Connor, shoots Sarah closely with a hand-held camera, creating a sense of urgency and vulnerability. As Sarah panics, the camera spins out of control in quick, sweeping movements (at one point focusing on the seat of a parked bicycle), as if mirroring her mental state. The film cuts to a shot at night, as Sarah screams loudly, kicking and shaking a metal gate, fully aware that her meltdown is occurring in public. After Sarah goes dancing at a club, she awakens to find herself in a predicament similar to the one described in the phone call. Frantically grabbing her clothes and belongings, she manages to escape out a garage door. The scene feels terribly unsettling, as if Sarah is living a nightmarish dream.

Shortly afterwards, Sarah meets up with a friend, Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence), at a Balkan music and dance camp in rural California. While in the bathroom, the two women, both wearing headlamps, catch up on what’s been happening in their lives. Isolde has just gotten out of a bad relationship two weeks earlier and is looking to restart her life. Sarah confides in her about a sexual experience with a guy named Simon, who just went back to London. When Sarah asks Isolde why she’s sure that her four-year relationship is actually over this time, her friend avoids answering. Instead she relates an erotic story about getting a body scrub from a guy at a place in the East Village. In telling the story, Isolde re-enacts the experience as if she’s the masseuse and Sarah is her. That sort of strange shift in identities or transference lies at the heart of Decker’s arresting psychodrama.

At a picnic, Sarah again attempts to converse with Isolde about her ex-boyfriend, but the two of them become distracted by a tall, good-looking banjo player at another table. Sarah finds the guy, Steph (Charlie Hewson), cute, but Isolde denies finding him the least bit attractive. Later that night, Sarah dances with Steph and she and Isolde hang out with him afterwards. As the women head back to their cabin in the dark, illuminated by their headlamps, Sarah suddenly brings up the experience with those guys at that awful house, which sounds very much like a rape, but Isolde changes the subject. Sarah flirts with Steph, but remains preoccupied with Isolde, who haunts her dreams. Sarah also becomes jealous when she spies Isolde with Steph, suggesting that a romantic triangle is starting to develop.

Decker is less interested in the mechanics of plot than in conveying the way events play out in Sarah’s mind. The Balkan music camp and the dense forest provide an eerie storybook setting, and the film benefits from the strong, naturalistic performances by Small, Chae-Lawrence, and Hewson. The fact that nothing is as it appears, the mysterious shifts in the behavior of its characters, abrupt tonal changes, and confusion between dream and reality all serve to create a strong undercurrent of paranoia. The camera contributes to this by often moving away from the characters to focus on images in nature – a slithering banana slug or smoke drifting up over the trees – which turns nature into an equal player in the drama.

In discussing the symbolism of a folk tale that Sarah has earlier related to Isolde, an instructor at the camp suggests that, according to Bulgarian folklore, spirits can implant themselves in nature. She tells Sarah, “So it’s not like the thing itself is bad, but a spirit may go into it and make it into a kind of evil thing.” In many ways, that could serve as one possible explanation of what we witness throughout Decker’s film. Butter on the Latch plays with the trappings of the horror genre and delivers on it in powerful, profound, and unexpected ways.

Decker is a performance artist and actor who has appeared in a number  of  independent films, including Uncle Kent (2011) and Art History (2011) by Joe Swanberg. She released two of her own films this past year – the other being Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), which stars Sophie Traub, Swanberg and Robert Longstreet. I prefer Butter on the Latch, which I consider one of the discoveries of the past year. Decker’s films are available on VOD from several sources, including Fandor, iTunes, Vimeo, and Amazon.

Posted 23 December, 2014

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

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Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2014) tells the story of a thirteen-year-old autistic boy who gets lost in the New York subways in the period leading up to Hurricane Sandy. Although the film employs a dramatic framework – a family’s search for a lost child with a disability – the film is notable for Fleischner’s impressive use of visual storytelling. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors recalls an early classic of American indie cinema, Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), made in collaboration with fellow photographer Ruth Orkin and screenwriter Ray Ashley (Raymond Abrashkin). Like Engel’s film, which explores the legendary amusement park Coney Island, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is built around two locations: Rockaway Beach in Queens and the New York subway system. Based on an incident he had read about, Fleischner turns his film into a political statement couched in a poem. It deals with the enormous stress placed on an undocumented Mexican immigrant family struggling to cope with a disabled child within an institutional system that views them as unwanted burdens.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors begins with the sound of bagpipes and a shot of its protagonist, Ricky Garcia (Jesus Sanchez-Velez). Filmed from behind, he feeds diving seagulls as a plane glides diagonally through the frame after taking off from nearby JFK Airport. Ricky has skipped school to hang out at the beach, which, along with a local sneaker store, is one of his favorite haunts. He returns to the school steps, where his older sister, Carla (Azul Zorrilla), walks him home. Ricky, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and played by an actor who has Asperger syndrome, excels at computers and drawing but struggles with basic tasks. He pees on the top of the toilet seat, often forgets to eat, and resists taking his meds. After his mother chastises him for his truancy and his sister fails to pick him up at school, Ricky walks home alone. Fourteen minutes into the film, he follows a guy wearing sneakers with an Ouroboros sewn on the back of his jacket into the subway, where Ricky proceeds to ride the trains for days.

Fleischner utilizes a parallel structure – Ricky’s personal odyssey in the subway and his mother’s search for him. Mariana (Andrea Suarez Paz) is a beleaguered mom. She cleans house for a rich young white guy (Kevin Bewersdorf), while her husband works somewhere upstate and her rebellious teenage daughter would rather be elsewhere. Ricky’s disappearance causes the family unit to fracture even more. Mariana, who lives isolated from her neighbors, turns up at the sneaker store and gets help from the saleswoman, Carmen (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who encourages her to take action. Together they put up “missing person” posters, while the police turn out to be no help at all. (It’s a great touch that one of the detectives who visits them is on oxygen). Even though she cares deeply for her children, Mariana’s anger at her situation feels toxic. She blames Carla for Ricky’s disappearance and her estranged husband, Ricardo (Tenoch Huerta), for not being able to collect wages due him. Mariana and Carla clash constantly before Ricardo eventually returns home to join in the search.

Meanwhile, Ricky rides various subway trains, getting weaker and weaker from lack of food and water. For the most part, the other riders appear indifferent to him. A homeless black man gives him a banana, but one teenager becomes disgusted and abusive when he realizes that Ricky has wet his pants (because the public bathrooms inside the subway are, of course, all locked). Although viewers might expect that the search for a missing autistic child would entail incredible dramatic suspense, especially once we learn that Hurricane Sandy is imminent, that proves not to be the case. Little Fugitive does something similar. In Engel’s film, the narrative becomes a means to explore the visually exciting world of the amusement park – the rides, arcade games, junk food, and crowded beach – all seen through the eyes of an impressionable young child with an obsession with horses.

Fleischner also chooses not to exploit the inherent drama. Instead, one of the main strengths of Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is that it allows us to view the underground world of the New York subways through Ricky’s eyes. We see it not only as a microcosm of diversity – the interaction of people of all ages, races, and ethnic groups – but as a wondrous kaleidoscope of abstract patterns of color, light, and sound. Fleischner mixes staged scenes and documentary footage so skillfully that it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. We overhear snippets of conversation – a gray-haired man tells a young child in a stroller an anecdote about “Louie the Tailor,” a crazy woman makes an Anti-Semitic remark about the mayor and expresses plans to vote for Mitt Romney, two arrogant guys grossly underestimate the power of the approaching storm – and watch teenage break dancers perform intricate dance movements for the benefit of the riders. On Halloween, people in scary costumes populate the subway, transforming it into a surreal carnival, before the trains finally shut down due to the hurricane. Yet, through all of this, Ricky’s detachment at being lost becomes our own detachment, so that the family drama involving his disappearance feels as if it’s occurring in an alternate universe.

Shot by Adam Jandrup and Ethan Palmer, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors manages to capture the kinetic energy of the subway, and, in the process, the character of New York City itself. The film’s power derives largely from its subjective point of view and carefully observed details. Fleischner joins a group of indie filmmakers – Matt Porterfield, Tim Sutton, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Eliza Hittman, and Jeremy Saulnier, among others – who appear to be moving away from mumblecore’s reliance on dialogue in favor of a new emphasis on visual storytelling and style. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April, as well as at BAMcinemaFEST, before having a brief theatrical run. Distributed by Oscilloscope, the film is currently available on VOD and just appeared on Amy Taubin’s year-end Top Ten list in Artforum.

Posted 30 November, 2014

See You Next Tuesday

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In Richard Linklater’s recent runaway indie hit, Boyhood (2014), it is the parents who make a mess of their lives while the two children suffer quietly but somehow grow wiser from the experience. In his debut feature, See You Next Tuesday (2013), Drew Tobia presents a much different spin on the dynamics of a dysfunctional family, showing us the fallout on the lives of two daughters raised by a recovering addict, and it’s not a pretty picture. Tobia comes out of a different tradition than most recent indie filmmakers. He’s not influenced by John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch, Linklater, or David Gordon Green, but by the Warhol-inspired underground tradition of Paul Morrissey, John Waters, punk, and the post-punk films of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd. That explains the mixture of dark humor and shock, but Tobia manages to crank up the drama to the point where virtually every scene approaches the level of hysteria.

See You Next Tuesday – the coded slang title is key to the sensibility at work here – begins with an extended close-up of its young protagonist, Mona (Eleanore Pienta), as she stares motionless and with her mouth slightly open, like a subject in a Warhol Screen Test, while the full credits scroll underneath. Her daydream at the checkout counter of the Brooklyn supermarket where she works is interrupted by the fast-talking banter of two African American co-workers, who openly ridicule and harass her. Her creepy customer is no less hostile once she informs him that it is illegal to buy pet food with an EBT card.

A visit with her mom, May (Dana Eskelson), proves no less depressing. It takes only a few verbal exchanges before their conversation escalates into a full-blown argument. May is a master of mixed messages. She claims to love Mona and be praying for her, but, as May makes the sign for giving a blessing, she tells her, “Bite me.” That’s not such a surprising response given that her favorite retort seems to be, “Suck my dick.” When Mona inadvertently cuts her finger, the scene quickly turns into a frightening psychodrama, as the two women both scream and yell at a very high pitched level. When Mona leaves, her mother tells her, “I love you so much, I could shit.”

Mona’s punkish sister, Jordan (Molly Plunk), hates May with a passion and deliberately keeps her distance. Jordan considers herself an artist (though we see no evidence of this) and sponges off her African American girlfriend, an older writer named Sylve (Keisha Zollar), who also moonlights as a bartender. When Mona turns up unexpectedly at their high-rise apartment, it induces panic in Jordan. She gets Mona out of the house quickly by taking her to a nearby coffee shop. Mona mentions that May misses her, but Jordan responds, “That woman is a monster.” Jordan also reiterates that Mona can’t just show up without notice, but Mona doesn’t have a phone, which only further exasperates her sister. It doesn’t take long for the two to get into a shouting match. Mona goes for the jugular by angrily telling Jordan, “Fine, be mom.” She abruptly splits, causing Jordan to chase after her.

Both sisters are complete social misfits. Mona is eight months pregnant, working at a minimum-wage job, and appears to have no friends. We soon understand why. Her red coat is so ratty, she looks like a homeless person, and, indeed, her co-workers take great pleasure in poking fun at everything about her. When she attends an AA meeting with May, which is run by a woman in a black pantsuit and dark sun glasses, the testimonials from other group members are full of revelations of such self-loathing and disturbing behavior that for a moment we feel as if we’ve stepped into a Todd Solondz film. Mona reacts to the confessions with disdain and raised eyebrows, but sadly, she clearly belongs in the same league with these folks.

After the meeting, when one of the attendees named Bev speaks knowingly to Mona about her situation, Mona flips out. As she runs off in tears, Bev calls her “a walking advertisement for birth control.” Mona proceeds to get into a fight with May for talking about her to other people in the group. As they argue, it turns vicious, as each one attempts to wound the other deeply. Mona calls May a “low-life drug addict,” while May screams that Mona is a “fucking bitch” and a “fucking retard.” As Mona takes off by herself, she cries out, “I’m not the fuck-up.”

Mona might not think so, but the fact that she’s about to have a baby is a very scary thought, especially after she proceeds to lose her job and get evicted from her apartment. Jordan likes to view herself as more together than her sister, but she’s equally a freak. With her red-dyed hair and the mismatched patterns of her clothes, she looks a bit like a court jester. Although she’s in a relationship, it’s full of tension as well. Jordan, it turns out, is also self-destructive. While drunk one night, she calls her lover the “N-word” and later provokes Sylve to violence. “You deserve to be alone,” Sylve tells her. The scene ends with Jordan throwing a tantrum and screaming that she wants to die, regressing to the pathetic state of an emotionally disturbed child.

Things continue to deteriorate for all these characters. After Mona eventually loses her job and apartment, she again intrudes on Jordan and Sylve’s lives, especially because May is still angry at her and won’t let her crash at her place. Mona ends up wreaking havoc. Despite her pregnancy, she gets drunk at a party for some gay friends of Sylve and Jordan who are leaving for Portland. This ends in a physical fight between the host and Jordan, who dutifully comes to Mona’s defense after she gets physically thrown out of the party. The subsequent confrontation between the two sisters leaves Mona in a sad and pitiful state.

What sets Tobia apart from other transgressive filmmakers is his incredibly keen dramatic sense. He knows how to create conflict and has the unique ability to ratchet up the inherent tension within scenes in a matter of seconds. Because his characters are all dysfunctional, what they say and do is rather shocking. Tobia wants to provoke his audience through various means. He doesn’t care one iota about political correctness. Jordan might have a black girlfriend, but she somehow thinks that gives her the liberty to be racist, and their re-enactment of passages from Gone with the Wind as a sexual turn-on will no doubt make many audience members cringe. Tobia’s characters spout all kinds of things that are deliberately offensive. Mona’s gross actions recall the films of John Waters, especially because they exhibit an obsessive preoccupation with bodily excretions.

The idea for the film developed from a character that Pienta had originally created. Based on her character, Tobia wrote a full-length script of roughly 105 to 110 pages. The final version of the film is only 82 minutes, but the filmmaker suggested in a Skype interview after the screening I saw that much of the film is actually scripted rather than improvised. The performers, especially Pienta and Plunk, are so convincing and natural in their respective roles that a viewer would be hard pressed to tell. Despite the disturbing behavior of Mona and Jordan, we can’t help but empathize with the sheer pain of these neglected and desperate young women. That the two of them are not locked up in some madhouse is a tribute to their indomitable spirits.

I saw Tobia’s See You Next Tuesday at Brandon Colvin’s Micro-Wave Cinema screening the other night. The film was originally passed on by SXSW and Tribeca, but is one of those rare gems that other festivals and folks managed to find nonetheless. The film recently had a two-week run at the Cinema Village in New York City, and is currently available on VOD. The DVD has just been just released. Tobia is a young new talent. His film might not be for everyone, but that’s what makes it so special.

Posted 24 September, 2014

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