FFF 2021 film reviews

Most of the following reviews were originally published in The Orlando Weekly on April 7, 2021. That article contains five additional reviews by my fellow OW writers, so I suggest you check it out. (All star ratings are on a 0-5 scale.)


Isabella Rossellini (image copyright IMDB; by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Blue Velvet (2 stars) ↓THUMBS DOWN

Yes, you read that right. I don’t like Blue Velvet. I’ve even spoken to my therapist about this, and she can’t explain it. But I’ve always had a love-or-hate relationship with director David Lynch. So, for me, it’s not a huge surprise that this 1986 modern classic leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The taste? It’s somewhere between clunky, campy and just plain crappy. Sorry, David. Hey, we’ll always have Elephant Man.

But you don’t need me to tell you whether to see this film. You’ve had three and a half decades to decide for yourself. If you like it, go see it at the Florida Film Festival’s special 35th anniversary screening on April 18, featuring a Zoom Q&A with Isabella Rossellini (if you can get a ticket). If you don’t like it, let me recommend a much better, smarter and more subtle Lynch film that not everyone has seen: The Straight Story.

How’s that for giving it to you straight?


The Catch

The Catch (1 ¼ stars) ↓THUMBS DOWN  

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. 


Lily Topples the World (2 ¾ stars) ↑THUMBS UP — not reviewed



Lorelei (2 stars) ↓THUMBS DOWN  

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.



Mandibules (Mandibles) FL (2 ¾ stars) ↑THUMBS UP

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-Belgium 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 (4 stars), a short, pitch-black farce about the accidental smooshing of a child. Magnifique!


Mogul Mowgli

Mogul Mowgli (3 ½ stars) ↑THUMBS UP

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.


Les Nôtres

Les Nôtres (Our Own) FL (3 stars) ↑THUMBS UP

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.


Prisoners of the Ghostland (½ star) ↓THUMBS DOWN — not reviewed


Karen Allen (image copyright IMDB)

Starman (3 ½ stars) ↑THUMBS UP

The most non-Carpenter of all director John Carpenter’s films, Starman took audiences by surprise in 1984. Though the movie is no longer a surprise, the Florida Film Festival’s screening of the film will be bouyed by a Zoom Q&A session with Karen Allen, who stared alongside Jeff Bridges. Trading the director’s usual horror for sci-fi/romance, the film — with an original screenplay by Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon — wasn’t particularly well received upon its initial release. However, Bridges (playing an alien in human form) got an Oscar nomination for best actor, and in the years since, the film has become a cult classic.

When I met Carpenter in 2014, he shared some perspective: “Well, it’s a girl movie. I got to make a romantic comedy, which was really nice. And it came along at the right time for me. [It’s] something I wanted to do. … I don’t know if it’s my best film. … It’s less savage than some of the films.”

Girl movie or not, this guy likes it. And the opportunity to ask a question of Allen makes the screening super special.


Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (3 ¾ stars) ↑THUMBS UP

One of the most enjoyable documentaries of this year’s Florida Film Festival – or any film festival – Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a thorough examination of the early years of the most iconic children’s show in the history of American television. And if you think you know the show’s history, don’t count on it – as Count von Count might say. You’ve still got a lot to learn.

And isn’t that the real message of Sesame Street: that we’ve all got something new to learn every day? At least that’s what I remember from watching the show as a kid. What I don’t remember, however, because I never understood it, was just how socially groundbreaking the show was, especially in regards to economic status and race. It was politically correct before political correctness was politically correct. In that regard, it was something today’s political correctness is almost never: brave.

Regarding the integrated cast, Jon Stone (who, even more than Jim Henson, was the chief creative force behind Sesame Street) said, ““That really speaks for itself on the air. We’ve never beaten that horse to death by talking about it. We simply show it.”

In contrast, the doc – directed by Marilyn Agrelo and based on a book by Michael Davis – talks a lot about race, perhaps a tad too much. But that’s the trend in docs these days. And, admittedly, this one deserves the talk, considering the enormous change it brought to our social fabric in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The doc’s format is a bit conventional and never quite as imaginative as Sesame Street itself. It also relies too heavily on talking-heads interviews, both old and new. But there are times when the format suits the subject, as it allows us to revisit old on-camera friends and finally meet the off-camera folks behind the original magic.

Street Gang will invariably be compared to another recent documentary about another beloved children’s show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The comparisons are worthy. Street Gang might not have as many emotionally devastating moments, perhaps because this film’s focus is so much more diffuse than the doc about Mr. Rogers. But if Street Gang’s clip of a little girl extemporaneously telling Kermit the Frog “I love you” doesn’t tug on your heart strings, check those strings. You might be a puppet.


Tiny Tim: King for a Day

Tiny Tim: King for a Day (3 ¾ stars) ↑THUMBS UP

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

The Truffle Hunters FL (3 stars) ↑THUMBS UP

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.


My Wonderful Wanda

Wanda, Mein Wunder (My Wonderful Wanda) FL (4 stars) ↑THUMBS UP

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.


© 2021 Orlando Weekly / MeierMovies, LLC

All images are courtesy of the Florida Film Festival and are copyrighted by the production companies that made the films. They may not be copied and reused without the permission of the Florida Film Festival and/or the production companies.