Category Archives: Ben Sears’ Columns

Ben’s Column: David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020) – Review

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

Premise: Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.

How does David Byrne follow-up Stop Making Sense, the concert documentary that birthed an entire genre, even if it’s had 36 years to marinate? As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of the elements that make Sense such a delight – the boundless joy and energy of everyone onstage, the production value, the musicality – are on display here, and it feels like Byrne hasn’t missed a step in the intervening years. And yet, it’s the moments between the music that sets American Utopia apart from its predecessor. Sense was simply a documentation of a band’s place in time, while Utopia has more on its mind, as Byrne tries to make sense of his place in the world. Sure, Talking Heads had larger ideas on display and made some grand statements with their lyrics, but Sense never aspired to be more than a concert documentary.

Continue reading

Ben’s Column: On The Rocks (2020) – Review

On the Rocks (2020)

Premise: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

Sofia Coppola’s films have, regrettably, been one of my biggest film blind spots of the 21st century. Until recently, when I watched her directorial debut (1999’s The Virgin Suicides), I had yet to see any of her films. Suicides revealed an auteur who could confidently write complicated characters in a unique and interesting way. Her latest film, On the Rocks, which is streaming now on Apple TV+, retains those same capabilities but slightly misses the mark on some crucial character work. The film reunites Coppola and Bill Murray, the star of her most successful film, Lost in Translation, for the first time since 2003 (save for a holiday special in 2015). Murray has built up a solid reputation as a comedian-turned-dramatic actor, and while his role here steers more towards comedic relief, he has clearly found a director who can utilize him properly while keeping him from going off the comedic deep end (again, I haven’t seen Lost in Translation, but he was nominated for an Oscar for the role).

Continue reading

HIFF2020: Ben’s Column – Molto Bella (2020)

molta bella

3.5 stars

Molto Bella (2020)

  • Narrative Feature
  • Director: Alexander Jeffery
  • Screenwriters: Alexander Jeffery, Paul Petersen
  • Producers: Alexander Jeffery, Paul Petersen, Richard Wharton
  • Executive Producer: Wanda and Bob Ragsdale, Mary Jo and Steve Scott, Paul Burns, Tamra Corley
  • Cast: Paul Petersen, Andrea von Kampen, Jason Edwards, Elizabeth Stenholt, Vincenzo Vivenzio

Premise: In the Sicilian town of Taormina, Italy, an aspiring poet in search of inspiration meets a folk singer trying to write a follow up to her breakout hit.

Continue reading

HIFF2020: Ben’s Column – Picture Character (2020)

MV5BNWIwMGFhZjctMGE3NC00ZjJjLTgyNmMtM2ZhOGQyODViYzk2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTA1MDEzMTIw._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,677,1000_AL_

3.5 stars

Picture Character (2020)

Documentary Feature
Directors: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane
Producers: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane, Jennifer 8. Lee
Executive Producers: Fred Benenson, Peter Friedland
Cast: Rayouf Alhumedhi, Florencia Coelho, Daniela Guini, Carmen Barlow, Francis Mason

Premise: “Picture Character” explores the complex, conflict-prone, and often hilarious world of the creators, lovers, and arbiters of emoji, our world’s newest pictorial language. How do you create a global language on the fly? This film charts the evolution of emojis, and investigates what they may reveal about our increasingly technological world.

It’s hard to imagine modern daily conversations without the ever-present emoji. What emerged after the technological takeover of smartphones as a way to express a wide variety of emotions in a simplistic manner quickly spread outside our phones and became inescapable. Socks, pillows, Happy Meal toys, and bumper stickers are only a sliver of the countless products available that have cashed in on the emoji craze in recent years, with no end in sight. Emojis have largely been viewed as a force for good in the world (we can now order pizza with one simple pizza emoji sent via text message). The “face with tears of joy” emoji was named as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015. They’ve even withstood the release of The Emoji Movie in 2017.

Continue reading

HIFF2020: Ben’s Column – The Outside Story (2020)

The Outside Story (2020)

  • Narrative Feature
  • Director: Casimir Nozkowski
  • Screenwriter: Casimir Nozkowski
  • Cast: Brian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon

Premise: An introverted editor living a vertical life in his 2nd-floor apartment, always on deadline and in a rut. When Charles locks himself out of his building, he’s forced to go horizontal and confront the world he’s been avoiding in search of a way back inside. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The Boys In The Band (2020) – Review

The Boys In The Band (2020)

Premise: At a birthday party in 1968 New York, a surprise guest and a drunken game leave seven gay friends reckoning with unspoken feelings and buried truths.

The LGBTQ community is at a crossroads in America in 2020. The Supreme Court may have legalized gay marriage years ago, along with a handful of other civil rights victories, but the current administration has been actively working to roll those protections back since day one, all in the name of “religious freedom”. Seen through this lens, it makes perfect sense why now is a good time for a new adaptation of The Boys in the Band, the Tony-winning Broadway show. This iteration, directed by Joe Mantello, even assembles the original cast from the 2018 stage revival, which was notable at the time for its all-out gay cast – a sign of how far society had come since the play’s inception. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020) – Review

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

Premise: A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.

It’s not often that a film can be simultaneously considered a documentary, a drama, and a comedy, but director Kirsten Johnson somehow manages to achieve that feat with Dick Johnson Is Dead. Movies can be used as a director’s way to put their own personal ideas and experiences out into the world: Truffaut channeled his early adolescence in The 400 Blows; Fellini expressed his struggles with the creative process with 8 ½; and Spike Lee used his experiences with racial injustice for Do the Right Thing. Johnson’s latest is not only a loving tribute to her father, but an examination of the grieving process, even when the aggrieved is still alive. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Cuties (2020) – Review

Cuties (2020)

Premise: Amy, an 11-year-old girl, joins a group of dancers named “the cuties” at school, and rapidly grows aware of her burgeoning femininity – upsetting her mother and her values in the process.

Perhaps you’ve already heard of Cuties because you saw it advertised on Netflix. Perhaps you heard of it through word of mouth. More likely, you’ve heard of it because of the controversy the film has stirred up which has caused it to be shared on social media and even, yes, Ted Cruz. But to really talk about Cuties is to talk about America’s political discourse in 2020. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Tenet (2020) – Non-Spoiler Review

Tenet (2020)

Premise: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.

Tenet feels like the kind of movie Christopher Nolan has been building towards from the beginning of his career – at least on a surface level. It’s easy to spot some of the elements he’s pulling from, elements that have helped to define his aesthetic as a filmmaker: you of course have the incredible mind-bending visuals like in Inception and Interstellar, the action sequences from the Batman trilogy, the third act reveal from The Prestige, the perplexing chronology of events like in Memento and Dunkirk, and the complicated romantic entanglements of The Dark Knight, to name a few. Typically when a filmmaker cribs the best of himself to be put into one film, the result is an unbridled success, but Tenet just can’t make all of its puzzle pieces into an enlightening picture. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Yes, God Yes (2020) Review

Premise: After an innocent AOL chat turns racy, a Catholic teenager in the early 00s discovers masturbating and struggles to suppress her new urges in the face of eternal damnation.

Think back to your early high school days and how sex and sexuality felt ever-present in daily life. Then, if you weren’t already, imagine those same feelings in the setting of a Catholic school, where you’re taught to mostly repress or ignore those feelings. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. So is masturbation. What do you do when your body and society are telling you one thing and the church is telling you another? Oh, and if you go against what they’re teaching, you’ll spend the afterlife in eternal damnation. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Greyhound (2020) Review

mv5bztfkzjyxnwitzme2mc00mge4lwixytgtzmizowm1ymi2ywezxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdm2ndm2mq4040._v1_sy1000_cr006681000_al_

Greyhound (2020)

Premise: Early in World War II, an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by Nazi U-boat wolfpacks.

Throughout the running time of Greyhound, we learn more about Captain Ernie Krause’s (Tom Hanks) leadership skills, but shockingly little about his life outside the titular naval destroyer. The mission is simple: guide a fleet of Allied supply ships across the vast Atlantic Ocean, and sink as many Nazi U-boats as possible. The fleet remains unprotected from air cover for over 50 hours over the ocean, and this provides the ticking clock conceit to the film. Greyhound bears a striking similarity to last year’s 1917, in that there’s a clear endpoint objective at stake, and the characters we spend the most time with are frustratingly opaque. But whereas 1917 took time to reflect and add at least a little characterization between its video game-like checkpoints, Greyhound only stops and pauses for a scant few moments. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Homemade Season One Review

mv5bnjiwntexngitmjk2nc00mmy2lwe4mdatogfmmjyznmu3mtq5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxodk2otu40._v1_

Homemade: Season One (2020)

Premise: Confined at home as a consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak, filmmakers created personal, moving stories that capture our shared experience of life in quarantine. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Da 5 Bloods (2020) Movie Review

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Premise: Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020) Movie Review

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

Premise: A look at the final moments of a Las Vegas dive bar called ‘The Roaring 20s’.

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

And they’re always glad you came;

You want to be where you can see,

Our troubles are all the same;

You want to be where everybody knows your name. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Deerskin (2020) Movie Review

mv5bytq1yzyzngytytdlyy00ywuxltg3mtitnjflyja3ymvkymy5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtkxnjuynq4040._v1_sy1000_cr006771000_al_

Deerskin (2020)

Premise: A man’s obsession with his designer deerskin jacket causes him to blow his life savings and turn to crime.

It’s a tale as old as time: man buys a secondhand deerskin jacket. Man falls in love with said jacket and begins talking to it as if it’s a real person. Man begins converting his entire wardrobe to 100% deerskin. Man’s jacket tells him that it’s so great that it wants to be the only jacket left in the entire world. Continue reading