Special thanks for these film reviews written by students from the UNCSA School of Filmmaking.
These reviews have been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Kenan Institue for the Arts.
Fire of Love
“Fire of Love”
A Heart-Melting Documentary of Lava and True Love
“Fire of Love” is the story of French volcanists Katia and Maurice Krafft, a couple whose shared passion for the unknowable mysteries of eruptions forged them into an inseparable pair. For more than two decades after they met in 1966, the entwined scientists and filmmakers vivaciously captured their journeys across a molten globe on film. Much of the documentary’s runtime utilizes their jubilant footage, weaving together the educational, energetic, explosive narrative of two rebels hopelessly in love with volcanoes and each other.
Producer and Director Sara Dosa shows deep admiration for the titanic couple at the center of her film. She reveals early on, through Miranda July’s hypnotic narration, that the Krafft’s story has been over for some time. However, with some narrative sleight-of-hand, she uses this information to brighten the story’s tone rather than dampen it. By knowing the eruption that claims Katia and Maurice’s life takes place on June 3rd, 1991, every spurt, flow, geyser, and bomb of lava filling the frame around the courageous duo can be viewed with awe rather than dread; Dosa breaks us free from the natural fear of earth’s fire and invites us to view the tectonic majesty with the same wonder and curiosity as the Kraffts. The visceral beauty draws us closer and closer, even though we know it brings tragedy. Though, what may be most surprising about “Fire of Love” is how it brings us peace with their end, assiduously framing it as the accepted embrace of a trio of lovers whose flame burned brightly and whose legacy will live on.
By Joe Fry
I Can Feel You Walking
I Can Feel You Walking & The Terror of Being Known
In an essay published in the New York Times, author and cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Few films in recent memory can sum up this notion quite as fully as Rachel Lambert’s I Can Feel You Walking. Following solitary neighbors Shannon (Rachel Lambert) and Kevin (Milton Katz) and the fragile camaraderie that forms between them, the film paints an intimate portrait of loneliness and the subsequent fear of opening up.
Arguably the film’s greatest strength is its command of tone and environment. The hyper-naturalistic style adds a level of intimacy from the very beginning, as we watch Shannon and Kevin navigate their normal lives. The true magic of these sequences lies in their specificity, how they can feel so true to each character, but universally relatable at the same time. Whether it be spastic dancing in the living room, drunken bites taken from blocks of cheese, or being especially terrible at golf, it doesn’t take long to feel as if we know them… or are them.
By the time these two come together, the audience is simultaneously rooting for their success and bracing for their failure. After a time, the tentative back-and-forth starts to feel like a dance, with both desperate to fall into step but stifled by their individual fears. We watch with bated breath as they unintentionally stomp on each other’s toes and scramble to recover, earnest, raw, and undeniably human. Ultimately, I Can Feel You Walking shows us that, if we’re willing to embrace it, friendship can come from the most unexpected places… even right next door.
Written by Hailey Hudson
Since its debut in 1975, the musical Chicago has been performed an innumerable amount of times in theaters across the globe – but none quite like a 2019 production by Phamaly Theatre Company in Denver, Colorado.
Documentary imperfect follows Phamaly through the auditions, rehearsals and performances of Chicago. The company is unique in that it is formed entirely by those with disabilities. Some of these are immediately obvious; director Regan Linton, who also co-helms the documentary with Brian Malone, uses a wheelchair after being paralyzed in a car accident. Young and timid Megan, who leads the cast as Roxie Hart, was born without a left arm due to congenital limb loss. Others are disabled in ways less apparent at a first glance, such as Erin, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. What unites every member of the cast and crew, however, is a head-over-heels love for theater, one that drives them to overcome any obstacle their disabilities might present.
At its heart, imperfect is a love letter to both theater and the disabled community. Directors Linton and Malone balance the two with incredible delicacy, providing a unique insight into each. By the time we get to opening night, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of pride. We’ve followed these performers from auditions to rehearsals to the trenches of tech week, seeing glimpses of their personal lives along the way. Watching Megan belt out showtune “Roxie” feels like witnessing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon.
“Tonight, we’re gonna show the world that we are meant to be taken seriously,” she says proudly before the curtain rises. “We’re as important as any other artist.”
Intimate, authentic and inspiring, imperfect is a welcome reminder that everyone deserves a chance to pursue what they love.
By Lauren Cook
In Little Satchmo, John Alexander’s quiet expose on the revelation of an unlikely hidden player in the life of the world-renowned black musician Louis Armstrong, we see the world he occupied through a fresh lens. The once secret voice of Sharon Preston-Folta, Armstrong’s daughter, now emerges, and long-veiled memories step into the light. Memories of clothes that smell of cigarettes, weed and cologne and a familial voice singing to her through the confines of a record player in a lonely home. A plethora of such details subtly portrayed convey a dull tone effectively, though in some places, too dull to invoke a hungry attention to the slow-moving, occasionally expendable visuals.
More than just a recounting of memory and artifacts, we observe a tender meditation on the level of presence an artist of fame can secure with his family. Through the one voice of Sharon, we hear what she recounts of her complicated father. But most of all, she proclaims her existence, to free herself from the chains of silence she suffered for years. One can tell that this is personal therapy for Sharon and even though no incredibly new insights are revealed into the character of Louis, light is shed on the way his daughter thought of him. The world saw a superstar. Sharon saw her father. And that perspective alone makes this a story worth telling.
Keeping from the long-treaded narrative of fame destroying family, Little Satchmo depicts the perspective of a child who lived in a lonely home, absent from her father, though still loving him. In this film, Louis Armstrong is only an image, far away, shielded from our sight and Sharon nobly takes it upon herself to fill us in on what is impossible for us to see.
By Kobe Whitlock
A Literary Adaptation That Forgets to Trust Its Audience
“Lost Illusions” is a visually engrossing French adaptation of a serial novel by the same name, written by Honoré de Balzac between 1837 and 1843. Directed by Xavier Giannoli, it follows the story of a lower-class poet named Lucien de Rubempré, potently portrayed by Benjamin Voisin, whose ambitions of becoming a famous writer are waylaid by love, loss, and the price of Paris. Lucien begins the film as the paramour of an unhappily married aristocrat, played with earnest elegance by Cécile de France, but when their affair is discovered, they leave for the city. He is quickly cast out by the upper crust of society, left penniless and alone with a broken heart. He discovers his salvation in the corrupt journalistic underbelly of Paris, a world where commerce supersedes art and controversy is king – where his words find their worth, and their cost.
There’s much to be enamored with in “Lost Illusions.” The performances are all-around engaging, the sets and costumes are impeccable, and every frame is truly a feast for the senses. But just like Lucien, who is plagued by his father’s surname Chardon and tries desperately to be known as de Rubempré, the film feels torn over its identity. The heavy use of expositional narration throughout the runtime bleeds into literature. A page of text can be said with a look on screen, but the film instead babies the audience and spoon-feeds them with both. Subtext is abandoned almost entirely, even though much of what’s blathered to us could have easily and satisfactorily been gleaned from Giannoli’s precise direction and masterful mise-en-scène. Because of this often egregious voice-over, the cinematic experience is trampled by a watered-down literary one, like a rainy Paris street churned to mud.
By Joe Fry
The Noise of Engines
The Noise of Engines
Director: Philippe Grégoire
“The Noise of Engines” is an absurd take on a coming-of-age story, blending comedy with dread to show the complexities of life. Alexandre (Robert Naylor) is put on forced leave from his job with Canadian Customs after a mishap during sex leads to a full investigation into his intimate life. He returns to the small town in Quebec where he’s from, only for police to harass him over a different question of sexual obscenity, while a visitor (Tanja Björk) wants to learn about his home town and the two become fast friends.
What stands out in the film is the finely crafted cinematography, done by Shawn Pavlin. Every shot is set up to maximize the comedic punch of the scene, while also showing the character of the region. Even the opening credits are neatly arranged in a way different from any other film.
That same preciseness gives “Noise of Engines” its special tone. The strange circumstances Alexandre finds himself in could induce laughs or dread, and director Philippe Grégoire knows where to push it one way or the other to get the intended effect, whether it’s the camera placement or the timing of the editing. Even music stings that are typically associated with horror films are used to up the comedic punch here, while also hinting that more sinister moments are coming.
The camera and pacing also captures what life in small town Quebec is like without needing to spend much time exploring it. It’s fitting that “Noise of Engines” is playing in Winston-Salem, because it’s easy to see that many parts of Quebec, it’s a lot like the small-town South. Change up the languages and this could have just as easily been set in Roxboro.
One issue with the film is when this element overtakes the rest of the movie. Roughly halfway through, it focuses entirely on Alexandre’s personal past and the experience of living close to a race track and feeling out of place no matter where you live. Even the cinematography changes, with the steady shots giving way to handheld camera work.
These are not bad per se – the quiet shots of Iceland near the end are quite beautiful. But it does not feel like the same movie. And it’s a shame because that absurdist, comedic tone in the first half feels totally unique, and it’s very good to have from a debut feature filmmaker in Grégoire.
“The Sound of Engines” is still a very enjoyable watch and a promising first feature film.
by Michael Papich
Outta the Muck
Outta the Muck
Outta the Muck is a love letter to a forgotten gem of the everglades and the people who live there, a reminder of the importance of tradition, perseverance, and family ties. Returning to his hometown of Pahokee, Florida after 35 years, filmmaker Ira Mckinley gives us a peek inside a place caught between tradition and modernity .
The backbone of this piece is the Mckinley/Dean family, who’s presence in Pahokee stretches back seven generations. Whether it be Ira’s niece, Bridgett, gushing about the success of her children, his nephew Alvin’s commitment to coaching high school football, or the countless other residents celebrating their heritage, one thing becomes clear— the Pahokee lifestyle has a way of charming even the staunchest city-dwellers.
The true power of Outta the Muck comes during discussions of the town’s decline in recent decades. Despite the hardships and isolation, Pahokee residents remain fiercely loyal to the land they know, and the traditions that come along with it— hunting in the cane fields, large family get-togethers, and neighborhood games of football. The title itself hints at this central duality; while many people leave the town and don’t return to enrich it, others embrace the fertile land around them and celebrate what has grown from it.
These inspiring depictions remind all of us to respect our roots, embrace our surroundings, and never stop trying to make the world a better place.
By Hailey Hudson
Like many criminal endeavors, Tariq and Cai’s animal smuggling enterprise began with good intentions.
Inspired by true events, The Falconer follows the two teenagers in Muscat, Oman as they steal and sell animals in order to raise money for Tariq’s sister Alia to divorce her abusive husband. Their jobs at the local zoo allow them to smuggle out small ones like hamsters and fish, but as the stakes rise for Alia, the endeavor begins to snowball, and Tariq’s determination clashes with Cai’s love for the animals.
There’s much more going on here than a Breaking Bad-style tale of two boys descending into crime; writers and directors Adam Sjöberg and Seanne Winslow weave themes of identity and responsibility throughout the narrative. As Cai trains a falcon he stole from the zoo with the intention of releasing her into the wild, it’s difficult not to see a reflection of the boys’ situations.
Cai is a Westerner raised in Oman who spends his summers travelling, and who plans to study at a Canadian university. Tariq, on the other hand, is a local boy forever bound to his family and his hometown. If the falcon is set free untrained, Cai says, she will never return and starve to death in the wild. “She may not come back,” Tariq points out as they prepare to set her loose – and as Cai packs his suitcase, about to leave his home and his best friend.
The Falconer sometimes loses its focus, swerving between a tense, clock-is-ticking drama and an intimate character study. Riveting performances from the two leads and almost documentary-style direction, however, ensures that it never loses the incredible authenticity that anchors it to its emotional center.
By Lauren Cook
Wake Up Leonard
Wake Up, Leonard
Kat Mills Martin’s improvisational feature comedy, Wake Up, Leonard (2022), is a promising source of happiness. Unlike most films which encompass a dramatically dark character dealing with mental health issues, Martin’s film takes a different approach by tackling anxiety with comedy.
Within an amusing world coated with a bright and airy texture, we follow a flamboyantly down-on-his-luck young man named Leonard who is played by the hilarious Nigel Defriez. We open on a beautiful mountainous landscape juxtaposed to the riffs and clangs of a tension filled jazzy drum set. All the sudden, Leonard wearing a white hair bow jumps up from the grass and looks skeptical to his surroundings. This film starts and ends with a chuckle.
While mending a broken heart and moving into his new apartment, Leonard receives a surprise text from his ex-boyfriend which entails a last-minute date. This spurs the need for Leonard to put his life together in one day. He tries to shortcut his way at improving his overall vibe before the date, but every effort he makes to turn his misery around seems to add unneeded stress. Even the simple things such as finding the perfect shirt increases his anxiety.
This hysterical film also dabbles in both the surreal and impressionistic layers of Leonard’s reality. At one moment we find him staring aimlessly at a baby’s face while waiting for a smoothie and in another he’s frantically unpacking boxes while his friend rambles about celebrating his birthday eve. Sam Roden, the cinematographer, brilliantly captures this rapid style of storytelling.
Throughout the film, Leonard is asked by many if he is okay. This triggers a vulnerable state causing him to flee. However, Leonard discovers that his stress is a unit of his situational avoidance and finds true solace is found through one’s own choice of being at peace.
By C. Neil Davenport
What We Leave Behind
What We Leave Behind
There is a sincere humbleness found within Iliana Sosa’s feature documentary, What We Leave Behind (2022) as it explores a loving fascination of her 89-year-old grandfather, Julián, as he ventures out of El Paso, TX and returns home one last time. This story uncovers the rationality behind his life choices, examines who he was as a man, and does not shy away from the rough lifestyle he lived.
What is expertly captured through the lens is primitive to the story of this man, but how Sosa uses the camera is profound. Along with cinematographers, Judy Phu, and Monica Wise, Sosa visually tells a story which allows us to both be intrigued by Julián’s environment, and also invites us to peek at the events outside of the frame. It is as if Sosa wants us to see her grandfather’s soul during the final phase of his life.
Throughout Sosa’s recording of Julián, forgotten memories unfold with gorgeous shots of sunrises and the theme of being devoted to family is perfectly paired alongside the harsh landscape of rural Mexico. The film’s point is heard through the opening lines of Sosa when she asks, “Grandpa, how come you only ever stay a few days?” Sosa asks for more time, but the elder retorts to say that he still has things to do.
Though Julián struggles with stomach and back pain, he builds a house for his family fully aware that he may not see it completed by the time of his death. Yet, without fail, he gets up every day, has a crispy egg, and orchestrates his last project with either a shovel or a pointed finger. Sosa’s construction documentary demonstrates more than the last efforts of Julián in a daily pursuit. It’s a visual poem of life and a personal examination of how legacy is passed down.
By C. Neil Davenport