Jesse Hawthorne Ficks

Sundance, part three: diamonds in the rough

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Missed out on last week's Sundance glee? Part one here; part two here

Malik Vittal's Imperial Dreams (US) won the Audience Award in the NEXT category, created for films that stretch limited resources to create impactful art. John Boyega (from 2011's Attack the Block) delivers another complicated and hypnotic performance as a young father trying to make good in the 'hood. In this spot-on throwback to powerful, low-budget urban films — think the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society (1991) and Spike Lee's Clockers (1995), and even back to Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time (1978) — director Vittal coaxes some spectacular acting moments, not just from Boyega but also his forlorn friends, played by De'aundre Bonds and R&B singer Rotimi. You don't want to miss this little treasure.

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Sundance, part two: Linklater love

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My second year of attending the Sundance Film Festival was at the age of 15; it was 1991 and I took a chance on a film called Slacker by Richard Linklater. 

This is the ticket stub that started my film journals. It's still taped into a spiral ring notebook that cradles my coming of age, and I have treasured every film of Linklater's since: his mainstream breakthrough, cult classic Dazed and Confused (1993); his hilarious remake of The Bad News Bears (2005); his underrated adaptation of Fast Food Nation (2006); his overlooked staging of Tape (2001); his pioneering, existentialist, rotoscoped duet Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). And, of course, his soul-searching Before trilogy.

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Sundance, part one: crowd-pleasers and dino heists

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Check out Jesse's intro to his Sundance Film Festival series here.

This year, there were few films that stood out as across-the-board crowd pleasers. Gareth Evans' violent, 148-minute The Raid 2: Berandal (UK/Indonesia) — a sequel to his 2011 cult hit — is an absolute must-see, as is the latest from Wet Hot American Summer (2001) director David Wain, They Came Together (US); it's a comedy spoof that pitches Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler into a slew of rom-com tropes and clichés (delivering some huge laughs in the process).

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I Was a Teenage Sundancer

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I grew up at the Sundance Film Festival — beginning in 1990, when my father took my 14-year-old self to an archival screening of Melvin Van Peebles' X-rated Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), and my best friend Grayson Jenson's parents introduced us to Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1963). 

These two films have polar-opposite subject matter, but they do share some odd similarities; they both make aggressive statements about counterculture, and both are cut together with hyperkinetic, French New Wave-esque editing. But back then, all I knew was that my life was maniacally changed ... forever. 

This transformative experience was enhanced by accidentally sitting next to only movie critic I had ever heard of: Mr. Roger Ebert. As it happens, a documentary about the late writer's career, Steve James' Life Itself, was one of the 2014 festival's biggest hits. Friendly and engaging, Ebert explained to me (at 14) that he personally enjoyed watching the Beatles' "best film" on 16mm as opposed to 35mm. The conversation we shared ("What are your favorite films?" Me: "Hellraiser II, Aliens, Evil Dead 2, and Phantasm II") left a long and deep impression on me.

That was my first memorable Sundance moment. But this year's Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals — celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries, respectively — were (on the occasion of my own 24th Sundance anniversary) maybe the best I've ever experienced, overall.

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Year in Film: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' Eclectic 2013 Countdown

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16. Oldboy (Spike Lee, US) and Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong) Two films from two of the hardest-working filmmakers in the biz. Though close to an hour and 20 minutes were butchered from Lee's reimagining of Park Chan-wook's 2003 film, it still offered an audacious look at entitlement in America. And To delivered yet another taut gangsters vs. cops drama that ranks up there with The Mission (1999) and PTU (2003).Read more »

TIFF diary #9: this is 'The End'

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Every time I told people that Lav Diaz's Norte, the End of History (Philippines) was my favorite film of this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I would watch their eyes glaze over and their body start shifting as if to say, "Yes ... but what else?" Read more »

TIFF diary #8: Rivers and Russell, 'Blue,' and a likely Oscar contender

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More from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Estonia/France) is the first collaboration between experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell — and man oh man, was it music to my eyes. Structured into three segments (comparisons to Kelly Reichardt's 2006 Old Joy are inevitable), this experimental documentary is uniquely personal, to the point of leaving many audience members at a loss for words, for better or worse.

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TIFF diary #7: Southern gothics

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Intrepid filmgoer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' reports from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival continue this week. Stay tuned for more posts, including Jesse's upcoming list of his top 12 films from the fest!

From director David Gordon Green, gothic Texan tale Joe gives Nicolas Cage a showy role, in the manner of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans (2009). Luckily Joe turns out to be a rambling bundle of fun,  thanks in no small part to Cage's typically uneven (yet always hypnotic) performance. That said, the film earned some glaringly obvious comparisons to Jeff Nichols' Mud (2012), including the casting of teen actor Tye Sheridan, who plays a similar role in both films.

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TIFF diary #6: For music lovers

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Swedish auteur Lukas Moodysson is back and he may have just created one of the most riotous punk rock extravaganzas ever. We Are the Best! (Sweden/Denmark) played to packed houses throughout the entire Toronto International Film Festival, creating an astounding word of mouth buzz.

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TIFF diary #5: Reichardt, Turturro, and Pawlikowski

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The surprise crowd-pleaser of TIFF 2013 was John Turturro's Fading Gigolo (US). Showcasing Woody Allen in a rare acting-only role, this surprisingly romantic tale about a man in his mid-50s (played by writer-director Turturro) is as charmingly hilarious as it is deftly dramatic.

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