by Tony Frankel on October 25, 2020

in Film,Virtual


I’ve been struggling to find some kind of blessing about the COVID pandemic as it concerns the arts. But it doesn’t look good. Theaters are desperately delivering 10-minute plays and other frivolities; there are a few live music concerts at drive-ins; museums are showing art online; and music and dance organizations are mostly showing clips from past performances. Nothing is coming close to the real thing.

But something has happened with Film Festivals that has made me perk up and take notice. Once highly improbable to impossible to attend so many great festivals (Stage and Cinema has covered ones from Tribeca to Outfest), ANYONE can now attend these screenings without emptying your already depleted pocketbook, and you can watch from the other side of the country (albeit in your own home). And no more worrying about sold out movies you desperately wanted to see.

In fact, I foresee a change in Festivals. Once this pandemic ends, it may be that Festivals will still have in-person screenings and live post-film discussions, but legions of fans across the globe will have the opportunity to tune in as well virtually. Of course, this can’t possibly work for every film shown, but imagine all of the shorts and documentaries and indies that wouldn’t otherwise reach an interested audience.

For San Diego Film Festival, the 2020 slate was curated from over 3000 film submissions from 68 countries. As Festivals scurry to get their material ready to be presented virtually, San Diego wasn’t truly ready for primetime, and how could they be? With hundreds of films in separate streaming locations, and a café where people could actually sit at virtual tables chatting about film, technical glitches occurred. Especially troubling was the buffering of some films.

However, we were treated to spectacular offerings in a vast world of diverse voices — 114 films. Features were very strong this year, and there were some knockout pics shown at drive-in movies (Blithe Spirit with Judi Dench; Nomadland with Frances McDormand). Some documentaries began wonderfully but — while still worthy — ended up feeling like Public Service Announcements (American Humane’s Escape from Extinction; The Mustangs: An American Story); others were chilling calls to action (Public Trust); and some fascinating and gloriously inspiring (You Asked for the Facts; MLK/FBI).

Here are some capsule reviews:

Children of the Storm. Photo courtesy SDFF.

Children of the Storm is Matthys Boshoff‘s stunning feature film directorial debut. The western drama is both intense and inspiring aided by Willie Nel’s breathtaking cinematography. Based on Brett Michael Innes‘ novel, the story follows adolescent Rachel (a luminous Zonika de Vries) and her 5-year-old brother Jamie as they trek to the virgin gold fields with their father, Herman (Stian Bam), as he tries to start a new life five years after the death of his wife. When the sibling got lost in a snowstorm, Rachel proves herself an extraordinary human being.

Honeymood. Source: West End Films

Honeymood (also seen at Tribeca Film Festival) follows a newlywed couple as they bounce around Jerusalem on their wedding night looking to return the ring gifted from the groom’s ex. The trite subject matter of this After Hours-type odyssey — which includes Israeli Guards, a rotten filmmaker, and a suicidal nurse — is saved by charming, dynamic performances (Avigail Harari and Ran Danker) and grounded direction by Talya Lavie, who could have used a co-writer (as do SO many new directors who write their own material). Over the course of a single night, the couple are forced to confront past lovers, repressed doubts, and the lives they’ve chosen to leave behind.

One of These Days. Photo by Michael Kotsch.

One of These Days is a slow-moving character study from German filmmaker Bastian Günther that has a wonky narrative that feels way too safe for the material. The story of a 1995 dealership-sponsored contest in Texas is already famous, having been captured in a 1997 documentary and then made into a Broadway musical: The rules were simple: whoever could keep their hand on a brand-new pickup truck the longest got the keys; there was a 15-minute break every six hours and a five-minute break every hour; white gloves had to be worn at all times to protect the car, and there was no leaning and no crouching. Thankfully, this film adds the broader dimension of desperation in America’s working class that the musical, Hands on a Hardbody, lacked.

Johnny Flynn in Stardust. Photo by Paul Van Carter.

Directed by Gabriel Range and co-written with Christopher Bell, Stardust is set in 1971, when a 24-year-old David Bowie (musician Johnny Flynn) embarks on his first trip to America, only to be met with a world not yet ready for him. The film reveals the inspirations and life events that gave birth to Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, charting the transformation of one of the world’s greatest cultural icons. I’m not sure if this is a film for Bowie fans as there is no Bowie music in it — it uses period music songs that the musician covered, not his original tracks. Why? This isn’t a biopic like Bohemian Rhapsody, which had blessings from, and involved, those who worked with Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the British rock band Queen. The tale, “mostly fictitious” we are told at the top, is ripe: Bowie comes to America two years after his first album, but never got a work visa from his London manager, so he joins publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), on a cross-country road trip where he ends up singing for odd places such as a vacuum cleaner sales convention. Back in England, Bowie’s pregnant, oddly shrewish wife (Jena Malone) tells him on the phone to get his star act together. While there are some fun scenes involving the business, Bowie is so consistently mum to interviewers about the madness, specifically schizophrenia, in his family that he ends up acting like a clownish lousy mime. We don’t really get to see the evolution of Bowie’s turn into Ziggy. Worse, we all know it’s coming, so scenes in which Bowie struggles that he may be the next insane person in his family lose steam — he’s going to take that inner madman and channel him into a star.

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