Indie and Art Film Highlights in August

“Theater Camp” is the latest specialty movie to grab wider attention, plus details on the Indian Film Festival Cincinnati, Black Barbie, and a zany new film from Everything Is Terrible!
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Things have been looking very good on the region’s specialty/art film circuit recently. While Barbie and Oppenheimer (or Barbenheimer, as the nation is calling the two hit films simultaneously released on July 21) are hardly niche films, they’re attracting fans of art/specialty movies because they were made by auteurs whose creative ideas are central to their films. (In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane wondered if Barbie’s director/co-writer Greta Gerwig had made the film for herself and “by extension, for anyone as super-smart as her.”)

Thus, the two movies have been attracting fans to the Esquire Theatre in Clifton as well as to the bigger multiplexes. See my recommendations for those movies and others from July here. Some of the others might still be showing, too.

“Theater Camp”

Theater Camp

[Watch the trailer. Running now at Esquire Theatre, Clifton; Mariemont Theatre, Mariemont; and AMC Newport on the Levee.]

The just-opened Theater Camp won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and sold for $8 million to Searchlight Pictures, the art/specialty division of 21st Century Fox, so there are big hopes for the comedic film that looks at how young students with acting talent interact with their counselors at an upstate New York summer camp. The cast includes Ben Platt and Molly Gordon (also a co-director/writer) as counselors, Amy Sedaris as the camp founder, and Jimmy Tatro has her son, who’s frantic to keep the camp open amid a crisis. It merited a wonderful headline from IndieWire when it debuted at Sundance in January: “Song, Dance, and an Adorable and Clever New Entry Into the Mockumentary Canon.” The rest of the review was equally strong.

“Afire”

Afire

[Watch the trailer. Running now at Mariemont Theatre.]

Afire is a foreign movie with outstanding credentials, from German director Christian Petzold, winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. The story seems ripped directly from the dangerously global-warming world we’ve been experiencing this summer: Two young men, a writer and a photographer, go for a vacation at a Baltic Ocean beach house only to find themselves surrounded by huge forest fires. Leon, the writer (Thomas Schubert), finds himself drawn to Nadja (Paula Beer), who’s doing seasonal work, and the tension in that relationship builds in tandem with the fires.

Reviewing for New York Magazine/Vulture, Alison Willmore had reservations about the film’s late turn toward urgency, but praised it overall. “What lingers about Afire for me is instead that stunning scene of the characters on the roof, looking at the distant glow of the approaching inferno—a piercing image of being young in a world that’s on fire, and being unsure of whether to carry on or to panic.”

“Midnight Cowboy”

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy

[Watch the trailer. Screens August 13 and 19 at Esquire Theatre.]

Talk about milestones in cinema! In 1969, a year of great tumult in the arts as well as the country, an X-rated movie about a cowboy-costumed male prostitute (Jon Voight) and an irritable con man (Dustin Hoffman) who bond on New York’s squalid streets won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The success of British director John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy and with a screenplay by Waldo Salt, still leaves people awed today: How did something so seemingly outré ever meet with such immediate acclaim? It helped that Hoffman’s previous movie was The Graduate.

The story of the film and its cultural impact is the subject of a new documentary by Nancy Buirski.

Have You Got It Yet: The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd

[Watch the trailer. Screens August 8 at Esquire Theatre.]

At the same time that Midnight Cowboy was making its impact, Syd Barrett—a co-founder and distinctive singer and songwriter with Pink Floyd in the band’s early years—was slipping into his decades-long reclusiveness. He had given Pink Floyd a distinctive psychedelic pop sound that was both catchy and avant-garde, but the other band members evicted him in 1968, worried about the effects of psychedelic drugs on him. Barrett would make two albums under his own name in 1970, with assistance from his former band members, but that was it. And until he died in 2006 at age 60, rock fans wondered what he was doing and thinking. He was the great unseen rock legend.

The new documentary Have You Got It Yet is getting an encore screening at the Esquire at 7:30 p.m. on August 8. (It had an earlier screening on July 29.) Co-directed by Roddy Bogaway and the late Storm Thorgerson—who co-founded Hipgnosis, a British designer of vinyl album covers that counted Pink Floyd as a client—it earned a Critic’s Pick from The York Times’ Glenn Kenny. “It’s as comprehensive and coherent an account of Barrett’s counterculture tragedy as one could hope for,” he wrote.

Lakota Nation Vs. United States

[Watch the trailer. Opens August 4 at Mariemont Theatre.]

The documentary Lakota Nation vs. United States has been considered a “coming soon” title at the Esquire/Mariemont for some time now, and it finally arrives this month. In her Critic’s Pick review for The New York Times, Concepcíon de León bluntly described the film as being about the Lakota’s refusal to accept a 1980 U.S. settlement over stolen land. “This stunning film, directed by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli, interweaves interviews of Lakota activists and elders with striking images of the Black Hills and its wildlife, historical documents and news reports, clips from old movies and other archival footage to extraordinary effect,” she wrote.

Indian Film Festival Cincinnati

[Watch the trailer. Screenings are August 17-20 at Mariemont Theatre and Cincinnati Art Museum.]

While the Indian Film Festival’s lineup won’t be released for a few more days, there will be several English-language titles: Call Me Dancer; Max, Min and Meowzaki; and Footprints on Water. There’s more info here.

The Best of Winterfilm

[Screens at 7 p.m. August 24 at Mariemont Theatre.]

Since 2014, Kent Meloy’s Winterfilm has been an annual February event in which competitive teams have a month to write, cast, shoot, edit, and complete a short film using a mandatory theme and prop. One of its goals is to show the greater arts community and the general public that there’s been an explosive growth in the numbers of skilled Cincinnati-based artists working in video as more productions have been made here. To further reach that wider audience, Winterfilm will present the past winning films at the Mariemont; team leaders have been invited to attend and participate in a Q&A. 

“Black Barbie”

Black Barbie

[Watch the trailer. Screenings are August 10, 12, 19, 24 and 26 at Speed Art Museum Cinema in Louisville.]

There are actually two new Barbie movies. One, of course, is the comedy/social critique from director Greta Gerwig, and the other is the documentary Black Barbie, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin and now is coming to documentary-friendly venues.

Filmmaker Lagueria Davis tells the story of an aunt, Buelah Mae Mitchell, who worked for the Mattel toymaking company for 45 years and long wanted it to introduce a Black Barbie doll. The film covers that quest, as well as the response Mitchell and other African American women had once it was released in 1980.

As the film’s website explains, “Black Barbie is part of a broader movement to increase understanding of the importance of representation for Black women.”

“Return to Dust”

Return to Dust

[Watch the trailer. Screens at 7:30 p.m. August 7 at Woodward Theater, Over-the-Rhine.]

The Woodward Theater, best known for its rock concerts, has also been presenting art/specialty films and docs each month under the leadership of cinephile Jonny Shenk. August’s presentations look especially strong. First up is a new film from China getting strong reviews, Return to Dust. It’s also generated some concern about censorship; it was pulled from streaming services in China last year after a well-received theatrical release.

As The Guardian reported, “A popular Chinese film depicting a love story amid the hardships of life in rural China has been removed from all streaming services just weeks after its release. Return to Dust had been widely praised by audiences for its realistic and moving depiction of rural life in China. For the same reason it had also drawn criticism from nationalistic voices accusing it of portraying China in a negative light.”

The influential British magazine Sight and Sound praised the film’s story and cinematography in a review: “Wandering through towering sand dunes and vast farmlands, Li Ruijun’s Return to Dust is ambitious, keenly observant cinema. The Chinese director’s sixth feature follows Cao Guiying (Hai Qing) and Ma Youtie (Wu Renlin), an unlikely couple brought together in a hastily arranged marriage, who slowly grow close as they weather the vicissitudes of rural life. Filmed in Li’s native Gaotai county in Gansu province, the film offers a glimpse of the merciless demolition of village communities and disappearing ways of life amid China’s rapid economic ascent.”

Shiva Baby

[Watch the trailer. Screens at 7:30 p.m. August 14 at Woodward Theater.]

Also coming to the Woodward as part of a national re-release is the indie film Shiva Baby, which won a much-vaunted John Cassavetes Award at the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Directed and written by a then-newcomer, Emma Seligman, it’s an edgy and smart comedy in which a young bi-sexual Jewish woman (Rachel Sennott) attends a shiva with her parents (“sitting shiva” is a religious custom in which is set aside for mourning the deceased) and runs into both an old girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and a male “sugar daddy” (Danny Deferrari) and his wife (Dianna Agron). Complications ensue.

The film is getting this re-release because Seligman has directed and co-written a new teenage sex comedy, Bottoms, that’s set to be released on August 25. Sennott has a starring role and also co-wrote the new film. Further, Gordon has co-directed, written and starred in the newly opened Theater Camp, as well as having a role in the Hulu series The Bear. So the Woodward will be a good place to see several of the top rising female stars of cinema … and maybe future Oscar winners.

“Kidz Klub”

Everything Is Terrible! Presents Kidz Klub

[Watch the trailer. Screens at 8 p.m. August 6 at Woodward Theater.]

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python used to say, with Everything Is Terrible!, a video and performance art collective whose vision is, according to the Woodward’s website, “culling some of the bleakest video memories of the internet’s horrid history.” EIT! has also “collected over 35,000 Jerry Maguire VHS tapes that will one day live in a permanent pyramid in the desert.” The visit to Cincinnati features Everything Is Terrible!’s latest movie, Kidz Klub, which salvages from VHS tapes, television, video productions, and other physical media the darnedest things that kids do—and adults do to entertain kids—when the camera is watching.

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