The latest documentary by director Jeff Feuerzeig, The JT Leroy Story, explores the making of the character of JT Leroy, an author who rose to fame in the early 2000s as a literary sensation by writing about his life, which included sexual abuse, homelessness and coping with HIV. A publisher recalls the work as a novelty, a new voice. However, the story of JT Leroy was a fantasy, a made-up story concocted by Laura Albert, a 40-year-old San Francisco woman originally from New York. She started using characters since early on in her life as she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. She used these personas partly to escape her life, which was full of trauma and abuse but also, seemingly, to get attention. She even attended therapy sessions as her character, melding fantasy and her life into different personas.

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The internet is filled with weirdos. In Tickled, all the dangers of those weirdos that your mother or grandmother warned you about come true. In this bizarre, true story, New Zealand TV reporter David Farrier digs deeper than he should into the extreme sport of competitive tickling. He finds hundreds of videos online featuring young men tickling each other while wearing athletic gear. The phenomenon piques David’s curiosity so much so that he decides to investigate further.

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Daniel Radcliff and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man

The hook that will attract most people to Swiss Army Man is how former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe fares playing a corpse for the length of a feature film. The draw can range from childhood crush intrigue to a more subconscious allure of celebrity transcending death. But what it all comes down to is that final word and how we personally relate with its inevitablity. With their debut feature film, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a Daniels), who also wrote the film’s script together, toy with the narcissism of life and the humility of death via a funny, simple premise about a man lost at sea named Hank (Paul Dano) who befriends a dead body.

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the barn

With an incredibly successful inaugural year behind them, Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman have been busy at work keeping the Popcorn Frights Film Festival going year-round. It’s been a busy series of months, full of screenings — including some free ones — for genre fans looking to enjoy some classics and new releases. But now comes the second annual fest, expanded to almost a week and featuring more movies than the previous year.

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Ah, summer… It can be a beautiful time, but it can also be too hot to handle during the day. For cinephiles, it can also mean a drought at movie theaters. But fear not! This year, there are some great offerings that will not only keep you engaged but also in the comfort of amazing film venues with air-conditioning. A glance at the upcoming screenings at indie theaters in Miami this summer reveals an eclectic mix, featuring a documentary, a new film by a legendary director, a classic anime feature and even a music-themed movie screening for one night only.

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the-revenant-leonardo-dicaprioIn the cold winter of early America, a group of trappers and hunters are ambushed by a band of Arikara Indians. The few who survive the merciless attack retreat to base camp. On their way back one of them, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a grizzly bear in a prolonged scene of crunching bones and torn flesh. The gruesome encounter is only but a taste of the visceral tone The Revenant takes, wherein the brutality of the wilderness is only matched by the callousness of some of his fellow men.

After surviving the brutal bear attack, Glass is carried by his compatriots and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The treacherous trip has one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) convinced that his own survival is threatened by carrying the ailing Glass, who — from Fitzgerald’s perspective — is but dead weight. The struggle between the two is at the core of this film. When Fitzgerald betrays Glass on several levels, ultimately leaving him for dead, Glass, who can hardly speak, much less move, after the attack finds the strength to get to base camp on his own motivated by revenge. The man-to-man violence feels immediate, as Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses close, tight shots to not only show the internal struggle but also gives the audience a peek into the turmoil within — few places for respite in this bleak landscape and inchoate society.


Along with the struggle for survival there is an alternative narrative of the group of Native Americans from the Arikara tribe who are also on a quest for retribution. Theirs is a different source of settling the score, looking for the daughter of the tribe’s leader. Although the story does not seem to be woven into the overall film seamlessly, it does provide a point of comparison for the many ways in which justice may be sought in the absence of a higher authority, say a state.


“The Revenant,” or “the one who returns after death” is played with appropriately visceral aplomb by DiCaprio, who traded his signature charming leading man good looks to play the grunting, disheveled but strong Hugh Glass. But the real standout performance comes from Tom Hardy, who embodies Fitzgerald, the outlier of the frontiersmen. His personal story is also cemented in brutality, his face alone carries the burden of trauma being half-scalped and full of scars. In an up-close monologue, Fitzgerald tells of the grisly path he’s endured himself. Fitzgerald is a character study of how a person may find their dark side and stay in that space as an excuse for his own behavior.


The stark landscape and the ruthlessness of nature are beautifully captured by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s cinematography, in what is now a collaboration between director and cinematographer that spans decades. The quiet atmosphere and the inhospitable cold portrayed by Iñárritu is not only of a wide scope, but it is also the perfect blank slate to ask human questions about existential survival. Why keep on going when the prospects for survival are bleak, at best? Is there redemption to be gained from revenge? Is justice enough to keep us going? As Glass keeps on marching on, it is hard to overlook both the frailty and fortitude of human nature. Glass’ refusal to die and survival instinct trump myriad of obstacles in his path, yet his losses throughout this journey begin to seem insurmountable. Survival in the face of having nothing else to lose makes this story compelling and powerful.

Though the violence might be quite stark, it is there for a reason. Reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 film A Short Film About Killing, Iñárritu shows the act of killing as a menacing, difficult act both for the victim and the perpetrator. The long take action sequences showcase how the struggles between people are not only physically dangerous but can also diminish that essence that makes us human for all parties involved. Although billed as a revenge film, Iñárritu’s motivation may be different, as the final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald will reveal.

Ana Morgenstern

The Revenant runs 156 minutes and is rated R. It opens nationwide on Jan. 8. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screening last year for awards consideration and the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of the studio.

Indie theater UPDATE: The Revenant opens at O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Jan. 22.

(Copyright 2016 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Janis-1-Sheet-final-with-bleed_1.jpg.500x715_q85_crop-smartYou sit and sing in darkened rooms
Your song fills the air with increasing gloom
It’s sad, so sad to be alone

–Janis Joplin, lyrics for “So Sad to be Alone”

Janis: Little Girl Blue is so much more than another telling of the tragic story of Janis Joplin. With her new documentary, director Amy Berg presents a sad fable about the loneliness of fame. Janis: Little Girl Blue examines the difficulty in reconciling one’s past life with a new one and the fractures in identity that can tear a person apart. Beyond the heroin addiction and skyrocketing to fame, Joplin had difficulty at home. She couldn’t get out of Port Arthur, Texas fast enough to settle into San Francisco with the Haight-Ashbury freaks who genuinely brought her comfort.

Everyone from former musicians, Joplin’s younger siblings and famous people who knew her — like Clive Davis, Dick Cavett and Kris Kristofferson — speak in new interviews reflecting on Joplin, 45 years after her death. But Berg hardly lingers on the talking heads. Instead, she mostly fills the film with Joplin’s voice using vintage imagery. Beyond concert footage and television interviews, Berg and a team of four editors compile sequences that include passing glances at Joplin’s scrapbook and personal photographs, often featuring early recordings by the singer on the soundtrack. On an even further intimate level, Joplin’s longing to impress her mother is made palpable via letters read by Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. There’s even use of Joplin’s diary where she admits casual and important relationships with people of both sexes but also the personal pain she felt being bullied in high school, something she never seemed to overcome.

But the film is much more than an exposé on the personal life of Joplin. Berg presents a multi-dimensional portrait of the singer and never shies away from inconsistencies. As a performer, Joplin genuinely appreciated the feeling of playing live. In a television interview, Joplin never shies away about talking about the importance of music in her life on an astral level, even as her band mates in Big Brother and the Holding Company crack inane jokes about their roles in the band. Joplin was a strong woman who enjoyed the company of men. In footage from The Festival Express, she boisterously holds her own surrounded by men, as Marshall’s voice reads Joplin’s words explaining her comfort among men.

Most of all, Berg emphasizes the music. The presence of Joplin’s music saturates the film, be it in the background of narrative storytelling or long pauses from the story for a bit of Joplin performing live. There are snatches of her lyrics, on the film’s soundtrack or even read and referenced aloud, that speak abstractly of her ambivalence with fame and relationships. Although there are many sides demonstrated in Janis: Little Girl Blue, none seem more genuine than the person who comes out in the lyrics. Berg’s emphasis on the music is not just required because her subject is a musician, it’s necessary because it is the truest representation of Joplin, a troubled figure in search of a genuine way to express herself and be heard.

Janis Joplin

Ironically, by focusing on the music as much as she does, Berg adds an extra poignancy to Joplin’s troubles and talent. The layers of story in sound and image is profound throughout this documentary. It makes up for the only misstep in Berg’s reach for imagery to illustrate Joplin’s life: a recurring sequence featuring vintage 16mm footage of train tracks that break up the film’s narrative. It might imply a journey or — hopefully not — a heavy-handed allusion to Joplin as a personal train wreck. Either way, the heavy-handed reach for metaphor feels superfluous, considering the density of the narrative in much of the well-researched footage and music that tells Joplin’s story.

The film rises to another level when Berg presents footage of Joplin being interviewed by a reporter at her 10th anniversary high school reunion, after she had become a star. Confronted by questions about her memories of high school, Joplin proves evasive. With all the context provided earlier in the film it makes for a startling statement on how useless success had become in healing Joplin’s wounds. She isn’t being evasive to be smart or egotistical — the rock star swagger of the unknowable pop idol. She’s refusing to answer the reporter’s questions to keep from bursting into tears. She’s keeping the pain of her past at bay. Even after becoming a pop star — something she thought would help heal her wounds — she is still mortally attached to the pain that fuels her creativity. What she thought would become a triumphant return home becomes something utterly devastating.

Janis: Little Girl Blue becomes something more than a documentary reflecting on a pop culture personality. It digs deep into the role of personal experiences and how tightly wound the tentacles of the past can wind around creativity. Despite a terrible drug problem, which John Lennon gets the last word on during the end credits, the documentary posits a complicated mix of issues that defined Joplin and led to her fate. Ultimately, Joplin’s art is vitally drawn as something that was bound with her persona. It can be a combustible mix that proves fame is not a solution for pain.

Hans Morgenstern

Janis: Little Girl Blue runs 103 minutes and is not rated (Janis lived that free-spirited life … and paid for it). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Dec. 4, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and AMC Sunset Place; further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. It continues its run theatrically in South Florida on Dec. 18 at O Cinema Miami Shores.  For dates in other cities and Europe, visit this link. The film had its Florida premiere last month at The Key West Film Festival, where it won the audience award. The black and white image above was taken April 5, 1969 and is courtesy of the Evening Standard/Getty Images. The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)