Sundance 2019

It’s hard to imagine what goes through the mind of a barbaric thug who attacks his ex-girlfriend with acid and leaves her with significant physical and emotional scars, and a small child to raise. While he ponders his actions from a jail cell, the young working class woman he disfigured has to try to salvage her life and keep from frightening her kid just by showing her face. Set in London and infused with thick cockney accents and working class strife, Dirty God is the relentlessly grim story of the poor choices the young woman keeps making as she tries to find her footing and somehow support her child. The performance by the unknown lead actress makes the character especially sympathetic and is the best thing about this otherwise difficult-to-watch film.

A simpler film might have focused on a quest for vengeance, but this one aims a bit higher, examining how you manage to cope with a bad situation, not because you have any special help or special abilities, but because that’s what you have to do. C+.


The “Pleasant Valley Sunday” world inhabited by suburban soccer mom housewives is squeezed through a surrealist meat grinder and seasoned with mutant fairy dust in absurdist filmmaking exercise Greener Grass. Occupying a layer of the crazy-sphere somewhere between “over-the-top” and “what’s a top?”, this comedic effort has some good laughs, but frequently substitutes strangeness for wit. It meanders between “funny”, which ideally elicits involuntary laughter, and “absurd”, which elicits a measured recognition of “yes, that’s absurd” or perhaps “yes, that’s very absurd”. But, within that framework, it’s a quality effort, and should find an audience who appreciates its disdain for suburban norms and its subversion of common movie tropes. C+.


If you are a certain kind of music fan, at a young age you discovered music that was so good and perhaps even life changing that you were compelled to try to persuade people to drop what they’re doing and listen to it, so that it would change their lives the way it changed yours. (The various religious missionaries that still infect the modern world apparently have that same feeling about their archaic texts and scriptures, so one can see where they are coming from, but outdated nonsense is a tough sell). During the ‘70s and ’80s it was not uncommon for young people to have that evangelical feeling about Bruce Springsteen’s music, which was especially moving and powerful. 

Set in London in 1987 (a few years after “Born in the USA”), coming-of-age gem Blinded by the Light tells the story of a high school student named Javed whose Muslim father brought his family from Pakistan to England, perhaps because he believed in a promised land, and even sent his kids to non-religious schools to help them assimilate. While the family struggled with the anti-Pakistani racism and rampant unemployment of the era, Javed had the impractical ambition to become a writer. That crazy dream found resistance from his father but support from an enlightened teacher and from neighbor who read his work. Most of all, it got turned up to 11 when a friend insisted that he take a couple of Springsteen cassettes to listen to, which demonstrated the power of well chosen words, sparked his imagination, and changed his life.

The way the lyrics from a New Jersey boy spoke so clearly to Javed’s own hungry heart, and the way it gave credence to his unlikely hopes and dreams, is the substance of this film. And it’s the source of the kind of cinematic and musical exuberance rarely portrayed so vividly on screen. It’s a grand and ambitious film, with familiar music but mostly unknown actors who do very convincing work, especially the charismatic newcomer playing Javed.

This film is based on a true story, and the real-life Javed is named Sarfraz Manzoor; he did become a writer and journalist. He wrote a book about the influence of Bruce’s music on his life, which Bruce eventually read, and that in turn led Bruce to graciously allow the filmmakers full access to his songs for the adaptation of that book into this movie. And those songs are not used as background music; they are front and center in all the pivotal scenes, with the lyrics in some cases flashed on the screen.

This is not exactly a musical – the real singing is wisely left to Bruce, but some audiences will surely join in. It’s sort of a borderline musical, and has some scenes and dialog that are a bit silly or corny, which may put off viewers who are not already Springsteen fans. The rest of us just need to suspend disbelief a bit – to “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night”. It ain’t a cinema masterpiece, but as an uplifting tale of rock and roll redemption, hey it’s all right. A-.


Even in the 21st century, parts of Africa are living on such thin margins that a single bad growing season can cause famine. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind finds inspiration in the grim desperation of the 2002 Malawi drought and famine. In one village, a resourceful young farm boy, who had been sneaking into a small library to learn about science, fought against his father’s ignorance to apply that science to the water problem that threatened their survival. He was able to turn some scrapyard mechanical equipment and bicycle pieces into a wind-driven water irrigation pump which allowed his village to grow crops and avoid starvation.

In an era when science is under attack from many liberals (who claim gender is just a social construct, and who subscribe to GMO paranoia), many conservatives (who reject climate change), many religious people (who reject evolution and, let’s face it, reality) and general morons (who refuse to vaccinate their kids), it’s refreshing when science is celebrated in film, in this case a film showing how a little bit of scientific thinking made a huge difference in real life.

Chiwetel Ejiofor co-wrote and directed this ambitious, uplifting film, and gives a credible performance as the boy’s father who struggled to keep his family alive, who forbade his son to get an education, and who fought his son’s efforts to build gadgets he did not understand, eventually relenting. The young actor who played the son delivered an engaging performance.

When the world learned of his role in applying technology to save his village, the real life William Kamkwamba became a minor worldwide celebrity. He wrote the book upon which this movie is based, he did two TED talks, and attended several western schools, receiving a BA from Dartmouth in 2014. B.


The modern art scene, with its increasingly vague definition of “art” and its questionable tastemakers, is begging to be lampooned, and horror comedy Velvet Buzzsaw gives it a shot.

The tale involves greedy art-world schemers trying to profit from a discovery of the work of a recently deceased artist, going against his final wishes. It’s only fitting that such unethical behavior is punishable by artful horror-film death. Jake Gyllenhaal leads a competent cast that elevates the material they are given, but only to a point. Credit the filmmakers for not going for the obvious laughs; the comedy is in the eye of the beholder.

The film examines the question: What makes art valuable? Is it intrinsic beauty, or is it what it can signal about the owner? There’s a serious discussion to be had about what Instagram culture is doing to our perception of beauty and fame. The film flirts with this topic between the artistically conceived and colorful murders. C.