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Category Archives: Film Reviews

The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

20. Atoms of Ashes (Scrantom, USA)/Dancer (McCormick, USA)/Runner (Cooney, USA)

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Three astonishing debut shorts by young female directors, all of which received their Chicago premieres at local festivals (Women of the Now’s Anniversary Showcase, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, respectively). The future – of cinema, of everything – is female. I wrote capsule reviews of all three for Time Out Chicago: Atoms of Ashes here, Dancer here and Runner here.

19. The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing (Alonzo, USA)

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I enjoyed this no-budget absurdist/minimalist comedy so much that I wrote about it twice (for Time Out Chicago here and Cine-File here) then moderated a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew following the World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema.

18. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, Chile)

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Not as rich as Sebastian Lelio’s previous film, the sublime character study Gloria, this is nonetheless well worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s fantastic lead performance.

17. Annihilation (Garland, USA)

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Oscar Isaac is miscast but thinking-person’s sci-fi done large is always welcome and, for my money, this is a clear advance on Ex Machina for director Alex Garland.

16. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar, Indonesia)

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I’m grateful that Cinepocalypse brought this Indonesian horror film to the Music Box. It’s superior to Hereditary if only because the “Satanic” elements seem deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the characters and not just shoehorned in because the director is a fan of Rosemary’s Baby.

15. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker, USA)

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Not just a music doc but also an impressive experimental movie crossed with a highly personal essay film. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. Have You Seen My Movie? (Smith, UK)

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A clever and stimulating found-footage doc comprised of clips from other movies . . . in which people are watching movies. I discussed this on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

13. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin, France)

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This is Arnaud Desplechin’s worst film but it features Marion Cotillard dancing to the original Another Side of Bob Dylan version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which elevates it to the status of essential viewing.

12. Savage Youth (Johnson, USA)

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Fascinating true-crime tale acted to perfection by a terrific young ensemble cast. I reviewed it for Time Out Chicago here and interviewed director Michael Curtis Johnson for Cine-File here.

11. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson, USA)

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A hilarious and ingenious “remake” of Vertigo, which consists only of scenes from other movies and T.V. shows shot in San Francisco — though this won’t make a lick of sense if you don’t know Hitchcock’s masterpiece like the back of your hand.

10. Loveless (Zvyagintsev, Russia)

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Andrei Zvyagintsev’s damning indictment of Putin’s Russia disguised as a dour melodrama. Smart, exacting filmmaking.

9. Bisbee ’17 (Greene, USA)

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No American film this year feels more relevant than Robert Greene’s innovative doc about the U.S. government’s shameful deportation of recently unionized workers, many of them immigrants, from the title Arizona town 100 years ago. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

8. Claire’s Camera (Hong, S. Korea/France)

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This was dismissed or damned with faint praise as lightweight Hong in some quarters but those critics are dead wrong. I wrote a capsule review of this great comedy for Time Out Chicago here.

7. First Reformed (Schrader, USA)

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I wrote on social media that I greatly enjoyed Paul Schrader’s “Protestant version of Diary of a Country Priest.” When asked by a friend to elaborate, I expounded: “Bresson has always been Schrader’s biggest influence and that influence is more pronounced in First Reformed than ever before. Some of the elements that can be traced back to Diary of a Country Priest specifically: the clergyman coming into conflict with his superiors for leading too ascetic a lifestyle, the way he bares his soul in his diary, his stomach cancer, his alcoholism, his search for grace in a superficial, material world, the austerity of the visual style, the transcendental uplift of the final scene, etc.”

6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

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Bruno Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. I reviewed this for Cine-File here and discussed it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

5. The Woman Who Left (Diaz, Philippines)

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A companion piece to Lav Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring a tremendous lead performance by Charo Santos-Concio (who came out of retirement to play the part).

4. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA)

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A theater director asks a teenage actress to mine deeply personal emotional terrain – including the tumultuous relationship she has with her own mother – in order to workshop a new play. This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Josephine Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in all director/actor relationships. Imagine Mulholland Drive from a truly female perspective and you’ll have some idea of what Decker is up to — but this exhilarating film looks and sounds like nothing else. Helena Howard should go down as a cinematic immortal for this even if she never acts in another film.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK)

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PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here.

2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami, Iran)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

1. Zama (Martel, Argentina)

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Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return confronts colonialism and racism in 18th-century Argentina in a most daring and original way: by focusing on an entirely unexceptional man. It is also so radical and masterful in its approach to image and sound that it turns viewers into aliens (to paraphrase something Martel said to me in an interview, which you can read at Time Out Chicago here).

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Bresson on Blu x 2

Q: Here (in Mouchette) and in Balthazar one senses a new fascination with pain.

A: Perhaps because I feel that pain must be acknowledged no less than happiness.

— Robert Bresson interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels in 1970

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Newly released on Blu-ray — by Artificial Eye and the Criterion Collection, respectively — are two of French director Robert Bresson’s greatest achievements: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Perhaps strangely, I had never thought of these ascetic masterpieces as being companion pieces, in spite of the short timespan in which they were made, until watching these Blu-rays in quick succession. Indeed, they represent the only time in Bresson’s 50-year career that he ever made two movies in consecutive years. Taken together, they show the filmmaker at a crucial transitional point in his evolution as an artist — more specifically, at the tail end of his middle period and just before the beginning of his great late period. Au Hasard Balthasar and Mouchette mark the last times Bresson would shoot on black-and-white film stock (to the chagrin of some of his admirers) as well as the last time he would use non-diegetic music on his soundtracks — a Schubert piano sonata in the former, Monteverdi’s Magnificat in the latter. (When Bresson transitioned into making films in color, his already-minimalist aesthetic would become even further refined to include only the barest essentials of what he needed in terms of image and sound.) The two movies even share a screen presence, Jean-Claude Guilbert, the only time Bresson ever cast the same “model” in a substantial role more than once. But Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette have deeper affinities in their approach to characterization and theme: both center on the plight of innocent “holy-fool” characters (a donkey and a 14-year-old girl, respectively) in worlds otherwise distinguished by an overwhelming human evil.

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Many of Bresson’s admirers cite Au Hasard Balthazar as his single greatest achievement and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways it’s the most ambitious and expansive movie he ever made (Jean-Luc Godard called it, with little hyperbole, “the world in an hour-and-a-half”). Based on an original screenplay, as opposed to a short story or a novel like most of his other work, Balthazar tells the story of the life and death of the title character, a donkey, in provincial France. As the animal — Bresson’s ultimate “non-actor” — is passed from one owner to the next over a span of many years, he becomes a kind of blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted: his owners inflict physical abuse on him and exhibit such unsavory characteristics as avarice, lust, drunkenness, etc. All the while, Balthazar looks on, silently and without judgement. But Bresson intriguingly expands the scope of this narrative by telling the parallel story of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky in her screen debut), a teenage girl and the daughter of one of Balthazar’s owners, who is led astray by local bad-boy/Satan-figure Gerard (François Lafarge). As the story progresses in a fashion unusually elliptical even for this director, the poetic use of parallel editing makes it seem as if the fates of the girl and the donkey are inextricably intertwined. The final scene, which depicts a kind of miracle, is arguably the most moving scene in Bresson’s oeuvre, a feat that is all the more impressive given that it does not involve human actors.

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Mouchette is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also provided the source material for Bresson’s breakthrough feature, The Diary of a Country Priest, in 1951). When asked why he chose to adapt Bernanos a second time, he claimed “they” had been asking him to do it for 10 years and that, more importantly, he felt like making another movie but didn’t want to take the time to write an original script. While these comments might indicate that the end result is somehow slighter or less personal than Au Hasard Balthazar, this follow-up freature, which won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, is major Bresson. I would also argue it is a more lucid, pure and emotionally affecting work than his more celebrated previous Bernanos adaptation. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenage girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. As in Balthazar, the film’s impact is shattering because of Bresson’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. And, while equating his protagonist with hunted animals suggests the influence of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, Mouchette would itself prove to be a major influence on other filmmakers, most notably the Dardenne brothers in their 1999 film Rosetta.

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The Mouchette Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk here. The Au Hazard Balthazar Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon here.


The 25th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival

The following piece on my best bets for this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, which kicked off last night and runs through this Sunday, was posted at Time Out Chicago today.

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The Chicago Underground Film Festival reaches a significant milestone with this year’s 25th-anniversary edition, which runs from Wednesday, June 6 through Sunday, June 10. CUFF’s notion of what constitutes an “underground” film has always been admirably expansive and this year’s program is typically eclectic in its offering of narrative, documentary and experimental works. We picked one movie to see from each category.

Savage Youth is a fact-based crime drama set in Joliet that features half-a-dozen phenomenal performances by a cast of young adult actors. Will Brittain (Everybody Wants Some!!!) and Grace Victoria Cox (Twin Peaks) stand out as a budding horror-core rapper and a visual artist, respectively, whose lives veer inexorably into tragedy after they begin dabbling in drugs and petty crime. The film’s depiction of an economically depressed and racially divided small town milieu looks especially trenchant and disturbing in light of the current political climate (although it was shot before the 2016 election), but writer and director Michael Curtis Johnson allows his characters moments of tenderness worthy of early Nicholas Ray.

Lori Felker’s Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO is a fascinating documentary about an eccentric subject: a cult figure and pioneer of the No Wave music scene in New York City in the late 1970s who claims to be a “hybrid alien” from the “planet Strazar.” Felker’s film, eight years in the making, is an impressive work of both archaeology and craftsmanship that uses every stylistic trick in the book—from archival footage to animation—to chronicle Von LMO’s many rises and falls; but the director’s masterstroke was allowing the true subject of the movie to become her complicated friendship with this weirdo. Future Language is as much a thorny love letter from one eccentric artist to another as it is a warts-and-all portrait of a gifted musician haunted by demons of his own making.

DANCER is a wordless 8-minute experimental short that repurposes footage from Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 to exhilarating effect, taking a well-known scene of Christina Ricci tap dancing and “making it strange” by chopping it up, adding split screen and heavily distorting it all with a video synthesizer so that the fragmented and fuzzy images that result become a treatise on female beauty as well as the objectification of said beauty. Director Haley McCormick’s analog-painterly aesthetic is perfectly complemented by a gorgeous original score composed and performed by Heart of Palm (a side project of No Coast / No Hope operator Shea Hardacre).

For more information on the 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the CUFF website.


More on THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING

I reviewed Nick Alonzo’s The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing for Cine-File Chicago (this is a different review than the one I recently wrote for Time Out Chicago). It has its World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema tonight at 7:30pm. I will be moderating the post-screening Q&A with members of the cast and crew. Hope to see some of you there!

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Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING (New American)

The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) – Friday, 7:30pm

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.” So goes a 17th-century haiku by Basho that inspired the title of Nick Alonzo’s new comedy. This koan-like poem, which reminds readers of the importance of letting things happen (as opposed to making them happen), is fitting for our modern world where the notion of busy urban professionals consciously “unplugging” in order to undergo a “digital detox” has become a common occurrence. This also happens to be the story of Carl (Alex Serrato), the film’s poker-faced anti-hero who embarks on a solitary, Henry David Thoreau-style retreat into nature after a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Gloria (Alycya Magana). In contrast to Alonzo’s debut feature, SHITCAGO, which featured a deadpan protagonist encountering a strange menagerie of characters in the city, most of THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING is devoted to scenes of Carl alone in the woods in the suburbs—masturbating, exercising, writing in his diary, attempting to fish, etc.—scenarios out of which Alonzo gets a surprising amount of comic mileage. The incongruity of this city dweller alone in verdant nature is highlighted by the fact that he perpetually sports a t-shirt emblazoned with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover—the ultimate symbol of mass reproduction and popular culture—but Alonzo also posits Carl’s strange odyssey as a genuine, and genuinely poignant, desire for spiritual rebirth. At its best, the minimalist, black-and-white-shot SHITCAGO brought to mind early Jim Jarmusch and Chantal Akerman. THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING, a clear advance on its predecessor, might best be described as “stoner Apichatpong.” Alonzo and select cast and crew in person. (2018, 80 min, Digital Projection) MGS


Clare Cooney’s RUNNER at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following review of Clare Cooney’s Runner, which receives its Chicago Premiere at the Music Box this Sunday, was published at Time Out Chicago today. 

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival returns to the Music Box Theater this Friday, May 4 and runs through Thursday, May 10, bringing a typically impressive and diverse slate of acclaimed new independent and foreign films, many of which are fresh off of their World Premieres at Sundance and South By Southwest and all of which are making their local premieres. A welcome new twist to this year’s edition is the inclusion of two short film programs, which are comprised of works by universally acknowledged masters of the form like animator Don Herzfeldt (World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts) as well as first-time filmmakers like Chicago’s own Clare Cooney (Runner). The latter film, screening as part of the “CCFF Shorts Program #1” block, is an extremely auspicious directorial debut for Cooney, who is better known for her work as an actress. Although it clocks in at only 12 minutes, it is one of the must-see events of the festival, especially considering that the whip-smart Cooney will be present for a post-screening Q&A.

Runner tells the story of a young woman named Becca (Cooney) who witnesses a violent altercation between a couple while jogging through an alley near her Chicago apartment. Becca’s subsequent knowledge of what happened, and an unexpected re-encounter with one of the participants, causes her to face an ethical dilemma. As a director, Cooney knows how to get the most out of herself as an actress (she’s a performer of uncommon depth) but she also wisely eschews the melodramatic approach that even more seasoned filmmakers might have taken – cutting the sound entirely from the film’s most intense moment and thereby increasing its effectiveness via counterpoint. But what impresses most in this pungent drama is the way Cooney is able to seamlessly enfold her ideas into a naturalistic narrative framework. In the “Me Too” era, the powerful tracking shots of Becca literally running away from physical danger conjure the notion of a desire to transcend an entire culture of harassment and assault. It’s a haunting movie – and one that chimes with our times.

For more information about the screening of Runner, visit the Music Box’s website.


Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING

The following review of Nick Alonzo’s The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing, which receives its World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema this Friday, appeared at Time Out yesterday. I will be moderating the post-screening Q&A with Nick after the screening.

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I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Nick Alonzo was a special filmmaker. Five minutes into his first feature, the no-budget, minimalist comedy Shitcago, the movie’s unnamed protagonist takes out his trash, pausing long enough to examine a strange stain on the side of a garbage can outside of his apartment before shrugging and heading back inside. This non sequitur is typical of Alonzo’s art: a wordless, deadpan, even mundane sequence that somehow also becomes inexplicably funny. For the few who saw it, Shitcago seemed to announce the arrival of an original and quirky self-taught filmmaking talent whose style felt not just confident but, curiously (considering he was still a college student in his early 20s at the time), fully realized. Alonzo’s second feature, The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing, which has its World Premiere at the Nightingale Theater on Friday, May 5, is a more ambitious film, narratively and aesthetically, that confirms Alonzo’s status as a director to keep an eye on.

The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing begins with the unforgettable image of a man masturbating beneath a blanket in the woods. He stops long enough to swat a mosquito on his face then, while writing in his diary shortly afterwards, expresses a fear of having contracted the zika virus. This impulsive young man, Carl (newcomer Alex Serrato), is a Chicagoan who has chosen to live in the woods indefinitely after having been dumped by his girlfriend, Gloria (actress/filmmaker Alycya Maganas), a tragedy revealed through flashbacks. The bulk of the narrative consists of Carl, armed only with a backpack containing a few meager supplies (matches, magic mushrooms, a book titled How to Survive in the Woods), attempting to commune with a “natural” world he is hilariously ill-equipped to deal with. Bolstered by beautiful cinematography of forest preserves in the near-suburbs (the vibrant greenery of which provides a dramatic contrast to Shitcago’s black-and-white cityscapes), an evocative score by Daniel Fromberg, a delightful animated sequence by Dominique Bloink and a surreal scene involving a person in a gorilla suit, this is microbudget cinema at its most idiosyncratic, personal and rewarding.

For more information about the World Premiere of The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing visit the Nightingale’s website


Robert Greene’s BISBEE ’17

I reviewed Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 for Time Out Chicago. It screens this Saturday, April 7, at the Davis Theater as part of the Doc10 Film Festival (and will be followed by a Skype Q&A with Robert). Full capsule below:

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The Doc10 film festival, curated by Anthony Kaufman (also the programmer of the documentary section of the Chicago International Film Festival) has become, in just three short years, one of the best places to catch the local premieres of the world’s best non-fiction filmmaking. Since 2015, Doc10 has played host to the work of some of the giants of the documentary form, such as Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple and Werner Herzog, as well as important movies by lesser-known filmmakers, such as last year’s harrowing Death in the Terminal by the Israeli directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry. This year’s lineup is as eclectic as ever but documentary enthusiasts should make it a point to see Bisbee ’17, which stands as the masterpiece to date by the enormously talented young director Robert Greene.

Fresh off its Sundance World Premiere, Bisbee ’17 tells the fascinating true story of a labor strike and the subsequent mass deportation of 1,200 striking workers (half of them Mexican or Eastern European immigrants) that occurred in the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, just miles from the Mexico border, in 1917. No mere history lesson, Greene’s film marks the centenary of this tragic event by restaging the deportation using contemporary Bisbee denizens, many of whom descend from exactly the kind of characters they’re portraying. Performative subjects within a non-fiction context have been a constant in Greene’s work for years but Bisbee ’17 is particularly interesting in how it not only grows out of but becomes the flip side of his last movie, 2016’s controversial Kate Plays Christine. That film—cold, terrifying and brilliant—ended with its protagonist, the actress Kate Lyn Sheil, knowing seemingly less about the character she was playing (suicidal news anchor Christine Chubbuck) in a film-within-the-film, than when it began. The warmhearted Bisbee ’17, which ultimately centers on an immensely likable protagonist—a gay Hispanic man (Fernando Serrano) who appears to undergo a genuine political awakening alongside of his “character”—feels as though its provocative reenactment precipitates a profound reckoning, and ultimately understanding, for a good many of its subjects.

The Doc10 screenings take place at the Davis Theater between Thursday, April 5 and Sunday, April 8. Bisbee ’17 screens on Saturday, April 7 and is followed by a Skype Q&A with Greene. For more information, visit the Doc10 website.


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