By Sean Boelman
After an astounding virtual edition in 2020 that ended up having a surprisingly strong influence on awards season, AFI FEST is back in 2021 with a hybrid edition featuring a ton of exciting in-person premieres and some great online screenings. Although a majority of the higher-profile titles will only be available to audiences able to attend the screenings in-person in Los Angeles, there are some virtual offerings that are worth checking out too!
We at disappointment media are again excited to be covering the festival remotely, checking out some of the virtual screenings in addition to some other selections which we were able to see. Check out this article throughout the entire run, as we will be adding more capsule reviews with our quick thoughts as we are able to check out more of the films in the lineup!
Virtually unclassifiable into a particular genre, the Romanian film Întregalde is nothing if not intriguing. Following a group of aid workers who get stuck in a remote area while on a humanitarian mission, this plays out most akin to a thriller, but the stakes are never made particularly high. The central arc of the script is a pretty average “no good deed goes unpunished” story, and while there are some interesting questions asked about the ethics of interventionism, it isn’t as eventful as expected.
The Tsugua Diaries
A lot of metafiction films tend to be rather pretentious, and this has also been an issue with a lot of films made about the pandemic, but despite these factors working against it, The Tsugua Diaries is surprisingly subtle. It’s a film that explores routine and finding joy in the safety of daily life, a reminder that would have been quite welcome earlier in the pandemic. However, even more intriguing is when the film explores the role of creativity in the times of COVID-19 in a way that is more accurate and honest than has been done before.
There are a lot of really fascinating things happening in the second half of Holy Emy, but it takes getting through a rather standard first hour to get to the juicy parts. Following two Filipino sisters who are living alone in Greece as one discovers that there may be something unusual about her, this is like a blend of a family drama with some light horror elements, and the tone is compelling, even if it doesn’t have the substance one hopes for.
The First Wave
Last year’s fall festival circuit featured a bunch of documentaries about the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which were quite good. One would think that the extra time for which Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave has been gestating would make it even more effective, but that is not the case. Although the film isn’t necessarily poorly-made, there are a lot of things that should rub viewers the wrong way. It’s willing to do anything to get a reaction from the viewer, and that is frustrating.
The Moroccan entry for Best International Feature, Casablanca Beats was one of the less-acclaimed entries in competition at this year’s Cannes. It’s not bad by any means, but there’s also nothing exceptional about this Dead Poets Society by way of rap music. Some of the art being created by the characters in the film is quite good, offering some interesting commentary on Moroccan society, but the film doesn’t give it a chance to have a lingering impact.
Simple as Water
The Syrian refugee crisis is a very important issue in the realm of global politics, and filmmaker Megan Mylan attempts to explore the intimacies of the situation in her film Simple as Water via the perspectives of four individuals. And while there are definitely some resonant moments, the presentation is so dull that it doesn’t pack as much of an emotional punch as it could have. Mylan attempts to create a feeling of perceived neutrality, but that is entirely unnecessary (and even worse, ineffective) here, only making the viewer feel distant from the subjects.
Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss
SoundCloud rappers are definitely a unique breed, and they don’t always make for the most compelling documentary subjects. In fact, their characteristically flamboyant and artificial personalities tend to be annoying, and Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss is not able to escape that curse. In fact, much of the overlong runtime consists of young people saying empty things that they think are profound. And perhaps even worse, the film doesn’t work particularly well as a music documentary, as the concert footage is extremely repetitive. There’s a reason why Juice WRLD gathered such a passionate fanbase so quickly, but this film did not communicate it.
The Worst Person in the World
A romantic comedy told in twelve chapters, the title of The Worst Person in the World is a bit deceiving, as it’s actually quite charming. The complexity in the film is not so much in the story itself, but how it’s told. There is an extraordinary amount of nuance in this film that keeps it from ever reaching melodramatic territory. Lead actress Renate Reinsve does an excellent job in her role, and the film is just excellent as a whole from a technical standpoint.
Orit Fouks Rotem’s film Cinema Sabaya is as ambitious of a cinematic experiment as the one it depicts, tackling some of the foremost issues that plague the Middle East right now. It definitely bites off a bit more than it can chew at times, but its messages about the patriarchy and the political division that separates the region are really fascinating. That said, an absolutely glacial pace and a relaxed structure keep this film from ever being truly exceptional.
The 2021 AFI FEST runs November 10-14.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.