The Ethical Dilemma of a Family Divided: A Review of My Flesh and Blood

Although it is perhaps not the most technically flawless documentary that I have ever laid eyes upon, My Flesh and Blood has the heart to more than make up for what it lacks in stunning camera movements. The ingeniously crafted story makes the audience feel all the right emotions at just the right moments. The film was released in 2003 by Jonathan Karsch and won the best director and the audience awards at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

The story is a portrait of the Tom family. It follows them for a year and examines the family dynamics along with ethical questions that are raised by the living situation. Susan Tom, the matriarch of the family, has 13 children. The two oldest are her biological children, are fully grown, and live outside the house. The other eleven live in the house and have a variety of disabilities. The film focuses on several of the older children including Athony (who has a life-threatening skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa), Faith (who was severely burned as an infant), Xenia (who was born without legs), Margaret (who has no severe disabilities but is her mother’s assistant), and Joe (who has cystic fibrosis and ADHD).

The ethical dilemma that is examined throughout the film results from the nature of Susan Tom’s career. She lives off of her children’s disability checks from the government. In the film, she is frequently not around, leaving Margaret to care for this brood. Furthermore, the family dynamic is complicated by Joe’s apparent instability. He is frequently shown insulting the other children, yelling, and even goes so far as to request that one girl play doctor with him in the middle of the night. This last act puts the family on high alert and Susan Tom must consider the possibility that sexual assault within the family could occur while making sure that Joe receives all the appropriate medical care. His health takes a turn for the worse, though, and he ends up in the hospital.

The family situation is examined on a greater scale in this movie. The dynamics of relationships are explored at great lengths. The audience is certainly taken for one while ride. The plot construction and overal crafting of the film is what makes this film pure cinematic gold.

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Sundance Film Reviews

Film Reflections

Monday
Skateistan
This short but powerful documentary chronicled the affect of skateboarding on kids in Afghanistan. It was only 8 minutes long, but packed more of a punch than some of the long-form documentaries that I saw while at Sundance. I was pleasantly surprised by this brief documentary. It was shot on 16 mm film, giving it an interesting appearance, definitely setting it apart from other films I saw. The color was beautiful. The cinematography was lovely. The shots were well framed. The most intriguing part for me was that no one spoke while they were on screen. Instead, the film relied on a series of video portraiture to portray the individuals seen in the program.

The Green Wave
This film was shockingly upsetting, not to say that it was a negative. It took a major risk, relying on animation to tell the tales of the lives of bloggers after the most recent Iranian election. Although reminiscent of comic books, I was surprised the style of animation didn’t detract from the overall production value of the film. In fact, I wasn’t consciously aware of the animation. I was too moved by the story and harrowing journey of these individuals. The story was well constructed, with a good mixture of talking head and animated segments.

Buck
This charming film won me over at the festival. Although it lacked some of the qualities that I usually am a stickler about, I appreciated the development of character and the general plot arc of this film. The audio tended to peak and the camera had a tendency to be shaky, but surprisingly this didn’t detract from the overall quality of the piece.

Tuesday
An African Election
Although at times slow, An African Election provided an in-depth and fascinating look a the developing legal processes in Ghana. It was a look at a new and unstable election process that was beginning to take shape in Accra, Ghana. Both political parties were represented and the issues that the politicians were confronted with by having a relatively young democracy and an unstable democratic system. The film was successful at building suspense through the portrayal of various issues during the election, but used awkward titling to break up the sequences and was relatively slow, probably due to the nature of the story.

The Troll Hunter
The Troll Hunter was a surprising attendee at the Sundance Festival. I never expected to see a film that largely relied on special effects at an independent film festival. The dialogue was hilarious. It was a Norwegian comedy/thriller and is likely to become a cult classic. The film portrays three college students who are trying to follow and find a man who authorities say are responsible for various bear-killings in the area. They discover that the man is actually responsible for killing trolls. The rest of the film chronicles the trying experience of hunting trolls. Overall, it was a hilarious, but at times slow comedy and is definitely worth seeing, if to do nothing more than say you saw The Troll Hunter.

Wednesday
Vampire
Oh, Vampire. What is there to say about this film? It claimed to bring a new look to the ancient lore of the blood sucking fiend, but in reality it was nothing more than a quirky and horribly written melo-drama about a confused individual with a blood lust and fascination with suicidal females. Overall, it was hilarious, utterly hilarious, but only because I neglected to remain quiet the entire time. I sat with a friend, with whom I made ridiculous comments. But, Vampire wasn’t the source of my happiness. It was horribly written, acted like a soap opera and overall, not worth seeing. It makes a wonderfully bad movie to see with a large group.

Thursday
Prairie Love
When I think of the prairie, I think of boring, rolling fields. Needless to say, this film was just what I expected: boring. Slow as molasses, the film progressed as much as a short in the length of a feature. With the unexpected twist at the end, I felt nothing, mostly because I didn’t care at all what happened to the characters. It was weird, funny at times, but mostly boring and slow.

The Last Mountain
The Last Mountain was the most surprising film that I saw at Sundance this year. I went in expecting a slow, steady documentary and what I got was a racy, emotionally charged in-depth look at coal mining in West Virginia. The most unexpectedly fantastic element of the film was the editing, which was reflected by its best editing award won at the festival. The film covers Massey Energy’s controversial methods of mining for coal on Coal River Mountain, the last untouched mountain of the Appalachians. Bill Haney, the director, was unafraid to use text in this documentary, which is usually a risky thing due to the boring nature of simple words on a screen. But The Last Mountain livened up text with exciting backgrounds and lively layering. The Last Mountain was my favorite film at the festival.

Friday
Happy, Happy
“Happy, Happy” was an unexpected take on unconventional family dynamics and a charming, hilarious film. It was an unexpectedly innocent take on infidelity. This foreign film takes place in a desolate backwater town in Norway. Two families collide in the dead of winter. Spousal fidelity is explored, along with race relations between the two children. The film takes on a large number of controversial issues and surprisingly effectively tackles them all in the relatively short amount of time. The writing gives the audience a unique insight into Norwegian life. “Happy, Happy” is a fresh new look at a racy romance. The innocence with which it explores mature and controversial themes is incredible.

Saturday
The Details
A busy and quirky black comedy about the most dysfunctional of families, “The Details,” had an unexpected, yet wonderful, payoff. It was incredibly well executed, with fantastic acting, cinematography and editing. The acting was splendid and loaded with names. From Toby MacGuire to Laura Linney, the highlight of the film was definitely the fantastic characters. The dialogue was insightful, but the actors’ portrayal of the characters was what made the film.

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Film Review # 10

“It’s a Villainous Life”

This refreshing and quirky comedy was an amusing way to spend five minutes.

The lighting and editing were the strongest aspects of the film. It went from limbo lighting, to natural lighting, to incredibly stylized and dark lighting. There was a huge variety in the style of lighting, along with the types of various situations.

The overly dramatic acting worked well for the stylized film. The actors, although not truly real life, were incredibly relatable. There was a definite chemistry between the two main characters, which translated well to the screen.

The script was short and sweet but the ending was a bit confusing. There wasn’t much clarity as to what actually happened. It could have been up to the audience to decide if Markus was successful or not, but there is no clear cut ending, which was a little frustrating.

In addition, the final scene had some continuity errors, including rain. Besides that, the shots were well-timed, well-acted and well-cut. I enjoyed the overall pacing of the film and especially noticed the way it relied on music to draw the audience in.

The lighting in the opening scene was captivating enough to make me watch the entire film. I loved the limbo lighting for the lair that was so appropriate for attempted supervillains.

The color was wonderfully vibrant, with high saturation when in daylight, and low saturation in candlelight. Overall, the lighting and color were appropriate for each situation and very intriguingly stylized.

The constant camera movements were a refreshing take on student film. There was a clear effort put in my the crew to make the viewer interested in what was happening onscreen at all times. That was evident in the slight movements made constantly, and made to flow together well.

Overall, the film was well crafted and enjoyable. There was a clear vision that the directors had that was very well thought out and communicated.

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Final Project Reflection

For the final project, I decided I would go out on a limb and try something new. That something new turned into something I really enjoyed. I found that I really enjoyed creating this quirky film about a failure of a super villain.

I worked with my film partner, Dan Koehler, on the project.

We encountered a number of difficulties on our shoot, as with all film shoots. With rain, missing actors, various technical difficulties, and changing of scripts, Dan and I had a lot to work around. I think that, overall, we were incredibly successful. We both were on our toes and were able to adapt to necessary situations.

Over this semester, I’ve become much more confident in my filmmaking abilities. At the beginning of the semester, I was relatively unsure of myself and everything I could do. But after creating a plethora of different style films this semester, I find myself being more focused in the filmmaking process.

In addition to a newfound focus in film, I found working in groups to be especially enjoyable in this class. In the past, I have dreaded group work because usually I end up pulling a vast majority of the weight. In this class, I’ve found like-minded people that I genuinely enjoy working with.

In addition to that, my involvement in various outside programs has helped me a great deal this semester. I’ve been involved in editing for an ESTV show, have participated in Elon Docs Production Program and have assisted in a variety of outside projects.

Overall, I have narrowed my focus this semester to film, which is something that I haven’t done in the past. I have found that I enjoy and can contribute to a wide variety of film work and am looking forward to my next few years in the film department at Elon.

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Film Review #9

“I just witnessed the brutal murder of a film”: How Editing and Scotty P. Didn’t Get Along.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had a cloud of positive buzz around it. I heard many things before watching, how funny it was, how well made it was, how flawlessly glorious the film interpreted the graphic novels.

I disagreed wholeheartedly.

I found the stylization to be amusing, chaotic and, most of all, corny. Various techniques used, like the stylization of one scene to make it sound like an episode of Seinfeld and the battle sequences, were over used. Whereas they would have been successful if used for only half of the time, they overused each and every technique. This made each fun little accessory into an unnecessary addition to the remarkably slow paced film.

Paul Machliss and and Jonathan Amos, the minds behind the kitschy and outrageous editing style in the film, didn’t have many famous films under the belt before taking on this huge project. Perhaps their lack of experience is what contributed to the ill-timed effects, in terms of duration.

Whereas the weakness of the film were overused techniques, edit transitions were the strengths. The highlight of the film was the minute attention to detail scene in the transition between scenes at the beginning. On more than one occasion, a person would walk across screen and a wipe would follow them. This resulted in a very interesting effect.

Most surprising was the initial success of the techniques. For the first 30 minutes, I was enthralled. Then, nothing new happened. Within the opening, Amos and Machliss shattered the glass ceiling, but when you shock and awe within the first, opening minutes, you walk a tight rope. If you shatter expectations in the beginning, they must continue to be exceeded. Instead, the edit built up a momentum, and instead of accelerating and decelerating with the pacing and emotionality of the film, it kept the same general feeling.

Overall, however intriguing the general style was, the editors were unsuccessful in continuing the momentum established within the first section of the film. There was no editing payoff.

Although the audience considers the director to be chief storyteller, that award would have to go to the editor, responsible for taking whatever available and cutting it together to actually tell the story. In a visual medium, the visual storytellers, the editors, have the ultimate power to make or break a film.

In Scotty P.’s case, the editors made the film with the extremely exciting transitions and stylized effects. Then, they savagely beat those effects to death and killed the film in cold blood. I witnessed murder.

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Film Review #8

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

This insightful documentary depicts the quality of life in Appalachia, the differences in culture, the unique view of the world. It follows a year in the life of one family.

The documentarians featured the use of graphics to help understand the family structure. Using an interactive family tree, of sorts, the White family was connected and brought to life, used as a bridge between people featured.

The White family’s claim to fame was D. Ray White, a former miner turned famous tap dancer. D. Ray was notorious in the area for his uncanny ability to monopolize on undeserved government benefits.

D. Ray started his entire family on government welfare checks when they were each eleven. The family continued to monopolize on government services long after D. Ray’s death. None of the white family works. They all receive social security.

This White family is notorious in the area for their bad behavior, lack of respect for abiding the law and general contempt for authority.

This was a fantastically unreal story. Although I enjoyed the ridiculousness of the White family, I found myself wanting more of a message in the documentary.

It wasn’t until the last 20 minutes of the documentary that I received any message at all as to what the documentary was even supposed to say. Throughout most of the piece, the documentarians do nothing more than talk about the drug habits of the family members.

And, suddenly, in the conclusion, the audience begins to understand why they have no respect for the authority, why they live for the present, why they have no respect for life. In an attempt to wrap up the unanswered questions raised in the first hour and a half, the story of D. Ray is told.

A former miner, exploited by the coal companies, D. Ray saw how much advantage was taken of him by the coal company, who had control of the general store, control over every good he purchased.

In an attempt to give his family what he wouldn’t otherwise be able to, he learned to take advantage of the social security system, beginning to get pay for doing no work. He went through various loopholes in government in order to allow his family to have a normal life.

Because of the nature of coal mining, the culture in West Virginia focuses on the present, not the future. The White family embraces this philosophy, using government loopholes to support themselves without an actual profession.

Overall, I enjoyed the documentary. I thought it was strong on character development, but marketed itself more as a social documentary. As such, it was weak due to its lack of in-depth exploration of the topic introduced in the beginning and left for dead until the end.

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A Ghost Town

This is a photo documentary that I completed as part of the Elon documentary production program.

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