Slamdance Movie Reviews: ‘The Severing’, Killing The Eunuch Khan’, ‘The Civil Dead’ And ‘Imperfect’

Review by James Lindorf

The Sundance Film Festival is an annual film festival organized by the Sundance Institute. It is the largest independent film festival in the United States. Taking place the same weekend also in Park City, Utah, is the Slamdance Film Festival. This annual event that started in 1995 isn’t for the little guy; it is for the unknown and emerging artists. The Slamdance Organization operates year-round, hosting a screenplay competition, workshops, screenings throughout the year, and events emphasizing independent films with unverified budgets under $1 million. Due to the latest threat from a Covid variant, this year’s event decided to forgo its in-person events and focus on the virtual festival running from Thursday, January 27th to Sunday, February 6th.

I was able to see four movies this year, including the spotlight film “The Severing,” Jury award winner “Killing the Eunuch Khan,” audience award winner “The Civil Dead,” and the empowering documentary “Imperfect.” These films range from experimental, to standard independent fare, to possible attention grabbers on a streaming service in the near future.

The Severing:
Director: Mark Pellington
Producer: Mark Pellington, Dana Marshall, Nina McNeely
Screenwriter: Mark Pellington
Logline: “Pina” meets “Saw”… A dance film for the body.

“The Severing” writer and director Mark Pellington is best known for his extensive music video career with acts spanning from Nine Inch Nails to Bruce Springsteen to Demi Lovato. He has experience working in traditional films like “Arlington Road” and “The Mothman Prophecies.” While his past works have been widely accessible and commercially successful, “The Severing” is in a much different category.

The film opens with the statement that we keep ourselves in a protective shell, never really opening up to others. A series of interpretive dance segments follow, much like 2011’s “Pina.” While that film explored a wide range of emotions, Pellington sticks to a darker, more secret side of life by focusing on grief, pain, sex, and other related emotions. The dancers’ outfits consist of barely-there tattered rags that serve only to keep the movie nudity free. The dancers are covered in chalky makeup and smeared with grease paint and something that could be interpreted as blood, mud, or maybe something worse. Each time one, two, or as many as four dancers are dancing, contorting, and writhing around to a monotonous electronic score.

While many elements, including the makeup, the lighting, and especially the dancing, are impressive, they are drowned out by repetitive themes, styles, and music. A faster-paced 10 minute short is where this idea would have thrived, but instead, it borders on torture at 70 minutes in length. Of course, that could have been the point. I know I would have been willing to tell Pellington anything around the halfway point.

Killing the Eunuch KHAN:
Director: Abed Abest
Producer: Shahrzad Seifi
Screenwriter: Abed Abest
Logline: A serial killer uses his victims to kill more victims.

Iranian writer and director Abed Abest’s contribution to Slamdance is light on dialogue and storytelling, relying on the cinematography and music to share his tale of the horrors of war. In a border city during the war between Iran and Iraq. Two little girls, Nasrin (Sara Mohammadi) and Ahoo (Mah-Sima Karbari) collect reflective items from their yard to decorate the home they share with their father (Vahid Rad). As the girls are preparing for a nap in the afternoon sunlight, their father is on his way to a funeral. While he is out, a plane on a bombing run misses its target hitting near the home, leaving the yard a massive pit and the walls splashed with the blood of his girls.

The artistry in the visuals kicks in as the father tries to dig a grave in the hard ground. As he works, a river of blood representing the lives lost to a senseless war pours down the stairs out of the house and into the pit. Frustrated with his loss and the difficulty to give them a final resting place sets the father out on a mission to find those responsible for his grief. Much of what we see is left open to discussion and interpretation. The visuals provided by cinematographer Hamid Khozoule Abyane are gorgeous. They will at times remind viewers of John Alcott, Kubrick’s frequent cinematographer. Wall masterfully skilled Abyana was also able to use modern technology to create shots impossible during Alcott’s career. Supporting Abyane’s visuals was a magnificent score from Christophe Rezai. They are steller pairing that dances together instead of pulling focus, making for an excellent experience for the audience.

“Killing the Eunuch KHAN” has no commercial value and almost no entertainment value for a large swatch of movie fans. However, it is a fantastic representation of visual storytelling. It will be dissected in film schools worldwide for years to come.

The Civil Dead:
Director: Clay Tatum
Producer: Mike Marasco, Kasandra Baruch
Screenwriter: Clay Tatum, Whitmer Thomas
Logline: A misanthropic, struggling photographer just wants to watch TV and eat candy while his wife is out of town, but when a desperate old pal resurfaces, his plans are thwarted, with spooky consequences.

Clay (Tatum) is a struggling Los Angeles-based freelance photographer and part-time grifter. It has been years since his last published work, and he is struggling with motivation and inspiration. Between trips stomping around the city, Clay is making rent through a bit of reasonably harmless fraud. Trying to regain his mojo Clay gives himself a homemade haircut that his wife Whitney (Whitney Weir) struggles not to laugh at. When Whitney leaves on business, Clay is looking and feeling inadequate and on his own, but not for long.

While searching for inspiration, he runs into Whit (co-writer Whitmer Thomas), an old friend from his hometown. The reunion is a nice break from the dreary weekend for Clay, but it means the world to Whit. He can’t remember when or how, but Whit knows he is dead. Since his death, no one can see him hear him; he cannot open doors or pick things up. He doesn’t need to eat or sleep anymore; he spends all his time alone, aimlessly wandering. Having the ability to “shine” may not be dangerous for Clay, it is even fun for a while, but it could mean being stuck with a house guest for the rest of his life.

“The Civil Dead” is the most typical narrative film of the four movies I watched for Slamdance. No one should be shocked if Tatum and Thomas eventually sell the idea to a studio that wants to make a medium to big-budget comedy out of it. Think of the Marlon Wayans-led comedy “The 6th man.”

“The Civil Dead” was a great concept with basic execution. The sound, the cinematography, and the acting are mostly unremarkable and occasionally bad. It is like a great recipe made with subpar ingredients. You’re full, and it wasn’t bad, but you’re not as satisfied as you’d like. That said, I’d be happy to let Tatum and Thomas make me something to watch again.

Imperfect:
Director: Brian Malone, Regan Linton
Producer: Brian Malone, Regan Linton
Logline: A professional company of actors with disabilities defies expectations by taking center stage in Chicago the musical.

Representation and accessibility go hand in hand. Sometimes, access is given by hiring someone who looks different from you or believes in something other than you. However, the entire world was designed for people without disabilities. Luckily we are mostly past the days of a disability being a death sentence. But we are still trying to recover from the rigid viewpoint that has left us scrambling to develop tools like artificial limbs, hearing aids, telecommuting, and service animals. While also trying to increase medical and social understanding of the disabilities.

“Imperfect” is a new documentary from directors Brian Malone and Regan Linton that follows the Denver-based Phamaly Theatre Company as they prepare a production of the hit musical “Chicago.” What could easily come off as sappy or pandering is a powerful and moving representation of what a dedicated community can do. These people come together to find solutions that will give everyone the chance to do what they love.

The film itself is a little raw, as you may expect when half of the team is making their directorial debut, and they don’t have an endless budget. But the openness of its subjects and the importance of its topic easily wash away any production sins. “Imperfect” is a fantastic documentary that should tour many more festivals after Slamdance before finding a home and a larger audience on a streaming platform.

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