Nantucket Film Festival: Day Three Delivers ‘Mike Wallace,’ ‘Honeyland,’ and ‘The Farewell’

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Nantucket Film Festival: Day three at Nantucket brought the early morning rains we’d been promised for the last week or so. While we’d been lucky enough to avoid much of a downpour up until today, the clouds finally gave way to the weight of precipitation.

Trudging through the shivering rain with umbrellas in tow, a large crowd gathered for the inaugural showing at the White Elephant Ballroom Theater. We had managed the storm for Avi Belkin’s biographical documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here.” The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize.

“Mike Wallace” examines the fascinating, over 50-years long career of the venerable “60 Minutes” newsman. From his early days in radio, to his career as a pitch-man in commercials, we watch how Mike Wallace came to be the curmudgeonly, no-nonsense, television journalist legend. And what an engrossing, brilliant portrait it is.

Mike Wallace invented the dramatic, tough investigative interview with his first news show, “Night Beat.” He was insistent on getting to the bottom line, to the facts. This earned him a reputation as an abrasive, serious on-air personality. As a result, his show was soon picked up and retitled “The Mike Wallace Interview.” He continued to work in the news, covering the Vietnam War and the presidency of Richard Nixon. In 1968, he started a program that many believed wouldn’t be long-lived – “60 Minutes.” From here he began to interview some of the most influential and powerful people in the world, and became known as “America’s most feared investigative reporter.” He helped make “60 Minutes” a ground-breaking event, and the most watched news program in television history.

Avi Belkin’s film is a sensational in-depth look at the enigmatic man behind those tough questions. Through archival footage, he magnificently shows Wallace’s dogged, brow-beating style of interviewing. He overlaps the interviews Wallace led in his storied career with footage of Wallace on the other end of the interview, discussing his often troubled life. The result is a perfectly crafted balance of story-telling, where audiences often see Wallace reacting exasperated by the exact same questions we see him ask of his subjects.

Wallace’s confrontational attitude is what made him an American treasure. This particular element, alone, is also what makes this documentary well worth seeking out. I remember watching Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes” whenever I would visit my grandparents house for dinner. Even as a child I remember being riveted by the stories he and his colleagues would uncover. He was never afraid to ask the tough questions others wouldn’t dare entertain. It is a must-see for those interested in the broadcasting lore of American television, as well as those who fondly remember a time before “fake news” dominated the airwaves.

“Mike Wallace Is Here” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and opens in theaters on July 26.

GRADE: (½)

Following “Mike Wallace,” the rains had lifted and the sun shone through once more. They would return again intermittently throughout the day and into the evening. Several of us remained seated in the White Elephant Ballroom for the next showing: “Honeyland.”

Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Sundance sensation was one of the films I was most excited to see here at Nantucket. The film had won three awards at Sundance, including the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary. This obviously helped sell out the theater, and many – including myself – had inflated expectations coming in.

Located deep within the high mountains of the Balkans, beekeeper Hatidze Muratova lives alone with her elderly mother. Hatidze makes her living harvesting honey from her bees, always leaving them as much as she takes for herself. She then makes a four-hour hike into the nearest town to sell the honey at the market district of Skopje. Hatidze and her mother live in peace and quiet, until a family of rowdy and mischievous cattle herders move in and threaten her way of living.

“Honeyland” is an alluringly shot film with no narration or guide for the story. We are simply a bee on the wall, watching Hatidze’s tale unfold. And while there are moments of beauty, the meticulously observational storytelling format left the film feeling sluggish and tedious at times. The doc chooses to focus mostly on Hatidze adapting to her surroundings when the new family arrives. I would have rather spent more time alone listening to her knowledge and wisdom that goes into being the sole caretaker of the bees. We only know she is “the last in a long line of Macedonian wild beekeepers” because the synopsis of the film tells us that. What has led to her being the last of her kind? Why is it important that she does what she does? These are the questions I would have preferred been answered.

The crowd at Nantucket had a muted response to the film as it wrapped. There was a pause between the credits rolling and an apathetic applause that I had not seen in any other screening thus far.

“Honeyland” will likely be a doc that is popular with the highbrow critics. They will likely take more from the film than I did. While it is a beautifully shot film, I cannot say much for the story it tries to tell.

“Honeyland” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and opens in theaters on July 26.

GRADE: (★½)

The third screening on Friday was yet another film to premiere at Sundance, making it a clean sweep for the day. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” – starring one of Award Circuit’s 2018 Breakthrough Performers, Awkwafina – has been a crowd sensation on the festival circuit thus far. It received a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance, and has picked up audience awards at four additional festivals as well.

The trend may continue here at Nantucket.

Billi (Awkwafina) has recently discovered that her grandmother has a terminal illness with a diagnosis that only allows her a short while to live. Following a Chinese tradition, her family decides to keep grandma Nai Nai (adorably portrayed by Shuzhen Zhao) in the dark about the degree of her illness. Instead, they schedule a trip to China to celebrate an impromptu wedding. This allows the entire clan the chance to be together before she passes.

Billi, however, struggles with the decision to uphold this custom. Returning to her homeland already has her feeling like an outsider, it only adds to her guilt and discomfort to have to lie to the woman she loves and respects.

“The Farewell” is a semi-autobiographical tale for Wang. It is a story rich with familial ties and the unbreakable bond that exists despite whatever distance is between them. It is a bittersweet and charming film, well directed and acted. It will no doubt be a popular film for audiences that seek it out, despite leaving me slightly cool to it. I felt the joy and humor of the film, just not the emotional drama that most are taking from it. The story just never developed enough to make me care about anyone other than that delightful Nai Nai. Wang could have shone more of a light on the internal conflicts, giving us a chance to understand why Billi makes her decisions through the film.

“The Farewell” is a lighthearted and perceptive flick, both in a cultural and kinship sense, with far more of its emotional concepts left under the surface rather than altogether discovered.

“The Farewell” is distributed by A24 and opens in theaters on July 12.

GRADE: (★)

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