Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2014 Atlanta Film Festival: 6 short films directed by women

Last night at the Atlanta Film Festival, I caught one of the finest block of short films I've ever seen at any film festival (usually there are one or two offerings in a shorts program I don't care for). I had agreed to attend the program without knowing that its focus was attuned to the work of female film directors and that, thematically, the films were all about young girls. As I say on MOVIE GEEKS UNITED! all the time, 9 times out of 10, a movie directed by a woman is going to impress me, simply because their voices are yearning to be heard--and you can intrinsically feel this in their films. I believe women directors have a better (or at least more novel) handle on nuance, emotion, character development, and pacing, while sporting a unique take on humor and drama that just always feels immanently fresh and exciting to me. These six short films prove my point.

Thirteen Blue (Jacqueline Lentzou, Greece) 
On the verge of womanhood, Ellie (an expressive Emmanuela Sfyridi) spends her summer mornings silently assessing her image in the mirror, trying to reconcile the girlish body she once had with the more curvy one she's getting. Waiting impatiently for the birth of a family friend's baby, this only child  finds herself alternately engaged with and alienated from her family, and when some tough news comes her way, she reacts with both horror (in one superb close-up of Sfyridi's stunned face) and a wandering introspection. Lentzou frames her films images impeccably in widescreen, with a masterful sense of composition that often cleverly obscures the action in inventive ways. The film's color palette is memorably vibrant (Owen Laird's cinematography--the film was shot on Super 16mm film--is filled with warm yellows and pale pinks), and the always sharp editing reminded me of the best of the Dogma 95 movies. In 18 minutes, Lentzou's THIRTEEN BLUE really impresses us with its depth of feeling and its gentle but arresting visage. 

Damn Girl (Kira Richards Hansen, Denmark) 
In this terrific character study, Hansen trains her camera on Alex (Rosalina Kroyer), a young girl who spends her days with her all-boy crew doing boyish things. But this can't last forever and it's not long before one of the guys starts seeing Alex in a different light. Bathed in industrial browns and blacks, Hansen's film really gets the life of young boys correct with their tough talk and rough play. But, through the excellent scripting by Signe Soby Bech (this is a really funny film), it also effectively trains in on what it's like to be a young woman trying to figure out in which direction to go next. In a lightning-quick 13 minutes, DAMN GIRL (which I think was originally called FUCKING GIRL, and I can see where that might be a more problematic title, but I think it's a better one) gives us generous doses of realism and, yet, more sparing but still exceptional tastes of powerful sentiment and romance.

So You've Grown Attached (Kate Tsang, US)
Tsang captures our eyes from her very first black-and-white image: a grey-suited man with an inky face, glowing eyes, and spiders on his lapel. We find that this is Ex (Simon Pearl), and the film withholds from us only a short time the knowledge that he is Izzy's imaginary friend. Izzy--in a wonderfully acerbic performance by Madeleine Conner--is a kid that hates everything. Her reaction to a mere slice of pizza is to begin stabbing it over and over again with a plastic knife. Ex is her only way to engage with the world, and he's happy about that. But when other concerns begin to catch her eye (more specifically, the boy next door), Ex has to come to the realization that his days with his best friend are numbered. On a pure craft level, this was perhaps the best film of the bunch. The art direction, costume design, animation, scoring, editing, sound and widescreen photography are all absolutely brilliant, worthy of comparison to Tim Burton. But Tsang never lets these elements overtake the heart and humor of her story, as evidenced by the inevitable ending, which still remains ridiculously moving. A really energetic short film. SO YOU'VE GROWN ATTACHED is 15 minutes of sweet, vigorous intelligence matched with equally solid optical confections.  

Without Fire (Eliza McNitt, US)
Wonderfully shot with a you-are-there documentary feel by Hunter Baker, McNitt's forceful 20-minute film follows a Navajo girl (Magdelena Begay) struggling to survive brutal desert conditions and abject poverty while dealing with her stern, asthma-afflicted mother (Misty Upham, who's quite splendid). Working with disguarded junk, the daughter finds an inventive way to help ease their survival blues while proving her worth to her demanding mother. A quiet film with a measured pace and sure sense of location (the filmmakers spent three torturous weeks in the desert making the film, and the director even contracted dysentery when she drank the available tap water), WITHOUT FIRE is devastating and yet supremely hopeful throughout.  

Painted Lady (Brittany Shyne, US)
Anchored by an eloquently precocious and largely silent lead performance by Sumayah Chappelle (Dave Chappelle's niece), Shyne's PAINTED LADY finds quiet drama in a subject rarely touched on in films. The concept is refreshingly simple: Bree is a nine-year-old dealing with her first menstrual period. With this, director Shyne reaches a high level of frank intimacy that is tasteful and yet poetically real (impressively, the bounces from slightly discomfiting moments to ones of serene beauty). Visually, her film's major asset is Chappelle who, with her beautiful eyes and rather melancholy manner, says everything we need to know without ever having her voice heard.  She's an exceptional young actress who deserves to have a promising career, and Shyne was perfectly brilliant in casting her. 

Crystal (Chell Stephen, US/Canada)
Though I loved all of the films in this shorts program, I'd be lying if I didn't say I had a favorite, and Chell Stephen's tremendously funny character study CRYSTAL easily won out in this regard. It had me cackling loudly and literally throughout--from the moment where Crystal takes a slap in the opening shot, I was hooked. The director has a confident and raucous filmmaking style that's an attraction unto itself (visually, the movie is as wildly bold as the character its portraying). But, for me, most of the laughs stemmed from Kate Stephen (the director's sister) as the title character, an ass-kickin' country girl with a rich fantasy life (heavily influenced by her favorite music videos) and absolutely no patience with anything or anyone she encounters. She's hilariously tough, whether telling her diner co-workers to fuck off or punching out a dude trying to appeal to her softer side. By the end of this 16-minute nuttiness, I was clamoring for about 80 minutes more with this riotous riot grrrl with the delicate bangs, the short-cut pink-t, and the stern face. Light the countryside on fire with Crystal's name, folks, because once you see this film you won't be able to forget its maker or its incredibly vivacious star--a one-two-punch of a sister team. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: LIMO RIDE (2014 Atlanta Film Festival)

We all have stories from our youth--wild stories of fun-havin', trouble-makin', sex-rompin' near-death experiences that inspire ranting and raving sessions of storytelling for years afterwards. And, inevitably, when telling these tales of our lives, we think "You know, this would make a great movie."  Yet, often, these films never get beyond the storytelling phase.  But filmmakers Gideon C. Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater have given energetic and unnerving vision to a hilariously stressful tale from ten Alabama friends, all of whom excitedly recount their most raucous night in the new documentary Limo Ride.

After a stunning credits sequence (seriously, one of the best I've ever seen for an indie film), Kennedy and Rosentrater throw us head first into this ridonkulously entertaining tour of debauchery. Throughout, the film's soundtrack is commandeered by the real life participants, all of whom vie for mic time while telling their side of the story, which begins with them all "recovering" from your typically over-the-top, liquor-fueled New Year's Eve. The filmmakers rely almost solely on recreations to provide the images for the movie (making it seem sort of like a southern-fried Errol Morris epic, though there are no soul-searching talking heads here--the participants only make appearances on-screen at the very end). This nutty and frankly sort of scary band of friends--ready to fight with each other and anyone else at a moment's notice--decide to ignore their need for sleep and instead contract a stretch limo to take them around Mobile, Alabama, while they snort, drink and smoke up everything they can get their hands on. First stop is a beach-side event called Flora-Bama, where legions of crazy people brave the freezing gulf waters in a polar-bear-like show of cheek (and I mean "cheek" literally, since two of our participants here end up completely nude, leading to some big laughs with a curious photographer who's a little too enthusiastic about taking candid snaps of these guys).

From here, it's on to some contentious karaoke and a violent run-in with some skeevy jerks at The Keg, a top Mobile dive bar. Thus truly begins the most amazing downward spiral ever, a drunken descent into a freezing hell of a night, with a sketchy limo driver and his possibly crack-addled cohort leading these ten friends (and one girlfriend) into a no-man's-land where they each start to wonder whether they're gonna survive all this so-called fun. Limo Ride is vibrantly shot by Jeanne Tyson and edited with tremendous care by Rosentrater (I tell ya, this movie speeds right by, so much so that it leaves you wanting so much more time with these dudes). An experimental documentary if there ever was one, Limo Ride is a real hoot, and one of the best movies I've seen at this year's Atlanta Film Festival.  LIMO RIDE has its world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, March 30 at 6:30 pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 Atlanta Film Festival: Capsule Reviews (The First Batch)

As I am flooded with screeners for the upcoming Atlanta Film Festival (March 28-April 6), I'm trying to evaluate as many titles as possible. Unfortunately, this means I'm unable to go into as much depth as I normally do for each, whether I like the film or not. So I'm posting this first salvo of mini-reviews in order to give some attention to as many films accepted into this year's event. I'm starting out with coverage of 12 narrative and documentary features, arranged here in order from the ones about which I'm most enthusiastic to the ones I'd advise everyone to stay far, far away from.  Here we go:

FOREV           Of course, the truly romantic and funny rom-com is a rare alloy these days, especially in the indie world where genuine sweetness is in short supply. But writer/directors Molly Green and James Leffler have crafted a real treat in FOREV. I knew the film was going to be clever very early on when we see Sophie (Noel Wells) on an audition for a hot dog commercial and then, after her disastrous screen test, being told she can now spit out the hot dog bun. The camera peers into the trash can, catching the pile of half-masticated buns chucked out by the previous, weight-obsessed actresses. Sophie plods out to her car and promptly gets in the trunk. And I was sold. Matt Mider plays Pete, the low-key neighbor she’s brushed into a few times; both are extremely appealing, but not in that too-polished actory way. They’re messy and neurotic, but they’re also quick-witted and energetic, both as actors and as characters. After the audition, Sophie runs into Pete again, and they launch into a jokey routine about getting married. Then they both begin to take to the idea, even though they’ve never dated. In true indie mettle, this leads to a road trip to meet up with Pete’s sister, Jess (Amanda Bauer, in another super performance, bouncing effortlessly from wryly seething rage to joyful openness). Along the way, Pete and Sophie explore the not-yet-real possibility that they are “engaged,” both with rompy humor and believable insecurity. FOREV is refreshing because, without getting preachy or overly goopy, it explores what it means to have a truly valuable give-and-take with someone. It also happens to be consistently hilarious and beautiful to look at--the Arizona locations pop with bright yellows and blues in cinematographer Robert Edgecomb’s lens, and the well-chosen song score is its perfect aural accompaniment. Reminiscent of  BOTTLE ROCKET-era Wes Anderson, FOREV is a filmmaking debut that impresses us with its big heart, fun dialogue, and smart construction.  FOREV plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, March 30th at 1:30 pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points.

METALHEAD          From Iceland comes Ragnar Bragasson’s superlative tale of grief and shredding, with Thora Bjorg Helga commanding as Hera, a rebellious twenty something still reeling from the long-ago death of her metalhead brother (in a harrowing opening scene). Returning to her family’s rural dairy farm after being away for years, she attempts to blend in with this religious community, even though she doesn’t hide her contempt for a God she feels betrayed by, nor her love for a music she admires for its refusal to sugarcoat life’s harshness. Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir are exceptional as Hera’s parents, also still haunted by their son’s death and struggling to accept their daughter’s increasingly erratic behavior. August Jakobsson’s widescreen cinematography is gorgeously bleak--unforgettably so--and Bragasson’s accomplished writing and direction keeps everything feeling true, right up to the film’s quite memorable final shot. With music by Megadeth, Riot, Judas Priest, Lizzy Borden, Teaze, Savatage, and a host of Icelandic metal bands.  METALHEAD plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Friday, April 4th at 9:30 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

15 TO LIFE: KENNETH'S STORY          Kenneth Young is 26 now and in the Florida state penal system where he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for a hotel robbery. At the time of the offense he was 14 years old and Nadine Pequeneza’s thorny documentary uses his appeal process (in the light of a recent Supreme Court decision banning life imprisonment for child defendants) as a way to illuminate the rash of juvenile American prisoners whose terms behind bars are cappers to childhoods filled with neglect and violence. 15 TO LIFE is not gentle on its subjects--both Young and his mother (a recovering crack addict) admit to their faults and culpability, but also revel in their hard-won rehabilitation. Pequeneza smartly keeps the pace of the documentary up, revealing more and more information about the original crime, only to eventually--and stunningly--hit that wall we call the Florida court system, which is not known for its mercy. This accomplished film makes us question and re-question our sense of what constitutes justice.  15 TO LIFE: KENNETH'S STORY plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Tuesday, April 1st at 9:45 pm in the Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium.

120 DAYS          Miguel and Maria Luisa Cortes are parents of two teenage girls and have been living in America for over a decade, having long ago made the arduous trip across the border from Mexico. In their new hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, Miguel is stopped for a routine traffic violation and is immediately stamped for deportation, even though his family has done everything right (even to the point of being commended for community service by the mayor of their adopted city). Ted Roach’s compelling if slightly overlong documentary records the 120 days leading up to Miguel’s departure, and though nothing of particular dramatic import happens in those days (a lot of the footage is of birthdays and pool parties and such), the time does give Roach an opportunity to put a different face on those who have been labelled “illegals” despite having built happy and productive lives stateside. 120 DAYS is slightly marred by the director’s unnecessary narration, but its difficult not to be moved by its sobering and humanistic depiction of US immigration policies’ unfair intractability and the heartbreaking choices it forces one family to make. It's quite a good film about a subject that isn't going away anytime soon.  120 DAYS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Wednesday, April 2nd at 9:15 pm in the Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium. 

A IS FOR ALEX          One’s enjoyment of A IS FOR ALEX will largely depend on their ability to stomach absurdist humor clunkily mixed with some often amusing domestic comedy. Orr stars as a version of himself--a schlubby filmmaker and idea man who’s experiencing anxiety over the impending birth of his baby. Katie Orr (who co-wrote the film with her husband and Adam Pinney) earns points as the only grounded person in this mix (she's quite terrific here, and Alex is pretty good, too). But even with her ever-growing tummy, she gets somewhat lost in the mix, particularly when the movie focuses in on Orr’s questionable filmmaking skills (it breaks the fourth wall in a not-very-funny fashion, though I do love Daniel A. Kelley as Alex's straight-talking assistant) and especially when it belabors its favorite joke, Alex’s flower-pollinating contraptions--giant robot bees, actually, in a cute metaphor for stunted fatherhood.  Of course, the metallic bees go predictably awry. I like most of the scenes of married conversation, particularly one in which the couple discuss his goofy (but probably widely-held) fears of pregnancy sex. Still, the film’s ultimately a slight and flimsily constructed clump of blackout sketches, some of which fall flatter than one of them robot bees. Luckily, the other gags take fine flight.  A IS FOR ALEX plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 1:30 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

CYBER-SENIORS          A feather-light documentary about a Canadian youth program aimed at helping seniors navigate the web. What can you say? The oldsters are charming in their baby-steps with the technology, and the kids are respectful and not nearly as frustrated as one might expect. Not earth-shaking viewing, but pleasant enough, though I continue to marvel at how documentary filmmakers insist on make their films--whatever subject they may be taking on--about their own lives, no matter how snugly they have to shoehorn the material in (for some reason, the director here continually disrupts the piece with status updates on her sister’s cancer battle, under the guise that it’s the internet that helps their grandparents keep in touch with the girls). This is all the insidious effect of the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock revolution in doc filmmaking---get your body seen or voice heard, no matter what... CYBER-SENIORS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Thursday, April 3rd at 6:45 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

1982          Tommy Oliver’s film, which he wrote and directed, has its heart in the right place telling of a Philadelphia father (Hill Harper) dealing with his wife’s addiction to crack while trying to raise their precocious daughter. It’s somehow simultaneously refreshing to see this sort of story being told--you don't get to see many black family dramas these days--and yet it's a bit disappointing that the movie ultimately treads into too-familiar territory, hitting all the beats you think it might. Harper, who’s in almost every scene, is often good but can show a frustrating tendency to speak in an inaudible whisper in order to portray a rage that rarely bubbles up, and so he increasingly seems to be “acting” as the story moves along. Sharon Leal is better as the mother; by nature of the role alone, her scenes have a lively, particularly dangerous vibrancy to them (there’s one tense moment where she’s seen only through a barely opened door, and she nevertheless controls it quite assuredly). Bokeem Woodbine and Ruby Dee are in the cast, though they’re basically contributing undemanding cameos to a director who--with his excellent editing and certain measure of restraint--has promise, but who needs more practice.  1982 plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, April 5th at 4:30 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

THE RIGHT JUICE          Unassuming and big-hearted, this trifle from Portugal follows a British man (Mark Kileen) who’s abandoned his post as a UK banker for the Portuguese countryside, where he labors to start an orange grove. Only problem is, there’s another landowner (a slimy Beau McClellan) who’s commandeered all the water in the valley, and so it’s up to our hero (and his new compatriots) to find alternative sources. Kristjan Knigge’s movie is rather laconic in its pacing, relying heavily on the rural setting's beauty to provide much of the film’s entertainment value (which is not a bad thing). I didn’t find THE RIGHT JUICE particularly amusing, but it gave me a few smiles (I did fall for many of the characters, and got some laughs out of a team of dolphins that pop in midway through). Knigge's film might be just the sort of trip overseas for an audience just dipping their toes into foreign territory.  THE RIGHT JUICE plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Sunday, March 30th at 1:45 pm in the Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium.

BOB BIRDNOW'S REMARKABLE TALE OF HUMAN SURVIVAL AND THE TRANSCENDENCE OF SELF          An endurance test of extreme proportions, much like its mouthful of a title, Eric Steele’s 75-minute movie--if you can call it that--takes place at a sales motivation seminar where the keynote speaker is the doddering survivor of a Iowa plane crash. Most of the film is taken up with his stammering speech, which feels like the most ill-advised motivational booking ever conceived. In the title role, Barry Nash has flashes of weight--he’s doing his best spouting pure gibberish, and seems to gain more confidence when the talk actually takes some sort of menacing shape--but rarely does Steele’s writing rise above the level of a dull, dodgy one-man show (it’s like something Dan Aykroyd's Leonard Pinth Garnell would’ve featured on SNL’s “Bad Theater”). Steele strenuously tries to stretch his one darkened set, with its phalanx of silently stoic audience members (who look bored as all get out), into something visually arresting. Yet, as much as his photography and lighting team goose things, they just can’t overcome a stinging sense of wasted time and faux-creepiness.  BOB BIRDNOW plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 8:30 pm in Plaza Theater's upstairs auditorium.  

THE UNWANTED         An intense, red-headed woman (Christen Orr) blows into a small Southern town looking for clues about her mother's mysterious death. She follows the only lead she has to an isolated house where the sheltered, big-eyed Laura (Hannah Fierman) answers the door, followed by her looming father (William Katt, the movie's main asset). Instantly, we know there are some secrets here (just because it's THAT type of picture). Actually, if you're familiar with writer/director Bret Wood's previous work, you know we're gonna be getting into some kinky stuff before long (this is the filmmaker that adapted Kraft-Ebing's PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS--a much better film than this--back in 2006). And, true to form, Wood doesn't disappoint. Soon we're into hot girl-on-girl action and a little bloodletting (um...make that a LOT of bloodletting). Orr and Fierman (whom I liked in her short role in V/H/S) are attractive, but their acting could use some improvement--their delivery is at turns adequate and painfully stiff. But they do make Katt, with his one-time blonde tresses now a malevolently flowing white mane, look like an Olivier-level thespian in comparison. By the time we reach the ending, we TOTALLY know what's gonna happen, and all that's left is to watch the gleam of the knives and the tying of the ropes. The thing is, I know there's an audience out there for this stuff...I mean, tits? Blood? Tits covered in blood? Geez, start counting the cash, I guess. But I'm definitely not part of this cabal, and I kind of feel sorry for anyone who is (of course, that describes my gentle contempt for about 95% of horror movie fans, who are an undemanding lot). Well-photographed, and with an undeniably memorable climax, at least Wood bills THE UNWANTED as "based on Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story CARMILLA" so we all can feel a little smarter afterwards.  THE UNWANTED plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Monday, March 29th at 9:30 pm in Plaza Theater's main auditorium. 

BESIDE STILL WATERS          Extremely annoying BIG CHILL rip-off (sans Motown soundtrack, of course), with a group of high school friends getting together in a lakeside cabin after the funeral of a member’s parents.  It’s hard to believe people are still riffing on Kasdan’s movie over 30 years after it hit, but apparently they are--you can correlate every one of the characters in Chris Lowell’s feature to the ones in its progenitor (there’s even a guy that stars in a hit TV series, just like Tom Berenger did in CHILL---I mean, arrgggh, it's so obvious). Completely stilted performances, lots of binge drinking (which, seriously, is not in the least bit fascinating--just a little note to ALL indie filmmakers), and puffed-up dramady that thinks it‘s oh-so-clever but is instead palpably painful to sit through. I hope this is the worst film I see at the festival.  BESIDE STILL WATERS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 7 pm in the Plaza Theater's main auditorium.

SPEAK NOW          I spoke too soon.  THIS is the worst film I've seen so far...a deadly-dull wedding comedy (like we need another one of those...geez, I wonder if anything is gonna go wrong for the bride and groom in this one). Naming names here just seems cruel, this film is so awful (the director, though, is Noah Harald and the "writer," so to speak, is Erin Cardillo). Absolutely nothing funny, truthful, moving or surprising ever happens here. Reading about the production, I found out that the entire thing was improvised by the cast and filmed in three days (with a irritating, gauzy shaky-cam), which is hands down the laziest way to make a movie unless your cast happens to be SPINAL TAP-level brilliant...you know...actors who are actually WITTY and well-studies in human moves, and have interesting things to say, and are not just making endless small talk and screeching at the top of their lungs and looking pretty and all the time telling each other to calm down and breathe. Ugh.  SPEAK NOW plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, March 29th at 9 pm at the 7 Stages Theater in Little Five Points.