Ahh, here's where reality sets in...
After a satisfying opening night, the Atlanta Film Festival's faults are showing through in its second day. Most chief of those faults is the tendency (like many film festivals have) to put the needs of corporate sponsors, local filmmakers, and undemanding audiences ahead of a mission which, to my mind, should ONLY be about showing the best of the best to attending film fans. What I'm trying to say is: I had a hard time finding anything I loved at the fest on Saturday. Here are my reviews:
The oddly-titled feature documentary Flat Daddy deals with four families and how they've been affected by the absence of loved ones who are off fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The filmmakers follow mothers in North Dakota and New York City, a Minnesota grandmother taking care of the children of her deployed son and daughter-in-law, and a Nevada parent grieving over the loss of her son. The title, which is bizarre mainly because it's not germane to the film, refers to the lifesize cardboard-cutout photos that serve as family member stand-ins (which one of the mothers has made a business out of producing). Really, though, Flat Daddy is about nothing more than giving an uncritical 90-minute rah-rah to the troops and their families. And I guess that's all well and good, but never is an examining eye given to what these families think of these wars or the crippling, excessively repeated deployments that have stolen these soldiers away. To a frame, the film just falls into too-familiar territory, like bittersweetly cute scenes of the kids talking about daddies they've never really known, or shattering scenes of mothers crying over coffins. The film's heart is in the right place, but its brain (or at least its sense of curiosity) has checked out; there's nothing here you haven't seen on a hundred local news war-veteran-related profile pieces.
Everyone knows clowns aren't really funny, and Brazil's The Clown isn't likely to change any minds. Suffering from an overdose of Coen Brothers-inspired quirks that fail to charm, The Clown follows the morose leader of a travelling circus who, midway through the movie, reveals a wish for a blander life. The director/co-writer/star Selton Mello is blessed with expert art directors and costumers who help make the movie pop visually. And his casting director has an eye for idiosyncratic faces, this is true. But Mello stumbles in that he can't reproduce the sort of driving narrative that hallmarks the best Coen Brothers movies. Instead, The Clown is leaden with scenes of mirth that aren't all that funny (the clown scenes leave us particularly cold, even though audiences in the film are directed to react like they're seeing the very invention of comedy), scenes of sentiment that don't earn the tears they so crave, and a plot that reveals itself way after our patience with the film has worn down to a nub. Particularly annoying here is a plunk-plunky musical score and a odd directorial insistence on overusing the ultra-slow-zoom, a technique usually reserved for scenes with some import but here used in almost every shot (which can really give one a headache). On the up side, at least the cast is relatively easy-to-watch and the countryside is pretty.
The Drama Shorts program included the following:
Los Angeles 10101 - 3 AM is a very slight piece detailing a booty call between people who ultimately have nothing to say to each other. This is another example of a film that's too short to be complete; two scenes (one of which focused solely on a 2-min POV shot of a phone being used for texting) does not a movie make. That said, I did appreciate its uncomfortable and extended final shot.
Winter Frog, a slightly flawed film from France's Slony Sow, has the big-time benefit of having a seasoned star like Gerard Depardieu in its corner. The acting legend (who now is Marlon Brando-like in girth) shows finesse and attention to detail as he portrays a emotionally devastated recent widower who finds inspiration from a young Japanese wine enthusiast invited to the vineyard by his late wife. The film could use another pass at editing, but it's nicely shot, smartly written, and effectively sentimental without being cloying.
A Hard Day's Pay follows the reluctant reunion between a financially desperate man and the gruff grandfather he hasn't seen in 10 years. Will Davies is good as the hardnosed oldster, but the film feels like well-worn country-noir territory and never really surprises. It's a movie that's just sort of...blah.
The third film in a row to combine drinking with the use of shotguns, Father/Son is the ridiculous tale of a son bringing his girlfriend to meet his decadent father, who develops designs on the girl. This one has the laughing-at-it, not with-it, kind of funniness (but I assume the filmmakers want us to take this tripe seriously, since the movie is programmed in the Drama Shorts block). The worst kind of indie film, Father/Son loves pressing our "ewwww" buttons. But, really, nothing could be a bigger waste of time...
Even worse is 4:00 AM, an Atlanta film spearheaded by local theater troupe Push Push Theater. All I can say is: stick to the stage, guys. This incomprehensible nonsense, inspired by the mysterious and schizo "Toynbee Tiles," sets a Toynbee-worshipping cult member against a cliched late-night talk show host who tries to talk sense but instead ends up sounding just as scatter-brained (the script sounds like it was either written by a extreme stoner or lifted from Eric Bogosian's overrated Talk Radio, though the film's credits include the card "Words by David Mamet"). The fit-inducing frame-fucking here includes fleeting, illegally-used scenes from numerous movies including 2001, The Elephant Man, and Night of the Living Dead. Note to all filmmakers: try not to remind viewers of other BETTER movies they could be watching instead of the shitty one you've made.
Landon Zakheim's Another Bullet Dodged is a ruthless poison-penned piece that, thankfully, broke the festival's losing streak with me. A callous boyfriend is late to pick up a girl, who's going for in for the abortion of their baby, and we follow this emotionless, morally-suspect guy through what should be a traumatic event. This is a nearly perfect short drama--well-paced, controlled, with a concise thesis, terrific acting by its two leads, and a daring sense of frankness. Harsh and unforgiving, Another Bullet Dodged made the audience I was with uncomfortable as hell, probably because many of the hipster guys in attendance saw a lot of themselves in it. The applause that followed it (and usually followed all entries) was notably reluctant and guilty, which I found to be hilarious.
I wish I could just gloss over another Atlanta film, called Terminus, but I can't. It just had no business being in the festival. If you've seen John Hillcoat's version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, you'll recognize everything this movie has to offer. I mean, why make a film if it's merely a direct lift of a few scenes from another movie (only this time it's a kid and his sister wandering the lonely post-apocalyptic road)? The fact that this was programmed is the worst sort of mutual masturbation practiced between the Atlanta Film Festival and local filmmakers and, even though each get to shoot their loads, they're not really doing each other (or audiences) any favors in the long run.
Ben Sharony's magnificent Last Words of the Holy Ghost was another welcome relief from the badness. Adapted from a short story by Michael Cashion, it breaks from the previous shorts by being visually bright and colorful (apparently, for most filmmakers, drama means murky darkness). The 20-minute film also feature the very best writing so far at the AFF, telling of a horny rural teenager who has his sights set on a particular sensuous beauty...but the girl won't date him because he hasn't been "saved" by Jesus. This movie get everything right: the dialogue and situations are fun and then turn infuriating, the acting is expert, the emotions are real (the sense of understanding that infuses the film's climax is brilliantly surprising), the editing is exact, and the direction dynamic. Decorated with some positively lyrical narration, the lovely Last Words of the Holy Ghost is currently my favorite narrative film of the festival.
I ended the night by reluctantly sitting through Scottish director Rob Heydon's feature-length adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Ecstasy. If you can't tell from the poster pictured above, the movie owes almost everything to Danny Boyle's much-loved Trainspotting, also based on a Welsh novel. In fact, if you just replace heroin with ecstasy, and then take out most of Trainspotting's great acting, stunning visuals and soundtrack gems, you pretty much have this film. I mean, Ecstasy even features scenes where the main characters are introduced with name-emblazoned freeze frames. Heydon's film is all about such unoriginal pandering, though there IS a sex scene in it that's unlike any I've ever seen, mainly because the two lovers are listening to separate Ipods while they fuck. (Do people really DO that? That's fucking creepy--literally!) Still, this is a movie made for Trainspotting fans who want to see Trainspotting all over again, but...y'know...different. But, for a movie about partying hard, I found it quite dull, not well-observed (you never get a sense of how the drug ecstasy FEELS), preachy, and rather safe.