Saturday, March 30, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: EUPHONIA


Euphonia, by Georgia's Danny Madden, is a movie that operates beautifully before its plot overtakes its more lyrical features.  Madden's gorgeously shot homemade piece, largely driven by its detailed soundtrack, follows a big-box-store employee (Will Madden, leading a small cast of talented amateurs) who discovers that his purchase of a digital recorder--a devise that fascinates him obsessively--has resulted in its literal possession of his auditory abilities.  As a result, this little handheld thingymajig ends up putting everyone in his life at a distance (including a new girlfriend, played with verve by Maria Decotis).

Obviously, sound takes a big role in the success of this movie, and director Madden makes fine use of this often-neglected feature in films (it leaves the viewer hyper-aware of all the sounds surrounding them).  The film would have been improved if Madden had not inserted those plot points that deliver it into Twilight Zone territory.  It works just fine as a movie that pays more attention to the marriage of sound and image rather than to its predictable, forced construct.  (Why couldn't this simply have been a piece about someone who takes joy in all the sounds the world has to offer?  Why did the sound recorder have to be a "haunted" one?)  Still, this boondoggle takes up very little time or concern in the story, so it registers only as a bitter aftertaste.  In the end, Euphonia is commendable for its realistic acting, its mesmerizing pace (it's just a bit more than an hour long), and its inventiveness on a budget of near zero.   It's a very "indie" indie, and that aspect lends the movie some vigorous charm.  . 

Friday, March 29, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: CASTING BY

Tom Donahue's expertly constructed documentary about the casting process for movies and TV is suitably deemed Casting By, and it is an absolute corker, especially for confirmed movie geeks. It's set to air later this summer on HBO, but it's making the festival rounds now.  The film acts as a tremendously wide-scoped eye-opener, since the casting process is rarely discussed anywhere, at all, in even the smallest detail. In many ways, casting is an art form that's essential to the success of any given project (and, as this film makes clear, is certainly responsible for the great films of film's last golden age from 1967-82). But this aspect of filmmaking nevertheless remains cloaked in an fog of undeserved mystery. Donahue's ridiculously entertaining and invaluable documentary heroically aims to both decipher and lift that cloak.


The director has wisely chosen the legendary casting director Marion Dougherty as his thru-line for this immense subject matter. Dougherty (who passed away in 2011) was a casting pioneer.  Just a partial look at her resume is overwhelming. She started off in 50s-era TV, selecting performers like the little-known James Dean for live television productions (where she met her lifelong collaborator, director George Roy Hill). Then she moved on to groundbreaking, location-rich TV series like Naked City and Route 66. While casting for those shows, this NYC-based maven found herself in the epicenter of a seismic acting movement that would eventually produce such stars as Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Redford (all of whom, in Casting By, gush almost tearfully over Dougherty's ability to get to the heart of what makes any particular actor special and just so right for a role). She broke into movies via George Roy Hill, cutting her teeth on his teen obsession comedy The World of Henry Orient.  She would go on to work with Hill on Hawaii (Midler's debut film appearance, as we learn in this doc), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (she convinced Redford to get excited about playing Sundance rather than Butch), Slaughterhouse-Five, A Little Romance (she basically discovered the wonderful Diane Lane), and The World According to Garp (this sequence produces memorable visits with Garp co-stars Glenn Close and John Lithgow, both of whose efforts were Oscar-nominated).


But Dougherty's achievements don't end there, as Casting By reminds us. This is the woman who fought hard for Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo and Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (Voight's interviews regarding his disappointing performance on Naked City, and how that outing possibly hobbled his hopes for winning the Midnight Cowboy role, are positively revelatory; also, this segment highlights the disappointing fact that Dougherty was not given just credit by Midnight Cowboy producer Jerome Hellman, who remains obviously regretful to this day). Even a partial recounting of her subsequent work--with which the IMDB cannot possibly keep up with--reads like a dizzying tour through the great films of the 70s, 80s and 90s: Panic in Needle Park (Al Pacino's first lead role), Across 110th Street, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, The Paper Chase, Lenny, The Day of the Locust, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Escape from Alcatraz, The Killing Fields, Clean and Sober, Dogfight, Full Metal Jacket, Tim Burton's Batman entries, and Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon series (during which she convinced Donner to cast Danny Glover as Mel Gibson's counterpart, even though the Murtaugh character, as Donner protested, wasn't written as a black man; Donner later sheepishly admits to being small-minded here). Plus, she's the one really responsible for casting the most gilded of all TV achievements, Norman Lear's All in the Family (a triumph which, alone, should have netted her worldwide adoration). 


Instead of that, though, Dougherty--like most casting directors still do--toiled joyfully in anonymity.   Her requisite love of actors was so infectious that it inspired a host of future casting directors, most of whom were women (a particular highlight of the film is the characterization of Dougherty's East Side NYC office as being a boisterous, work-based hub of frenetic acting and casting creativity). In this fashion, Casting By also profiles other Dougherty-inspired stars of the craft, including Juliet Taylor (Woody Allen's longtime casting go-to) and invaluable Scorsese collaborator Ellen Lewis.  Donahue finds time, in this dense 90-minute doc (which, seriously, could have easily emerged as a multi-hour mini-series) to talk to, among others, John Papsidera, Douglas Wright, and Lynn Stalmaster (one of the few pioneering male casting directors, who tellingly got the first stand-alone casting title card with his work on Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair),

But still, most of the successful casting directors, as we learn through Casting By, are women, and Donahue's documentary does a superb job of explaining why this is so. The film also uncovers yet another of the industry's nasty layers of sexism in that it illustrates exactly why there is not yet a widely-called-for Casting category in the yearly Academy Awards (there was a vociferous movement to get Dougherty a Special Oscar, but we find--partially through an infuriatingly blunt interview with director Taylor Hackford--that the insecure Directors branch is standing in the way of this artform's recognition, mainly because they want the world to see casting solely as the director's job; this is something that Casting By is resolutely out to change). Expertly edited by Jill Schweitzer--who, given the astounding roster of interviewees, must have had to pick through a mountain of golden footage here--Casting By rivets even the most tentatively dedicated movie-lover with its ardent,  iron-clad grasp on this unsung craft's rich history and immutable value.

Below is the documentary's trailer, which is a tasty joy unto itself: 



2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: SUBMIT: THE DOCUMENTARY


It feels strange to be reviewing a documentary like Submit, which deals frankly with the growing scourge of cyberbullying.  It doesn't fit neatly into the documentary slot, as it feels more like an educational film than anything else.   That's not a bad thing, mind you; Submit is certainly out to inform.   But, with its scare tactics and stern narration (both of which are absolutely called for), it also does so in much the same way that those old driving and drug-abuse films did in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and those sorts of films are rarely reviewed.   But that's really meant as a comment on the film's style rather than on its very important substance. 

Directed by Muta Ali Muhammad (the grandson of acting legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) and generously produced by Les Ottolenghi (who also serves as the film's impassioned narrator), Submit paints a harrowing and often demoralizing view of present-day internet mores gone horribly wrong.   It visits with those families whose lives have been tainted with tragedy after a bullied young family member has ended their life (these are some utterly heartbreaking moments).   And the film furthers a crushing sense of hopelessness by illustrating how this obvious crime is difficult to solve by legislation or, really, any form of punishment for its perpetrators.  One memorable sequence, for instance, shows how taking such crimes to court can often act as a de facto revictimization of bullied families, as it often results in mounting lawyer bills that go unpaid because of the difficulty of extracting funds from the bullying parties (who, anyway, regularly go unidentified).  Just as chilling are the many interviews with teens and pre-teens, who rarely seem to grasp the negative repercussions of their online activities (it's too bad that the film features few, if any, interviews with the bullies themselves; one is left wanting to get inside their nasty little heads).   Luckily, the filmmakers leave us with a tentative solution: Submit posits that the only way to fight this wave of lethal unpleasantness is a culture-wide change of thinking that leans more towards empathy and away from cruelty.   However, in an increasingly depersonalized world that views online meanness as both funny and a show of strength, this has to be seen as a tall order.  

As an educational film, Submit (I prefer to leaves off the words "The Documentary" in its title) does its job with much effect. and with an unexpectedly wide variety of notable interviewees, from legendary Democratic House Representative John Lewis to conservative icon Bill Bennett).  It's especially heartening to know that the filmmakers plan on making the documentary available, for free, to schools and institutions nationwide.  That has to be seen as a great service.   And so, as a suitable kickoff for a national discussion of this wicked problem, Submit bravely stands up to the plate. 

Below is my interview with Submit: The Documentary producer Les Ottolenghi, conducted at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, with camerawork and editing by Rich Gedney:


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: SOLACE

Many of the movies at any Atlanta Film Festival you might attend are of Georgia descent. And, unfortunately, much of the time, I feel uncomfortably let down by many of these films (particularly the shorts, which often feel like half-baked student projects suitable for only the most kindly inclusionary festival outlets).


With Solace, an Atlanta-based feature helmed by the talented Vandon N. Gibbs, I found myself pleasantly surprised. The movie is perhaps too rigidly constructed, and much too devoted to its padded screenplay (this 76-minute movie could have been reduced by ten minutes, no problem). But Solace does highlight Gibbs' gift for compelling dialogue, and it provides a plum vehicle for some local actors who deserve wider consideration.

Solace begins with a 20-minute scene that takes place in the parked SUV belonging to Bug (a superbly funny and menacing Dupree Lewis Jr.). He's meeting with a man who's clearly contracting him for a job, though we never learn what the job really is.  Bug is an admitted hoodrat who spends his time with his distinctly whitebread client Nolan (Robert Pralgo, who keeps up but cannot compete), alternately denegrating and getting closer to him (he learns that Nolan is from Iowa, and Bug doesn't even know where that is). The actor Dupree has obviously studied the work of Samuel L. Jackson, and thought his performance feels indebted to the veteran actor, Dupree still makes for a charismatic young stand-in. Pralgo, meanwhile, projects a steely toughness while somehow being flummoxed by this too-long run-in with Bug's exhausting character. Their vibrant scene together is enough to get the viewer invested in what happens during Solace.


The film's second 20-minute act takes place in the upscale home of an aspiring politician, played by Ric Reitz.   He arrives home to an agitated wife (a fine Rhoda Griffis), who who might have the goods on his sideline activities. Though the dialogue here is cuttingly intense, this is this nominal anthology film's weakest segment (Solace totally feels like three short movies in search of a common denominator). This is also the portion in which the film's talented cinematogapher, Robert Halliday Jr., most apparently falters with some unsure handheld camerawork.

The third act has Dixie Light playing the bruised and bound victim of a surprisingly compassionate hitman waiting with her in an abandoned warehouse for further instructions. The hitman is played by a drawling Russell Durham Comegys, and his performance is perhaps (next to the charismatic Lewis) the highlight of the movie, in that his character has the most difficult decision to make. Comegys transmits both determination and understanding in his communing with hitjob Light. Moreover, this final 20 minutes, with its grey locale interrupted by vivid graffiti, is the most visually bewitching section of the film (as usual, with most anthology films--even ones whose portions are connected--the first and the final segments are the most beguiling). Here, in close-ups, in medium and long shots (with tense editing between each), Gibbs' film comes alive like it hasn't before, even though White's performance, while suitable, cannot match that of Comegys (who really seems like he could go the way of Matthew McConaughey).


There is no question: Gibbs can write a helluva scene. And he's also surefooted as a director (he knows where to place the camera, for the most part). But I'd advise him to cut, cut, cut...cut down to the detailed essentials. I'd advise him to not be so in love with every line he's written, and to be even more honest, and to be more demanding with his well-chosen actors. Solace is not perfect (though it has a terrific final shot that raises many questions). But, as it stands, the movie is an easily predictable, but nonetheless notable calling card for Gibbs, his cinematographer, and his cast.  

Monday, March 25, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: CHEZ UPSHAW

97% of everything I saw at this year's Atlanta Film Festival turned out to be, in varying degrees, immensely enjoyable (and I should point out: I only saw a fraction of their many offerings).  But the one unrelentingly bad choice I made was walking into Bruce Morgan's execrable comedy Chez Upshaw.  It was an ugly time at the movies, and it left me wondering why something of this low quality was programmed.

Maybe it was because of the presence of its two stars, Kevin Pollak and Illeana Douglas.  And I have to admit, though I always largely find Pollack annoying as an actor (he's a much better comedian and podcaster), I said to myself "I love, love, love Illeana Douglas, and so I'm going to see this."  And based on her performance alone, which is the film's one bright spot, I can see why the film was included.  But nothing else in the movie works, sadly.


Pollak and Douglas play Heaton and Rita Upshaw, the bickering owners of a failing California bed-and-breakfast who stumble upon a desperate and questionable solution to their financial woes.  Nearing foreclosure, they take in a final client (played sweetly by George Coe--a notable character actor who many might not know was an original cast member for the first few episodes of Saturday Night Live, and who is a respected filmmaker in his own right with the great 1968 Bergman-inspired  short film The Dove, which is much funnier in its 14 minutes than anything you will see in Chez Upshaw).  Coe's wheelchair-bound character is vivacious and fun-loving, but he's clearly at the end of his life, and his doings at Chez Upshaw usher in a new possibility for the couple: why not turn this place into a go-to destination for those terminally ill people who have decided to end their existence?

It's a good premise for some very dark laughs, but such subtly-played comedy never arrives, because the two lead characters are so narcissistic (and so souced all the time; this movie has more liquor consumption than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).  They're also, maybe as a result, incredibly stupid.  When they are approached by the sleazy rep of a pro-suicide society (Shane Johnson, in an obvious sleazebag role), big question marks should have appeared in their heads, especially since their actions could land them in a prison cell.  But none of this is ever discussed (and such discussions could have resulted in some additional laughs).  Similarly ignored is the notion that many of the wacked-out people who eventually come to the B&B's door as assisted suicide clients are obviously insane.  I wasn't expected to be offended by this movie--I knew what I was getting into.   But I WAS offended by the unobservant treatment of the issue (if the filmmakers had taken a more nuanced look at it, it could have resulted in a brighter script with more intelligent comedic moments).  Look, even the largely reviled Jack Kevorkian, before doing his controversial deeds, diligently screened his clients in regards to their psychology and possibly the presence of a mind-altering depression.  But, here, Heaton and Rita unquestioningly (and greedily) assist a variety of clearly unbalanced souls into the afterlife...and this is resolutely NOT funny (it's actually quite mean).   This makes the viewer think that this couple is a fatally idiotic duo...and why should we care about what happens to such screechingly argumentative and childish characters?


Chez Upshaw is, also, an unrelentingly unpleasant comedy to look at.   Its amateurish direction, bad editing, uninspired cinematography, and over-the-top sound effects (including, yes, the inevitable fart-maker) are odious, to say the least.   There are a couple of laughs here and there, mostly loaded in the first 20 minutes.  But any audience goodwill is soon sucked away by the film's clumsy gaudiness.  Pollak comes across exactly as I saw him before--as a bumbling, bombastic devotee of an outdated vaudevillian line delivery (as an actor, he's best used sparingly).   Douglas, meanwhile, injects much more life and believability into her character than was clearly required (this movie proves she can elevate absolutely anything she's cast in).  However, by the end, the two leads are mired in the same sinking boat, and the viewer just wants to exit Chez Upshaw and start in on the process of erasing this errant, people-hating movie from their minds.

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: ZIPPER: CONEY ISLAND'S LAST WILD RIDE


Coney Island.  What do those words say to you? Does it matter where you are reading this from?  Istanbul? San Antonio? Sydney? Los Angeles? No, probably not...

The mere mention of Coney Island transmits a like mindview to all of the world's people--one very much unlike any other theme park or neighborhood. The distinct image of Coney Island is a hand-painted one, particularly musty and authentic, and obviously mom-and-pop-run. It is a singular place--a place of nutty beauty. It's a masterful confluence of sand, surf, boardwalk, cotton candy, the Wonder Wheel, goofy games, teeming crowds, and chaos--and all easily experienced at an affordable price.  

But, for decades now, the Coney Island legacy--which reaches all the way back to 1829--has been threatened by greedy developers and NYC politicians with dollar signs in their eyes. Amy Nicholson's fabulous new documentary, Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride, does a superb job of reducing this complex zoning issue/political football into understandable bite-sizes, while movingly portraying the tale of one single representative feature at the park: the crazy tumbler of a ride known as the Zipper.


In production for six years (and shot largely on Super 16 mm film), Zipper deftly juggles the issues.  It pays attention to the colorful characters (led by owner Eddie Miranda) who operate the Zipper five months out of the year, and who still made enough money to feed their families during the off months (thus disputing the claims of politicians who say that Coney Island's rides and businesses cannot financially sustain their owners). Meanwhile, it also profiles the nominal (and, I suppose, well-meaning, at least in his own mind) villain of the piece. This is Joe Sitt and he's the head of Thor Equities, the money-awash firm that's been buying up Coney Island properties for a long time now, with the intent of ultimately sending the mom-and-pop stores packing in favor of a shiny new Coney Island that replaces those treasured businesses with seaside condos, Friday's, Applebee's, Taco Bell's, Bubba Gump's, and Gap outlets (like we need more of those).

Zipper has its story further complicated by Coney Island's local commissioners, who first seem as if they are on the side of those who want to keep Coney Island "karny kool," but who eventually show their true colors in supporting Joe Sitt's (and Mayor Bloomberg's) selling of Coney Island down the river. This aspect of the film is infuriating, especially since Nicholson's cameras handily captures the zeal with which Coney Island, in all of its gorgeous, hand-crafted glory, is attended by millions of people each year (and the numbers don't lie: all of this development is having an negative effect on the park's attendance). It's basically a place that is not broken, but is being fixed anyway. 


Ultimately, Zipper is most memorable, though, for its examination of this one, single ride--one that is loved immensely by all who are violated by it (a highlight of the film is a compilations of videos shot by riders who have their camera going while their ride cage is rocking in the air; this segment is a veritable symphony of screams). By the time the film's heartbreaking climax comes, you might be shedding a tear for all those things in Coney Island, and even in your own city, that are historically rich, but which are being washed away in the tide of supposed progress. In that and in many other ways, Amy Nicholson's lively documentary Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride is historically and culturally invaluable in and of itself. 

Below is my interview with Zipper's producer/director Amy Nicholson, shot by Rich Gedney and conducted at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival:


Saturday, March 23, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: A TEACHER

A decade ago, when I was a film festival programmer myself, I discovered I had the ability to tell, within 30 seconds, whether a movie was going to be great or not. It had something to do with just the intangible feel of a film. Upon watching it, I could detect that if, say, a shot was going on too long or the acting was bad (the biggest tell-all), or if the picture was fuzzy or the sound or music poor, then that was it, and I did not have to see the movie to the end. This is what you have to do as a film festival programmer invested in, as I was, watching each of my festival's 1200+ entries personally and with the passionate intent of finding the best of the best.


With the Atlanta Film Festival's wise programming of A Teacher, I found myself walking into the theater (a couple of minutes late, admittedly), sitting down, and then, about 15 seconds later, beating  myself up for not managing my time properly (something that can easily happen to even the most seasoned of film fest attendees). "My gosh," I said to myself upon first glancing at writer/director Heather Fidell's new feature, "this movie is ridiculously intense." In a room of maybe 80 other viewers, I felt the widescreen images of such baldfaced intimacy were somehow crushing me...my soul, maybe...maybe my body, too. Anyway, Fidell, I could tell, was immediately successful in transmitting an atmosphere to her story that let's you know her film's lead character is living under enormous pressure. 

As complex as it is, it's easy to summarize A Teacher.  It's the story of an Austin, Texas high school English teacher (Lindsey Burge, who absolutely deserves to be seen again and again) ensconced in a relationship with her 17-year-old student (played by Will Brittain, in a brave and subtle performance). Burge's character, Diana Watts, strikes one as a woman making up for lost time. The film wisely lets us know little about her past, but you can see it on her face. There is not a lot of love there. Diana is obviously is estranged from her family (as we learn from her discomfiting meetup with her brother early on). One could not unfairly count her as a bookish type who has little romance in her own high school years. In adulthood, she's found where she needs to be (and she obviously has a warm relationship with most of her students, in maybe too few group scenes that feel like a variant out of Gus Van Sant's Elephant). She's committed to her job, yes, and keeps to her professional protocol.  But there's this one little thing missing--intimacy.

This void is filled by Eric, her new paramour, whom she has to hide away from the school, its students, its administrators, her own roommate (of course, this low-paid teacher has to have a roommate, and she's aptly well-played by Jennifer Prediger) and even her own self, in many ways.  Diana is truly living a double life, and A Teacher sharply portrays both the innocent sweetness of the romance she is trying to let herself in on (a very difficult conundrum to transmit in any movie), and the streamrollering strain of making the sort of ultimately poor decision she has made.

There's a terrific scene, early on in A Teacher, in which Fidell's camera is almost soley trained on Diana as she struggled to each her simple salad lunch while listening to gossip being put forth by a  fellow teacher (by the way, if teachers are exposed to this much gossip, then how can they help but get involved?). Burge is able, in this scene, to communicate the emotions of jealously, frustration, secrecy, anger and concern, without hardly saying anything. She's just eating her salad here. It's brilliance on the part of the actress, the writer/director, and the cinematographer (Anthony Droz Palermo, a major new talent). But really, it's down to Burge, who does the heavy lifting with her fervent performance. So much of this A Teacher has the actress, front and center, in stultifying close-ups, searching her soul with such vividity that dialogue and story alone need not be provided (you can really feel the trust between Fidell and her lead actress). I should say here, too, I love the scene in which Diana goes to a party and is introduced to his male friends by a dunderhead (who is her own age) as "totally the teacher you wanted to bang in high school." Diana's sense of disappointment and guilt in this assessment is just devastating. 

The issue, particularly these days, of female school instructors engaging is sexual relationships with their charges, is a fascinating one. For me, I always though that this was something perpetrated largely by male instructors towards female students (with often bad outcomes, but occasionally happy ones, too). Now, with women coming into the fold as workplace authorities, it's seeming now that this a human concern and not just a dirty-old-man concern. America has recently been awash in such stories of female teachers bedding their 13-to-18-year-old male students (I wonder if A Teacher would have been more powerful if the teacher in question would have landed a 14-year-old rather than a nearly-graduated 17-year-old; it certainly would have been more chancy, if perhaps less easy to watch). I also wonder how the relatively lesser penalties that have been greeted with female teachers caught in such circumstances would compare (at least, these days) with, say, a 28-year-old male teacher and a 16-year-old girl. 


But A Teacher wisely keeps itself away from such speculation. Hannah Fidell's intelligent movie wants to make you feel, and understand, its concern with this situation ALONE, and it has no villains; it wastes no time with things it needs to waste no time on (there are very few characters in the film, and though it is plotted, and also deliberately paced, it's by no means excessively so on either front--it is suspenceful in all regards). And it does everything it means to do with utmost artistry and attention to detail (and here, I feel some need to mention its truly fantastic climax, which includes a bedroom scene, shot in extreme closeups, that needs to be experienced to be believed).  A Teacher poses a complicated question to us all. It wants understanding, and wins that prize. A Sundance and South By Southwest hit, A Teacher is scheduled for release in NYC and LA in September (when it will simultaneously be on demand online). It is clearly one of the very great movies of 2013, and both Fidell's guidance and Burge's performance are standout shows that I am determined to keep on talking about during this year and beyond. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: THE GREAT CHICKEN WING HUNT


Yes. You read that title right. The Great Chicken Wing Hunt. Yep.

I count myself as one who loves me some chicken wings, especially if they're done right. And I've had some that mightily impressed me, and some that left me stone cold.  But I number myself as one of many an undying fan of the food. Yet I've never even considered the ramifications of being so. It really took Matt Reynolds' truly wonderful documentary, premiering here at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, to deeply consider the importance of this tangy, burny-hot protein treat.

Reynolds is a former reporter for Reuters, and as such has had his writing published all over the world, in a dizzying variety of publications. Fluent in the Czech/Slovak languages, he's been based in Eastern Europe for many years. But, as a native of what he calls "The Wing Belt" (stretching all across the Northeast United States), he obviously felt a powerful hankering for the signature food of his homeland, because he finally decided to give up his well-paid journalist life for a singular quest. And while his Slovak compatriots (including his girlfriend and much of his eventual film crew) could not imagine making a documentary about sheep's cheese dumplings (apparently the ubiquitous Eastern European equivalent of chicken wings), Reynolds remained steadfast about searching the Wing Belt (and, in all probability, worldwide, since the rest of the clueless world has largely yet to embrace the chicken wing as a go-to meal) for the World's Best Buffalo Chicken Wing. Yes. Insanity.  But yet this is a much more complicated and important endeavor than one might realize at first.  

Now...I have to stop myself. This is NOT a movie solitarily about chicken wings. No. It is not. This is what makes this movie absolutely colossal.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is a movie about comradery. It is about passion, and a fine romance, and change. It is about friendship, and taste standards. It is a road movie. And a cliffhanger. It is about gentle competition. It has an underdog, suspense and surprises.  It has fantastic music, and a camp of memorable characters. It's about doing something totally wacky, and seeing it to the end.  It's about flaming tastebuds, and crunchy textures and truly philosophical discussion about the minutae of standards. And, ultimately, it's about the establishment and recognition of the first and perhaps only de facto American food. Still, as I type that last sentence, I'm astonished. But, as The Great Chicken Wing Hunt establishes, it is a truism. And here's the REALLY stupendous thing: Reynolds, who is a first-time filmmaker, uses his remarkable editorial abilities to transmit this multi-layered story in a manner of 70 short minutes. The film's cutting (also by Reynolds), by the way, is resolutely outstanding. 

In his movie's first moments, Reynolds profiles the accidental history of the Buffalo chicken wing, invented in early 1960s New York by Frank and Teressa Bellissimo in a fit of exquisite and frustrated creativity. Then Reynolds summarizes the history of the food's burgeoning popularity (which has still, as of yet, I think, to reach its worldwide apex). Then he quickly moves on to his own story as the questionably grounded ringleader. And then he profiles his host of characters...and here's where things get really juicy.


First there is his girlfriend, Lucie (my very favorite character in the film), who is mystified at her boyfriend's obsession, but who follows him stateside to participate in his quest. I have to pause here and say how funny and utterly captivating I find her in this piece, and how much I empathize with her confusion (Reynolds, inevitably as an involved filmmaker, cleverly casts this extreme outsider as the perhaps amazed American audience's advocate, which is a remarkable directorial choice, and so tremendously correct). Almost every one of her appearances in the film make my heart murmur (like when she is seen crying at the hotness of a particular wing or covering herself up in the morning, reluctant to be a part of her man's "reality show," or her show of empathy at the sacrifices Matt's voluntary cohorts are showing for this effort). In short, I can see why Matt fell for this brave woman. 

But then there is Ric Kealoha, a hardnosed and unforgiving wingnut from Hawaii who leaves his pregnant wife on her own in order to take this journey with Matt, and who maybe as a result has maybe impossibly high standards; Ben "The Mighty Thor" Beavers, a 350-pound hulk of a competitive eater who knows how the hell to throw a party; Al Caster, a long-bearded collector of beauty who's hilariously ready to love everything he tastes and who provides much of the film's superb music with his renditions of traditional folk tunes (which will make you wish for a soundtrack, tout suite). And then, maybe most touchingly, there is Ron Wieszczyk, a Kodak employee looking straight at the downsizing of the film industry while being a wing enthusiast seeking a change of focus. 


For this Herculean challenge posed towards a busload of ridiculously eager participants, a buffalo wing is defined as: "A deep fried chicken wing coated in pepper sauce and butter."  This becomes incredibly important, but I will leave it at that. So Matt and Lucie take these wackjobs on a fervent, multi-week tour of the Wing Belt in order to find the Perfect Wing (which Matt totally insists is in existence...he's a man that believes in perfection all across life's board). In this process, there is discovery, confusion, obfuscation, debate, madness, anger, joy, excitement, and victory. And all of these features are highlighted in more than one guise.

The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is a prime example of what I (and Matt Reynolds, as I have learned from interviewing him BEFORE I saw his movie) would like to call the "fun documentary." There are not many important "fun" docs that are burned into movie history. Many music documentaries, such as Monterey Pop, Woodstock, The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense, could be considered as such (I might also posit the recent Oscar-winning hit Searching for Sugar Man, as well as classics like Sherman's March, American Movie, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Jazz on a Summer's Day, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Festival, Broadway: The Golden Age, Painters Painting, Man on Wire, Microcosmos. March of the Penguins and Winged Migration as entries into this subgenre). But I defy many movie lovers--even the most hardcore of such--to name many other serious, extremely well-made documentaries that should be considered as fellows in this bunch.  But why should the subject of music and art dominate this category? Why should not the universal subject of food be represented here? I think Matt Reynolds is somewhat of a pioneer in this regard. His film is not bogged down with social injustice.  Though there are hardships in his movie, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is not about how unforgiving the world is. It's not about getting one's art to the masses (well, maybe a little bit), or about the travails of lower species (maybe a little bit here, too, LOL).  He's concentrating on something that obviously has much love out there (there are 90 million chicken wings consumed on the average Super Bowl Sunday alone). But, even after all that love...you know what?   I've never heard one single person posit that the chicken wing is the quintessential American food (and, by the way, I look forward to similar docs about other countries' signature foods). But, here, I believe, this filmmaker proves that this is a U.S.A.-born original. And Matt Reynolds does so in a dramatic, funny, well-constructed, constantly visually delectable fashion (the film contains not only a surplus of sumptuous camerawork, but also expertly produced, wisely-placed graphics by Benjamin Cheek). 

I could gush on and on about The Great Chicken Wing Hunt (and I feel moved to pose that Wingnuts would be a suitable, though perhaps too cute alternate title for this doc). At any rate, it's now one of my bonafide best movies of 2013, even though it it nominally unreleased (and I truly hope it gets distribution immediately). But I close with this: to watch this film at full force, and with maximum enjoyment, I'd advise you to have a bucket of wings near you, because yer gonna be extra mouth-wateringly hungry midway through. Let me also advise you to have some tissues at hand as well.  These will not be necessarily needed as remedy for the heat from your cache of wings. This is a movie that will move you to cry on its own. 

Below is my fun interview with Matt Reynolds, shot and edited by my great friend Rich Gedney and conducted at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival as part of our coverage for MOVIE GEEKS UNITED! 



2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: Georgia-based documentary shorts

Even before seeing the 2013 festival's opening night film, I apprehensively attended the AFF's first screening block, devoted to documentaries highlighting life in my home state.  And I have to say, I was happily pleased with the selections.

Speakeasy Supper-Club is a 23-minute piece that charmed me with its tale of a pair of single-minded young Southern food experts, Zach and Christina, who lack the funds to start their own restaurant but who instead start an underground movement to attract 30 or so people at a time to private tables (served communally) in which Zach, the head chef, is able to ply his wares, using a combination of traditional Southern ingredients and more modern taste twists. The film, by Jason Wallis and Taylor Robinson, follows this couple as they mix one particular night's chosen base ingredient--corn--with arugula pesto, purple basil seeds, and coconut fudge honey cookie dough. It's a dream foodie film that displays its subjects' passion, ingeniousness, small-time marketing savvy, and romantic connection into elaborately-plated food meant to sate the appetites of many, if only a few at a time.   The movie is a tiny bit too long, but that's not to say that it's not a hunger-poking treat all the way through.   

Out of Stone, by Stephen Gram, is a short doc with distracting, overmixed wall-to-wall music that takes away from the learned words of its focus. It feels more like the fulfillment of a school assignment than a complete film.  At 9 minutes, its rich subject matter--Georgia landmark Stone Mountain's KKK-centered past--is explored fairly (with some wonderfully articulate and vibrant interview subjects of both black and white descent).  But the film is really over before it begins.   It leaves one wanting more, yes, but is that always a good thing?   I say no, it isn't, in cases like this (it's like being given a steak and being told that you can only smell it).  At any rate, I'm sure the filmmakers got an A, and it might be a springboard to larger ambitions.  


When The Zombies Come, the program's next 9-minute documentary, is much more successful, because its filmmaker, Jon Hurst (also working under a school assignment) knows just how long to spend with his subject. He trains his camera on a restless group of employees at a Georgia Ace Hardware, who spend their unoccupied time examining the store's wares, dreaming up ways to use blades, prods, and tools to kill those zombies they obviously hope one day will be at their door.   The lead here is Alex Warner, who clearly has a plan (he admits to being a big fan of The Walking Dead--a show shot in Georgia, by the way).   Alex has got the whole situation mapped out, with the Ace Hardware rooftop being a perfect place to kill off both hungry flesh-eaters and unwelcome, marauding humans looking for safe haven.   The Whole Foods nearby is satisfactory for immediate grocery concerns, while the conveniently-located Kroger (with its more preservative-based foodstuffs) is saved for the long term.  Gun ammo is close by, too, so that's taken care of.   I don't know if this was director Hurst's intent, but it seems to me that his film's smart Dawn of the Dead-friendly comments on the convenience culture of present-day consumers ("Isn't it great that all these stores are located right next to each other?") jibe well (of course) with its down-home observations regarding the present-day fascination with a zombie apocalypse, which would be, for most humans, horrific, but on the up side, would be a chance to wipe the oppressive power slate clean and give those working for minimum wage the savory opportunity to establish their own fiefdom, in which stealth and willingness to shoot zombies (read: Ace Hardware customers) squarely in the forehead would be the only coin worth trade.  A 2013 Sundance Film Festival veteran (submitted by the filmmaker on a friend's bet that the film could be accepted into that fest--a bet which the filmmaker gladly lost), When The Zombies Come is a solidly funny and perhaps unintentionally insightful documentary about low-wage life and the desire for something--ANYTHING--different.  


For me, the highlight of the program was Noel Brown's Guidestones.   For years now, via underground films from Alex Jones and the like, I've been hearing of the Stonehenge-like granite construction that contained, in 8 different languages, instructions on how the world should be run.   To wit:
  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature. 
For a long while, nutso conspiracy theorists have said that these guidestones, as they are known locally and worldwide, were the work of the Illuminati and the Bilderberg group and all sorts of likened hair-pulling nonsense.   But, as Brown's documentary shows, they were the work of a mysterious man who deemed himself "R.C. Christian."  This person decided to construct these eight elaborately carved, 22-ton slabs of granite from Elberton, GA to build a Stonehenge of his own, meant to give the world a guide to how to live should a nuclear apocalypse come to pass (and if you look at the instructions in this light, they all make perfect sense).   Each of the guidelines are obviously fair-minded and intelligent, but it's mostly that first rule that gives the most frazzly suspicious people pause, because they think it means that the world's present population needs to be reduced to 500,000,000 by any means necessary.   But, in a dazzling trump card, Brown captures on tape the only living person who knows the real identity and intent of the enigmatic  "R.C. Christian," and this elderly man maintains--knows, even, and he has the proof--that the author's intent is meant as constructive advise rather than as a nefarious instruction to kill off 6.5 of the world's present 7 billion inhabitants.   The thing that astonished me about Guidestones is that, in the films and TV shows in which I'd seen the structure referenced, I never got to learn where they were located, who built them, or what they really meant (I thought they were somewhere in...well...somewhere ELSE).   Brown's film smartly undercuts the conspiracy-minded foolishness and gets down to the heart of the matter (and the film has some delicious and unique surprises in store on top of that).   For me, I was just gobsmacked that the Guidestones were located in my home state.   That, alone, was enough for me to commit Noel Brown's film to memory.  But the fact that vivid Christian-based--and Pagan--superstition still surrounds this unusually wise art structure is also immensely fascinating.   Guidestones is a real find of a documentary! 

The following film in the program, the 20-minute Changes in the Game, by W. Feagins Jr., is a well-intentioned but ultimately unengaging attempt by the filmmaker to survey a cabal of Atlanta hip-hop talents as to the present state of the genre.  The opinions expressed are right on, for sure, but the film, filled only with saturated talking heads and with no performances or anything to break them up, is a visually dull and overlong list of complaints regarding present-day hip-hop.   It's good for fans, but it makes no attempt to pull in the people who aren't so familiar with this form of music (and even with those that are, as am I--and I concur with many of the thoughts expressed here--well...it's still boring to watch; it's not a film, it's a rant).   

The final short in the block, Estebar Aruello's The Girl with a Tuba, profiles an autistic performer who spends her days playing a tuba as an Atlanta busker.  It's a kind character study, but we don't get a truly wide view of the film's subject, and thus the film leaves you wondering what its point is.  It finally feels like another well-graded school project...the sort of thing that the Atlanta Film Festival programmers and screeners need to spend less time rubber-stamping with encouraging desire (since such works are really homework assignments rather than fully-committed-to and complete films).   Still, with Guidestones, When The Zombies Come, and Speakeasy Supper-Club, I'd say the Atlanta Film Festival built a pretty fine program here, by and large.   

Below, courtesy of photographer and editor Rich Gedney, is my interview with Jon Hurst and Alex Warner, respectively the filmmaker and lead subject of When The Zombies Come, conducted at the opening night party for the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival



And, then, we have my talk with Noel Brown, the maker of Guidestones, conducted at that same raucous event: 


2013 Atlanta Film Festival: Opening Night, and MUD


March 15th of this year marked the debut of 2013's Atlanta Film Festival and, per usual, it means (1) a generous host of boisterous parties, (2) a buncha Atlanta- and Georgia-based movies of sometimes impressive, sometimes dubious quality, the inclusion of whom is meant to scratch the backs of those filmmakers that work in the region, and (3) sometimes truly great film product--often NOT based in the Southern United States--that might not get public viewings any other way (I should point out that there are VERY few non-English-language titles programmed here, because they are inevitably low-attended by the locals, who presumably do not cotton to subtitles).   What that means for someone like me, who's always into watching something superb, is that (1) I cannot go to too many of those wild parties, because the free-flowing liquor can hobble clear-headed assessment, (2) I need to avoid most Atlanta- and Georgia-based productions because they're accepted without regard to quality, but instead on the basis of which of the AFF film festival programmers/board members they know personally, and, as a result (3) I have to choose my screenings VERY carefully, in the hopes of being able to deliver a kind number of favorable notices and to, thereby, have an enjoyable time myself (since all I really care about here is seeing good movies, as watching a bad movie is quite painful to me).  But, really, at the point that I am writing this, I suppose I have picked correctly, because 90% of everything that I have seen at this year's Atlanta Film Festival has been unwaveringly splendid. 

As always, I attended the opening night film (hosted at the city's oldest continually running movie theater, the recently--and fabulously--refurbished Plaza Theater--where I personally worked from 1992 to 2001) and festivities (the inaugural party, at Atlanta's amazing Paris on Ponce, is always an immense treat).  But I didn't talk to too many attendees, because I don't want to set them or myself up for disappointment.   Always at a film festival like this one (and it's similar to many film fests all across the U.S.), if you meet too many filmmakers (who are all, I believe, genuinely nice people), a serious film maven can find themselves committing to see some movies that might be of a lesser quality than other works that do not have their makers in attendance.   The flip side of that coin is that sometimes you meet a filmmaker that is so vociferous about the quality of their movie that you can be swayed to see it, and be pleasantly surprised at the fact that their show is as good as they hype it.  The more experience you have at a festival, the better one is at figuring out who has the goods and who doesn't.   As for me, I would have to characterize myself as someone who is informed, but still able to be deceived (because, really, I want to believe every movie out there is a masterpiece). 


One thing I can confidently say about the AFF is that it's very much fun to attend (for those with Filmmaker, Staff, and All-Access badges; those with Press badges like myself, perhaps a little less so, as they're not really used to press coverage here).   There are get-togethers galore, a fine set of informative seminars (on producing, screenwriting, and technical concerns), and one really gets the impression that the festival heads really care about showing their attendees a good time.   But, though I've seen 90% terrific stuff this year, I still have to wonder if the heads at this festival are totally committed to showing the best of the best out of their 2000+ entrants.  Still, I realize they are programming for a local audience, and that they are looking to get butts in seats and, in Atlanta, that means focusing IN on Atlanta product.   This is a landlocked city in more ways than one.


The opening night movie this year was a mostly tasty but briefly ever-so-sour plum.  Jeff Nichols' follow-up to his breakthrough feature Take Shelter (a film that was highly praised, and rightly so, for Michael Shannon's lead performance, but which left me with a WTF reaction, and not in a good way) is a film called Mud.  In it, Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, whose name is Mud both literally and figuratively.  He's a starving man living in isolation on a wooded island, whose prized possessions are his shirt and his pistol, and who is seeking shelter from the crime boss (a bulldogish Joe Don Baker) who's after his hide after he killed his son, a man who raped Mud's estranged lifelong love (played by Reese Witherspoon, in a largely insubstantial role for an actress such as she).  All that know Mud characterize him as an imbalanced, unreliable, habitual liar.  But the viewer get to know him in a different light.  (McConaughey's performance here, by the way, is quite respectable, but not on that Magic Mike level, though still it's one that let's us know that the actor's mind is currently on much more serious footing.)


Thankfully, Mud is entirely, and very wisely, shot through the eyes of its true main characters: pre-teen newcomers Tye Sheridan as Ellis (the film's extraordinary and true lead actor) and his adventurous co-hort Neckbone (played by first-time actor James Lofland in a fun performance).   They are Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, in a way, and their presence makes this film into a Southern-fried boy's adventure story, but with heart and realistic sentiment.   Ellis and Neckbone run across Mud after investigating a mysterious boat that's caught up in the trees of this deserted island (a wonderfully surreal image, that).  Upon noting the boys' intrusion, Mud comes out of the woodworks and asks what they are doing messing around in his boat, and then quickly forges a friendly bond with the boys that thrust them into the middle of the drama he himself (he's a boy, too, at heart) is caught up in.   In this way, the film owes a debt to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, another story in which a criminal gets a boy to do his bidding (though here the deed is done with friendship rather than fear as a motive).

Nichols' film has a notable cast that includes Sam Shepard as a hermetic old coot who may or may not be Mud's father (the actor totally owns a few of the movie's best moments), Michael Shannon (as Neckbone's offbeat uncle and guardian), and Ray McKinnon as Ellis' dad.  McKinnon is terrific here, in a larger role than has ever been won by this Georgia-born filmmaker/performer (who won an Oscar in 2001 for his--and his late wife, actress Lisa Blount's--short film The Accountant, after which McKinnon became further recognized for roles in The Blind Side, Take Shelter and HBO's Deadwood). As you might be able to tell, this is very much a story about fathers and sons, and that makes it a very male-oriented tale; the females in Mud, including Witherspoon's femme fatale Juniper, Ellis' dissatisfied mother (Sarah Paulson), and Ellis' older first love May Pearl (a very fine Bonnie Sturdivant) are portrayed as largely distrustful harpies. 

Still, Mud is satisfying Saturday-afternoon fun, and this is almost completely because of the lovely performances given by Sheridan and Lofland, who are clearly the stars here.   Adventurous and randy, Lofland gets many of the laughs in the film (I love his line deliveries, even if they sometimes feel charmingly stilted, as might be expected from a newly-minted actor), and Sheridan completely steals the movie in every scene.   I'm remembering now his blushing glow as his receives his first kiss from Sturdivant, his honest back-and-forth while confiding with dad McKinnon in the family truck, and his stultifying heartbreak at the realization he's been deceived and used by Mud (this is a really GREAT scene--perhaps the film's pinnacle--and one can chalk it up to Sheridan's preternatural acting). 


Nichols should be commended here, too, for constructing an utterly credible Southern atmosphere that never feels insulting to the region or its people, while being absolutely true to its Arkansas locale (in that way, the film reminds me a little of Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, another Arkansas-based personable epic, to which Mud is indebted but cannot hope to match).  The art direction is realistically grimy, the locations are naturally breathtaking, the cinematography--by Adam Stone--sports equal moments of credible degradation and glorious beauty (I love the sun-dappled look of this movie, and it has a quite moving final shot) and Nichols' screenplay deftly walks a delicate line between grubby pulp and genuine sweetness.   In this way, I'm forced to wonder if Mud will appeal to those who loved Take Shelter, as this is a much less cynical story.  But I surely hope this perfectly entertaining little film brings fans over to that island where Nichols' generous head currently resides.