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.  

1 comment:

expo66 said...

Dean- Again, your honesty and acumen make these readings devilishly valuable. These sound like, for the most part, first-round rejections at some festivals we both have been involved with! Looking forward to YOUR Second Round of fun.
THE PLAY IS THE TRAGEDY-MAN
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