Saturday, March 24, 2012

2012 Atlanta Film Festival: Opening Night

Many die-hard film fans might not guess this, but the Atlanta Film Festival is one of the oldest events of its kind in America. Wikipedia says it was started in 1976, but I seem to remember that it's even older than that. I remember reading once that it was started in 1972, with famed Georgia-stamped picture Deliverance as its opening night offering (which would make the fest 40 this year). But I have to go by what it's being labelled as now, which would put its birth date smack dab in the nation's Bicentennial. The only U.S. fests that're older and still running are the San Francisco Film Festival (b. 1957), the New York Film Festival (b. 1963, and to my mind, the greatest of all American film fests), and Colorado's Telluride (b. 1974). It never ceases to amaze me that I live in a town that is a pioneer of the now-ubiquitous film festival circuit.

I have, of course, attained tickets to the Atlanta Film Festival in the past; most memorably, I attended 2003's opening night film, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation of Harvey Pekar's genius-infused comic American Splendor, which went on to win an award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I was so excited that night because I had been a longtime fan of Pekar's, and had interviewed him way back in 1987. Being good friends with that year's Programming Director Brian Newman (whom I last saw working for Robert De Niro's TriBeCa Film Festival when I attended that in 2008), I took it upon myself to hand out to some lucky attendees ONLY 100 copies of my original 4-page 1987 interview, which was printed for Georgia State University's newspaper The Signal back when they had a separate magazine section (which I edited for four years) called Tuesday Magazine. (By the way, that's where I got my start as a film reviewer in 1984, at age 17; my first piece was on Alex Cox's Repo Man and can be read here.)

The closest I've ever come to working for the Atlanta Film Festival was in 2006, when my friend Jake Jacobson (officially the only person I've ever known personally who knows more about movies than I do) was the Programming Director. Knowing that I had been a festival programmer myself (for the long-gone Dahlonega International Film Festival, b. 2000 - d. 2004), he enlisted me as a screener. This means I took home almost 300 entries for the festival, and I again took it upon myself to write mini-reviews for each of the films I was charged with reviewing. Jake and his Assistant Programmer Mike Malloy (who has an exciting film in this year's fest called Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the 70s) even had me in the room with them as they were finding slots for each of the films accepted that year, and I like to think I had a major influence there as an unpaid volunteer expert. Our opening film that year was Morgan Nichol's neo-noir film The Little Death--a controversial choice, as it had no stars in it and no pre-advance buzz. But we all decided it was the best of the fest, and didn't back down from our choice. I still think that's a brilliant movie, and am sorry it's so hard to see now.

But this year is the first in which I'm attending the festival as press, thanks primarily to my involvement with Jamey Duvall's estimable Movie Geeks United podcast and, secondarily, as the the writer of this here blog (which is more popular than I know, I suppose). In fact, this is only the fifth annual film fest I've been at as a media guy (I've been to three editions of the New York Film Festival this decade, and 2008's TriBeCa Film Festival, and you can see my reports on each here on FILMICABILITY).

Now that I'm back in Atlanta, after a long sojourn in the Big Apple, I am proud to say that I've been accepted as press here at this year's Atlanta Film Festival, so I'm going to give it my all and report on as many films as I can here. I might not give them all the attention I gave to Shame, The Artist, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, Melancholia, Footnote, and a few others that I saw at 2011's New York Film Festival, but I certainly will give each film I see an honest (and I mean HONEST) review here over the coming week. I owe this to the city I call home, and to the filmmakers who're contributing to it.

Here are the perhaps not-entirely accurate numbers this year...

45 narrative features
41 documentary features
52 narrative shorts
17 documentary shorts
30 animated shorts
14 experimental shorts
20 music videos
1 retrospective (Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, with Jane Russell in attendence)

...culminating in a grand total of 220 filmed works, exhibited over the course of nine days (from March 23rd to April 1st--you can see the entire lineup here at at nine venues, most of which are centrally located around Landmark's Midtown Promenade theater, across the street from Piedmont Park).

Let's face it: Atlanta is now booming as a go-to spot for big productions. It's the horror capital of the nation, with TV phenoms The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf all being simultaneously filmed in the immediate area (the town has a BIG-TIME horror fanbase, thanks to Shane Morton's continuing Silver Scream Spookshow, hosted at the historic Plaza Theater by Professor Morte (pictured above) and featuring a slew of ever-adventurous classic horror titles; Splatter Cinema, which focuses in on 80s-and-beyond scare shows; the Drive Invasion, put on every July 4th by what I would imagine is the only six-screen drive-in in the nation, The Starlight; Georgia State University's Cinefest, which has a smart program of horror and explotation cinema mixed in with indie, foreign and mainstream titles; and DragonCon, one of Big Three of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy convention success stories, bested only by San Diego's ComiCon and the New York ComiCon). But then, let's not forget that the city has attracted a number of current and upcoming non-horror Hollywood productions, like The Farrelly Brothers' reboot of The Three Stooges, the Mary Elizabeth Winstead/Amy Pohler/Lane Lynch starrer A.C.O.D., the Ben Stiller/Jonah Hill comedy Neighborhood Watch and, most amazingly, Clint Eastwood's latest, a baseball-scouting vehicle called Trouble With The Curve (co-starring Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman). And, last but certainly not least, Atlanta is the home of America's most successful indie filmmaker Tyler Perry, whose productions continue to redefine and broaden the scope of black cinema.

All of this must make the current festival's director Christopher Escobar (pictured above) swell with pride and not a little bit of pressure, though he showed not one bead of sweat as he hosted tonight's fabulous opening ceremonies. The 36th Atlanta Film Festival--programmed by Charles Judson, Tom Davia and Christina Humphrey--feels truly international yet simultaneously has a distinctly Atlanta feel, as there are about 50 films represented at the fest that have hometown ties. That just absolutely reflects the frenzy of filmic activity going on in the ATL.

So, enough. What about the movies? Well, that's what I'll be focusing on for most of my subsequent posts this week. As for tonight? Here are my reports: I started off my movie-watching tonight with a tour of the world, documentary-style. I elected to first see a series of sketch-sized shorts:

Among Giants (by Chris Cresci, Ben Mullinkosson and Sam-Price Waldman) is a vibrantly photographed look at a young man named Farmer as he actively protests the logging of California redwoods by taking defiant refuge in these century-old sentinels' towering branches. A beautifully quiet and purposeful piece, Among Giants portrays a necessarily simple yet ridiculously complicated life in the treetops (yeah, he cooks and sleeps and weathers the elements up there, communicating only with his fellow protesters by hollers and daring twixt-tree rope line). It seems an impossible way to be, but this 10-minute film successfully portrays a labor of love by one man fascinated to the extreme by the outdoors, and by the majesty of these unfairly victimized American jewels. If I had one complaint with this beautifully-paced student film, it's that it's way too short. This is a feature in the making, and perhaps a terrific one.

The same complaint about brevity could be leveled to the nth degree at Tom Pietracik's Saloon, which spends a colorful though quick four minutes with the workers and patrons of a barber shop in New Dehli, India. The faces and fascinating grooming methods of the barbers here are rich in detail, but the film is disappointingly over before it begins. Scored with typically lively music from Slumdog Millionaire Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman, I ultimately had to really wonder why the film was made if it was only going to give us a teensy taste of its gorgeous atmosphere.

Sasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson's The Sugar Bowl does more justice to its subject. Set in the island of Negros in the Philippines, it tells of a formerly wealthy region that profited mightily from worldwide consumption of its sugar cane crops before the Ferdinand Marcos regime. But Marcos' corruption sent the region spiraling into poverty when the 80s rolled around. Then, as an extra kick, the U.S. found a more fattening, worse-tasting replacement for sugar in high fructose corn syrup. Says the film's most impassioned (and frank) interviewee "Everything has changed now, McDonald's-style." And so his family once-thriving plantation has become a museum and a haven for Filipino art and culture. Again, though, The Sugar Bowl seems like only a preview for something more. But at least it's an almost complete intro to the heavings and struggles of an ambitious country's people.

My favorite film of the night was Ik Ben Echt Niet Bang! (I'm Never Afraid!), a heartfelt tale of another kid with a bike. This film, from the Netherlands' Willem Baptist, captured my affection from the beginning as it incisively follows Mack, an 8-year-old biking and motocross champ with a bedroom full of trophies and a pile more up there in the attic. This haunting piece begins with a hint of death, as Mack confesses his miraculous survival, though the film doesn't detail much on this at all. Instead, it begins with a funny exchange between he and his sister, as he discusses her extreme allergies to a whole host of foods (she seems charmingly annoyed by her little brother). I'm Never Afraid is full of life, though, when it glimpses Mack's extreme athleticism and hyper-manly worldviews; he's a superstar in the making. It's only when Baptist's camera accompanies him to the doctor that we find out about his unusual malady. But, for Mack, this is only a side issue. He's all about winning, and so this film (nicely scored with a host of Ennio Morricone movie-music cuts) ends precisely where it should, with a splatter of mud on the camera lens as Mack and his bike take off toward another finish line. This is an elegant little painting that, for a change, feels utterly complete.

The Capital Buzz is also a film that has a handle on its scope. Produced by students at George Washington University in Washington DC (including producer Diana El-Osta and writers Shweta Banerjee and Allee Sangiolo), it begins as a treatise on the importance of urban beekeeping in a trembling time where the world's bee population is dangerously dying off, threatening the world's food supply. But the filmmakers' eyes shift (perhaps not so smoothly) and find a beguiling subject in Jeff Miller, a middle-aged hobbyist beekeeper who stores his apiary atop his Georgetown apartment building, where he handles the insects often barefoot and without the seemingly requisite veils, suits, and smokers (mostly out of laziness, he amusingly admits). Through delightful interviews with Miller as well as his hilariously precocious daughters and long-suffering wife, The Capitol Buzz finds its footing in telling not a tale of activism (though it is that) but instead one of a man who's found a hard-fought happiness by doing his own small part to keep the pollen flowing. The movie's a little clunky in its photography and sound, but it has heart and sometimes heart is all you need.

Finally, in this program, we have unabated and potty-mouthed laughs with Cardboard Titanics, Sam Frazier Jr.'s simple doodle about a weekend raft race in Birmingham, Alabama in which contestants vie for homemade trophies by constructing their watercrafts out of cardboard and racing them a short distance. The filmmaker himself admitted that his movie was just a lark, and it shows...but it works in that it hands perhaps exhausted audiences something with a bit more beer-fueled fun to it. Everything about this movie's homemade, actually, but that don't mean it's not effective. Hey, Georgia's now-defunct Chattahoochee River Raft Race became a big deal in the 70s and 80s (before the event became to big for its britches and the river itself became too polluted). There's no reason all of this couldn't happen again in Birmingham--minus the drama, we hope...

After this program, it was time for the festival's Opening Night offering, Kat Coiro's amiable L.A.-based romantic momedy L!fe Happens, starring Krysten Ritter as a one-time scenester who finds herself suddenly saddled with a baby after a fling with a flippant Australian surfer (with music notes tattooed on his neck). Ill-prepared for the requisite parental demands, Ritter's Kim whines to best friend and roommate (Kate Bosworth) "This is so hard. No one ever tells you how hard this is going to be." Bosworth is incredulous, in her character's wisenheimer way: "Yes, they do, Kim. That's pretty much all people say."

L!fe Happens might trade in a bunch of cliches, and enumerating them is inevitably gonna sound like I'm beating up on the movie; still, I have to be up-front here. Hey, it's got Kim's bitchy employer, a self-absorbed dog groomer who hates kids (played with Karen Black-like fun-scariness by Kristen Johnson). There's the hunky guy Kim sets her moony brown eyes on (Geoff Stults), who comes complete with amusingly daft best friends Jason Biggs (as a quirky divorce lawyer who offers Gummy Bears to his client out of a regal oak box) and Justin Kirk (saddled with a bad haircut, a funky mustache and way too much confidence). Bosworth is a blondie self-help author who doesn't like the term "self-help." And they live in a house that's way out of these destitute girls' price range with a squeaky 21-year-old virgin (Rachel Bilson) who keeps taking slinky jobs that exploit her good looks. Underused is Ritter's Pop-Pop played by Seymour Cassel, a Cassavetes veteran who's still in there punching away for indie filmmakers, even if this time they can find little for him to do (c'mon, give this accomplished actor ONE major scene, at least)

But if anything sells this movie, it's Ritter, who gives the film her all and never veers into parody. We can always believe in and have no problem siding with her. It's a wry and fresh performance. Some might say the movie's more bubbly than funny, and I might agree. But in this age where few films pass the intriguing Bechdel Test, it's nice to see women talking about their lives and ambitions, and not only about those of the guy's they're bedding. Yeah, sometimes the fast talking and hyper split-screen action brings L!fe Happens down a notch. If there were more movies about women's concerns hitting the screen, we might have cause to complain; instead, we should enjoy what we get on this score. L!fe Happens is what a call a Saturday-afternoon movie; it's breezy, undemanding fun. I only wish Coiro and Ritter had more box-office power to forego the sitcom antics and approach the kind of layered insight that a filmmaker like Nicole Holofcener does with movies like Lovely and Amazing and Friends with Money (the latter of which is amusingly referenced here). But maybe this team will be able to achieve this in the future; as it stands, this is a friendly start.

My first night at the festival closed with a regal after-party at the stunning antiques house/special event parlor Paris on Ponce, where we were all treated to wines and sweetmeats as well as another film, a Georgia-bred gem by Raymond Carr called Old Man Cabbage. A stylish homage to silent cinema that successfully skates the fine line between narrative short and music video, its main feature could arguably be either the sweet relationship between a pair of chagrined acrobats or the raucous performance by ragtime jazz combo Blair Crimmins and The Hookers (who accompanied the film live, silent-movie style). Either way, watching Old Man Cabbage was an effervescent and flashy way to cap the opening night of the 36th Atlanta Film Festival.

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