2014 FFF reviews

Presenting the films, from best to worst

From The Orlando Weekly, April 1, 2014

This includes all the films I screened for this year’s festival. Films reviewed by other Orlando Weekly writers can be found in the link above.

 

Yellow, 2013, 3 ½ stars

Little Nick Cassavetes has finally grown up and is making his daddy proud. Indeed, if John, the pioneering independent filmmaker, were alive today, he’d probably be making films like his son’s Yellow, a boldly original and surreal take on mental illness, drug abuse, incest, religion and family dysfunction.

Yellow 2Co-written by and starring Nick’s wife, Heather Wahlquist (who plans to attend one screening), the film focuses on the crumbling life of Mary Holmes, and her equally insane relatives. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, unable to hold a job and haunted by an unbearable secret, she leaves Los Angeles to stay with her mom (Melanie Griffith, in her best role in years) in Oklahoma. There she’s also reunited with her mentally disturbed sister (the brilliant Lucy Punch) and her religious harpy of a grandmother (Gena Rowlands, Nick Cassavetes’ mother), while juggling other characters from her past.

One of Mary’s sisters has Tourette’s, but Mary has a sort of mental Tourette’s, unable to separate reality from imagination, and her fantasies are portrayed in off-the-wall deconstructionist ways. A drama on the surface, Yellow launches oddly, and not always successfully, into comedy, musical and even animation to depict the crazy world inside Mary’s cranium. It’s August: Osage County – with a lot more psychedelic drugs!

I overheard fellow critics describe Yellow as a vastly entertaining train wreck. Well, this is one train I’d like to be on – just give me a seat belt.

Also see my interview with Heather Wahlquist.

 

SlingShot, 2014, 3 ½ stars, part of my Double Dose of Docs article

 

Indagine su un Cittadino al di Sopra di Ogni Sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) FL, 1970, 3 ¼ stars

 

The Final Member, 2012, 3 ¼ stars, part of my Double Dose of Docs article

 

For No Good Reason, 2013, 3 ¼ stars

 

Levitated Mass, 2013, 3 stars

Levitated Mass

Photo copyright Electric City Entertainment and courtesy of the Florida Film Festival

The biggest rock star to ever visit Los Angeles arrived in 2012. The celebrity journeyed a circuitous 105-mile route from a quarry in Riverside, California, through four counties and 22 cities, at a cost of $10 million. Why all the fuss for just one trip? Because this rock star is a literal rock, a 340-ton, 900-million-year-old granite boulder that is now “Levitated Mass,” an art exhibit outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In his documentary of the same name, director Doug Pray competently and entertainingly captures the logistical nightmare of transporting the boulder, which created a media frenzy. Thousands of people lined the route to catch a glimpse. Some even attached religious significance to it, while others gave it its own Twitter account. The simple story of the rock’s trip is interesting, but Levitated Mass is best when it examines the project’s meaning – and the meaning of art itself – as seen through the eyes of the public and the artist, Michael Heizer.

“We’re living in a world that’s technological and primordial simultaneously,” says Heizer, who came of artistic age in 1960s New York. “I guess the idea is to make art that reflects this premise.”

Pray’s film, though not as weighty or groundbreaking – no pun intended – as its subject, nevertheless does a good job of presenting both art and artist, a man for whom “the studio, the city, the museum was too small.”

 

American Jesus, 2013, 3 stars

 

The Babadook, 2014, 3 stars

 

Ich Fühl Mich Disco (I Feel Like Disco) FL, 2014, 2 ¾ stars

For a film that often hits quite hard, I Feel Like Disco (Ich Fühl Mich Disco) has an odd title. But, then again, everything about Axel Ranisch’s German-language dramedy is odd.

Florian (Frithjof Gawenda) is a teenager who loves nothing more than disco and his mom (Christina Große). Struggling with both his sexuality and his relationship with his father, Hanno (the very funny Heiko Pinkowski), Florian can always find solace with those two loves of his life. But when a family tragedy and a new male acquaintance turn his and his father’s life upside down, they must learn to balance their fantasy with reality.

“Life is not always fries and disco, I’m telling you here,” a disco star sings to Hanno, in one of the film’s many funny and strange moments. “Sometimes life is just a bottle of beer.”

Not all of the quirkiness works, as some clumsy and tonally odd moments detract from the honesty, but Ranisch’s film, with its unique balance of heartbreak and surreal laughs, is one of the more charming and original international films of this year’s fest.

 

Dom Hemingway, 2013, 2 ¾ stars

 

Before I Disappear, 2014, 2 ½ stars

You always hear of new filmmakers using festivals to launch their careers, and maybe even win an Oscar someday. But does that ever really happen? It certainly does if you’re writer-director Shawn Christensen, who screened his short film, Curfew, at the 2012 Florida Film Festival and took home the Academy Award for it the next year.

Christensen is returning this year with Before I Disappear, a feature-length adaptation of that brilliant short, and is also appearing on April 11 at a discussion forum, “Pushing the Curfew: A Case Study from Short to Feature.” Although the session is bound to be informative, it’s a shame his feature isn’t as good as the short.

It’s the story of a man whose suicide attempt is thwarted by a call from his sister (Emmy Rossum), who is in trouble and needs him to babysit her daughter. It’s a simple tale of honor, responsibility, family and the need to be needed. It worked beautifully for the short and could have worked equally well for the feature had Christensen not padded it with contrived subplots involving a violent, distraught friend (Paul Wesley) and a menacing, controlling boss (Ron Perlman). Still, thanks to great performances by Christensen and Fatima Ptacek (who also played the daughter in the short), Before I Disappear has just enough sweetness, magic and visual originality to prevent it from, well, disappearing.

 

After Winter, Spring FL, 2012, 2 ½ stars

With more than a dozen documentary features to choose from at the festival, After Winter, Spring should not be your first pick. Interestingly enough, it isn’t even part of the documentary competition but is instead labeled a food film. But whether you’re a foodie or just enjoy honest, cultural commentary, this quiet, insightful look at the changing face of French farming is worth your time, though it certainly could have been shot better.

Director Judith Lit moved to the Périgord region of southwest France to recapture the rural life that is dying in her native Pennsylvania, only to find it’s fading away in France too. Though she provides brief voice-overs comparing the cultures of the two countries, it’s her interviews with the French farmers that are the highlights.

“I was a peasant by choice. No one forced me into it. Today, it is no longer a beautiful profession,” one farmer tells us, referencing increased factory farming, urbanization and financial struggles, though the rise of organic farming offers hope.

The film is not afraid to show a brutal side of this seemingly idyllic life: animal slaughter. We see a freshly killed pig being scraped clean, a chicken being bled out and a goose being force fed. “To have beautiful foie gras, you have to love your animals,” the farmer says, apparently numb to the torture. This is one part of traditional farming that needs to die, but the doc rarely editorializes, and it deserves credit for that.

 

The Trip to Italy TV, 2014, 2 ½ stars, part of my opening-night blog article

 

Cheatin’, 2014, 2 stars

 

Last I Heard, 2013, 2 stars

            The bad news: The film that Paul Sorvino is coming to the festival to promote, Last I Heard, isn’t very good. The good news: Sorvino is excellent in it, good enough to make the movie watchable and even somewhat touching.

A053_C003_04234S.0001853FSorvino plays “Mr. Joe,” an aging former mob boss from Queens who is released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. Awaiting him is his 43-year-old daughter (Renee Props) whom he’s never really known and a world he no longer recognizes. It’s clearly time to give up the mafia life, his old friend and lawyer Ben (Chazz Palminteri, in a strangely brief role) tells him.

“He was the man, but not anymore,” agrees his devoted neighbor and friend, Bobby, played compassionately by Michael Rapaport. “Now he’s just a regular Joe Citizen.”

Writer-director David Rodriguez’s film would be nothing without Sorvino, as the veteran actor seems born to play this part. He draws you in and holds you for the duration, almost making you forget the less believable moments and slightly clunky script. But if that half-hearted endorsement seems unimpressive, play it safe by skipping the film and instead seeing Sorvino at a screening of Goodfellas on April 12.

Also see my interview with Paul Sorvino.

 

Animated Shorts

Because they are rarely seen outside festivals, short films are often fest-goers’ favorites, and the English-language animated program is often a top draw. Though this year’s block is entertaining and even moving at times, and features a variety of styles and tones, the quality is down from years past, with only four of the 17 films deserving a thumbs-up.

Yearbook

This copyrighted image of “Yearbook,” which is arguably the best animated short at this year’s event, is courtesy of the Florida Film Festival.

Though Yearbook (4 stars), a meditation on the fleeting nature of human civilization, is crudely animated in a hand-drawn style, and the voiceover could be crisper, it’s viciously intelligent and thought-provoking, and might elicit a tear. It’s too bad you have to sit through some mediocrity to get there, as the film by Bernardo Britto is the ninth of the block. Yes, you’ll encounter Steven Vander Meer’s meticulously crafted Salmon Deadly Sins (3 stars), an imaginative take on greed, envy and the rest of the traditional no-no’s, but you’ll also have to sit through Raw Data (0 star) and The Last Orange Grove of Middle Florida (0 star), in addition to a couple of flicks better suited to the Midnight Shorts program.

Depending upon your taste for the abstract, you may appreciate the surreal and nicely animated Shelter (3 stars), which precedes Yearbook, but if you stay for the duration, you’ll cringe through the hopelessly unnecessary Drifters (0 star), Twiller Parkour (1 star) and Twiller Parkour #2 (0 star). Seriously, there are TWO films by Morgan Miller, the creator of last year’s Prometheus Shrugged, and that’s two too many.

Missing the mark, though still enjoyable, are Roadkill Redemption (1 star), Sidewalk (1 star), Spy Fox (1 star), and Tome of the Unknown (1 star), which all lead to the longest and most serious piece, Crime: The Animated Series (3 stars), an illustrated documentary featuring six voice-over interviews with real people affected by crime. Its disjointed feel is offset by its originality and strong subject matter, and, regrettably, that’s more than can be said for many other shorts in this program, which, by the way, are intended for adults only.

Judged as a whole, the program isn’t bad, and the order of the films seems to make sense (though we could have done with fewer, but slightly longer, selections). But evaluated individually, there’s just not quite enough magic.

 

Forev, 2013, 1 star

Forev dares to answer the question that all other films have shied away from: What would happen if you took a road trip with a girl you only casually knew, asked her to marry you, broke down in the desert after hitting an armadillo and had to rescue your sister from some creepy bearded guy she met at a bar – all while trying to make it back home so your spur-of-the-moment fiancée could star in a hot-dog commercial? That’s a weighty question indeed, and first-time writer-directors Molly Green and James Leffler deserve absolutely no credit for answering it.

“We should probably just get married then, if you’re going to be here anyway,” Pete (Matt Mider) tells Sophie (Noël Wells). Other clumsy and seemingly impromptu lines follow, including “This is, like, a really good idea” and “Sophie and I are getting married, and it’s going to be awesome.” This is enlightening stuff.

After sitting through too little drama, too few laughs and too much handheld camera for 88 minutes, it almost hurts to admit that this film is not badly acted and actually has some sweetness to it. But it has a fake, student-film feel that is impossible to ignore. Instead of fully exploring the vulnerability and fragility of the characters, Forev offers too many ridiculous, unfunny scenarios on the way to a somewhat honest and effective ending.

 

I Believe in Unicorns, 2014, 1 star

 

Finding Neighbors, 2013, ¾ star

Finding Neighbors may take this year’s festival prize for the most boring, contrived and downright ridiculous scenarios. Writer-director Ron Judkins’ movie is so tone deaf, badly paced, poorly scored and amateurishly acted that the only thing you’ll be finding is the door when you walk out early from this clunker of a dramedy.

Sam is an aging author of graphic novels. Fame has passed him by, and his inspiration has dried up. He mopes around the house while his wife supports him financially, and he can’t even work up any emotion when the sexy next-door neighbor (Julie Mond) takes naked showers outside his window. “I miss it, the glory days,” he tells himself. “[I’m] stuck, immobile. … I want to wake up.”

Regrettably, that’s exactly how the audience feels too after sitting through this tiresome meditation on one man’s intellectual reawakening. As Sam, Michael O’Keefe, whom you might remember from Caddyshack and Michael Clayton, is ineffective, as are Blake Bashoff and Sean Patrick Thomas, who play a gay couple whom Sam befriends. Only Catherine Dent as Sam’s wife, Mary, displays naturalistic emotion, which only makes you pity her for having to suffer through the awful script. In fact, the film’s only interesting elements are the interspersed illustrations, which, despite their infrequency and mediocrity, add some needed visual and emotional energy.

“You’re in your shit or shut-up years,” Mary tells Sam, referring to his mid-life crisis. It’s too bad the movie chose the former.

 

Wetlands, 2013, ¾ star

 

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