Florida Film Fest 2013: celluloid saturation

Central Florida’s top movie event returns for 22nd year

From The Orlando Weekly, April 3, 2013

It’s film festival time in the City Beautiful again, and beautiful is not a bad word to describe this year’s smorgasbord, which allows Orlando to stand alongside Venice, Cannes and Sundance, if only on April 5-14.

From a gritty documentary about a Detroit pimp to a Q&A with Cary Elwes of The Princess Bride to a special showing of Fellini’s 8 ½, the 22nd annual event has the proverbial “little something for everyone.” And speaking of little, the shorts programs may be this year’s highlight.

Numbering 121, the short films are split into 11 programs, with the four main narrative groups each cleverly named for a recently deceased musician, such as I’m a Believer for Davy Jones and Stayin’ Alive for Robin Gibb. Of course, there’s no guarantee of quality, as programmers must dig deep to fill their schedule. But discovering which films move you to tears and which move you to the bathroom is just one of the joys of this event.

If shorts aren’t meaty enough for you, the festival contains 45 new features (19 documentaries and 26 narratives) and seven older ones. There’s just one animated feature, but four separate programs contain either all or some animated shorts.

Wanters of weird will flock to the Midnight Movies: four offbeat, adult-oriented features. Their even uglier cousins are the Midnight Shorts, which committee member Jim DeSantis describes as “raunchy and shocking,” adding, “We try to make people uncomfortable.”

Making patrons uncomfortable isn’t exactly the goal of Festival President Henry Maldonado, who wants the audience to feel at home at all festival locations, which include the Enzian in Maitland, Regal Cinemas in Winter Park Village and the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden.

“This is a festival of independent film, … and the people who come to the festival know exactly what the filmmakers are doing, and they have a tremendous appreciation for them,” Maldonada says. “These are people who do it for the love of the movie, and for the love of the art, and for the getting a message across in a medium that really allows you to just kind of jiggle all your senses at the same time.”

Some festivals make or break a filmmaker, giving the event a rather formal and intimidating air. Not this one.

“This is a festival that we hope … filmmakers come to [in order to] lick their wounds and kind of re-energize. And as opposed to being a festival where you come to kind of hustle the deal, this is a festival where you come to make friends and … renew relationships.”

And thanks to 21 world premieres and 24 participating countries, plus food events, parties and celebrity appearances, you’re likely to make friends with people you never even dreamed of meeting.

 

Films, from best to worst:

 

Mud

Mud (4 ¼ stars)

If Mud isn’t the best movie of this year’s festival, it’s certainly the most instantly satisfying. Director-writer Jeff Nichols follows up his captivatingly moody Take Shelter with this little gem about love, loyalty, revenge and redemption. It’s both a clinging-to-the-past story and a coming-of-age one, filled with societal nuances and a cultural honesty on par with such Southern films as Sling Blade and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Matthew McConaughey, in the performance of his career, plays the title character, a drifter looking to simultaneously escape his criminal past and reunite with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon), all while hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River. Helping him are two young boys in the tradition of Huck Finn and Tim Sawyer, played brilliantly by future superstars Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Though Witherspoon and the always intriguing Michael Shannon are underused, they and their fellow supporting actors are all pitch perfect and imbue the piece with such crackle that the excessive length and forced finale fade to minor quibbles. Particularly memorable is Sam Shepard, whom young Sheridan’s character calls a “worn-out old man” in one of the film’s many bits of beautiful but brutal dialogue.

Mud may not be a true 5-star film, but it is the best of the 15 features I screened for this year’s festival, and for that, it deserves the highest mark. But if you miss it at the festival, don’t worry, as it’s almost certain to play the Enzian or Regal Cinemas again soon.

 

Far Out Isnt Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (4 stars)

It’s tough to beat a documentary that takes an already intriguing subject and makes it even more fascinating. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough takes famed illustrator, author and satirist Tomi Ungerer and does just that, making it the best of the documentaries I saw for this year’s festival.

Ungerer grew up in Alsace, a region historically divided between France and Germany, and saw firsthand the horrors of both the Nazis and the repressive French post-war government. Those horrors, plus the death of his father, scarred Ungerer but also allowed him to later hone his history into his own brand of dark genius. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Ungerer was able to publish his first children’s book just one year after arriving in the United States in 1956, and then later branch out into political and even graphically sexual subjects.

His macabre imagery and themes were “disarming and funny, and not respectful at all,” according to Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, which Ungerer heavily influenced. But what else would you expect from an artist whose main inspiration was Matthias Grünewald’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, a nightmarish depiction of supernatural horrors on par with the works of Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali?

So if Ungerer was such a genius, why did he disappear in the early 1970s, at the height of his fame? Was he simply “crushed by his ideas,” as Ungerer describes it, or was there something more sinister afoot? That’s the question writer-director Brad Bernstein answers, and he does so with intelligence, style, a great interview with Ungerer himself, and some superb animation that gives renewed life and meaning to the artist’s drawings.

 

Renoir FL (3 ½ stars)

Most films labor furiously, trying to infuse every frame with passion. Renoir is content to sit still, creating effortless beauty in the style of its subject, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

A French-language production set on the Riviera in 1915, this drama is both a love poem to Renoir’s art and a love triangle between the 74-year-old painter, his 21-year-old son Jean, and a beautiful but mysterious model who becomes the muse of both father and son. Set during World War I, Renoir unfolds in a tranquil part of France touched only distantly by conflict. This striking contrast between serenity and hell is heightened by the fact that Jean is convalescing, waiting to return to the butchery of battle.

“It’s us – old people, the infirm – whom they should send to the front, in the mud and the trenches,” Pierre-Auguste says, fearing the loss of both Jean and Jean’s older brother. Yet he can only truly express emotion through his paintings, which he continues to create despite crippling arthritis. “I still have progress to make,” he tells Jean. “I’ll carry on till I collapse.”

Director Gilles Bourdos and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin have created a work worthy of its subject. Colors breathe and light glows almost as hauntingly as in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But as with a painting that you admire at first glance, the film’s emotion – or lack thereof – fades after viewing. Perhaps it needed a bit less of Pierre-Auguste’s quiet beauty and more of the drama of Jean, who, after the war, became one of the world’s great film directors, producing such classics as The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.

Despite those shortcomings, the film makes us appreciate anew the gifts that the Renoirs left us, while giving us a rare glimpse into their lives.

 

Pietà FL (3 ½ stars)

The pietà is the Christian depiction of Mary cradling her dying son following his crucifixion. Its most famous depiction is Michelangelo’s sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica, and it’s no stretch to say that South Korean writer-director Kim Ki-duk considers himself a Michelangelo of film, proudly proclaiming in Pietà’s opening credits, a la Quentin Tarantino, that this is his 18th film. But he certainly does his best to back up that bravado with his shockingly depraved twist on religious iconography.

Though surprisingly non-graphic visually, Pietà is nevertheless brutally disturbing, and over the top at times. We should all be appalled by its subjects – violence, poverty, rape, cannibalism, implied incest and animal cruelty – but if those subjects disgust you so much that you are unable to see them on screen, stay away from this movie. However, if you want a unique experience, a sort of macabre celluloid poem, treat yourself to the most memorable film of the festival.

Lee Jung-jin plays Lee Kang-do, a monster of a man who loans money to poor machinists, charges astronomical interest and then, if they can’t pay, tortures them with their own machinery so he can collect their insurance. The borrowers understand their situation all too well, and some are even tragically resigned to their fate. (“Make me a cripple,” one man begs Lee, so he can share in the insurance claim.) Yet Lee’s unbearably bleak outlook on life changes when a mysterious woman (the brilliant Jo Min-su) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his long-lost mother.

Pietà won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and though some audience members walked out in disgust, as they will surely do in Orlando, the Florida Film Festival deserves credit for scheduling this one. Love them or hate them, movies like this prove that this event is culturally relevant. As Festival President Henry Maldonado says, “There may have been a time in which [we] said we’re the Florida Film Festival, and they would said, ‘That’s in Miami, right?’ Not anymore.”

 

IcebergSlim_300

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (3 ½ stars)

Many of the best documentaries take a subject with which you’re either unfamiliar or uncomfortable and allow you to embrace it, if only for an hour and a half in the dark. That’s especially true with Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, a unique glimpse into the world of Robert Beck, a.k.a. Iceberg Slim, a famous Chicago pimp of the 1930s and 1940s who somehow transformed himself into one of the most famous urban writers of his generation.

Directed by Jorge Hinojosa, this dynamic doc – one of the best of the festival – makes good use of animation, graphics and music to transport you to Beck’s gritty world, but it’s the interviews that make you want to stay. All the black-culture commentators you might expect are here, from Snoop Dogg to Quincy Jones to Chris Rock. However, it’s a complete unknown, Beck’s first wife, Betty, who steals the show. In a jaw-dropping, almost nauseatingly honest interview, she transforms the film into something part sad, part enlightening. Half dressed, half coherent and smoking her head off, she tells the real story of Iceberg as only she can. Add in some offbeat interviews with Beck’s daughters, and the story of a juicy figure in American literature gets even juicier.

Beck got his nickname from his reaction to a gunfight in a bar when he was young. High on cocaine, he sat motionless while a bullet whizzed through his hat, barely avoiding blasting his brains into his brewski. He was cool like a berg, and this doc is a fittingly hip tribute to that coolness, wit and intelligence.

As Beck said, “A lot of people think top pimps are dummies. That’s not true; they’re just perverted.”

 

The Forgotten Kingdom FL (3 ½ stars) – not reviewed

 

Starbuck FL (3 ¼ stars) – not reviewed

 

This is Where We Live (3 stars) – not reviewed

 

Lore FL (2 ¾ stars) – not reviewed

 

Nancy, Please (2 ½ stars)

Nancy, Please tries to replicate the paranoia of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and the creepy claustrophobia of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. If you haven’t seen those films, that’s OK, since all you need in order to understand this film is an ounce of OCD. It wreaks of obsession more than Calvin Klein.

Will Rogers – the alive, less famous one – plays Paul, an anal-retentive PhD candidate at Yale who has just moved into a new house with his overly sensible girlfriend Jen (Rebecca Lawrence). His dissertation work and, indeed, his entire life is brought to a crashing halt when he realizes he’s left his cherished copy of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit at his previous residence, where his former roommate Nancy (Eleanore Hendricks) still lives. The book contains his crucial, hand-written notes, and he needs it back, desperately. Adding to Paul’s frustration is an invasion of squirrels in the walls of his new house, eating away at his property and, seemingly, his sanity.

For his first feature, director-writer Andrew Semans has fashioned an odd, tedious study in minutia that may bore you to death during the first 40 minutes. Don’t be surprised to hear some groans and see a walk-out or two in the early going. But then the story starts to annoy you, then intrigue you, and finally fascinate you. Why won’t Nancy just give us, I mean Paul, back the book!? “It’s like she’s holding me hostage,” Paul screams! Like Edvard Munch, Semans makes his audience feel that scream, if only for the final few minutes of the film.

 

This is Martin Bonner (2 ½ stars)

This is Martin Bonner needs festivals to survive. In the world of general releases, it wouldn’t stand a chance. It’s too plodding and empty, at least at first glance. But let it wash over you at its own steady pace and you might get sucked into its quiet, lonely world.

Martin (Paul Eenhoorn) has just moved to Reno, leaving behind two grown children and seemingly everything else he held dear. Financially and spiritually adrift after years spent devoted to his church, he’s found a new job helping prisoners make the transition from incarceration to freedom. It allows him to honor his faith while keeping a certain distance from it too. Also starting anew is Travis (Richmond Arquette), just released from prison after 12 years, trying to reconnect with his daughter and looking for a friend. He finds an unlikely one in Martin.

With his sophomore feature, director-writer Chad Hartigan has tackled a topic that is anything but sophomoric: facing the world, and yourself, alone. It’s tough to do at any age and under any circumstance, let alone as middle-aged men inventing new lives for yourselves. Obvious and a bit amateurish at times, Martin Bonner could have fallen flat if not for Hartigan’s patient, panning camera and the touching and naturalistic, though unpolished, performances of Eenhoorn and Arquette. Some may find the subtle Christian overtones off-putting or the overall piece passionless, more a photograph than a film. But allowed to slowly develop, it becomes a lovely snapshot.

 

The History of Future Folk (2 ½ stars) – not reviewed

 

Unfinished Song (2 ¼ stars) – not reviewed

 

Year of the Living Dead (2 ¼ stars) – not reviewed

 

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (2 stars)

You shouldn’t have to like a documentary’s subject to appreciate the doc itself. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton sure puts that theory to the test, though, as directors Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon have fallen under the spell of experimental filmmaker and poet Broughton, believing almost everything he created was pure magic instead of the pretentious garbage some claim it to be.

Broughton was the product of post-war West Coast bohemia, and he greatly influenced the San Francisco performance-poetry scene and the gay movement. (As the doc reminds us, “Even in San Francisco, it [was] dangerous to be queer in the 1950s.”) Yet Broughton’s greatest fame came as an experimental filmmaker and director of such well-known shorts at The Potted Psalm (1946) and The Pleasure Garden (1953).

Whether you love or hate Broughton’s work, the filmmaker makes a worthy subject, and this movie, in just its second U.S. showing, embraces his own special celebration of life in all its self-indulgent, crazy, joyous incarnations. But by refusing to step away from its subject and examine the purpose and merit of experimental film, it squanders an opportunity to become more meaningful.

One interviewee goes as far as to claim that Broughton “in a sense, invented and perfected the poetic cinema.” That’s an outrageous exaggeration and briefly gives the film the feel of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Yet, thankfully, it’s Broughton himself, toward the end of the doc and the end of his own life, who finally makes sense of the “big joy” he so passionately projects to the world:

“Everything is an act,” he admits. “When people ask how you are, always say you’re fine. It makes your friends happy and your enemies furious.”

 

The Taiwan Oyster (1 ¾ stars)

“I feel like a minor character in someone else’s story,” the main character in director Mark Jarrett’s debut feature tells his friend. The same goes for the audience of The Taiwan Oyster, as we often feel like mere observers, watching the action without much emotion or interest.

Two American friends, Simon and Darin, are teaching English in Taiwan (and running a small newspaper, The Oyster) when a fellow countryman dies accidentally. Knowing that the orphaned American has no one to claim him and will be cremated against his wishes, the two slightly disillusioned friends plan a Texas-style road trip across Taiwan to look for the perfect burial spot. And in predictable fashion, they meet an attractive and similarly disillusioned woman, and discover something about themselves along the way. It’s all just a bit too neat.

It didn’t have to be this way. Jarrett and his co-writers invented a unique scenario, found a good actor in Billy Harvey, who plays Simon, and an interesting “MacGuffin,” or ultimately unimportant plot device to keep things moving, as Alfred Hitchcock would describe it. Jarrett also makes good use of his camera, capturing both the urban grittiness and the rural beauty of Taiwan, often in a sad, contemplative way. But after an hour and 45 minutes of deep conversations, bad acting by Jeff Palmiotti (as Darin), forced literary references and plot points that stretch believability, we’re ready for this trip to end.

Don’t expect a pearl inside this oyster. The best you can hope for is some tasty meat without too much sand.

 

Sightseers (1 ¾ stars)

Something goes bad along the way in Sightseers, but you already know that if you’ve seen the British film’s trailer. However, I’m talking about not just the characters’ idyllic vacation-turned-disaster, but the movie itself, which morphs from cleverly quirky to deliciously dark to just plain mean-spirited and unfunny, all in only 90 minutes.

Feeling guilty over the accidental death of her dog and in desperate need of an escape from her clinging mother, Tina (Alice Lowe) sets out with her new boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram), for a road tour of the Yorkshire countryside. But during a horrible accident, a screw is apparently knocked loose in their brains because they then proceed to rampage about the countryside in a misguided metaphor for selfishness, anarchy and the trappings of a civilized society.

If you don’t like that posh explanation, you can take director Ben Wheatley’s terrifying travelogue at face value: a dark comedy bordering on bloody farce. Whatever meaning you embrace, it’s difficult to escape the fact that, though well acted and intriguing, this caravan of comedy has far too few laughs and runs out of gas about an hour in. It wants to be Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend but ends up more like Weekend at Bernie’s.

If you’d planned to watch Sightseers on Tuesday, April 9, skip it and instead see a different type of crime caper: The Sting. This 1973 masterpiece starring Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw is playing in Winter Park’s Central Park, weather permitting, at 8 p.m. that night. The picture and sound quality on the outdoor screen are never that great, but, hey, you get to see one of the greatest movies of all time for free, in commemoration of his 40th anniversary, so stop complaining and go eat your free popcorn.

 

putzel

Putzel (1 ¾ stars)

“Listen to the guilt. It’s like a GPS for the soul.”

For Walter, those words ring true, but what else would you expect for a guy whose nickname is Putzel, or essentially “little putz” or “schmuck” in Yiddish? They are his guiding light in life, his blueprint for lowering his expectations, allowing his wife to cheat on him and resigning himself to a life as the manager of his family’s lox deli. Never mind that he has bigger dreams, such as summoning the courage to shlep himself far away from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and escape his domineering shmendrik (look that one up, my fellow goys) of an uncle.

Directed by first-timer Jason Chaet and written by Rick Moore, Putzel plays like a charming sitcom, one you can’t quite hate but can’t fully appreciate either. Its premise is promising, and Walter, played lovingly by Jack Carpenter, is not as annoying and uninteresting as his monikor would suggest. In addition, John Pankow and Melanie Lynskey, as Walter’s uncle and new love interest, respectively, add some honesty to the piece. But despite those characters’ moments of tenderness and one of the funniest sight gags you’ll see at this year’s festival, Chaet’s film is just too contrived to be anything more than a comedic diversion for viewers seeking mainstream entertainment.

Like its title character, Putzel perhaps deserves a bit more respect than it’s received here. However, it’s difficult to embrace a film that is a bit of a putz itself: sweet and well meaning, but ultimately underachieving and easy to overlook.

 

I Am Divine (1 ¾ stars) – not reviewed

 

Bad Brains: A Band in DC (1 ½ stars) – not reviewed

 

Magical Universe (1 ½ stars)

Unless you’re Michael Moore or Bill Maher, it’s probably not a good idea to insert too much of yourself into your own documentary. In the style of Errol Morris, the award-winning director of such docs as Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, you’d do better to stay behind the camera and let your subjects speak for themselves. Jeremy Workman has not learned this lesson.

Workman spent a decade chronicling and developing a friendship with Maine artist Al Carbee. He first exposed Carbee’s odd work (consisting mostly of photographs of Barbie dolls and other odd crafts and collages) in the 2002 short film Carbie’s Barbies, which he wrote, directed and edited, as he did Magical Universe, which is making its world premiere at the festival. The short finally brought attention to the painfully reclusive and socially awkward photographer.

“I’m completely in control of Barbie,” Carbee tells Workman. “She’s the perfect model. Barbie never complains.”

Adding to that outlook is Carbee’s honest admission that he’s gotten even odder in recent years. “If you are obsessive about something,” he says, “that increases as you get older.” And for 80-something Carbee, that equals a lot of OCD!

If that’s not a psyche worth delving into with a good doc, I don’t know what is. But, regrettably, for his first solo feature, Workman, though well intentioned, focuses too much on himself and his friendship with Carbee. He even goes so far as to provide unnecessary personal anecdotes in the form of horribly annoying voiceovers. Workman is simply too tied to his topic, and the result is a tedious and amateurish bungling of a potentially solid story.

 

First Comes Love (1 ½ stars)

Most directors cut their film teeth on their own home movies. Nina Davenport has never stopped cutting.

Davenport is one of the most prominent auto-biographical documentarians, and she clearly has a knack for turning the seemingly mundane into decent cinema. Her latest effort, First Comes Love, chronicles her quest, at age 41, to have a baby though artificial insemination, while dealing with romantic and familial relationships.

“Seemingly everyone on earth has managed to marry and procreate except me,” she says early in the documentary. That’s a frank admission of what most single 40-somethings feel, including, quite frankly, me. However, that’s the extent to which I bonded with Davenport while watching her film because she spends most of it self-indulgently perusing the minutia of her life. Those minutia include the dating habits of her friends and her strained relationship with her father, who clearly has issues of his own – enough to form a pretty good short film, in fact.

Of course, you’d have to be completely heartless not to sympathize slightly with Davenport’s desire to raise a child. And when a friend tells her, bluntly, to “put down the camera, go get some sperm and get pregnant,” you get a sense that the movie is about to become more important, more relevant for its entire audience. Unfortunately, as with many self-centered docs, we end up not truly caring.

“I guess I have this biological compulsion to have a child, and I don’t even know why,” Davenport says. There is great truth to that statement, but it doesn’t mean the world needs to see your home movie about it.

 

Free Samples (1 ½ stars)

Discovering a great short film is often the best thing about a festival. Conversely, the worst part is often discovering a feature that should have stayed a short. Case in point: Free Samples, the story of Jillian, a disillusioned 20-something who agrees to watch her friend’s ice-cream truck and hand out free servings. In the process, she discovers a bit about herself, her offbeat customers and the meaning of life.

This is the first feature by director Jay Gammill and writer Jim Beggarly, and it shows. Perhaps, as with those glossy food photos in restaurant menus, this ice cream looked better on paper. How else does one explain the involvement of Jesse Eisenberg, who is both miscast and underused as Jillian’s potential love interest, and Tippi Hedren as one of the customers?

Playing Jillian is the quirky Jess Weixler, who is trying her best to overcome the material. But at just 80 minutes and with some misplaced sincerity toward the end, the film just doesn’t give her enough to work with. After all, sometimes in art, as in life, less really is less.

The fact that I, your friendly festival reviewer, was able to see this film as a free sample made it somewhat palatable. If you’re stuck having to pay for this concoction, though, you may be left with buyer’s remorse.

“You’re the best-looking woman I would never, ever consider having sex with,” a friend tells Jillian. Sadly, judging just by Free Samples, Weixler is the best-looking woman I would never, ever consider seeing in a movie. So stay away and instead see the other Tippi Hedren film playing this year’s fest: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, on April 12, if you can manage a stand-by ticket. And as an added bonus, Hedren herself will be there.

 

I Declare War (1 star)

All’s fair in love and war, and I Declare War has a little of the former and a lot of the latter. But to be completely fair, the drama deserves a bit more than just one star. However, it is the least competent of the 15 flicks I saw for this year’s festival and, therefore, must receive that dubious honor.

Director-writer Jason Lapeyre and co-director Robert Wilson were obviously inspired by both the friendship themes of Stand By Me and the darker tones of Lord of the Flies. In an odd hybrid of the two, they have created a story of middle-class kids who infuse their simple summer war games with jealousy, revenge and real violence.

All the young actors pour their hearts into the project, but only P.K. (13-year-old Gage Munroe) truly stands out. A romantic subplot, though well acted by the only girl in the film (Mackenzie Munro), goes nowhere, as do the various “battle scenes,” which slowly build to a contrived conclusion. Yet the worst mistake Lapeyre makes is not allowing the kids to show their innocence at the beginning of the film, as Lord of the Flies does. Instead, he launches right in with nastiness and brutality, making it difficult to relate to the characters or even tell which kids are on which teams. And the misguided blend of real, pretend and imagined violence only lessons the emotional impact.

Much like the kids’ “war,” the movie feels like a work in progress, something that’s being made up as it goes along. In short, it’s only a step or two above a student film.

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