Florida FF 2017 reviews

Analysis of the festival’s films

This page contains all my reviews from the 2017 Florida Film Festival. Most were first featured in The Orlando Weekly, and the links to the original stories are included at the start of each review. (I suggest you check out my fellow reviewers’ critiques there too.) The three reviews that are unique to MeierMovies are labeled as such. Before diving into these reviews, I suggest you first check out my festival-summary article, in addition to my interview with festival guest Lea Thompson. Reviews appear in alphabetical order, and star ratings are on my usual 0-5 scale.


Airplane! (1980; 4 stars) — not reviewed


The Archer (1 star)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, April 19, 2017

Director Valerie Weiss’s third theatrical feature, The Archer, is a daring, twisty action-thriller tackling topics from sexual abuse to women’s rights to judicial corruption. But despite the well-placed ambitions of Weiss and writer Casey Schroen, their story – though inspired by actual events – seems so ridiculous and tonally challenged that it begs comparison to women-in-prison sexploitation films.

Lauren is a high school archery champion whose friend is in an abusive relationship. When the boyfriend attacks the friend, Lauren comes to her defense and lands the guy in the hospital. But after criminal charges are brought against Lauren, she inexplicably finds herself in a reform school from hell, where abuse at the hands of male guards is rampant.

Well shot and edited, and featuring a solid lead performance by Bailey Noble (True Blood, The Last Tycoon), The Archer suffers not from rudimentary filmmaking mistakes but from creative ones. Ineffective performances, an intrusive score, overemphasis on sexuality and a bizarre subplot involving a father and son who run the detention facility all stretch credibility past the breaking point and waste a unique and socially relevant premise.


Back to the Future (1985; 4 ¼ stars) — not reviewed


Bad Black  FL (0 stars)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, April 19, 2017

After watching Bad Black, I assumed writer-director Nabwana I.G.G. had never made a film before. Actually, I assumed he’d never seen a film. But, astonishingly, this is just the latest in a string of campy, zero-budget, action films the director has made in the slums of his native Uganda.

Intended to both spoof and celebrate 1980s Schwarzenegger flicks – and to infuse them with a unique brand of Ugandan storytelling – Bad Black sounds like it was recorded on an iPhone and looks like it was shot with a GoPro strapped to a goat: a GoatPro. Though it enjoyed limited success at last year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas (presumably where audiences came to laugh at its bad quality or admire its participants’ commitment to combat), this “midnight movie” defies explanation and is unwatchable on any level. It’s the worst festival feature I’ve ever seen.

“What a movie! Good thing it’s over,” exclaims the inane voiceover as Bad Black is coming to a merciful end. True that.


Circus Kid (3 ¼ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

For most of us, it’s too late to run away and join the circus. But the next-best thing might be watching Circus Kid, a delightful documentary that shines its followspot not just on the history of the modern American circus but the meaning of family.

At just 69 minutes, Circus Kid might seem too slight. And the fact that it’s directed and partially narrated by its subject, Lorenzo Pisoni, might strike some as self-promotional. But the stories that Pisoni presents about the famous Pickle Family Circus (which his dad, Larry, founded) and the countless clowns and acrobats (including Bill Irwin) it inspired will likely inspire you too, whether or not you’re big on the Big Top.

The feature is accompanied by Richard Twice (3 stars), a short, partially animated documentary about a talented musician who walked away from potential fame after a life-altering stage experience in the late 1960s. It’s a fascinating yet melancholy examination of how a single event can irreparably alter one’s life.


Colossal (3 ¼ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 24, 2017

The one “Spotlight” film I was able to see in advance of the festival is a unique blend of fantasy, science fiction, comedy and dark drama. That mix of genres isn’t always blended just right in director Nacho Vigalondo’s (Timecrimes) imaginatively metaphorical film about human relationships gone bad — so bad they morph into metropolis-mangling monsters. But if you like your dramedies with a side of surreal and a dash of disaster, don’t miss the one festival showing (April 22, 6:30 p.m., Regal Winter Park) of Colossal, which features a sincere performance by Anne Hathaway and a wonderfully nuanced one by Jason Sudeikis.


The Commune  FL (4 stars) — not reviewed


Dave Made a Maze (1 ¾ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

“Dave is trapped in a cardboard maze in his living room, and he can’t get out,” utters a character in Dave Made a Maze.

Indeed, like the party-goers in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and the child in The Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost,” the title character and his friends become trapped in a labyrinth that logic dictates should not exist. Throw in a Minotaur, puppets, a meta-theatrical film crew and imaginative booby traps sprung from the fertile and apparently troubled mind of Dave (Nick Thune) himself, and you have the blueprints for a delightfully surreal construction.

Though first-time director Bill Watterson and writer Steven Sears deserve thanks for thinking outside the box, literally, and creating magical props and sets on a small budget, Dave’s dilemma is in its writing, editing and acting, none of which are smart or crisp enough to fulfill the movie’s metaphysical promise. Instead of a meaningful commentary on unfulfilled ambition or the claustrophobia of human existence, we’re given silly tedium only occasionally interrupted by profundity. Still, it’s a noble newbie effort and will likely attract a small cult following on the festival circuit.


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (¼ star)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, April 19, 2017

You don’t need me to tell you whether to see this 1965 Russ Meyer classic. You probably already have your opinions about the movie John Waters called the greatest ever made and the San Francisco Chronicle said was the worst written of all time. I’m simply here to voice my frustration that instead of relegating this sexploitation film to a midnight slot, where it belongs, festival programmers made it their closing-night retro selection.

Last year they bestowed that honor upon a true masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? How the mighty have fallen.


For Ahkeem (3 ½ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

Most documentaries either report past events or observe unfolding ones. For Ahkeem is a memorable example of the latter, as its camera provides extraordinary access to Daje Shelton, a 17-year-old black girl from the slums of St. Louis.

The film, directed by Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest, follows her for a year and a half, as she struggles to avoid legal trouble, graduate high school, raise a baby and maintain a relationship with her boyfriend – while he is trying to stay out of jail. And behind it all is the shadow of the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Though the subjects’ actions are undoubtedly altered by the camera, the film is still a memorable and painful portrait of a world that seems hopeless.

(The film’s executive producer is Jeff Truesdell, former editor of The Orlando Weekly, but he currently has no relationship with the OW or this reviewer.)

The feature is preceded by a short Florida doc titled The Rabbit Hunt (3 stars), which is exactly what its name suggests. Directed by Patrick Bresnan, it is extremely difficult to watch, especially if you’re an animal lover, but it also feels culturally and morally necessary.


Girl Flu (1 star)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

One of the best things about festivals is they show movies that challenge our perception of “normal” relationships and neatly categorized genres. Girl Flu is one of those films.

The story of a 12-year-old girl traumatized by her first period, the film is, at first glance, a comedy. But throw in an atypical mother-daughter relationship and an even stranger boyfriend-girlfriend story, and the tale morphs into a rambling, slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama. First-time writer-director Dorie Barton should be commended for challenging our expectations of that all-too-common genre, but, regrettably, her newbie status betrays her, as the unique elements collapse into derivative storytelling, hindered by pacing, writing and cinematography not far removed from a student project. And though the acting is mostly competent, it’s no match for the air of amateurism.

Barton will do better work, and probably soon, but this Flu is not one you want to catch.


The Hero (3 ¾ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 24, 2017

Directed by Brett Haley (who attended the screening and participated in a Q&A session) and starring Sam Elliott in perhaps his finest performance, The Hero (4 stars) was a fine opening to this year’s event. It won’t play again at this year’s festival, but look for it when it returns to Enzian, possibly in June. It’s the story of an aging – and possibly dying – actor looking to write just one more chapter in his life. The ensemble cast (which includes Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross) is excellent, but it’s Elliott you could be hearing from come Oscar time.


International Animated Shorts (3 ½ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

This annual block is known for filmmakers who push the thematic and technical limits of animated cinema. This year’s offering is a mixed bag of quality, but discovering the assorted treats is nevertheless a worthwhile, mind-expanding experience.

Most of the 12 films are surreal, absurd or experimental, and the group would have benefitted from one or two selections with a traditional narrative structure, to serve as palate cleansers for the stranger fare. In addition, Pussy (2 stars) is better suited to the midnight-shorts block. (About a vagina that springs to life and escapes a woman’s body to wreak havoc, it is surely President Trump’s nightmare.) But those complaints fade when we’re confronted with a variety of styles from hand-drawn to computer-generated to claymation to how-the-heck-did-they-do-that?

Most accomplished is the Spanish-language Decorado (4 stars). The only foreign-language film (with subtitles) in the group, it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and hauntingly dark. Only slightly less brain-bending are The Absence of Eddy Table (4 stars), Journal Animé (3 stars) and This Is Not an Animation (3 stars), while Fears (3 stars) is the sweetest. But sweet or not, make no mistake: This is an adults-only program.


Jesus’ Son (1999; 4 stars) — not reviewed


Manifesto (2017; 2 stars) — not reviewed


Paris Can Wait (1 ½ stars) — not reviewed


The Peacemaker (4 stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 24, 2017

This might just be the weightiest documentary of the festival. It’s that rare doc that successfully blends a newsworthy subject (international peace negotiations) with an intimate portrait. In this case, that portrait is of the legendary but little-understood man behind those negotiations, Padraig O’Malley. In just its second U.S. showing, director James Demo’s film both reflects on the past achievements of the 74-year-old O’Malley while examining with extraordinary intimacy what his life has become. Don’t miss its final festival showing on April 27 at Regal Winter Park Village, at 3:45 p.m.


Rat Film (1 star)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

If you’ve been longing for an absurdist, experimental documentary about rats, your wait is over. If, however – like 99 percent of the population – you haven’t, you should stay away from this disappointing piece of performance art.

Surprisingly, Rat Film, written and directed by first-timer Theo Anderson, is, at its core, not really about rodents. Instead, it’s some sort of rat-shit-crazy metaphor about Baltimore’s history of segregation and how we treat our fellow humans like rats. It’s also a strange tapestry of tales woven in the style of Robert Altman – if Altman were a rat fetishist and tripping on acid.

Lurching from a gritty, handheld profile of a rat exterminator, to a glimpse of people keeping rats as pets, to video-game simulations, to a hypnotically narrated overview of Baltimore’s history, to rednecks crooning about bashing in rodents’ brains, this film is ill conceived and unnecessary. For some, its unique brand of essay filmmaking will be mesmerizing in a pretentious, art-film kind of way – à la Werner Herzog. But for most of you, I predict an unpleasant, confusing grind that will teach you little about either rats or people.

Rat Film is coupled with a much better short doc, Clean Hands (3 stars), about a drive-in Christian church in Daytona Beach. Let us pray, with the parking brake on.


Shorts Program 2: “Everybody Knows” (3 ½ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

This narrative shorts block is titled “Everybody Knows,” in tribute to Leonard Cohen. And, fittingly, most of the characters in the eight films are either being watched or judged, but ultimately exceed or defy expectations.

Only one of the eight deserves a bad review. I won’t embarrass that film by naming it, but I will praise the four best. Cul-de-Sac (3 stars), written by and starring Oscar winner (and Florida Film Festival friend) Shawn Christensen, is well acted, shot and paced but lacks some context and emotional punch. Laurels (3 stars) offers a unique and twisty take on film festivals while providing the block with its only comedy, albeit a dark one. Zaar (3 stars) is an unconventional and touching examination of an act of terror – from the terrorist’s point of view. And Zero-Zero (4 stars), about an unlikely bond between a little girl and her seemingly unscrupulous neighbor, is an absolute gem.


Strad Style (1 ¼ stars) — not reviewed


A Stray (1 ½ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

Most of us became familiar with Minneapolis’s Somali immigrant population when Barkhad Abdi received his Oscar nomination for Captain Phillips in 2014. Now A Stray, starring another actor from that movie (Barkhad Abdirahman), teaches us more about that refugee community.

Adan (Abdirahman) is one such refugee, and when he’s abandoned by his family and friends, he turns to the one who won’t judge him: a dog. But, in an interesting cultural twist, we’re reminded that many Muslims view canines as unclean.

“My people stick with camels and goats,” he says. “At least they are useful.”

Yet both Adan and his companion – essentially both strays – forge an existence together in this film by Musa Syeed (who also directed Valley of Saints, which played the South Asian Film Festival five years ago). And there you have a great beginning to a movie that goes nowhere and further disappoints with each passing, rambling scene and undeveloped subplot. If Abdirahman had given a more compelling performance or sharper editing had created a more dynamic pace, A Stray might have found a home in my heart. But the production is a bit too mangy for my taste.


Unrest (3 ½ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

The festival is presenting a special screening of Unrest, a documentary about people with myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E). The film is special not just for its topic but because the director and subject, Jennifer Brea, grew up in Orlando.

After developing a high fever several years ago, Brea slipped into what is often labeled “chronic fatigue syndrome.” But she didn’t fight just the condition, she fought for answers – on film.

“It was like I had died but was forced to watch as the world moves on,” she says in the documentary. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I just kept filming.”

But instead of becoming a self-indulgent cinematic exercise, Unrest embraces everyone who has suffered silently with this misunderstood condition (17 million worldwide, 85 percent women) and partially morphs into a medical thriller by exposing the horrible history of “female hysteria.”

“Central Florida is where I spent all of my formative years, and it’s where I spent all of my time, dreaming what I would grow up to become and what I would do with my life, and it’s also where I fell in love with film,” Brea told me. “[This screening] rivals how I felt about appearing at Sundance. I’m really excited to be coming home.”

From inception to completion, the film took four years, and though Brea was able to edit the movie and rely on iPad and Skype-like technology for interviews (many of them from bed), she relied heavily on her crew for other jobs.

“One of the amazing and I think really beautiful things about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative, creative process,” she says. “When I stated production, I was almost homebound and almost entirely bed-ridden, and at first I tried to travel to go on shoots, and I would, you know, go an hour from my house and would shoot for a day on location and would spend the next 30 days in bed. … It took six months to get to six shoot days. And it was really hard. And then … I started to think about what were some sort of technological solutions that would allow me to have a presence in the field without actually having to travel to set.

“What I want people to take away [from the film is that] life is fragile and often unpredictable, but I think that it is … possible to find a way to survive, and I think that’s what a lot of the film is about on the deepest level,” she says. “We are fighting. This is a movement.”


Woman on Fire (1 ¾ stars)

From The Orlando Weekly, April 19, 2017

Festivals are about breaking barriers, and the Florida Film Festival does just that. Movies addressing LGBT issues, for example, are being featured again this year, with Woman on Fire – a documentary about the first openly transgender firefighter in New York City – being one of the most memorable.

Growing up in a family of firemen, George Guinan understood the male-dominated culture but never embraced it. First coming out as gay and then transitioning to female, George – now Brooke – had to deal not just with the realization that “being a woman was in [her] heart and mind” but also the fact that her parents were initially “sick to [their] stomach” and “devastated” at Brooke’s revelations.

“The Carousel” precedes “Woman on Fire.”

Though Brooke’s story has already been covered by mainstream media, there is still a tale to tell. Sadly, the doc doesn’t live up to its subject’s promise, as it relies too heavily on predictable interviews, focuses too closely on the minutia of Brooke and her boyfriend’s life, and comes across as slightly self-indulgent, the last thing one wants from a film that is so personal and potentially inspiring. Writer-director Julie Sokolow did a better job with Aspie Seeks Love, which played the festival two years ago, and will do better again.

The feature is preceded by The Carousel (4 stars), a doc about a historic merry-go-round in Binghamton, New York, which inspired hometown hero Rod Serling’s creation of Walking Distance, one of the best Twilight Zone episodes. Watching this excellent short is akin to grabbing the brass ring.


© 2017 Orlando Weekly / MeierMovies, LLC