Florida Film Festival 2018

Read reviews of this year’s movies

Below you will find the films I have reviewed for the 2018 Florida Film Festival. Most of these reviews were originally featured in The Orlando Weekly on April 4, 2018. To see them on the OW site — and to read festival reviews by other OW writers, click here. Reviews appear in alphabetical order. Please remember that this is just a tiny sample of the more than 180 movies at this year’s event, and I would encourage you to sample as many as you can, especially the shorts programs. For more information on the films, including a complete schedule and purchase information, visit FloridaFilmFestival.com.


Back to Burgundy  FL (2 ¾ stars on my 0-5 scale)

One of the festival’s two food features, Back to Burgundy (or Ce Qui Nous Lie, literally “what binds us” in French) focuses on fine wine and the struggles of running a family vineyard, but it appeals just as much to the heart as to the palate. Like a grapevine, the story – three siblings searching for meaning in their lives following their father’s death – needs some heavy pruning. But, like wine, it also requires time and space to breathe, and writer-director Cédric Klapisch certainly gives us more than enough time to indulge.


The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (2 stars)

A three-part animated anthology – in French, with English subtitles – The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (directed by Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert, and adapted from Renner’s book) will be a tough sell to American audiences. Sure, it’s just as charming and likeable as one would expect. (Who can resist the adventures of a pig, a duck, a rabbit, a chicken, a fox and a wolf – each with a unique personality?) In fact, at first glance, it seems like a great choice for one of the festival’s family films. But because its stories are rather simple (though sweet), its humor not quite sharp enough and its animation crude (a mix of computer and hand-drawn), adults will be a bit bored. And, unfortunately, most American children simply won’t have the patience for the subtitles. But, hey, if you’re a French-speaking child living in Orlando, this is your movie!


Borg McEnroe (3 stars)

Directed by Janus Metz, Borg McEnroe focuses on the rivalry between the famous Swedish and American tennis players, and, specifically, the 1980 Wimbledon finals. Like the sport itself, the film is dramatic and beautiful. Tennis has simply never looked better on the big screen thanks to great cinematography and a career performance by Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe. (Sverrir Gudnason and Stellan Skarsgård are also excellent as Borg and Borg’s trainer, respectively.) Nevertheless, the events of the film are embarrassingly hyped, and the script plays fast and loose with the facts. (For instance, the two players were already familiar with each other, having played seven times prior to the events of the film, with Borg holding the 4-3 advantage. And Jimmy Connors was just as much in the mix as McEnroe.) But if you don’t know the real story, the cinematic interpretation will be an intriguing and mostly satisfying experience.


Curse of Snakes Valley  FL (½ star)

This was the “secret screening.” Apparently we were just the second American audience to ever see this film and the second audience anywhere to see it since its release in the Soviet bloc in 1988. I wish we hadn’t. Dubbed the “Russian Indiana Jones,” the film actually cured my fear or snakes. I now have profound empathy for them and all the other actors who had to endure this production. But kudos to the Enzian for tracking down this difficult-to-find, forgotten film and using it to waste 99 minutes of our lives at midnight on a Thursday night when we could have been doing so many other worthwhile things, like sleeping. Admittedly, the main point of these midnight screenings is often to laugh at the films’ bad quality, and there were several so-bad-it’s-good moments in Curse of Snakes Valley. Still, my main mood was boredom.


The Feels (1 ¼ stars)

A partially improvised dramedy about friends at a lesbian bachelorette party, The Feels is more an acting experiment than a complete film. Writer-director Jenée LaMarque does manage to make each of the seven characters distinct, partially thanks to some competent performances (one of which is hers), but her film has little sense of pacing and lacks the ebb and flow of polished moviemaking. Admittedly, it’s probably not polish LaMarque is going for. Instead, it’s naturalism and honesty, not to mention sexual openness. But, regrettably, she squanders much of that naturalism on conventional plot twists and ill-conceived, tonally challenged “interviews” in which the characters discuss orgasms. I appreciated the effort, but I just wasn’t feeling it.


Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story (2 stars)

In this up-close and exceedingly personal documentary, director James Lester follows the careers of several New York burlesque performers. Alternating between stage performances and intimate glimpses of the dancers’ everyday lives (and with even a little burlesque history thrown in), Lester attempts to illuminate a sub-culture unfamiliar to most Americans. But while each performer is uniquely sexy and talented, the documentary is disappointingly unsurprising, straightforward and rather dull. It’s certainly well intentioned, though, and challenges the assumption that burlesque is “the lowest of the low entertainment,” as one performer puts it. But thanks to over an hour of the subjects talking about themselves, the doc flirts with pretention. (I was almost expecting Christopher Guest to pop out from behind a fan-dancing Parker Posey.) Frankly, I’d much rather watch the burlesque acts in person, buy the performers a drink afterwards and ask them my own questions rather than viewing them through Lester’s lens.

The feature doc is preceded by a short one, Taobao, about the fleeting nature of fame in the Chinese modeling industry.


Ghost Stories (4 stars)

This smart, twisty British horror might be the best festival midnight film I’ve ever seen. It will conjure memories of both Dead of Night (with its anthology structure) and Jacob’s Ladder.


The Guilty  FL (4 stars)

Combining Sorry, Wrong Number’s radio-drama appeal and Locke’s claustrophobic tension, The Guilty might be the best film of this year’s festival. This compelling, twisty Danish thriller is helmed by first-timer Gustav Möller and stars Jakob Cedergren as a police officer in an emergency call center. Relying on one simple set, a stunning and sympathetic performance by Cedergren, a well-crafted and socially relevant story, and the audience’s own imagination, The Guilty is the story of a flawed man desperate to save the life of a person he doesn’t know and, by doing so, prove his own worth.


Jackie Brown (4 stars)

Arguably one of Quentin Tarantino’s three best films (along with Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds), this movie is being shown in conjunction with one of the two celebrity events at this year’s festival. Pam Grier will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening. Click here for my interview with Grier.


Lean on Pete (3 ½ stars)

One of the festival’s most anticipated Spotlight films, Lean on Pete is a bleak and unexpectedly complex story of despair, perseverance and, ultimately, survival. Directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years), it’s the tale of Charlie, a 15-year-old whose life goes from comfortable to chaotic when family tragedy strikes. Determined to make it on his own, he chooses as his companion a horse (Pete) destined for a Mexican slaughterhouse. The film is structured more like three movies than a single, cohesive narrative, but it’s powered by a strong animal-rights message and great performances by Charlie Plummer (Boardwalk Empire) as Charlie, Steve Buscemi as the horse’s owner and Chloë Sevigny as a jockey.


My Indiana Muse (3 stars) — not reviewed


RBG (3 ¾ stars)

An extraordinary person regardless of your political leanings, Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets the documentary she deserves in RBG. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the film is nothing less than a life-defining document of the Supreme Court justice, but it also illuminates the entire gender-equality movement that Ginsberg has championed since the 1960s. As with similar bio-docs, it’s occasionally too predictable, too reliant on talking heads and too in love with its subject. But after seeing the film, you’ll likely also find yourself in love with the woman one interviewee calls “the closest thing to a superhero.” Eat your heart out, Marvel.


Requiem for a Dream (3 ¼ stars)

This powerful, love-it-or-hate-it psychological drama from Darren Aronofsky is being presented as one of the two celebrity events at the fest. It was one of the director’s most controversial films when it debuted back in 2000, and it’s a brave choice for the festival. Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening. The film also stars Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto. The festival will screen the unrated version (which originally received an NC-17 from the MPAA), rather than the R-rated, according to Programming Coordinator Tim Anderson. (The difference is the inclusion of a graphic sex scene.) So, parents, don’t allow your child into this screening.


Samantha’s Amazing Acro-Cats (1 ¾ stars) — not reviewed


Shadow of a Doubt (3 stars)

This Alfred Hitchcock classic from 1943 stars Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, it’s the festival’s closing-night film. Though not on the level of his best work, it’s still a scary study in the David Lynchian theory that everything is not quite what is seems in idyllic, small-town America.


Shorts #5: Animated Shorts

The shorts programs are the highlight of the festival for me. While the best features often return to the Enzian or Regal Cinemas, this is usually our one chance to see the shorts on the big screen in Orlando. Unfortunately – and despite a nice variety of styles – the overwhelmingly dark Animated Shorts program (which is NOT for kids) isn’t as strong as in past years. In fact, I cannot recommend the program as a whole and was surprised by the lack of whimsy, magic and intelligent humor.

The Velvet Underground Played My High School

On the bright side, five of the 14 films deserve commendation: the Barack Obama-inspired Fired Up; the semi-documentary The Velvet Underground Played at My High School; the lonely, dreamlike Weekends; the surreal hand-drawn Fundamental; and The Driver is Red, a hand-drawn interpretation of the 1960 capture of Nazi monster Adolf Eichmann.

“This film was the first like proper film I’ve made that wasn’t like a skateboard cartoon or something kind of silly,” Randall Christopher, the artist and director of The Driver is Red, told me. Though he won the Grand Jury short-animation award at the festival in 2013 for Backyard Jam, his latest film represents an enormous shift in tone and style, from humorous irreverence to weighty, historical documentary.

The Driver is Red

“I just got really interested in the story in January 2016. I came across an article in the The New York Times, … [and I went] down the internet rabbit hole and just got completely obsessed with the story,” he says. “I didn’t grow up knowing a lot about the Holocaust. [This] was the first time I really, really started studying the Holocaust, and I was completely fascinated, and eventually I just started thinking I think I want to tell this story. … I knew how to do animation, and it just organically became more and more of this real thing.”

Despite the film being easily the best in this year’s animated shorts program, the director told me, “I don’t consider myself a filmmaker.”

Well, Randall, you are now.


Shorts #2: “Don’t Do Me Like That”

This shorts block (named in honor of the Tom Petty tune) is also one of the weaker ones I’ve screened in the last few years, although, as usual, there are at least a couple of films that make the program worthwhile. Specifically, Caroline (a tense, claustrophobic examination of one mother’s really bad parenting day), Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (an edgy glimpse at a life-or-death situation, with a ballsy twist ending) and Life Boat (a look at a teacher’s unusual motivational methods, starring Stephen Dorff) make for compelling cinema.

Life Boat

Despite those high-quality shorts, I’d look for another option unless your goal is to see all the shorts programs. Admittedly, this is just the second shorts block I’ve seen at this year’s festival (as of the opening weekend). I would have seen Shorts Program #1, but it was so crowded that I couldn’t find a seat. (Press – such as yours truly – are let in only on stand-by after passholders and ticketholders have been seated.) While disappointing to me, I’m sure it was good news for the festival, as it means ticket sales are fairly strong. (Of course, the packed house does also have something to do with the smaller-capacity houses at Regal, which are the result of last year’s reduction in seat numbers so viewers can recline in slovenly comfort and more easily accommodate their obese bottoms. But I digress.) So, yes, attendance does seem slightly up this year. But don’t take my word for it: Enzian Executive Director David Schillhammer says early estimates indicate better numbers than in 2017, although he cautioned that the festival won’t know for sure until final ticket sales are tallied.

And while I’m handing out accolades and complaints, cheers to the festival for hosting a very tasty Festival Block Party on Saturday, April 7, in front of Regal Cinemas in Winter Park Village. Parties like that are a big reason to purchase festival passes, and the free food and drink (for press even) helped make up for my less-than-stellar experience in the standby line.

But let me end on a grumble (because – let’s face it – that’s what some of you have come to expect from me): Dear Regal, what the f*%# is up with your air-conditioning? Everyone sweated their balls and vaginas off in “Regal B” cinema yesterday. (If you think that last comment inappropriately vulgar, I apologize. I’m my defense, I’m just trying to fit in with the shorts program, which included a film about perspiring lady parts. Admittedly, Valentina was trying to make a larger, metaphorical point. But they muffed it.)


Sunspots: New Visions of the Avant Garde

The Garden of Delight

Like a breath of fresh air, this program blew into the festival this year for the first time. Although not all of the 11 shorts — most of which could be labeled experimental — were winners, the overall program was mind-expanding and wholly necessary. Let me specifically commend Animal Cinema, Blot, Edge of Alchemy, The Knits and The Garden of Delight. (The latter was probably the best of the block and might be the best sexually explicit short film I’ve ever seen.) I’d also like to congratulate my friend Clementine Leger (former programming coordinator of the Florida Film Festival) for Holy Pink: Fragrant, a music film that, although just two minutes long, had a captivatingly cinematic quality. I encourage the festival to make this program a permanent part of the festival. My one regret is it sucks some of the avant garde films away from the Midnight Shorts program, which suffered this year from sophomoria. (That’s not really a word, but after seeing Sunspots, I figure I’m allowed to embrace my inner Lewis Carroll.)


Tully (4 stars)

This new dramedy by director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody is a must-see. If you missed it at the festival, you should be able to find it when it opens in wide release. Look for my full review in the coming weeks.


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