While a good chunk of our team was caught up in covering the Tribeca Film Festival, I was holding down the fort much farther down on the Eastern Seaboard at the 19th annual Florida Film Festival. I saw almost twice as much as I did last year -- thirty features in total, along with the sight of Emma Stone eating fried chicken like normal people do -- so read on to see how many local, regional and world premieres were ultimately worthwhile.
Cleanflix -- Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi's documentary concerns itself with the band of Mormon video shop owners who made a killing with edited copies of R-rated films until Hollywood came a-knockin', and it offers a thorough look at the religious and artistic arguments made on either side of the fight before focusing on one specific owner's misdeeds that took place off-camera and prove all too ironic in context. (For more, you can read Scott's Toronto review.)
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky -- I'm not sure how compelling I would've found this biopic if I hadn't been constantly comparing it to last year's beautiful-but-bloodless Coco Before Chanel (which covered the rags-to-riches portion of the fashion icon's life), but it's certainly a more stylish and seductive film that sees Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) entering into an affair with the equally headstrong and quite married composer (Mads Mikkelsen).
Con Artist -- The fascinating subject of Michael Sladek's documentary is Mark Kostabi, a one-time art scene prankster who proudly has employees crank out works that he signs and sells as his own. Once eager to burn every bridge he could, Kostabi still strives for the spotlight, a contradiction that he's well aware of but a compulsion that he seems powerless to defeat (he even tries to direct Sladek's camera himself), and that dichotomy speaks volumes of the very industry that has both embraced and renounced this man.
Cummings Farm -- Ten years ago, I might've gotten away with dismissing this as LaBute Lite, but since that misanthrope has now made a career of cranking out Chris Rock remakes, it doesn't seem accurate to compare this comedy about three couples who attempt to throw their first orgy to his earlier, more incisive work. Instead, we have to settle for watching six tools decide how little they care for one another amid sexual shenanigans and latent racism. You deserve better company for ninety minutes than this lot.
Don't Let Me Drown -- It's Romeo and Juliet in the shadow of 9/11, as Brooklyn teens Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) and Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) hit it off while their families still cope with the tragedy (she lost a sister; his dad is getting sick from clearing debris). Cruz Angeles' direction feels both natural and assured, especially at evoking the wariness of the moment without pushing too hard, while his writing ends up favoring contrived confrontation; the leads, however, make the same old romantic obstacles feel a little more fresh whenever they're paired up.
Drones -- Many trotted out the "would've been better as a short" excuse when talking about this low-key workplace comedy, and while the concept does admittedly wear thin over its 98 minutes (Jonathan M. Woodward's cubicle warmer finds out that a couple of his colleagues, played by Angela Bettis and Samm Levine, are actually aliens), I was more often than not amused by its off-kilter charms. The closest comparison I can think of was the oddball Zach Galifianakis comedy, Visioneers -- if you liked that, you'll probably like this; if you didn't, you probably won't; and if you just plain didn't see it, well, I really couldn't say.
Dumbstruck -- Despite being your by-the-numbers doc about a little-known subculture, director Mark Goffman does offer a glimpse into the lives of five ventriloquists as they experience varying degrees of success and difficulty, making for moments both tensely true to life (when a talented teen flops an audition, Goffman pretty much lets things unfold in real time) and a bit forced (when a cruise ship entertainer points out his amusement in hearing the song "All By Myself" after his wife decides that things aren't working out, the song comes up again with twice the force and half the effect).
Exit Through The Gift Shop -- Infamous (and anonymous) graffiti artist Banksy would seem to have finished this documentary all about the street art movement on behalf of Thierry Guetta once the eccentric Frenchman decided to put down the camera and pick up his own stencils and spray paint. It's a cheeky essay on what truly constitutes art along the lines of Orson Welles' F for Fake, and even the suggestion that the whole movie and Guetta's career may themselves be put-ons doesn't lessen the impact of the ideas on hand. (For more, you can read Kevin's Sundance review.)
Homewrecker -- Mike (Anslem Richardson) is a felon on work release, just trying to keep his head down between and even while changing locks. He doesn't realize, though, that he's just helped the jealous Margo (Ana Reeder) break into her boyfriend's apartment until it's too late, and suddenly she's in Mike's van, unwilling to obey his polite-but-firm requests to leave him alone. From there, things get a bit more screwball, but Reeder and (especially) Richardson help keep Brad and Todd Barnes' first feature grounded and even manage a bit of an emotional heft by the end of their unlikely afternoon together. (Our own Erik Childress pointed out that the film will apparently be re-titled The Locksmith when it hits DVD in September.)
How to Fold a Flag -- From the makers of Gunner Palace comes this powerful documentary about four Iraq War vets handling life back home. Directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker don't push their own politics about the conflict, instead making a film that's distinctly pro-soldier and surprisingly candid in seeing these men re-adjust to civilian life.
I Am Love -- As I wrote elsewhere: "Tilda Swinton creeps her way into an extra-marital affair while her affluent family falls apart around her. If it weren't for her subtle strife and the lush Italian backdrop, there wouldn't be much of a reason to sit through this tone-deaf, slackly paced melodrama."
The Lottery -- Madeleine Sackler's doc follows five children and their parents as they hope against steep odds to get one of the coveted spots at a Harlem charter school. As an overall plea for public education reform, it's certainly polished and a bit obvious (blame the unions), and as a narrative, it stacks the emotional deck from the start, even if having the audience root for every child is exactly what Sackler was going for.
Lovely, Still -- Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn hit it off in their old age, and it's their performances in particular that ground this Hallmark card brought to life once it takes a hard left turn towards real-world heartache. Even if writer/director Nicholas Fackler places hints along the way to avoid a technical cheat, the end result feels like an emotional cheat all the same.
Mid-August Lunch -- If you love having lunch with your grandmother, then you'll be bowled over by this 75-minute trifle about an Italian man (Gianni Di Gregorio) who finds himself attending to five old ladies, including his own mother, while everyone else is out of town on holiday. It's cute, slight, nice, what have you. You can probably already judge whether or not you'd find this adorable or aggravating; I felt a bit of both along the way.
A Million in the Morning -- Jason Goldwatch's hour-long documentary chronicles eight competitors as they aspired to set the world's longest movie-watching record in their Netflix-sponsored Times Square habitat. The problem is, Goldwatch becomes less concerned with the sleep-deprived antics of those vying for the record and more of the delirium experienced by host Gavin McInnes, whose mouthy personality wears a bit thin as both the event and film go on.
My Suicide -- I'm surprised by how smitten festival audiences have been over the past year for this glorified afterschool special, in which tech-savvy teen Archibald Holden Buster Williams (Gabriel Sunday, who gives a better performance than that character's name deserves) vows to capture on camera the days leading up to his suicide. Director David Lee Miller revels in the notion of Generation YouTube information overload before succumbing to more melodramatic tendencies, and it's to Sunday's credit that Archie ever feels like a real person between all the quick cuts, tonal shifts and creaky messages.
New Low -- As writer, director and star of his feature debut (expanded from an earlier short), Adam Bowers makes a very good first impression as Wendell, a lanky and self-deprecating twenty-something who can't figure out if he belongs with the abrasive Jayme Ratzer or the caring Valerie Jones. It may sound like a thuddingly easy call to make, but Bowers and the cast sell the situational awkwardness and his neurotic tendencies enough to render the whole thing charming.
Obselidia -- Countless indie films milk chance encounters between dour young men and eccentric gals for all their worth, including writer/director Diane Bell's exceedingly dry dramedy about a librarian (Michael Piccirilli) who's working on an encyclopedia of obsolete things (yes, really) when he meets a movie projectionist (Gaynor Howe) eager to show him why enjoying the present is far more valuable than dwelling on the past. It's an admittedly well-shot bit of tedium, laced with the faintest deadpan humor and utterly lacking in chemistry between its leads.
Paper Man (Opening Night Film) -- As I wrote of this Jeff Daniels/Ryan Reynolds/Emma Stone dramedy when it opened in NY and LA last month: "[We're] subjected to so much arbitrary quirkiness that the characters' big breakthroughs and breakdowns ring false, accidentally making for some of the film's biggest laughs."
Punching the Clown -- In Gregori Viens' very funny and assured first feature, Henry Phillips stars as a struggling satirical singer-songwriter (imagine Stephen Lynch as a more folksy presence) who finds his swift rise and fall in L.A.'s music scene unwittingly fueled by misunderstandings both fortunate and fatal.
Solitary Man -- Gordon Gekko goes back to college and learns some valuable life lessons in the Michael Douglas drama. Co-helmers Brian Koppelman and David Levien stick to the usual mid-life crisis beats, but Douglas boasts not only the boyish charm that would've made him a successful ladies' man and car dealer, but also a wounded weariness fitting of his inevitable comeuppance and awakening.
Space Tourists -- As I wrote elsewhere: "Although ostensibly concerned with the collapse of the Soviet space program and the privatization of space travel, Christian Frei's documentary leaps from subject to subject with little sense of focus or closure."
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields -- For those of us unfamiliar with the music of the Magnetic Fields (apparently just me), this documentary gives a comprehensive glimpse into the formation and popularity of the band, with rare footage from their early concerts and candid interviews from its members, as well as a glimpse into the particularly shy and sardonic life of its front man.
The Sun Came Out -- 7 Worlds Collide was initially a 2001 charity concert and album assembled by New Zealand musician Neil Finn. In late 2008 and early 2009, he did it again, collaborating with a few of the same musicians and a bunch of new faces, including KT Tunstall and members of Wilco and Radiohead. The result is an intimate look at an exceptional period of creative harmony between these artists, devoid of back-patting or in-fighting and only momentarily interrupted by director Simon Mark-Brown's penchant for easy loud-quiet-loud juxtapositional asides.
The Tiger Next Door -- For the better part of two decades, Dennis Hill has cared for big cats at his Indiana home, but renewed government enforcement has put Hill in the bind of finding a home for these tigers before they end up euthanized. Camilla Calamandrei makes a compelling case for each side of the battle, whether weighing the risk (if any) for Hill's neighbors and the recuperation on behalf of former drug addict Hill.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls -- The great thing about any documentary is that it can expose you to a subject that one knew nothing about going in. In that respect, Untouchable Girls is a suitable primer on the lesbian twin sisters behind New Zealand's folk comedy duo (yup, they're more than just Flight of the Conchords down there). It isn't the documentary's fault, though, if the Topps' punchlines and general sense of humor land with thud on these American ears. I mean, they've fought for gay rights, they've survived one's cancer, they're earned a cult -- and that's all well and good. I'm just not sure that I enjoy their act, is all. (Then again, I didn't know that I didn't like them going in, so I suppose that counts for learning something.)
Wild Grass -- Alain Resnais rightfully earned a reputation as a French New Wave auteur with Hiroshima Mon Amour and the narrative-defying Last Year at Marienbad, but at the age of 87, I can't help but wonder if he's lost his touch with this half-whimsical, half-serious melodrama about a lost wallet and how it brings together Georges (André Dussollier) and Marguerite (Sabine Azéma). Resnais relies on much voice-over to convey Georges' obsessive tendencies when his rash actions speak volumes enough on their own, and he's eager to cram in asides and flashbacks that feel in plot that we've already pieced together. By its final puzzling moments, what started as merely an atonal romance takes such a flying leap that it all feels more like a giant prank, maybe even more so than anything Banksy cooked up and pulled off.
The Wind Journeys -- The first hour of Colombia's official submission to last year's Academy Awards is dripping with magic realism and deadpan humor as the worn-down Ignacio (Marciano Martinez) and the eager Fermin (Yull Núñez) set out to return an infamous accordion (boasting devil's horns, naturally) to its rightful owner. Eventually, though, the film loses its mysticism once Ignacio and the accordion leave the picture for a stretch, only to return for the seemingly endless finale.
Winter's Bone -- Much like 2008's Frozen River, this backwoods drama boasts a remarkable performance by its female lead, Jennifer Lawrence, but surrounds her with similarly contrived plotting involving keeping a home and a family together. As Ree (Lawrence) hunts down her shady father before the bank takes their house, Debra Granik does manage moments of noir-worthy mood, but more often than not, our young heroine is forced to endure rough lines of questioning from the seedier neighbors in her community and tests of character more tedious than tense.
The Young Composers Challenge -- A widescreen aspect ratio is pretty much the only thing keeping this testimonial to the University of Central Florida's young composers workshop from being a full-blown advertisement, and once director Lisa Mills shifts her focus from the program to five students working on their own compositions, she chooses four equally privileged and smug overachievers and one blind boy (just as The Lottery couldn't help but have a deaf mother among its subjects). Just because a documentary chooses to be about any given competition and a handful of contestants therein does not automatically make it worthwhile; if anything, this neglects the greater need for music programs to remain in school and generally pales in comparison to the more compelling Spellbound and Frontrunners.