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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Atlanta Film Festival 2018: Feature Film Rundown

This year's Atlanta Film Fest was easily the best I've been to in years, and featured some truly exceptional feature and short films. In addition to the full reviews and the best shorts of the fest, I figured it was worth doing quick takes on every movie I caught at the festival.

The Astrologer
directed by Craig Denney

This mysterious lost movie has rarely been seen since its short-lived original run in 1976, but has recently had a revival as an new cult favorite. The Astrologer is, without a doubt, one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. The plot and cast of characters changes on a dime at least five times, its writer/director/star ranging from a world-spanning gem thief to a movie producer. The editing is incredibly odd, sometimes cutting from one scene to the next so quickly that you don't even hear the end of the gunshot sound, but other times spending absurd amounts of time on long montages that seemingly serve no other purpose than to look cool. The Astrologer, if nothing else, is one of the most entertaining and bizarre films out there, and shouldn't be missed for cult movie fans.

directed by Carlos López Estrada

This movie skyrocketed up to the top of my 2018 best movies list immediately after I walked out of the theater. The story of Collin (Daveed Diggs) who is carefully living the last few days of his probation and his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) who is struggling with his identity as his hometown of Oakland is gentrified is one that is both arresting and wholly topical. It somehow manages to be hilarious while intelligently exploring issues of gentrification, racial identity, police violence, and re-entering society after jail time, but never feels preachy. This is an absolute must see. Full review here.

Dead by Midnight (11PM Central)
directed by Torey Haas, Eric Davis, Jay Holloway, Anissa Matlock, Tony Reames

This Atlanta-based horror anthology film tells the story of a failing TV station on its final night as they air a Halloween special that increasingly encroaches on reality. Peppered in with this overall story are five short horror films that range from cartoonish and hilarious to deeply disturbing. The strength of Dead by Midnight is in the unique tone of each story, but it also feels like a full, cohesive horror film. For those looking for some excellent new horror with a dose of the retro, look no further.

Eighth Grade
directed by Bo Burnham

Kayla, voted most quiet in her graduating eighth grade class, struggles with the difference between her confident online personality and her shy awkwardness in person as she navigates the terrifying world of being a teenager in the time of Instagram and Snapchat. Within that idea, Burnham and star Elsie Fisher have created something truly special. The mannerisms and behaviors of the kids in the movie are so accurate that everyone will find that one joke or situation that resonates completely with them, from the fast staccato speech patterns to the kid blowing a raspberry during the assembly to get a laugh. The movie is hysterically funny and heartbreaking at times, and shows enormous promise for both the director and lead of the film.

Fat Tuesday
directed by Jorge Torres-Torres

Lindsay (Hannah Gross) is a mysterious woman who wanders the streets of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, stalking and killing strangers methodically and without mercy. Shooting the movie on location in New Orleans is pretty cool, and it definitely captures the chaos of the real life event, but unfortunately that's about the only redeeming thing about the movie. The sound is distractingly terrible, I'm guessing because a boom operator would be too conspicuous when shooting without a permit. Maybe I missed something, but there didn't seem to be any point to the story whatsoever, aside from be wary of strangers, I guess?

Hearts Beat Loud
directed by Brett Haley

Brett Haley's newest is a touching story of a father and daughter who find surprising success with a song they've written, and how that complicates the new era they are about to enter as she prepares to leave for college and he decides to close his record store. Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are both lovely, and the music in the movie is authentic and well produced. Alex saw this one at CIFF and wrote a full review here.

Leave No Trace
directed by Debra Granik

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in a national park off the grid, but after being apprehended are forced to try to assimilate themselves into society in this pensive film. The struggles of our nation's ignored veterans are portrayed here with a personal dignity that never strays into melodrama. The two leads are both great, but McKenzie in particular is fantastic as the young girl who is slowly realizing that she is better able to adapt than her father, finding their roles gradually reversing. Leave No Trace is beautifully shot and crafted with love, and is worth seeking out.

directed by Samuel D. Pollard

This documentary examines the life and career of Maynard Jackson, Jr., Atlanta's first African-American mayor. The story itself is a fascinating one, particularly for those with ties to what is often referred to in the film as the "capital of the south"; Jackson's determination to diversify the city's businesses, deal with the devastatingly drawn out case of the Atlanta child murders, rebuild the airport into the international hub it is today, and bring the Olympic games to the city are all on display. The film largely succeeds in telling the story in a compelling way, but in a few spots falls into a kind of exaggerated sentimentality that makes sense when you know that the film was produced largely by Jackson's immediate family. Nevertheless, if you live in the American South and don't know much about this colossal figure in Atlanta's history, it is definitely worth a watch.

directed by Ali Weinstein

This documentary is about the surprisingly enduring myth of the mermaid, and the people who find the transformative power of donning a tail. The exploration of the subculture of mermaids is pretty interesting, but where the film really succeeds is in its examination of how it acts as a healing experience, in particular for the transgender woman who is the main focus of the movie. Add to that some gorgeous cinematography and a phenomenal look at the long-lasting appeal of Weeki Wachee and you've got a solid documentary with great subject matter.

directed by Julie Cohen, Betsy West

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a pop culture icon in her later years, and this CNN Films documentary tells the story of her rise from a law professor a Justice on the Supreme Court to the feminist heroine she is today. It is a captivating tale full of inspiring moments that elicited huge cheers and fist pumps in the audience. Moreover, the story is told in an impressively visually exciting way, managing to make audio transcripts of court cases very compelling. This one comes out just before Mother's Day this year and really couldn't be a better movie to take your mom to. Full review here.

directed by Takashi Doscher

A young woman with cancer gets lost on a hike and comes across a couple living in a cabin. Over time, it becomes clear that the couple has lived here for much longer than seems possible, and the story turns into one about the endurance of love beyond the human lifespan. The concept is a clever one and the thematics are strong, but the focus often feels jumbled as we aren't sure who the protagonist is supposed to be. Even so, it's a strong effort and doesn't quite feel like anything I've seen before.

Summer '03
directed by Becca Gleason

The summer break of 2003 is a memorable one for Jamie (Joey King): just before her grandmother (June Squibb) dies, she passes on questionable advice and reveals a lie about Jamie's real grandfather, sending each member of the family spiraling into complicated unknown territory. This coming of age comedy is sweet and smart, but the key to its success is in some really wonderful performances, in particular from Andrea Savage who plays Jamie's sarcastic and strong-willed mom and the star Joey King, who clearly has an extremely promising career ahead of her.

directed by Jason Reitman

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a woman who has just given birth to her third child and is struggling with exhaustion and a crisis of identity as she moves into a new stage in her life. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nurse hired by Marlo's brother (Mark Duplass) who takes care of the newborn but quickly befriends Marlo. Theron continues to be arguably the most versatile actress currently working, and it's impossible not to fall in love with her character. Add to that the perfect casting of Mackenzie Davis her her youthful counterpart and some incredibly sharp dialogue written by Diablo Cody and you've got an exceptional movie exploring motherhood and changing identities. Full review here.

Waiting for David
directed by Karin Oleander, Emelie Svensson

It's been 25 years since the siege of Waco ended in the deaths of over 70 people of the Branch Davidian cult led by David Koresh. As interesting as that story is in itself, this documentary instead focuses on the current lives of the survivors. The movie gives voice to those who were just children at the time of the siege (including one of Koresh's sons), but largely follows Clive Doyle, whose daughter died in the Waco fire and who believes that eventually Koresh will rise from the grave and return to his flock. The moral grey area here is incredibly compelling, and while the very short movie (it's only 41 minutes) could stand to be expanded quite a bit, it is a tragic and gripping film exploring the rarely seen aftereffects of the event. Full review here.

Yamasong: March of the Hollows
directed by Sam Koji Hale

On the planet Yamasong, a war breaks out between the hollows, a group of clockwork robots, and the various animal races, resulting in an epic tale of family and identity. That's an extremely condensed version of the story; in full it is a complex story with rich world building and great characters. While its impressive voice cast is certainly a draw (Nathan Fillion, Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Davison, and George Takei are all featured, just to name a few), it is the intricately designed puppets and graceful action that is truly on display. In a cinematic landscape where fantasy movies typically only come in franchise form, this unique film–which may be the first martial arts puppet fantasy–is refreshing and very entertaining. Full review here.

You Were Never Really Here
directed by Lynne Ramsay

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran who now makes a living tracking down missing girls and brutally murdering those who take them captive. Based on the trailer for the movie, you might think this is a stylishly violent piece in the vein of Drive, but with Lynne Ramsay directing, we get something surprising and different. While the trappings are there, including a killer soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, You Were Never Really Here refuses to romanticize the violence, always keeping it just offscreen and focusing instead on the tragic and complex characters of Joe and Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) whose rescue gets out of control. Joe's backstory is given in sporadic flashes, and the whole film gives the impression that a second viewing may reveal more than the first.

[Full disclosure: I worked on the sound in both Dead by Midnight (11PM Central) and Summer '03, but they are both great movies aside from the work I did on them!]
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