Sunday, February 20, 2011

Movie Festival Part Two

It's been a long week so I have not returned to the blog as promised. However, it's been a lovely week -- 60-70 degree weather. I can't believe this is still February! Usually I'm hating my life in Connecticut.

After attending the documentary, Southern Belle, which I wrote about in my last post, I wanted to see a couple shorts, including one called sexting by Neil LaBute -- the only name I recognized in this festival. Due to scheduling issues, which happened throughout the festival, I saw Mississippi Innocence, an hour-long documentary about the Innocence Project that freed two men (one from death row and one from life in prison) based on DNA evidence.

Not a great film, but one I acknowledge as very important. The style reminded me of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, though without the Philip Glass soundtrack. In fact, I seem to remember that the music in Mississippi Innocence was annoying. (One may say the same about Glass but I didn't mind it). Plus, it's always difficult in a crime documentary to treat the victim in a way that does not abuse her twice. I was alarmed, but understood, why they had to show part of the little girl's body -- in order to reveal serious problems with the forensic process.

After this documentary, which by the way, won as "audience favorite," I sat through the aforementioned sexting. I know that some of you may have very strong feelings about LaBute's films because he portrays devastating pictures about the relationships between men and women. Well, one could even accuse him of depicting/normalizing misogyny. One does not walk out of his films usually feel pretty good about humanity.

The short, however, was a comedy, featuring Julia Stiles who is such a strange actress -- with her very young face and husky voice. The camera focused on her as she delivered a monologue. The premise is that she received a sexy text message from her lover, but she realized that the text was meant for his wife, not for her. So, she calls the wife and meets her for lunch. Acting as the "wounded party" in this exchange, she did have some great lines and I laughed out loud at points. After this, I didn't stick around for the second short, Pillow, although I wish I had seen it.

Instead, I went to see two more shorts -- God's Square Mile and Mozambique. The first was an interesting history about a camp meeting that created a small town in New Jersey. For those not familiar with that term, though Willimantic, CT has one as well, the camp meeting was a Christian movement in America where people would go on a religious holiday, focusing on spiritual renewal, etc. I thought this history was interesting because this town was an important example of urban planning and part of America's religious history because it basically was a theocracy, with their own stringent blue laws and a court that enforced them. The controversy depicted in the film was the fact an older lesbian couple wanted to use the camp meeting's pavilion for their civil service. The film tried to make it out as a big deal but everybody was just so nice and reasonable, wanting to make the town a nice place, it really wasn't that interesting to watch. In other words, all sides made it clear that this was a legal matter, not a personal one.

Not that I need to have some kind of red meat controversy to make a good film, but this one definitely waned. I think an interesting film could have been made but I was bored.

The second short film in this set was Mozambique, a story about AIDS orphans. I liked this one very much, mostly because it wasn't one of those films where people from other countries come in and make "art" out of other people's miseries. Instead, this was a direct result of donating cameras and other equipment to AIDS orphans (those who lost both parents due to the disease) and this was the story of one young man who shot the film and told his story. It is fascinating how my view changes when looking at pictures the kids themselves took of each other. Rather than seeing the kids through a developed country's eye, I did feel like I was seeing their point of view. I may be kidding myself because obviously, the people who donated the equipment helped to edit the film.

The young man, Alcides Soares, who had been adopted by an elderly woman (a nice woman, but it appeared an example of forced eldercare), seeks his younger brother who moved with his father when the parents separated. I admit I wept a lot in this film, and I felt it was genuinely earned.

Okay, I'm on a roll, so let's finish off the Friday viewings!

Despite the fact I had been up since before dawn, I stuck around for the late night showings -- the horror movie block. Of course I had to! How could I look my friends in the eye if I did not report back on these films!

First up, Shock, tried to do something fun but I thought the film was poorly acted and boring. The twist was not "shocking."

Monster Hunt with James and Kevin took the premise if those ghosthunter shows (or other reality shows) actually found a monster. Reminded me a little of Mythbusters. I admit that this one cracked me up. A fun movie for what it was.

Blood Therapy was a very short piece about a young man talking to a doctor. The guy who played the doctor was terrible! Overall silly little film about someone trying to make a serious horror short. That's hard to do and I saw the end coming a mile away.

Happy Face, on the other hand, focusing on a young starlet, getting out of a mental institution on Long Island, was able to be a bit more serious and creepy. The actress, as the director tries to point out, does have one of those silent film star faces, and the guy playing her publicist was freaking hilarious. The sets and the dialogue were overall good. However, I do take issue with the long clip from Eyes Without a Face, including the gruesome surgery that removes a woman's face. That was a little too much of a heavy borrow which just signaled in an uninteresting way to the audience "isn't this cool? This is what I was thinking about in making my film!" But when your clip is more powerful than anything else in your film, you got a problem.

Night of the Punks was the must-see on my list because I knew that my horror loving, punk music friends would want a report. It did not disappoint. Snappy dialogue, high-grade B special effect (look at all that goo!), tight editing, many, many references to punk music. Shaun of the Dead has been very, very good to the comedy horror movie. My only question is why does the girl have to get the long scene with green gunk spraying in her face?.......Let's be a little subtle people.

Murderabilia is the must-see I recommend to you. Here, it focused on a guy who collects memorabilia from murder scenes (hence, Murderabilia which is an actual term). In the long opening scene, he is visiting a killer in jail to "collect" his story. The convict relates the night he killed a young girl. Very nice dialogue and very good acting. I actually found the collector WAY more creepy than the killer though his acting was well-done too. I thought the short was fantastic. My only complaint is that it placed the credits midway in the film, making us think that the film was over, when really it was just poor choice to go to the next scene. The film lost its momentum. The film turns to the collector visiting a murderabilia dealer. The dealer had some good lines, but he talked way too long. The director was obviously reluctant to cut some of the "good lines" which was a shame. Move it along. Still, best film of the night. They said after the viewing that they were trying to turn it into a feature film and based on what I saw, I think they have a good chance to make a decent film.

Last was River City Dead, a locally-shot b-grade camp horror film complete with Nazis (the character, Patricia Hitler, was funny), a noirish detective, sexy vampires, pimps, zombies, etc. Didn't work but it looked like they were having fun.

Okay, that was Friday. Admittedly, I didn't go to as many in the next days but since I saw collections of shorts, the posts may be just as long!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snow, Egypt, Oxford Film Festival Part One

So far my New Year's resolution to blog more has fallen on deaf fingers. They don't seem to want to take the time to let all my good friends know what's going on. However, the last couple days have been really exciting so I am making myself share.

First, we had another snow storm in Mississippi.
(Image from the local paper, The Oxford Eagle). Classes were canceled Wednesday at noon and then all day Thursday. I spent that day watching events unfold in Egypt, waiting for Murbarak to say he was going to resign. I was very worried that he hadn't but it appears that he is gone. I was so stuck to the TV and to the media that I actually signed up for Christiane Amanpour's Twitter feed (just love her). Now, I'm on Twitter but it remains to be seen if I do more than read what's up with others. Kate, you are the second person I'm following.

Now that world and weather events have settled for now, I also had the fantastic opportunity to attend Oxford's premier winter event -- the 8th annual Film Festival. I had to teach all day, but once I got to my first screening at 5:15, I stayed until 12:30am. Note to self -- popcorn makes a very poor dinner.

The festival is still going on, and I'm planning on attending a few more events before the end. But, here is the beginning of my review.

The first film I saw was a documentary feature called, Southern Belle, by filmmakers Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley (both of whom were in attendance). Though I saw the late night fright fest shorts later, I think this was the far scarier movie. It's a look at the Tennessee Athenaeum Rectory's "summer camp" for young women to play "southern belle" the eve of the Civil War. This place was a Girl's School beginning in 1852 and lasted for fifty years. As was typical of such schools, it taught the girls how to be a lady -- dancing, deportment, etiquette, and the "finer" skills.
(Promotional image from the film)

This summer camp aims to recreate that experience, complete with dress (hoops and all) and manners (you want to be like Melanie, not Scarlett, ladies). The sidestepping of the issue (or more accurately "whitewashing") that slavery allowed these women to live in this manner dives at the heart of "southern-ness." It's contradictory and tension-filled -- hey, Faulkner struggled with it a lot. The filmmakers decided to let the images "speak" for themselves but I think I would have liked some more critical perspective (maybe, I'm divided). I fear that some southerners will look at this as a preservation of values that are good to keep and that they will look at it uncritically (case in point, the young women behind me in the theater, starting singing Dixie and said "we never get to sing this anymore").

The earnest teachers who want to preserve this Southern viewpoint were probably the most scary. They were very nice, but completely deluded. For example, the leader of the camp who played the pastor, could not answer why they never talked about race (or why black girls would not want to attend). As part of a "history" lesson, he addressed the girls in character, informing them that Tennessee had just seceded from the Union and told them all the "good" reasons that the state had done so. (Tennessee was actually the last state to secede and there was a good deal of resistance about whether or not they should). The long speech he makes reminded me immediately about current debates about State's Rights and the far, far right's call that they are being unfairly pushed around by the Federal Government.

My dear Northern friends, this scene will in many ways confirm to you what you think about the South and that makes me a little sad.

Anyway, back to the film, the girls were fascinating characters and the filmmakers focused on compelling stories. But where there's race issues, there are also gender issues. And what happens to one girl in particular who returns the next year is a tragedy in my opinion.

The filmmakers said that the film will be shown on PBS this July. I'll let you know when it does.

More on the festival later....