Orlando Weekly's guide to the 2013 Florida Film Festival 

Central Florida’s annual festival of film and food returns for its 22nd year

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April 5-14 | Enzian Theater | 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland | 407-629-0054 floridafilmfestival.com

It’s film festival time in Orlando again, and beautiful is not a bad word to describe this year’s Florida Film Festival smorgasbord.

From a gritty documentary about a Detroit pimp to a Q&A with Cary Elwes of The Princess Bride to a special 35mm showing of Fellini’s 8 1/2, the 22nd annual event has the proverbial “little something for everyone.” And speaking of little, the shorts programs may be this year’s highlight.

A total of 121 short films are split into 11 programs, with the four main narrative groups each named for a recently deceased musician, such as “I’m a Believer” for Davy Jones and “Stayin’ Alive” for Robin Gibb. Of course, there’s no guarantee of quality, as programmers must dig deep to fill their schedule. But discovering which films move you to tears and which move you to the bathroom is just one of the joys of this event.

If shorts aren’t meaty enough for you, the festival contains 45 new features (19 documentaries and 26 narratives) and seven older ones. There’s just one animated feature, but four separate programs contain either all or some animated shorts.

Wanters of weird will flock to the four offbeat, adult-oriented features in the Midnight Movies program. Their even uglier cousins are the Midnight Shorts, which committee member Jim DeSantis describes as “raunchy and shocking,” adding, “We try to make people uncomfortable.”

Making patrons uncomfortable isn’t exactly the goal of festival president Henry Maldonado, who wants the audience to feel at home at all festival locations, which include the Enzian in Maitland, Regal Cinemas in Winter Park Village and the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden.

“This is a festival of independent film … and the people who come to the festival know exactly what the filmmakers are doing, and they have a tremendous appreciation for them,” Maldonado says. “These are people who do it for the love of the movie, and for the love of the art, and for the getting a message across in a medium that really allows you to just kind of jiggle all your senses at the same time.”

Some festivals make or break a filmmaker, giving the event a rather formal and intimidating air. Not this one.

“This is a festival that we hope … filmmakers come to [in order to] lick their wounds and kind of re-energize. And as opposed to being a festival where you come to kind of hustle the deal, this is a festival where you come to make friends and … renew relationships.”

And thanks to 21 world premieres and 24 participating countries, plus food events, parties and celebrity appearances, you’re likely to make friends with people you never even dreamed of meeting.

In the following pages, we’ve reviewed as many films as we could get our hands on, to help you navigate the festival fare. In addition, we’ve got a rundown of the food-related events taking place during the festival, which you’ll find here.

The complete schedule is available online at floridafilmfestival.com. – Cameron Meier

 

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BAD BRAINS: A BAND IN DC

★★★★

If it weren’t for the foreshadowing moments at the very beginning of this film, in which bassist Darryl Jennifer has it out with Bad Brains’ infamously erratic “throat,” HR, you could spend much of this music doc thinking that the filmmakers were going to gloss over the stuff that makes the Bad Brains story so much more than just another tale of a band that struggled for recognition.

The first half of the movie lays the groundwork for who Bad Brains are, through interviews with punk and hardcore legends (Henry Rollins, Ian Mackaye), friends and colleagues of the band, and old footage from punk clubs. A bit more than halfway through, though, the film hits its stride, taking the audience along on the wild ride Bad Brains took on the journey from being the crushing young punk band that influenced a generation to a reggae-inspired hardcore band dedicated to their Rastafarian message. Band members openly discuss getting thrown out of England for failing to travel with the right visas, panhandling, selling loose joints so they’d have enough cash to make ends meet and the disappointments and frustrations of riding the line between fame and, sometimes, ignominy.

Of course, no Bad Brains movie would be complete without an examination of the oddball personality who’s often been at the center of the band’s failures and fortunes alike: HR. The soft-spoken, peace-loving character has a darker side that can be as virulent and petulant as it can be influential and fascinating. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that not only is HR addicted to Bad Brains, the band simply cannot thrive without him. As the band members agree by the end of the film, Bad Brains are at their best when all of the founding members are working together.

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Fans of Bad Brains probably won’t learn a lot of historical detail they didn’t already know from this film, but if you’ve ever wondered about some of the trials and tribulations the band has been through, this movie provides a bit of insight. One (pretty major) quibble: too much focus on the drama, not enough on the old Bad Brains footage. As a result, the film is more about the personalities than the music. And that’s sort of a shame. – Erin Sullivan

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BE GOOD

★★

Sometimes, a filmmaker’s earnest attempt to capture the mundanity of real life backfires. Too much off-the-cuff dialogue, snippets of banal conversation and casual interaction between actors can make scenes that should feel effortless seem strained. Scenes that should be played as simple and direct instead come off as scripted and predictable. The plot drags on, and then, when the film does finally veer off course a little – away from the dull and toward the dramatic – the effect is more confusing than exciting.

Those are the kinds of problems that plague Be Good, a narrative feature about the difficulties of modern parenthood. New mom Mary just wants to stay home and care for her 6-month-old daughter, Pearl, but her husband, Paul, is an unemployed screenwriter. So she goes back to work while Paul learns to balance being a stay-at-home dad with the pursuit of his barely there career.

Little murmurings of intimate conversation and familiar bickering between Paul and Mary should make the couple seem intertwined in their frustrations and alienation – instead, their interactions are more like those of poorly matched college roommates who hold grudges than of a struggling couple trying to navigate the troubled waters of work, child-rearing and unrealized dreams. – ES

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BIG JOY: THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES BROUGHTON

★★★

You shouldn’t have to like a documentary’s subject to appreciate the doc itself. Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton sure puts that theory to the test, though, as directors Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon have fallen under the spell of experimental filmmaker and poet Broughton, believing almost everything he created was pure magic instead of the pretentious garbage some claim it to be.
Broughton was the product of post-war West Coast bohemia, and he greatly influenced the San Francisco performance-poetry scene and the gay movement. (As the doc reminds us, “Even in San Francisco it [was] dangerous to be queer in the 1950s.”) Yet Broughton’s greatest fame came as an experimental filmmaker and director of such well-known shorts at The Potted Psalm (1946) and The Pleasure Garden (1953).

Whether you love or hate Broughton’s work, the filmmaker makes a worthy subject, and this movie, in just its second U.S. showing, embraces his own special celebration of life in all its self-indulgent, crazy, joyous incarnations. But by refusing to step away from its subject and examine the purpose and merit of experimental film, it squanders an opportunity to become more meaningful.

One interviewee goes as far as to claim that Broughton “in a sense, invented and perfected the poetic cinema.” That’s an outrageous exaggeration and briefly gives the film the feel of a Christopher Guest mock-umentary. Yet, thankfully, it’s Broughton himself, toward the end of the doc and the end of his own life, who finally makes sense of the “big joy” he so passionately projects to the world:

“Everything is an act,” he admits. “When people ask how you are, always say you’re fine. It makes your friends happy and your enemies furious.” – Cameron Meier

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BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME

★★★

This necessary documentary tells a story through the speckled old photographs of “a reluctant rock band with an ironic name.” Most of the joy in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me comes from nostalgic critics who helped Big Star to become a band known for their devotion to creating new sounds that put to shame today’s lazier laptop musicians. The film’s narrative is treated like a child torn between divorced parents – its time is divided between influential lead singer Alex Chilton and founding member Chris Bell, who left Big Star after the release of their first album. Chilton offers the film a quirky energy and allows it to focus on a wider selection of releases (and footage from the Cramps!), but it’s Bell’s comeback at the end of the film that will make you want to drive straight home and attentively listen to “You and Your Sister” on repeat.

The gear close-ups alone (especially of the Mellotron) will make the film worthwhile viewing for music nerds, but be prepared to die from envy when you hear about the access Big Star had to Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios, which made their sonic adventuring possible. Plus, the Memphis footage is undeniably exciting to relive, especially the legitimate partying at T.G.I. Friday’s. Although the film is slow at times (often showing us the same photographs over and over), Chilton’s charm and his love-it-or-leave-it sound evolution make it a must-see for those impressed by sonic devoutness. – Ashley Belanger

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COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES

★★★★

British people are so fucking cool. They talk fast, they’re cheeky as hell, and their old people are all ornery like a bunch of brilliant, snarly dog-people with cool accents. 

All of this (and more!) is why a title like Cockneys vs. Zombies would probably generate a lot of intrigue. I mean, why the hell not, right? A bunch of foul-mouthed rogues tearing apart hordes of undead, still making time to shout silly banter while their friends are being eaten alive. Rejoice!

It all starts with “the discovery” – you know, how the zombies get out: two hopeless chumps that, out of greed (and just a touch of idiocy), open a tomb full of the undead. Sure, the characters are cartoony, but this flick really doles out its own chops and belongs in the collection of every drunken, horror-loving git.
There are some small hiccups, like a few cheap, post-processed blood spatters throughout the movie, but scenes like the punting of a zombie-baby into a billboard or a chase between a “walker” and an old man with a walker (both move at the same speed) are worth the price of admission.

The dialogue is often spectacular and filled to the brim with a cast of witty, Britty underdogs. Our main characters retain enough humanity to keep the story somewhat believable, though you may get the vibe that too much of the delivery is played with a big ol’ wink. After all, there’s a fine line between “hilarious because I can relate” and “cute, but this movie keeps me at arm’s length because everybody is so completely over the top.” This one has a healthy amount of both and teeters dangerously toward the latter, but the charm of the balls-out absurdity won me over in the end.

Cockneys vs. Zombies is a sandbox of carnage that makes The Walking Dead crew look like a bunch of whiny tossers. See? I can’t stop saying British things! – Adam McCabe

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DOWNEAST

★★★

When I scheduled this film on my phone, autocorrect wanted to change it to “downcast” – clearly, Siri knew more than I did about what audiences are in for with this documentary. Downeast tells the too-familiar story of a town sent into an economic death spiral by the closure of a local business. In this case, it’s Stinson Seafood, the last American sardine-canning concern, which closed and put most of Gouldsboro, Maine, out of work. When a Boston-by-way-of-Italy businessman comes into town with a plan to buy the cannery and open a lobster-packing plant, it seems prayers have been answered. All the ways in which they are not unfold in this spare 78-minute doc. Capitalism: It’s a bitch.

Downeast is hard to watch, not just because of the soul-crushing subject matter but also because filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin allow the information to unfold from the mouths of the natives, with very little exposition and no narration. (Although it must be said that Redmon and Sabin specialize in depressing tales: See their 2007 Kamp Katrina and last year’s Girl Model.) The gut-punch story is leavened somewhat by slow-paced but visually poetic oceanside sequences.

The two screenings of Downeast will be preceded by American Tintype, a lovely four-minute short about an archaic form of art photography by local-until-last-month filmmaker Matt Morris. – Jessica Bryce Young

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FAME HIGH

★★★★

There’s nothing completely unique about this film, which follows four students (Zak, Ruby, Grace and Brittany) through a school year at “Fame High,” the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a rigorous public school that helps talented teens prepare for careers in the performing arts. Parents from all around LA – and even as far as the Midwest – try to get their precocious kids into the school, in the hope that they’ll get the ass-kicking training they need to polish their acting/music/dancing/theater careers. Although the kids are surprisingly professional in their approach to balancing career with teenage life, it becomes clear that the stress of being forced to grow up too fast takes its toll – and comes just as much from controlling parents as from within.

Grace struggles with not just the modern-dance techniques she needs to hone to get into Juilliard, but also with her traditional Korean parents, who won’t let her date and would prefer to see her become a doctor or professor rather than a dancer. Brittany faces the guilt that she and her mother left her two sisters and father behind (temporarily) so she could attend this school and have a shot at a singing career. Ruby expresses frustration that she just wants to be a teenager and “kiss boys,” but she feels pressure from her parents – both of whom are busy theater professionals – to follow in their footsteps. Zak is a talented pianist, but his father’s obsession with his son’s career distracts him from being able to focus on finding his true talents.

Fame High is both heartbreaking and inspirational – you can’t help but feel sympathy for these kids whose childhoods are consumed by anxiety about the future, but you also can’t help but root for them as they pursue the dreams that drive them (and their parents). – ES

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FARE OUT ISN'T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY 

★★★★

It’s tough to beat a documentary that takes an already intriguing subject and makes it even more fascinating. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough takes famed illustrator, author and satirist Tomi Ungerer and does just that.

Ungerer grew up in Alsace, a region historically divided between France and Germany, and saw firsthand the horrors of both the Nazis and the repressive French post-war government. Those horrors, plus the death of his father, scarred Ungerer but also allowed him to later hone his history into his own brand of dark genius. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Ungerer was able to publish his first children’s book just one year after arriving in the United States in 1956, and then later branch out into political and even graphically sexual subjects.

His macabre imagery and themes were “disarming and funny, and not respectful at all,” according to Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, which Ungerer heavily influenced. But what else would you expect from an artist whose main inspiration was Matthias Grünewald’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” a nightmarish depiction of supernatural horrors on par with the works of Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali?

So if Ungerer was such a genius, why did he disappear in the early 1970s, at the height of his fame? Was he simply “crushed by his ideas,” as Ungerer describes it, or was there something more sinister afoot? That’s the question writer-director Brad Bernstein answers, and he does so with intelligence, style, a great interview with Ungerer himself, and some superb animation that gives renewed life and meaning to the artist’s drawings. – CM

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FIRST COMES LOVE

★★

Most directors cut their film teeth on their own home movies. Nina Davenport has never stopped cutting.
Davenport is one of the most prominent autobiographical documentarians, and she clearly has a knack for turning the seemingly mundane into decent cinema. Her latest effort, First Comes Love, chronicles her quest, at age 41, to have a baby though artificial insemination, while dealing with romantic and familial relationships.

“Seemingly everyone on earth has managed to marry and procreate except me,” she says early in the documentary. That’s a frank admission of what most single 40-somethings feel, including, quite frankly, me. However, that’s the extent to which I bonded with Davenport while watching her film because she spends most of it self-indulgently perusing the minutiae of her life. The minutiae include the dating habits of her friends and her strained relationship with her father, who clearly has issues of his own – enough to form a pretty good short film, in fact.

Of course, you’d have to be completely heartless not to sympathize slightly with Davenport’s desire to raise a child. And when a friend tells her, bluntly, to “put down the camera, go get some sperm and get pregnant,” you get a sense that the movie is about to become more important, more relevant for its entire audience. Unfortunately, as with many self-centered docs, we end up not truly caring.

“I guess I have this biological compulsion to have a child, and I don’t even know why,” Davenport says. There is great truth to that statement, but it doesn’t mean the world needs to see your home movie about it. – CM

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THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM

★★★★★

There’s an authenticity growling beneath the picturesque surface and deceptively simple storytelling of this South African-based coming-of-age (and coping-with-mortality) story. The blank stares of protagonist Atang Mokoenya (Zenzo Ngqobe) often grow as meditatively wide as the vistas and canyons the character travels to find some sort of resolution. Emotions blend with the natural elements, words with rhythmic indigenous chants.

This world premiere of U.S.-based director Andrew Mudge’s debut feature – presented, with subtitles, in the African dialect of Sesotho – follows Mokoenya from the crime-riddled streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, to the homeland, Lesotho, from which he was plucked by his father as a young boy. Mokoenya’s father passes away in a manufacturing village, leaving his son with prepaid funeral instructions that require Mokoenya to travel back to his tribal birthplace with his body. The slow unraveling of Mokoenya’s urbanized conceits upon his arrival in Lesotho – especially upon reconnecting with a female childhood acquaintance, Dineo – creates a compelling and subtle thread of self-discovery amid displaced cultural identity.

But the deliberate lingering pauses and panoramic sweeps of the director can’t disguise the turmoil of two Africas. Mysticism clouds science (Dineo’s sister is stricken with AIDS, a fact her father chooses to literally lock away in a room), but ancient traditions concurrently weave optimism
and purpose into otherwise random occurrences. Throughout a large part of his journey (much of it on horseback), Mokoenya is guided by an orphaned boy who swears he is the “eyes of the dark clouds” that follow Mokoenya everywhere. It’s an ambitious narrative device, but Mudge balances the disbelief suspension with pervasive charm. What might have been an exercise in exploitative cultural tourism in the vein of Paul Simon’s Graceland is instead a modern parable universal in its message, but unique to its location. – Billy Manes

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FREE SAMPLES

★★

Discovering a great short film is often the best thing about a festival. Conversely, the worst part is often discovering a feature that should have stayed a short. Case in point: Free Samples, the story of Jillian, a disillusioned 20-something who agrees to watch her friend’s ice-cream truck and hand out free servings. In the process, she discovers a bit about herself, her offbeat customers and the meaning of life.

This is the first feature by director Jay Gammill and writer Jim Beggarly, and it shows. Perhaps, as with those glossy food photos in restaurant menus, this ice cream looked better on paper. How else does one explain the involvement of Jesse Eisenberg, who is both miscast and underused as Jillian’s potential love interest, and Tippi Hedren as one of the customers?

Playing Jillian is the quirky Jess Weixler, who is trying her best to overcome the material. But at just 80 minutes and with some misplaced sincerity toward the end, the film just doesn’t give her enough to work with. After all, sometimes in art, as in life, less really is less.

The fact that I, your friendly festival reviewer, was able to see this film as a free sample made it somewhat palatable. If you’re stuck having to pay for this concoction, though, you may be left with buyer’s remorse.

“You’re the best-looking woman I would never, ever consider having sex with,” a friend tells Jillian. Sadly, judging just by Free Samples, Weixler is the best-looking woman I would never, ever consider seeing in a movie. So stay away and instead see the other Tippi Hedren film playing this year’s fest: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, on April 12, if you can manage a stand-by ticket. And as an added bonus, Hedren herself will be there. – CM

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I AM DIVINE

★★★★★

Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz is apparently on a mission to make a documentary about everyone who has ever been the subject of a chapter in one of John Waters’ books. On the heels of Schwarz’s charming Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (FFF 2008) comes I Am Divine, an affectionate, even triumphant bio of Waters’ immortal leading “lady.” Via a treasure trove of film and video footage, still photos and talking-head interviews with Divine’s enamored contemporaries, Schwarz takes us through the beyond-unlikely process by which one Harris Glenn Milstead made childhood ostracization the fuel for an outrageous persona that turned drag on its head before most people had even heard of such a thing.

With this story of revenge via living well acting as the doc’s main “melody,” Divine’s many addictions become a sort of Jaws theme underneath, portending the heart attack that would claim his life at the age of only 42. Yet the doc is the opposite of a downer: It’s laugh-out-loud funny and eminently quotable (perhaps unsurprising, given the personalities involved). It also happens to be genuinely moving as it describes Divine’s eventual reconciliation with the parents who had once disowned him. In that sense, the movie is right on time, presenting us with the ennobling example of one family’s victory over pressures mainstream society is only beginning to understand.

“He could never pass as normal,” Waters says of his lifelong friend; I Am Divine points us toward a time when nobody will have to try. – Steve Schneider

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I DECLARE WAR

All’s fair in love and war, and I Declare War has a little of the former and a lot of the latter. But to be completely fair, the drama deserves a bit more than just one star. However, it is the least competent of the 15 flicks I saw for this year’s festival.

Director-writer Jason Lapeyre and co-director Robert Wilson were obviously inspired by both the friendship themes of Stand By Me and the darker tones of Lord of the Flies. In an odd hybrid of the two, they have created a story of middle-class kids who infuse their simple summer war games with jealousy, revenge and real violence.

All the young actors pour their hearts into the project, but only P.K. (13-year-old Gage Munroe) truly stands out. A romantic subplot, though well-acted by the only girl in the film (Mackenzie Munro), goes nowhere, as do the various “battle scenes,” which slowly build to a contrived conclusion. Yet the worst mistake Lapeyre makes is not allowing the kids to show their innocence at the beginning of the film, as Lord of the Flies does. Instead, he launches right in with nastiness and brutality, making it difficult to relate to the characters or even tell which kids are on which teams. And the misguided blend of real, pretend and imagined violence only lessens the emotional impact.

Much like the kids’ “war,” the movie feels like a work in progress, something that’s being made up as it goes along. In short, it’s only a step or two above a student film. – CM

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ICEBERG SLIM: PORTRAIT OF A PIMP

★★★★

Many of the best documentaries take a subject with which you’re either unfamiliar or uncomfortable and allow you to embrace it, if only for an hour and a half in the dark. That’s especially true with Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, a unique glimpse into the world of Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, a famous Chicago pimp of the 1930s and ’40s who somehow transformed himself into one of the most famous urban writers of his generation.

Directed by Jorge Hinojosa, this dynamic doc – one of the best of the festival – makes good use of animation, graphics and music to transport you to Beck’s gritty world, but it’s the interviews that make you want to stay. All the black-culture commentators you might expect are here, from Snoop Dogg to Quincy Jones to Chris Rock. However, it’s a complete unknown – Beck’s first wife, Betty – who steals the show. In a jaw-dropping, almost nauseatingly honest interview, she transforms the film into something part sad, part enlightening. Half-dressed, half-coherent and smoking her head off, she tells the real story of Iceberg as only she can. Add in some offbeat interviews with Beck’s daughters, and the story of a juicy figure in American literature gets even juicier.

Beck got his nickname from his reaction to a gunfight in a bar when he was young. High on cocaine, he sat motionless while a bullet whizzed through his hat, barely avoiding blasting his brains into his brewski. He was cool like a ’berg, and this doc is a fittingly hip tribute to that coolness, wit and intelligence.

As Beck said, “A lot of people think top pimps are dummies. That’s not true; they’re just perverted.” – CM

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MAGICAL UNIVERSE

★★

Unless you’re Michael Moore or Bill Maher, it’s probably not a good idea to insert too much of yourself into your own documentary. In the style of Errol Morris, the award-winning director of such docs as Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, you’d do better to stay behind the camera and let your subjects speak for themselves. Jeremy Workman has not learned this lesson.

Workman spent a decade chronicling and developing a friendship with Maine artist Al Carbee. He first exposed Carbee’s odd work (consisting mostly of photographs of Barbie dolls and other odd crafts and collages) in the 2002 short film Carbee’s Barbies, which he wrote, directed and edited, as he did Magical Universe, which is making its world premiere at the festival. The short finally brought attention to the painfully reclusive and socially awkward photographer.

“I’m completely in control of Barbie,” Carbee tells Workman. “She’s the perfect model. Barbie never complains.”

Adding to that outlook is Carbee’s honest admission that he’s gotten even odder in recent years. “If you are obsessive about something,” he says, “that increases as you get older.” And for 80-something Carbee, that equals a lot of OCD!

If that’s not a psyche worth delving into with a good doc, I don’t know what is. But, regrettably, for his first solo feature, Workman, though well-intentioned, focuses too much on himself and his friendship with Carbee. He even goes so far as to provide unnecessary personal anecdotes in the form of horribly annoying voice-overs. Workman is simply too tied to his topic, and the result is a tedious and amateurish bungling of a potentially solid story. – CM

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MUD

★★★★★

If Mud isn’t the best movie of this year’s festival, it’s certainly the most instantly satisfying. Director-writer Jeff Nichols follows up his captivatingly moody Take Shelter with this little gem about love, loyalty, revenge and redemption. It’s both a clinging-to-the-past story and a coming-of-age one, filled with societal nuances and a cultural honesty on par with such Southern films as Sling Blade and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Matthew McConaughey, in the performance of his career, plays the title character, a drifter looking to simultaneously escape his criminal past and reunite with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon), all while hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River. Helping him are two young boys in the tradition of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, played brilliantly by future superstars Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.
Though Witherspoon and the always intriguing Michael Shannon are underused, they and their fellow supporting actors are all pitch-perfect and imbue the piece with such crackle that the excessive length and forced finale fade to minor quibbles. Particularly memorable is Sam Shepard, whom young Sheridan’s character calls a “worn-out old man” in one of the film’s many bits of beautiful but brutal dialogue.

Mud may not be a true five-star film, but it is the best of the 15 features I screened for this year’s festival, and for that, it deserves the highest mark. But if you miss it at the festival, don’t worry, as it’s almost certain to play the Enzian or Regal Cinemas again soon. – CM

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NANCY, PLEASE

★★★

Nancy, Please tries to replicate the paranoia of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and the creepy claustrophobia of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. If you haven’t seen those films, that’s OK, since all you need in order to understand this film is an ounce of OCD. It reeks of obsession more than Calvin Klein.

Will Rogers – the alive, less-famous one – plays Paul, an anal-retentive Ph.D. candidate at Yale who has just moved into a new house with his overly sensible girlfriend, Jen (Rebecca Lawrence). His dissertation work and, indeed, his entire life is brought to a crashing halt when he realizes he’s left his cherished copy of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit at his previous residence, where his former roommate Nancy (Eléonore Hendricks) still lives. The book contains his crucial, hand-written notes, and he needs it back, desperately. Adding to Paul’s frustration is an invasion of squirrels in the walls of his new house, eating away at his property and, seemingly, his sanity.

For his first feature, director-writer Andrew Semans has fashioned an odd, tedious study in minutiae that may bore you to death during the first 40 minutes. Don’t be surprised to hear some groans and see a walk-out or two in the early going. But then the story starts to annoy you, then intrigue you, and finally fascinate you. Why won’t Nancy just give us, I mean Paul, back the book!? “It’s like she’s holding me hostage!” Paul screams. Like Edvard Munch, Semans makes his audience feel that scream, if only for the final few minutes of the film. – CM

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PIETÀ

★★★★

The pietà is the Christian depiction of Mary cradling her dying son following his crucifixion. Its most famous rendition is Michelangelo’s sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica, and it’s no stretch to say that South Korean writer-director Kim Ki-duk considers himself a Michelangelo of film, proudly proclaiming in Pietà’s opening credits, a la Quentin Tarantino, that this is his 18th film. But he certainly does his best to back up that bravado with his shockingly depraved twist on religious iconography.

Though surprisingly non-graphic visually, Pietà is nevertheless brutally disturbing, and over the top at times. We should all be appalled by its subjects – violence, poverty, rape, cannibalism, implied incest and animal cruelty – but if those subjects disgust you so much that you are unable to see them onscreen, stay away from this movie. However, if you want a unique experience, a sort of macabre celluloid poem, treat yourself to the most memorable film of the festival.

Lee Jung-jin plays Lee Kang-do, a monster of a man who loans money to poor machinists, charges astronomical interest and then, if they can’t pay, tortures them with their own machinery so he can collect their insurance. The borrowers understand their situation all too well, and some are even tragically resigned to their fate. (“Make me a cripple,” one man begs Lee, so he can share in the insurance claim.)

Yet Lee’s unbearably bleak outlook on life changes when a mysterious woman (the brilliant Jo Min-su) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his long-lost mother.

Pietà won the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and though some audience members walked out in disgust, as they surely will do in Orlando, the Florida Film Festival deserves credit for scheduling this one. Love them or hate them, movies like this prove that this event is culturally relevant. As festival president Henry Maldonado says, “There may have been a time in which [we] said we’re the Florida Film Festival, and they would have said, ‘That’s in Miami, right?’ Not anymore.” – CM

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PRIDE AND JOY

★★★★

Since 1999, the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss has studied, recorded and celebrated the native eating and cooking habits of the South. Since 2005, Joe York has been making short films for the SFA, documenting the people and places vital to those heritage foodways, and since 2007, film festivalgoers have borne witness to the true roots of hot chicken, boiled peanuts, sweet-potato pie and barbecue, barbecue, barbecue.

While once I was enthralled by York’s SFA films, I began to tire of the soul food roll call, the BBQ fetishists and biscuit connoisseurs, but this was just an occupational hazard. Pride and Joy collects many of those SFA films into a “feature,” and if you haven’t been inundated with this stuff, it’s charming, especially the way each segment leads into the next, seemingly authentically by chance – the peach-farmer lady mentions boiled peanuts, the boiled-peanut fanatics call them “Southern caviar,” the paddlefish caviar producer admits he’d rather eat a fried catfish sandwich, and so on. In a completely natural and unforced way, each interview builds on the others and reinforces the idea that Southern heritage is a tightly sewn crazy quilt, each scrap unique but bound snugly to its neighbors, and the whole is more than a sum of parts.

Interviews include an oysterman, a beekeeper, a tomato farmer, a country ham producer, a bourbon distiller, a pie baker, a buttermilk dairyman, a Georgia cattleman and many more, 24 in all. Notable and purely entertaining: Several of these people are just stone crazy. Especially that
buttermilk guy.

Speaking of stone crazy, meet Pierre Faucher, the proprietor of Sucrerie de la Montagne. The Quebecois maple-sugar producer is the subject of Sugar Shack, an enticingly oddball 13-minute doc made by Brooklyn arts collective the Goddamn Cobras, which will precede the Saturday screening of Pride and Joy. – JBY

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PUTZEL

★★

“Listen to the guilt. It’s like a GPS for the soul.” For Walter, those words ring true, but what else would you expect for a guy whose nickname is Putzel, or essentially “little putz” or “schmuck” in Yiddish? They are his guiding light in life, his blueprint for lowering his expectations, allowing his wife to cheat on him and resigning himself to a life as the manager of his family’s lox deli. Never mind that he has bigger dreams, such as summoning the courage to schlep himself far away from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and escape his domineering schmendrik (look that one up, my fellow goys) of an uncle.

Directed by first-timer Jason Chaet and written by Rick Moore, Putzel plays like a charming sitcom, one you can’t quite hate but can’t fully appreciate either. Its premise is promising, and Walter, played lovingly by Jack Carpenter, is not as annoying and uninteresting as his moniker would suggest. In addition, John Pankow and Melanie Lynskey, as Walter’s uncle and new love interest, add some honesty to the piece. But despite those characters’ moments of tenderness and one of the funniest sight gags you’ll see at this year’s festival, Chaet’s film is just too contrived to be anything more than a comedic diversion for viewers seeking mainstream entertainment.

Like its title character, Putzel perhaps deserves a bit more respect than it’s received here. However, it’s difficult to embrace a film that is a bit of a putz itself: sweet and well-meaning, but ultimately underachieving and easy to overlook. – CM

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RENOIR

★★★★

Most films labor furiously, trying to infuse every frame with passion. Renoir is content to sit still, creating effortless beauty in the style of its subject, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

A French-language production set on the Riviera in 1915, this drama is both a love poem to Renoir’s art and a love triangle between the 74-year-old painter, his 21-year-old son Jean, and a beautiful but mysterious model who becomes the muse of both father and son. Set during World War I, Renoir unfolds in a tranquil part of France touched only distantly by conflict. This striking contrast between serenity and hell is heightened by the fact that Jean is convalescing, waiting to return to the butchery of battle.
“It’s us – old people, the infirm – whom they should send to the front, in the mud and the trenches,” Pierre-Auguste says, fearing the loss of both Jean and Jean’s older brother. Yet he can only truly express emotion through his paintings, which he continues to create despite crippling arthritis. “I still have progress to make,” he tells Jean. “I’ll carry on till I collapse.”

Director Gilles Bourdos and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin have created a work worthy of its subject. Colors breathe and light glows almost as hauntingly as in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But as with a painting that you admire at first glance, the film’s emotion – or lack thereof – fades after viewing. Perhaps it needed a bit less of Pierre-Auguste’s quiet beauty and more of the drama of Jean, who, after the war, became one of the world’s great film directors, producing such classics as The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.

Despite those shortcomings, the film makes us appreciate anew the gifts that the Renoirs left us, while giving us a rare glimpse into their lives. – CM

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SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE

★★★★

Since frontier times, desperate American men have turned to mail-order bride services in hopes of finding love. The majority of women listed in these services today are either Asian or Eastern European. As a Chinese-American, documentarian Debbie Lum had always been curious as to why certain Western men are so enamored with Asian women, so she decided to search for the answer.

Lum contacted several men who posted on dating sites that were exclusively seeking Asian women. After interviewing Steven Bolstad, a twice-divorced sexagenarian, she knew she’d found the perfect subject for her documentary. When we first meet Bolstad onscreen, he’s making racial comments about Asian eyes. He then proceeds to reminisce about a Vietnamese film that he once saw, The Scent of Green Papaya, which featured what he referred to as an “idyllic servant girl.” He then muses on the possibility of finding a mate like the girl in the film. He comes off as a man that would make women uncomfortable. Even Debbie confesses that she felt uncomfortable with him in the beginning.

Nevertheless, after corresponding with hundreds of Asian women over the course of five years, Bolstad finds one who agrees to marry him. Sandy, 30, is a Chinese national who entered the U.S. on a K-1 fiancée visa. If she doesn’t marry within three months she must return to China. Surprisingly, Sandy doesn’t appear to have any ulterior motives and genuinely seems to be interested in Bolstad. However, when the relationship turns tumultuous, the couple seeks Debbie’s counsel, as she is the only person they know who can speak both English and Mandarin. As Debbie is dragged into her own documentary, she begins to question her ethics, adding a compelling new layer to an already fascinating and often unsettling film. – Audrey Bergquist

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Sightseers

★★

Something goes bad along the way in Sightseers, but you already know that if you’ve seen the British film’s trailer. However, I’m talking about not just the characters’ idyllic vacation-turned-disaster, but the movie itself, which morphs from cleverly quirky to deliciously dark to just plain mean-spirited and unfunny, all in only 90 minutes.

Feeling guilty over the accidental death of her dog and in desperate need of an escape from her clinging mother, Tina (Alice Lowe) sets out with her new boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram), for a road tour of the Yorkshire countryside. But during a horrible accident, a screw is apparently knocked loose in their brains because they then proceed to rampage about the countryside in a misguided metaphor for selfishness, anarchy and the trappings of a civilized society.

If you don’t like that posh explanation, you can take director Ben Wheatley’s terrifying travelogue at face value: a dark comedy bordering on bloody farce. Whatever meaning you embrace, it’s difficult to escape the fact that, though well-acted and intriguing, this caravan of comedy has far too few laughs and runs out of gas about an hour in. It wants to be Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend but ends up more like Weekend at Bernie’s.

If you’d planned to watch Sightseers on Tuesday, April 9, skip it and instead see a different type of crime caper: The Sting. This 1973 masterpiece starring Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw is playing in Winter Park’s Central Park, weather permitting, at 8 p.m. The picture and sound quality on the outdoor screen are never that great, but, hey, you get to see one of the greatest movies of all time for free, in commemoration of its 40th anniversary, so stop complaining and go eat your free popcorn. – CM

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THE TAIWAN OYSTER

★★

“I feel like a minor character in someone else’s story,” the main character in director Mark Jarrett’s debut feature tells his friend. The same goes for the audience of The Taiwan Oyster, as we often feel like mere observers, watching the action without much emotion or interest.

Two American friends, Simon and Darin, are teaching English in Taiwan (and running a small newspaper, The Oyster) when a fellow countryman dies accidentally. Knowing that the orphaned American has no one to claim him and will be cremated against his wishes, the two slightly disillusioned friends plan a Texas-style road trip across Taiwan to look for the perfect burial spot. And in predictable fashion, they meet an attractive and similarly disillusioned woman, and discover something about themselves along the way. It’s all just a bit too neat.

It didn’t have to be this way. Jarrett and his co-writers invented a unique scenario, found a good actor in Billy Harvey, who plays Simon, and an interesting “MacGuffin,” or ultimately unimportant plot device to keep things moving, as Alfred Hitchcock would describe it. Jarrett also makes good use of his camera, capturing both the urban grittiness and the rural beauty of Taiwan, often in a sad, contemplative way. But after an hour and 45 minutes of deep conversations, bad acting by Jeff Palmiotti (as Darin), forced literary references and plot points that stretch believability, we’re ready for this trip to end.

Don’t expect a pearl inside this oyster. The best you can hope for is some tasty meat without too much sand. – CM

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THIS IS MARTIN BONNER

★★★

This Is Martin Bonner needs festivals to survive. In the world of general releases, it wouldn’t stand a chance. It’s too plodding and empty, at least at first glance. But let it wash over you at its own steady pace and you might get sucked into its quiet, lonely world.

Martin (Paul Eenhoorn) has just moved to Reno, Nev., leaving behind two grown children and seemingly everything else he held dear. Financially and spiritually adrift after years spent devoted to his church, he’s found a new job helping prisoners make the transition from incarceration to freedom. It allows him to honor his faith while keeping a certain distance from it too. Also starting anew is Travis (Richmond Arquette), just released from prison after 12 years, trying to reconnect with his daughter and looking for a friend. He finds an unlikely one in Martin.

With his sophomore feature, director-writer Chad Hartigan has tackled a topic that is anything but sophomoric: facing the world, and yourself, alone. It’s tough to do at any age and under any circumstance, let alone as middle-aged men inventing new lives for themselves. Obvious and a bit amateurish at times, Martin Bonner could have fallen flat if not for Hartigan’s patient, panning camera and the touching and naturalistic, though unpolished, performances of Eenhoorn and Arquette.

Some may find the subtle Christian overtones off-putting or the overall piece passionless, more a photograph than a film. But allowed to slowly develop, it becomes a lovely snapshot. – CM

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YEAR OF THE LIVING DEAD

★★★★

If you like movies in which an intrepid guerrilla film crew cobbles together a low-budget feature – and if you go to film festivals, you probably do – you’ll embrace this fun, informative doc about the making of the original Night of the Living Dead.

Zombie godfather George Romero recounts the creative choices and happy accidents that helped his crew of Pittsburgh misfits take horror in a whole new direction; for reinforcement, scholars like Elvis Mitchell explain how the results both reflected and informed our late-’60s notions of race, age and violence. The analysis is pitched just right, revealing exactly what Night was and wasn’t, and never succumbing to the sort of overwrought bullpuckey that clogs up bad grad theses.

In the most endearing tribute to Romero’s legacy, a modern-day junior-high class in the Bronx attains “cultural literacy” by viewing Night in all its entrails-gobbling glory (“It’s GUTS!”), then enjoys a crash course in the fine art of staggering around like a zombie. Maybe there’s hope for our schools after all. – SS

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