Monday, November 3, 2014

Indie Memphis Film Festival, Days 2, 3, and 4: From Wild Canaries to Hoop Dreams

Relationship malfunction and murder mystery collide in Lawrence Michael Levine's often hilarious Wild Canaries, the story of a Brooklyn couple, played by Levine and his real life wife, Sophia Takal, who become amateur sleuths when their elderly neighbor turns up dead. The diagnosis is a heart attack, but the unemployed Barri (Takal) is unconvinced. It almost feels like her curiosity is a much needed replacement from her and Noah's (Levine) constant bickering, which of course becomes worse once she convinces him to join her wacky investigation. The movie is at its best when they're at each other's throats over the most trivial of things, though it doesn't hurt that they're matched by a stellar supporting cast (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as their roommate, Jason Ritter as their pot smoking, gambling landlord). The plot gets rather complicated, but the screwball antics and the chemistry between Levine and Takal are well worth the time. I hope to see them onscreen more together in the near future.

What a thrill it was to see two of my favorite John Carpenter movies, They Live and Halloween, back-to-back and on the big screen for the first time! This was probably my seventh or eighth time to see They Live, and I'm still amazed by the impact of its punch. What a huge gamble it was to not only cast a wrestler in the lead role (Roddy Piper), but also to throw everything at the audience with absolutely zero subtlety. But that's the point, right? That's what advertising and our government do everyday, so why should the movie cut us a break when satirizing it? The one liners still pop, the make up effects are still eerie, and the legendary fight scene is still a gas. Time truly has been good to They Live. The most exciting part about seeing Halloween was being envious of those who were experiencing it for the first time. Their gasps, jumps, and comments to the screen made me nostalgic and a bit jealous. I've always loved Halloween, but seeing it in the theater made me appreciate it even more. Not just for its craft, but also for how effective and efficient it is.

Dan Riesser makes his feature debut with Stomping Ground, an ambitious but forgettable story in which country girl Annie (Tarah DeSpain) takes her uppity big city boyfriend Ben (John Bobek) from Chicago to North Carolina for Thanksgiving. As expected, he has a bit of culture shock, first from discovering what a wild party animal Annie was in high school and later, learning that she used to hunt. But the real kicker comes when Annie and her old flame Paul (Jeramy Blackford) reveal they used to go deep into the woods searching for Bigfoot. Ben is an extreme skeptic that any such thing could exist, leading to a dick wagging contest between him and Paul, who still has the major hots for Annie. The city vs. country barrier begins to threaten Ben and Annie's relationship when it is decided they will join Paul and Hank (Joseph Allen Cavin) on a Bigfoot hunt. The expected tension unfolds, not just in the triangle between Annie, Ben, and Paul, but also when strange noises from the woods make them wonder if someone or something is following them. Riesser creates a chilling atmosphere for the collectively excellent cast, but sadly, they're saddled in roles that don't give them much to do that we haven't seen before. I had the pleasure of chatting with Riesser during the festival, and found him smart and very engaging, so I am quite anxious to see his career progress. He shows promise here as a director, but needs a screenplay with characters as interesting as he is.

After being approached by Mark Landis the night before I saw his movie Art and Craft, my level of intrigue shot up exponentially. I told him I was planning to see it, to which he responded with a hand shake and a "God bless you," before moving on to the next person. His confidence is admirable, and it's the aspect of Art and Craft that most fascinates. The movie is a documentary about Landis, a Mississippian who, for around thirty years, has been forging works of art and donating them to museums, often with a story attached. To the surprise of Cincinnati registrar Matthew Leininger, who stumbled upon what Landis was doing, it was never about money. To hear it from Landis, a schizophrenic, his art replication and donation are acts of philanthropy. Once uncovered, it became a tug of war between Landis, who is obsessed with recreating existing works, and Leininger, who believes he has a responsibility to put a stop to it. Despite the fact that so many people encourage Landis to create his own art as it is obvious he has talent (given how seamless his replicas are), that's not where his obsession lies. What's most effective and lasting about Art and Craft is how it creates the portrait of a man whose actions began out of loneliness, a sad truth revealed when it's realized that the one original drawing Landis has is of his late mother.

I first saw Michael Lehmann's Heathers in the winter of 1989, and it left me completely shell shocked. Over the past 25 years, I've seen it more than a dozen times (mostly due to my obsession with it as a teenager), and thankfully, it's one of those movies that hasn't withered with age. Aspects of it are dated, to be sure (those clothes!), but the themes resonate with a fury that has never been matched. Watching Heathers on the big screen for the first time was a joy, not just to further soak in all the memorable lines and moments, but also to further recognize why it is one of the sharpest and best satires ever made (not to mention the most brutally honest high school movie I've ever seen). Daniel Waters's script takes no prisoners in its depiction of the dangers of cliques and the constant pressure put on students by teachers, parents, and worst, each other. High school is all about fitting in, something Heathers explores in a fashion that makes The Breakfast Club, a movie I loved growing up and still love, look like an after school special. The crowd at the screening varied widely in age, an indication of the movie's power. I look forward to watching it another dozen times over the next 25 years.

I didn't remember a lot about Hoop Dreams, since I'd only seen the movie once, and it was around the time of its release in 1994. Like so many, I was anxious to see it due to the praise from Siskel & Ebert, who championed the movie in a way that was rarely witnessed. I responded very strongly to it, but like so many great movies, it slipped through the cracks and I forgot about it until it was announced that Indie Memphis was hosting a 20th anniversary screening, complete with a Q&A with the movie's stars and one of the producers. I'm glad to have some years between my viewings of Hoop Dreams; even though I recall liking it, I don't think I was mature enough to truly appreciate it the first time out. And having William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two young men the movie follows, here to discuss the last 20 years of their lives, only enhanced the experience. This is one of the most intimate and compelling documentaries ever made, a movie that richly chronicles the entire high school careers of two teenage kids from the inner city with big dreams of being NBA players. By covering such a large period of time, we become involved in the lives of not just them, but their families too. By the end of the almost three hour run time, we care about every person we've met and by that point, whether or not William and Arthur play pro basketball isn't even the biggest concern anymore. Instead, it's the well being of everyone in each of these families, as we've seen how so many decisions, good and bad, have affected them. This is a beautiful and inspiring movie, one that I have seen few like and doubt I will again, and having the chance to hear these two boys, now men, talk about what happened after the movie ends was at once rewarding and delightful. I doubt I'll ever have another film festival experience like it and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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