Montgomery Film Festival VII

By on 6 June, 2016 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 1 Comment

IMG_4592Longtime readers of Midtown Montgomery Living will know that we absolutely love going to the annual Montgomery Film Festival. We wrote about the second annual and the third annual, missed a few years for various reasons, and last night went to the sixth annual.

Making a movie is still difficult, but certainly a lot easier than when we were growing up. Although shoulder mounted video cameras had hit the consumer market during our childhood in the 1980s, you had to really know somebody on the professional scene to edit your footage into a coherent text. These days, there is a video camera in nearly every pocket, and editing software on nearly every laptop. Today’s barriers to entry are a lot lower, which is why we keep expecting (or hoping) that there is a local cinephile diamond in the rough, telling well-crafted stories.

Unfortunately, there weren’t any such entries at this year’s film festival, leading us to wonder exactly what happens to young people in Montgomery that want to make movies. Do they move away? Get sucked into habits of only passively consuming entertainment, instead of making it? Are they making great films and just putting them online instead of entering them into film festivals?

Nonetheless, the Montgomery Film Festival is still really, really fun — and judging by the full house at the newly-rennovated Capri Theater, you may have been there. It’s a bargain for only $10 (considering how much entertainment you get), and you get the satisfaction of supporting local (however you define that) art. Plus there are lots of short movies to talk about! If one of them is terrible, it’ll be over soon!

Before a few comments about each of the films, a few words about the festival itself: This year was a little weird. Nobody stood up before the films started and said something like, “Welcome to the Montgomery Film Festival.” There were no prefatory remarks, or thanks for coming, or any sort of brief overview of what we were about to see. There was no description of the number of films entered in the festival or window into the selection process. How long was the submission window open? How many films entered? If a young aspiring filmmaker was in the audience, she or he will just have to follow the film festival on social media, I guess, and wait for next year’s call for entries.

The other weird thing was that the organizers seemed to be under the impression that folks could or would sit in their seats for 5 consecutive hours. Look, one of the great things about short films is that they cater to the ever-shortening modern attention span. Many folks who love punchy YouTube videos have probably already stopped reading this long blog post, but would be right at home watching a string of 10 and 20 minute little films.

But when all of the films are running back to back, and when the “intermission” is filled with the highlights of the evening — little sketch comedy shorts posing as hilarious local ads — there’s no time built in for people to stand up and stretch, or even go buy another beer. I’m not sure what the best scenario is. If the theater were less dark, maybe people would feel more free to come and go during the shorts. Maybe that would be annoying. If there were a few filmmakers that wanted to say a few words about their movies, maybe that would break up the avalanche of 3 unbroken hours of short films, while allowing for some audience participation. Or maybe the intermission should be an actual break, instead of a time to screen some “can’t miss” material.

The worst part of all of that scheduling arrangement is that after 3 hours of shorts, there was no break in the action where anyone said “thanks for coming” or “this is how you vote for your favorites.” After 3 hours of shorts, the screen just started showing a 90 minute feature film.

That’s too bad, because I really wanted to see that film. But I also wanted to eat. And stretch my legs. 5 hours of continuous time in a Capri seat is just too much to ask, so hopefully the organizers will adjust the schedule next year.

One bit of praise for the festival organizers: It’s really cool that they had a party the night before the festival. They should do this every year to help raise awareness about the festival. And it’s really cool that they put a list of all of the films online. Folks can see more about the selected films (and watch trailers for a lot of them) here.

Reviews!

“Confession: 5 p.m. or By Appointment” – This one clocked in under 10 minutes and was from some people from Mobile. Yay for Alabama films! It had the stamp of the Savannah College of Art and Design on it, so it was thoughtful and polished. It was a decently-funny look at the mismatch between Catholicism and modern lives. A cute way to get things rolling. Grade: B.

“The Bessemer Cutoff” – Another Alabama movie! This one carried some high expectations, perhaps unfairly so. A quick 7 and a half minute documentary look at the reflections of a Bessemer resident about her city. The filmmakers followed her to her high school graduation, and shot a lot of washed out lighting and slow motion footage of the city’s economic blight. I really wanted a look at urban Alabama poverty from the lens that broke the usual stereotype of outsiders. But although this was narrated by a local, we didn’t really learn anything about Bessemer, and I ended up feeling vaguely uncomfortable about the vague “you can do anything” message produced by the camera’s intrusiveness. Grade: C.

“The Robot” – A six and a half minute animated short from Taiwan that borrowed the “work as exercise bikes” them from the brilliant episode of “Black Mirror.” And doesn’t really do much of anything with it. It’s grim and ugly, which I’m sure is rationalized as a stylistic performance of the dystopian setting, but this was not fun to watch and the clichéd point it makes about generational cycles was said a million times better by Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Work takes us away from the meaningful relationships in our lifes. Great. Thanks. Next. Grade: D.

“Brewing” – This one got the first good pop from the crowd of the evening. It’s fun to be reminded of the virtues of watching a movie in a big room full of strangers. There were lots of audible gasps and squeaks from the audience during this weird atmospheric effort at horror. It came from Tuscaloosa, which was cool, and they found a creepy old house to shoot in. But after some Amityville set-up (couple with marital troubles moves into new house together), most people were left confused about the source of the scares. We are never shown the tennis court under which something or other is buried. I was left feeling like there was a better movie in there somewhere, chopped up perhaps by editing choices. Grade: B-minus.

“Crush” – If “Brewing” primed the pump for audience reaction, “Crush” hit the nail right on the head and elicited literal screams from the crowd. What started as a colorful Wes Anderson “meet cute” story, quickly veers into a kind of sexual horrorshow about mental illness and self-abuse. One person in the audience held her soda cup in front of her face during parts of this 11 minute burst of weirdness. A cynic might argue that the audience screams were the product of exploitation by the filmmaker (Christopher McKee from NYC), I might be a bit more generous and borrow a term from the professional wrestling business and describe this as “cheap heat.” Yes, the audience will cringe when you show a hammer hitting a fingernail. But it’s the charmingly disorienting context for this freakshow that makes it more memorable and funny than loathsome. Grade: B.

“Times Like Dying” – This 22 minute epic felt a little unfair. It’s not a “western” because it was set in the post-Civil War South, but it was a big budget period piece with the best acting of any of the films of the night. It also had the best lighting, best costumes, and best script. But it feels unfair to compare a movie with four horse wranglers in the credits (and a “dialect coach”) to a movie like “Brewing,” which felt like the product of three or four people with a camera and an old house. Really though, this movie is great. It’s dark and sad and on a human scale. The gunshots sound real, the shadows from the campfire are beautiful, and this was clearly the product of an incredible amount of work. Watch the preview here. Grade: A.

Intermission: If it hadn’t been so dark, I would have taken more notes to remember these hilarious little homemade short fake ads. Hopefully the film fest organizers will put them online. One was a fake pharmaceutical ad encouraging people to quit vaping by taking up cigarettes. Another was a series of promos for a fake pro wrestling circuit, including a guy dressed up like Mankind making jokes about Mike Hubbard. Grade: A.

“Dead Saturday” – This short film about the power of religion and ideology came from Birmingham, but may have been judged a bit unfairly once we realized that the “intermission” was really just an excuse to show the local comedic shorts, and we were strapping in for the second half of the festival without a break. When people are looking at their watches, it’s not a good sign for your film. That said, there was a lot of yelling here about the “will of God,” and the thin script seemed like an excuse to have a priest shot in a church. The idea was that “God isn’t looking at humanity” on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Edgy for some, I guess, but the acting didn’t do justice to the narrative point about how conviction can find loopholes in ideological structures. Grade: C-minus.

“Tyrfing” – This film got the most laughs by far of the evening. If you like seeing dudes standing in snowy fields spitting into their own beards, this is the movie for you. The title (pronounced “tear-fing”) refers to a magical sword, that evidently is a real Norse myth. The run time on this film is 15:20, but it felt like an hour. I would rather be stabbed with a cursed sword than sit through it again. It was intended as some kind of Game of Thrones homage, with epic reflections on seductive power. But this is laughable garbage and was by far the worst film of the night. The only redeeming part is that I now have a group of people with whom I can making Viking jokes, and the name “Tyrfing” is a handy new synonym for “failure.” Grade: F.

“Collinsville Trade Days, 1988” – Of all of the entries in the festival, this movie may have been the easiest one to make, because it’s just an edited collection of footage that the filmmaker’s dad took at an open-air flea market in northeast Alabama. That said, this is a real documentary about the South, looking at commerce and culture through a non-judgemental lens, and showing the human side of rural life. I’ve been to Collinsville Trade Days, and it looks a lot like what is captured here from the late 80s. It’s an amazing gathering of people, some looking for profit, others just looking. This film comes from a place of kindness towards its subjects, and fond nostalgia. It honors the people who are outside of the mainstream shopping mall experience, trading with neighbors for their puppies and flat-brimmed Crimson Tide baseball caps. I voted for it as the best film of the night, and I hope everyone will  get a chance to see it. Grade: A.

“Broken Basket” – The first of two consecutive films from Spain, this felt like someone’s student film. I’m glad people are out there practicing keeping a moving camera in focus. I’m glad people are still shooting in black and white. But this felt like someone who knew an attractive actress and wanted to just film her for hours and hours, eventually cutting the results down to 11 minutes that felt like hours and hours. This is, in theory, something about a mom whose son has been kidnapped, and she’s trying to get a glimpse of him … or something. There was a robust debate in the seats behind me about whether or not there actually was a plot. I’m not sure either, but this whole thing was super tedious. If a film student wants to practice pacing a plot over an 11 minute film, that’s great. But I don’t want to watch LeBron practicing shooting free throws in an empty gym, and I don’t want to watch someone learning how to create a tracking shot. In case I’m not being blunt enough: This was super, super boring. Grade: D.

“Carne de Gaviota” – The title means “Seagull Meat,” and it’s a story about three people stranded on a desert island together. This thing was about 15 minutes too long. The second Spanish film of the night, it also gravely suffered from technical difficulties. The subtitles were riddled with grammatical errors, and several times during the movie, it glitched and skipped and the audio track became disconnected from the visual feed. By the time the movie lumbered to its inevitable and predictable plot twist ending, I had lost confidence that I’d be able to sit through the feature film of the evening. Grade: D.

“Grape Soda” – The last of the shorts was actually surprisingly good, if a bit manipulative. There’s some real heft to this movie’s exploration of a relationship that has been decimated by the death of a child. Is that low hanging fruit? Yeah, probably. Twisting the emotional knife by playing up a child’s cancer is fairly gauche. But the acting here is strong, and it’s a well-composed film, making the most of its settings and letting the story evolve in a way where you fill the spaces with empathy. It’s well-crafted and poignant in all of the right ways, driven by strong performances and a crisp script. Grade: B-plus.

“Once Upon a Time in Montgomery” (trailer) – The festival ended with a preview of an upcoming documentary about a crazy 1974 murder-hostage situation from our local history. You can watch the preview here and I found myself finding the aesthetic choices made in the preview to be mostly unpleasant (splash, cut, sound effect, splash, cut, sound effect) but also really, really wanting to see the movie. It seems like the filmmaker (David Wise) got a lot of interviews with the parties that were involved with that tragic (and fascinating) day. As a student of local history, this is very high on my list of things I’d like to learn more about. Not sure when the finished product is going to be released, but this could be a great look at a whole series of things that people in this city don’t often talk about.

One last note, I really, really wanted to stay for the “featured film” of the evening, a 90 minute movie from Los Angeles called “Driving While Black.” It sounds timely and important, and by all accounts, it is well-made and moving. But after being in that seat for three hours (including enduring the spit-flecked beards of “Tyrfing,” I just couldn’t go for another 90 minutes. So, that’s a bummer. I went next door to film festival sponsor, El Rey, and had an awesome portobello platter.

Looking forward to next year!

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  1. John Ling says:

    Intermission is here.

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