It isn’t just the number of films screening this year that Atlanta Film Festival executive director Chris Escobar is proud of, but also the event’s overall balance, as well as the new dimensions the festival has added over the years.
After a special kickoff event on Thursday — WonderRoot’s Generally Local, Mostly Independent Filmmakers Night — the festival officially begins its 10-day run March 28 (through April 6) at the Plaza Theatre and 7 Stages, with encores and a few special screenings slated for the final day. Over 175 films — including narrative features, documentaries and short films — will screen in addition to special presentations, such as the fourth-season premiere of Game of Thrones.
Escobar, now in his third year with the festival, is especially pleased with the presence of so many local filmmakers, including Bret Wood and his world premiere thriller The Unwanted and Alex Orr’s comedic A Is for Alex, both included in the Georgia on Our Mind series.
“We have an exciting number of films that will be in theaters,” he says, pointing to high-profile selections such as the opening night screening of the Nicolas Cage feature Joe, directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express); Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway with Jude Law; and the closing night selection The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg. “But we also have a good selection of indies to see, to know of and be aware of,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before some of these films or filmmakers are in the category of films that will be in theaters.”
Wood and Orr are Atlanta Film Festival veterans whose previous films have screened. Escobar expects their work to be popular again this year, as well as Beside Still Waters, directed by Atlanta-born actor Chris Lowell (Veronica Mars), and Limo Ride, from Georgia filmmaker Marcus Rosentrater.
Two others programs Escobar expects to sell briskly are the Other World Shorts — an assemblage of sci-fi and horror shorts featuring Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse from local filmmaker Jonathan Rej — and Puppetry Shorts.
In its second year, the Atlanta Film Festival’s New Mavericks series spotlights female directors, many of whom will be in attendance. “There’s still a disproportionate number that submit to the festival or are being made and seen at festivals, so we made an effort to look at that,” says Escobar. “We want to give rise to a new generation of female directors.”
Music, too, has become an integral part of the festival. The popular Goat Farm Arts Center Presents: SOUND & VISION brings together live performances, experimental and installation art and music videos at a location Escobar describes as one of “the most authentic and original places in the area.”
Among the other specialty tracks are the Pink Peach series, featuring LGBT programming; the Passport Film Series, with movies from across the world; and the Reel Law track, dealing with legal issues. Animation is also present, both in two feature films and a number of shorts.
Here is a look at some of the films playing at this year’s festival:
15 To Life: Kenneth’s Story
Nadine Pequeneza’s documentary examines the case of Kenneth Young, who at 15 received four consecutive life sentences for his involvement in a number of armed robberies. More than a decade later, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and Young’s team hoped that he could get released — or at least have his sentence significantly reduced. The film brings up intriguing issues about the judicial system. Lawyers here lament that the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children Kenneth’s age to prison, and questions whether juveniles should be tried the same as adults. Kenneth appears to be a changed person, and his mother also proves to be sympathetic, dealing with a drug problem and shouldering blame for her son’s fate. If the director fails to present much in the way of opposition, it’s nonetheless a sobering, maddening subject — and a reminder of Florida’s wacky judicial system. (Tuesday, April 1 at 9:45 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
This drama is one of the highlights of this year’s festival. Hill Harper is Tim Brown, a husband in ’80s Philadelphia who has to watch his wife, Shenae (Sharon Leal), battle crack cocaine addiction, as well as deal with his confused 10-year-old daughter Maya (Troi Zee) back home. The performances are terrific, especially Leal and Harper, whose calm Tim has to make difficult decisions and venture outside his comfort zone. The supporting cast includes Ruby Dee in a small role as Tim’s mother and Wayne Brady as a drug dealer with whom Shenae shares a past. Director Tommy Oliver creates some masterful sequences, such as Shenae’s stoned visit home during her daughter’s birthday party. He doesn’t entirely sugarcoat the ending and the characters’ futures, either. (Saturday, April 5 at 4:30 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
A Is for Alex
Alex Orr isn’t having the best year of his life. He is dealing with a pregnant wife, who’s about to give birth to their son, as well as a mother who has been arrested for distribution of child pornography. A local inventor with an electronic robot bee project, who’s also directing a film, he’s dismissed with a “best of luck growing up” comment by a lawyer. A Is for Alex is a light work, with director Orr and his real life wife Katie playing themselves. It’s an oddly structured movie whose self-conscious moments don’t always work. Just over an hour, it might have been sharper as a longer film with more of its outside characters, such as Alex’s mom. Yet it has some undeniably funny moments, such as continuous discussions about Alex’s mother and her crime and a sequence where the married couple talk about intercourse during pregnancy — and the repercussions to the baby. (Saturday, March 29 at 1:30 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker
The title succinctly sums up the man at its center here. Musician Booker is described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” He’s a fascinating main character with demons and his own way of doing things, especially as he battles discrimination in various forms. Director Lily Keber’s film can drag at times, but it pays serviceable tribute to the legacy of Booker, not as well known or appreciated as he should have been. It’s certainly well documented and made, with footage of his performances and interviews from the likes of Harry Connick Jr. that music fans should eat up. (Thursday, April 3 at 9:15 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
Beside Still Waters
With shades of The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus Seven, Beside Still Waters is a keeper. A number of friends gather at the home of Daniel Thatcher (Ryan Eggold), whose parents have died months earlier in a car crash. Now he is having to say goodbye to the family house. None of his friends came to the funeral and he is hiding scars about that. His ex-girlfriend Olivia comes for the weekend with her new beau, adding another layer of stress. The booze flows freely, clothes come off and some unexpected hook-ups happen. Eggold’s Daniel is a likable, complicated presence, and his friends aren’t afraid to razz him for his pity party routines. Written and directed by Chris Lowell, in his debut behind the camera, this has an appealing group of performers who give the goings-on some comic bite — as well as some melancholy moments. (Saturday, March 29 at 7 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
This sounds like a too-cute documentary (look — grandmas looking for online love!) about how learning computer skills and the Internet enhances the lives of a number of senior citizens. Yet Saffron Cassaday’s film is actually quite charming. Some of the subjects are a little hesitant about modern day activities such as posting to Facebook, but they catch on. The look on one woman’s face as she gets to share pictures of a grandchild she barely sees is worth the price of admission. At the center of Cyber-Seniors is the adorable, 89-year-old Shura, who makes a YouTube tutorial/video and challenges others to keep up with her and make their own. (Thursday, April 3 at 6:45 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
Ten friends rant and rave about the time they rented a limo for New Year’s festivities in Mobile, Alabama, went to the beach and were sorta kidnapped and left half naked to find their way home one evening. Directors Gideon C. Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater want to pay honor to the grand Southern tradition of telling a great story, but this is one you’re likely to lose interest in quickly. The real-life individuals reenact what happened, and the alcohol-drug frenzy of the weekend still has them cracking up. “Dude, he was so ****** up” is a recurrent line of dialogue. Stretched to a feature-length film, this Ride is a bumpy one. (Sunday, March 30 at 6:30 p.m, 7 Stages Theatre)
Young Hera is only 12 when she witnesses her brother fall off a tractor and die on the family farm in rural Iceland. The incident continues to haunt her (as well as her parents) years later, leading to destructive behavior and trouble fitting in. Her only saving grace is the passion she has for heavy metal and her dream of being able to record her own music. Director Ragnar Bragason (flying in from Iceland to attend the screening) gives Metalhead a swell sense of place; it’s gorgeously filmed. The small community is also filled with a quirky ensemble, including a priest with a musical secret of his own. It’s worth seeing, with one caveat — the main character is such a pill it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her, even when her music career gets something of a fairy-tale ending. (Friday, April 4 at 9:30 p.m., Plaza Theatre)
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