Here are some mini-reviews of some of the entries in this year’s Atlanta Film Festival. If nothing else, they’ll give you a sense of the wide range available onscreen.
“A Band of Rogues.” So well-meaning that it’s like a puppy that keeps trying to lick your face until you feel like kicking it away. This debut feature from Atlanta-based writer-director T. Jara Morgan focuses on four musicians (locals Luke Williams, Leonardo Santaiti, Jake Ayers and Emory Goocher) as they get into trouble with the law in Argentina. But really, all they want to do is play their music, man! Think of it as an Argentinian travelogue with tunes, and occasional bursts of half-hearted plot, and you’ll have a fine enough time. The actor-musicians are pleasant, but they want to be the Richard Lester-era Beatles so badly that you just want to say, “Bless their hearts.”
“Between Us.” Between you and me? An endurance test. Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George and David Harbour play two married couples who spend two evenings arguing about parenting, career ambitions and money. You won’t like any of them. It’s based on a stage play, but so were “Closer” and “Dinner With Friends,” whose screen versions proved that this sort of hothouse, interpersonal marital drama can work. You need a better script, though.
“Congratulations!” A fine, funny, weird, Atlanta-born heir to the genial absurdism of Luis Bunuel and Eugene Ionesco (with a little dose of Charlie Kaufman thrown in).
Atlanta writer-director Mike Brune’s feature centers on the disappearance of a seven-year-old boy in his suburban home. Yes, in his home. As the parents (Rhoda Griffis and Robert Longstreet) explain to Chief Detective Skok (John Curran), young Paul just vanished one afternoon from the rec room. The script takes clichéd dialogue and situations familiar from oh-so-many TV crime shows and repurposes the lines and situations to unexpected effect. It’s hard to sustain this sort of deadpan experiment for long, but somehow “Congratulations!” keeps afloat. That’s due in part to the commitment of a cast all working on the same wavelength. Griffis, long a bit player in mainstream movies shot in the area, gets a chance to show her chops here; beat by beat, her deconstruction of the cliché of the grieving wife-and-mother is terrific. (She’s also in another AFF feature, “Solace.”)
“Dead Man’s Burden.” A terse, satisfyingly grim micro-Western. Barlow Jacobs plays Wade, a Civil War veteran who, after long years away, heads for the ranch in New Mexico where his estranged family lives. When he gets there, though, only grown-up kid sister Martha (Clare Bowen) and her husband Heck (David Call) are still alive. And all three characters have some troublesome secrets that slowly but inexorably ratchet up the tension. Reminiscent of other experiments (such as Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”) to transplant elements of ancient Greek tragedy into new settings and eras, it’s a fine chamber piece from writer-director Jared Moshe, making the most of its outdoor settings.
“euphonia.” Director Danny Madden’s ambitious, fascinating short feature stars Benjamin J. Papac as an Atlanta teenager who becomes engrossed in recording the sounds around him: the thrum of shopping cart wheels, the chug of trains, the slap of his own feet. This hobby slowly becomes an obsession, and the film cleverly manipulates visuals and audio to immerse us in his experience. It’s a nice, open-ended metaphor for any sort of addiction or the dangers of over-mediation — whether via social networks, video games or any kind of distraction that keeps a person from connecting directly with the world.
“Interior. Leather Bar.” We see a couple of explicit blow jobs in this faux documentary, but the biggest act of fellatio is the metaphorical one self-administered by co-director James Franco. Supposedly the film is an attempt to re-create the rumored missing 40 minutes of the Al Pacino-William Friedkin misfire “Cruising.” But it’s mainly about Franco and other straight actors showing how uncomfortable-but-very-brave they are about being anywhere near depictions of gay sex. Franco (whose stuff gets automatically shown because, well, he’s a movie star) needs to stop his grad-school, art-house posturing. Or at least get out of the way of people who are genuinely trying to make interesting work.
“A River Changes Course.” A beautiful bummer. Kalyanee Mam’s gorgeous, immersive documentary — a sort of anthropological travelogue — unfolds without voice-over narration or a clear agenda. At first. We come to know three hard-working families in the Cambodian countryside. One scrapes together a living in the jungle, another on the river, the third in the rice fields. But the fish and forests and crops that sustain them are dwindling, which means a tough choice: do the young adults in each family try to hang on to bare subsistence in the hinterlands or try to find backbreaking labor for better wages in places like Phnom Penh? The story is a sad one, but paradoxically, the director and cinematographer (she handles both jobs) has a poetic eye even for urban squalor.
“A Teacher.” It could also be known by the partial title of the book that the similarly themed “Notes on a Scandal” was based on: “What Was She Thinking?” Lindsay Burdge plays Diana, a Texas high school teacher who’s sleeping with upperclassman Eric (Will Brittain). She alternates between panicked awareness of the career-killing risk she’s taking and a dangerous, giddy indifference to the consequences, for herself and the boy. The movie never quite explains the character’s ingrained damage; it hints at deep problems in her past. So Diana never comes into clear focus. But the movie makes for an interesting, elliptical, sometimes maddening character study. It’s less about a teacher-student folie a deux than it is a portrait of a woman falling apart, needlessly.