The Athlete (Davey Frankel, Rasselas Lakew) ***
We open the day with a film that sounds like your typical sports underdog story, but has an interesting structure and some unique qualities that help it rise above other examples of the genre. It follows the story of Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian athlete who in 1960 became the first African to win an Olympic Gold Medal.
The film opens after your typical sports movie has ended. Bikila has already achieved his great success and has become a hero to the people in his hometown, which the film shows through real newsreels covering those events. He is now in training for the 1972 Olympics, despite many people telling him he will be too old by then. Tragically, a car accident takes that decision out of his hands.
Still, Bikila refuses to quit, and the film does a terrific job of capturing his tremendous competitive spirit. What really works is the decision by directors Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew to not litter the film with distracting subplots. Bikila mentions a family, but they are not seen. There is no romance, no big court case, and minor characters do not overstay their welcome. This is Bikila's story and it is a wonderful one.
Racing Dreams (Marshall Curry) ***
Another in the long line of festival documentaries about people taking part in unique competitions. This one follows three kids from ages 11 to 13 as they look to become the next World Karting Association's National Champion. If you're thinking the standard go karts you see at amusement parks, you're wrong. These vehicles exceed 70 MPH and there are many serious accidents throughout the film.
The success of documentaries in this genre depends heavily on whether the filmmakers have chosen interesting subjects to follow. and in these three kids, they've done a pretty good job. Brandon is a feisty troublemaker who often gets suspended from school and was disqualified last year for rough racing. Annabeth is passionate about racing, spending 48 weekends out of the year racing in various events across the country. All of them dream of one day driving in NASCAR, but financial difficulties make it hard to keep competing at their level.
The only person that doesn't garner much interest is Josh, in part because the filmmakers themselves don't seem too interested in him. they seem more interested in a burgeoning romance between Annabeth and Brandon, which is certainly cute (Annabeth borrows Brandon's trophy and writes her phone # on the bottom of it), but seems to have been pushed along by the filmmakers. The film also builds a bit of ample tension in the final race, as there is a fear one of the drivers will be disqualified. The film is a memorable look at kids chasing their dreams.
What if a small town got cut off from the rest of the world? What if there were rumors that it had to do with a terrorist attack and some people took advantage of that situation to control the town by mob rule? What if you saw a television series called Jericho and then several years later an independent film popped up at a film festival with the exact same premise?
Now to be fair, there's nothing necessarily wrong with taking a familiar premise and putting a fresh spin on it. And at least the filmmakers seem to have attempted that. Unfortunately, director Kevin Willmott seems so concerned with making sure the audience understands the political argument he's making that he forgets to make sure it is deftly woven into the narrative. Nearly every scene has a comment on a modern political event. The villains are clearly meant to represent both teabaggers and the Bush administration ("You're with us or you're against us" shouted several times). The main character was recently in jail for insider trading. There are also attacks on racism, homophobia, and a mean-spirited clunky attack on organized religion. This gets to be a bit much.
The result is a movie that is not very entertaining. Everything that happens is so transparent that it's hard to care about what happens to any of the characters in it. I certainly agree with many of the political analogies that were made in the film, and certainly a great movie could be made from exploring them, but you still need a good story. You still need strongly developed characters. This film has neither of those and thus it falls completely apart.
Tierra Madre (Dylan Verrechia) **
Aidee Gonzalez (playing herself) is an exotic dancer in a Mexican border town. She's lived a rough life, with a worthless husband who is no longer in the picture. She has a dream for saving up money to buy a house for and her daughter. Told in an interesting mixture of documentary and narrative, this film is unfortunately derailed by bad acting and weak character development.
One of the major sins this movie commits is to skip past some important events by having the main character tell us about them in a voiceover. Some of the major personal things like her first kiss with her new girlfriend are just mentioned and not shown. In fact, we go straight through the beginning of that relationship to where they've already moved in. And the characterization of her girlfriend is so weak that there's little reason to care about the relationship.
Surprisingly, the best scenes come from Aidee's daughter and her best friend. Both deliver natural performances that are actually much better than any of the adult actors in the film. The two of them have honest, interesting discussions about her mother's life and their own futures that are far more interesting than anything else in the movie. While I sympathize with what Aidee has gone through in real life, it is simply not portrayed very well in this film.
NoNAMES (Kate Lindboe) **1/2
Kevin and his friends are stuck in a small Wisonsin town. Alcohol, drugs, and wild parties are pretty much their only escape. During one of these parties, Kevin's girlfriend CJ is raped by a childhood friend. She refuses to press charges and just wants to move on. NoNAMES is about how these events changed each of the characters and set them on a different path for the future.
This is one depressing film. Despite his efforts to change his life, the main character seems to have the worst possible luck in almost every single scene. The rapist keeps coming back and causing damage. And yet, it's Kevin that still gets treated like trash by local law enforcement and CJ's parents. That either could come to the conclusion that Kevin is at fault is frustrating and maddening.
To be fair, this is not a film without merit. Director Kate Lindboe has a really good sense of how to work with her actors, and with them she's created an authentic portrait of male friendship. I just wished she had used that in a better story. There is a nice, quiet moment late in the film that would have been a perfect ending. Unfortunately, the film runs on for several more minutes in an ending that seems needlessly prolonged. Chalk this one up as a missed opportunity.
Pushin' Up Daisies (Patrick Franklin) ***
Here's another midnight festival screening, and another strange film. However, this one is strange in all the good ways. I love the premise for this film. A struggling filmmaker returns to his hometown of Tokyo, Georgia to make a documentary about the connection between flowers and the various stages of human life. Unfortunately, the documentary gets interrupted by a zombie invasion of the town.
This isn't the first zombie comedy and it won't be the last. But this one is filled with some very funny ideas. For example, the central joke is that zombies aren't so scary. After all, they move very slowly and are pretty easy to get away from. So they attempt to continue the documentary by shooting around the zombies. This leads to hilarious situations, including memorial services for families whose relatives came back to life as zombies and had to be killed again.
When sticking to these ideas, the film works very well. It is a bit less successful later on when it seems to lose focus and make an attempt at pathos by discussing the main caracter's issues with his late parents. There's also a heroic speech given by one of the supporting characters that runs on way too long. It starts off funny, but soon becomes rather repetitive and annoying. But that's not enough to take away the many pleasures that this film brings. It's a fun example of original ultra-low budget filmmaking.