North Carolina’s Film Fest 919 unveiled the winner of its Audience Award – and it’s a tie! Nomadland and Fatman received recognition from audiences attending the festival. Nomadland, of course, is a festival circuit favorite. Director Chloé Zhao was also recognized with the Distinguished Screenwriter Award. Fatman, starring Mel Gibson as Santa Claus, also received the Spotlight Award, given to directors Ian and Eshom Nelms.
Now in its third year, Chapel Hill’s Film Fest 919 previously recognized Parasite last year with its Audience Award.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival branched out from its traditional location at Chapel Hill’s Silverspot Cinema to include two drive-in locations. Its next iteration will take place in Fall 2021.
This year, Awards Daily’s coverage of the event extended to long-time reader Joseph Michael Cabosky, who attended several screenings over the three weeks of the festival. His thoughts on several titles are included below.
Going into Herself, I was curious to see if Phyllida Lloyd’s third theatrical film would be more The Iron Lady, more Mamma Mia!, or a new voice from the filmmaker. And, whether the story would be more of a Wild Rose or a Ken Loach-type commentary on government supplied housing and the Irish court system. The answer turned out to be all of the above, to mixed effect.
Herself follows Sandra, played by an incredibly good Clare Dunne (who also co-writes), who flees her husband after an abusive attack in the first scene. With few financial resources, Sandra and her two young daughters are reliant on the public Dublin housing system, which due to housing costs and inventory, end up putting women and families like Sandra’s in a small hotel room next to a loud airport. To further humiliate the family, the hotel insists these residents must enter through the back.
The story from there is simple and efficient, if not a bit clichéd at many steps. Sandra finds plans online of how to build a tiny house at an affordable price. One of Sandra’s jobs is housekeeping and caring for Peggy (a pleasant Harriet Walter), a well-off woman who lives alone in a big house with an even larger backyard. Peggy stumbles upon Sandra’s house idea and offers her backyard as a place for the family to build their new home.
And, so from there, Sandra – with the help of a ragtag crew she recruits – start building a new house. All the while, the script goes through the turns you probably expect: battling for custody in the courts, ups and downs in the house building process, and Sandra’s emotional processing of the traumatic attack that flashes back throughout the film.
The film is clearly Lloyd’s strongest. Compared to her other works, there are great character moments, and she has the ability to hold on key emotional moments in a subtle way. Walter, in particular, does a great job of being a little underplayed, versus some of the peppy side characters that are common in such films. And Dunne does a solid job throughout, having to balance a range of pain and hope.
That said, your perception of the film may depend on how much you go with the simple, if cliched points, including some turns that will either emotionally wallop you or you will find quite manipulative – especially in the last act.
And, while much of the film offers Lloyd’s subtler character work that was arguably lacking from her other films, at times, those over-the-top moments from The Iron Lady appear, as do those musical montages from Mamma Mia!, albeit it with housebuilding sequences and some Sia as opposed to ABBA. Furthermore, the film comes to a head during a key courtroom scene that again balances stronger subtle moments with those Ken Loach-style polemic sensibilities. Your personal reaction probably depends on how you feel about such a tone.
Sam Pollard’s crisply told documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI’s multi-year surveillance of him will grip you with its fast pace and behind-the-scenes look of an underexplored topic.
Highly relevant to all that is 2020, the film follows much of King’s life over his last ten years or so as he became the face of the Civil Rights Movement. But, the focus of Pollard’s documentary is how the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover surveilled, and tried to destroy, the reputation of King. The film is essentially told in about three arcs of surveillance. First was an attempt to discredit King by associating him with one of the FBIs ongoing targets in the ‘50s and ‘60s: Communists, based on his relationship with Stanley Levison, an activist the FBI linked to previous associations with Communist Groups. Yet, King is seen giving a fascinating discussion of the African American community and its resistance to Communism.
As King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement continued to rise, the FBI turned to attempting to discredit him at a moral level. While it is now known by many, as seen in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, King had extramarital relationships, which the FBI surveilled. While the FBI never released such content to the public in the immediacy, the organization held the information almost as blackmail, sending it to King’s home for him and his wife, Coretta Scott King, to hear. One of the film’s most interesting revelations shares how the FBI even sent King fake letters from supposed followers saying he should thus kill himself, as a failed moral leader.
The film’s concluding arc focuses on King’s last years during the Vietnam War, briefly zooming out from the FBI at times to also share interesting glimpses into King’s thoughts and psyche about humanity and doing what he thought was right, even when not popular.
The film is almost exclusively told through images with an underlying audio track supplied by Civil Rights leaders, historians, and members of the FBI, including (an unnecessary for the film) James Comey. Its fast-paced editing will keep you engaged, and its focus on images and archival footage effectively avoids cutting away to “talking heads” that would otherwise take you away from the film’s enlightening focus. That said, those supplying the expertise throughout the film are finally shown in an epilogue that arguably doesn’t add much.
Perhaps the only disappointing thing about the film is that, especially if you already knew about the FBI’s surveillance of leaders like King, as well as knowledge of King and these stories, you may not learn as much as hoped. Part of the reason is the film references the surveillance tapes, but, since they’re sealed until 2027, the most interesting information feels like it’s still in the vault. Yet, the documentary remains a fascinating history lesson on the inconic Civil Rights leader and the FBI that tried to bring him down and limit a movement. IFC has picked it up, and it might be a player in the Documentary Feature category.
The Comeback Trail
Perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser at this year’s fest was George Gallo’s latest film, a remake of the lesser known 1982 picture.
Max (Robert De Niro) and younger family member Walter (Zach Braff) play two Roger Corman-esque producers of B-movies in the 1970s. Max is essentially a professional con-man who gets in over his head with Reggie (Morgan Freeman), a mobster who financed Max’s last flop and wants his money back. James (Emile Hirsch), a successful producer, wants to buy Max’s one legitimate script, which would get Max out of his financial crisis. But, Max can’t part ways with the one film he actually wants to make.
On set of one of James’s films, Walter’s actions accidentally leads to the death of the film’s star, who falls off a building and splats into a bus. While James may pretend he’s in tears, Max hears that James still got millions of dollars from the insurance company after the death. And thus, Max has an idea: make a Western B-Movie with an aging star, kill him off on set and get the insurance money. After initially threatening to kill Max, Reggie agrees to the deal. With Walter oblivious to the whole affair, he and Max come across Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging former film star who was already suicidal.
After what’s perhaps too long of a set-up, hijinks ensue on set as Max tries to kill off Duke, one failed attempt at a time. This section of the film mirrors the last act of Home Alone with its over-the-top physical humor that is more in the vein of a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner narrative as Max’s attempts keep backfiring on him and the film somehow becomes successful after all as Duke continues to save the day — as the cameras roll.
For better or worse, the script feels like one written in the 1990s, with Hollywood stereotypes that are likely past their date. Then again, the filmmakers would likely say that’s part of the point. Yet, as mentioned, it’s a film that played well with the older festival crowd who laughed along the way. Afterward, a few festival goers told me while it wasn’t a “great film,” per se, it was the one they enjoyed the most.
The film arguably didn’t fit the Festival slate, perhaps not a surprise since Gallo’s writing credits include the rather maligned The Whole Ten Yards and Code Name: The Cleaner. While far better than those works, it’s still no Midnight Run. A crowd pleaser for general audiences that may actually play okay at the holidays (assuming theaters are open), but arguably not an awards player beyond perhaps a comedy nomination somewhere.
La Nuit Des Rois (Night of Kings)
Perhaps my second favorite film of the festival (after the simply stellar Nomadland), the film is The Ivory Coast’s official Oscar entry this year for International Feature.
Philippe Lacôte’s mesmerizing tale follows a young prisoner (the perfectly cast Bakary Konē) as he arrives at MACA, a violent prison set amidst the jungles that overlook the coastal city of Abidjan in the distance. The first of the film’s many allegories is set, as the real jungle is inside the prison, known for its violent offenders and power structure of being run by the prisoners, as the guards mostly hide out in their office.
The young prisoner has arrived as Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) is the lead prisoner that controls the compound. But, Blackbeard is sick. His time in power is thus ending. So, to aid in the transition of power, Blackbeard comes across the new prisoner and alerts the other prisoners that this new inmate is “Roman,” the name given to storytellers that must tell the whole prison a tale.
The frightened Roman doesn’t know how to tell stories. But he is told he must. And little does he know at first, the tradition is that everytime a Roman bards his tale (on the night of the red moon), the storyteller is to be killed when the story is completed. But, with the help of Silence (Denis Lavant), the prison oddity with a friendly chicken that most others ignore, Roman learns that he must tell a tale that goes on ‘til morning to survive the night.
Tradition says that Blackbeard must ceremonially take his own life later in the evening, and the rest of the film follows the power dynamics that are happening as Roman just wants to make it through his tale. These dynamics within the prison offer a commentary on the power vacuums and civil wars that have occurred in the Ivory Coast over the last few decades. And Roman’s storytelling allows for a parallel of how stories can take us somewhere else but also offer a way to literally just make it to tomorrow.
Roman’s story is a tale about the life of Zama King, a young leader of a local gang, once again offering an allegory to the country’s dynamics of street gangs, rebels, and the almost mythical heroes and villains that are created along the way.
The film flashes between Roman’s mystical storytelling and the night in the prison, as the other prisoners listen and interact. At various moments, they sing, chant, and methodically dance across the floor, a roaming chorus to the bard’s tale.
Lacôte’s direction is superb throughout. He pulls out fantastic performances from his cast, especially the young Konē. The tone is filled with tension and magic, aided by the chants of the listening choir, Olivier Alary’s sumptuous score, and Aube Foglia’s crisp editing. Tobie Marier-Robitallie’s nighttime and interior lighting is simply stellar, especially as it interplays with Samuel Teisseire’s moody production design.
Perhaps the opposite of The Comeback, Night of Kings and its unique style will likely not play well with some, but for global cinephiles interested in a story that’s uniquely and vibrantly told, it’s worth your time. I hope award members give it a shot when they’re viewing their International Feature screeners this season.
Nuevo Orden (New Order)
Easily the most brutal film of the festival was Michel Franco’s highly discussed New Order. The dark film will likely continue to divide many, some saying it’s a dystopian masterpiece, others arguing it’s a high-art version of torture porn.
The short, 88-minute film starts promisingly at a wedding for a well-to-do couple and their rich family and friends. While they celebrate, they’re oblivious to the plight of the income inequality around them as a revolution is brewing beyond their gates. Ominous signs grow as green water starts to come from the taps, and one of the family’s former caretakers, Rolando (Eligio Meléndez). Rolando asks for money for his ailing wife, who is in need of surgery. While some family members are receptive, others tell him to scram, all while noticing more of the ominous green paint that appears on his sleeve.
But daughter and bride Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is a kinder soul and leaves the party with one of Rolando’s family members as the two drive to the working class’s family home so Marianne can deliver extra funds. But, they’re quickly caught up as protests sweep the streets. Back at the family’s wealthy compound, the protestors invade the house, quickly killing many family and guests and taking the goods from their home. The intro is chilling, dark and effective.
But, from there, the film falls apart. It becomes a truncated survival horror film as the protests lead to another reality: a military coup that fills the vacuum. As Marianne and others try to survive in this dystopian new world and her remaining family members try to find her, characters continue to die and get tortured and abused at a horror film clip. Few characters are really developed, even Marianne. Instead, we’re left with a cold film that’s frankly painful to watch.
Clearly, this is a minority view, as others have given it such praise (though, far from universally). While much has been written about the film being a meaningful commentary on the growing income inequality all across the world, the film’s message in its second and third act arguably shifts more toward bluntly critiquing power and corruption. There’s also an almost anti-humanity cynicism, as characters die, regardless of if they’re “good” or “bad.” While Franco shows plenty of torture, he quickly moves on after any character’s death, as they die brutally and quickly. Some of you may enjoy it and call it a classic — I’m good never seeing it again.
Every film festival, you get excited after seeing a synopsis for an interesting sounding story brought to you by talented filmmakers and a wonderfully rich cast. Then you watch it and end up in sheer disappointment. That film is Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank. Considering the film seems so personal and semi-autobiographical to Ball, the shallow script and some over-the-top scenes only offered me a sad sigh.
The 1970s-based story is mostly told from the point of view of teenager Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis), a small town South Carolina girl. Beth doesn’t fit in with her family, which includes Steve Zahn as dad, Stephen Root as the curmudingly homophobic grandpa Daddy Mac, Margo Martindale as grandma and Judy Greer as the supportive mom).
The one person Beth is intrigued by is Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a professor that now lives in New York. Beth connects with Frank because he’s kind to her, smart, different. It’s clear Frank is distant from his family, and his family is distant from him. A few years later, Beth is now of college age and decides to go to school in the big city, where she meets Uncle Frank, as well his partner Wally (a very good Peter Macdissi). The relationship is a secret, but open-minded Beth doesn’t mind.
The story then turns when Frank and Beth are called home to attend the funeral of grandpa Daddy Mac. And thus, the film becomes about Frank confronting his past, including the pain that was caused when Daddy Mac discovered Frank with a boy at a young age. Meanwhile, Wally secretly tags along, causing Frank even more stress as he arrives back in town and must hide his partner.
While a solid set-up, the execution lacks. As a gay person, I certainly could relate to the narrative, but the characters and dialogue are almost shockingly one-dimensional throughout much of the film, including Frank’s. Greer and Martindale are given almost nothing to do, wasting two great actresses. Bettany is solid, but, again, even his character lacks an interesting depth. Beyond the script, this is aided by Ball’s direction, which ranges from flat to way over the top, especially in a will-reading scene that is so lacking in nuance it almost felt like an old after school special. And the film is also aesthetically bland.
There are of course strong moments, consistent with some of Ball’s award-winning work. The film’s best moments are between Beth and Wally, offering the film some moments of levity and stronger character development. And many will certainly enjoy it, as it follows a conventional storytelling framework, has a feel-good ending, and the actors do the best they can with the material. But, others will find it a bit of a letdown. Its awards potential seems limited, as reviews are more mixed and no cast member has the ability to have a standout role.