2019 Florida Film Festival Spotlight Selections

By Leslie C. Halpern

The 28th Annual Florida Film Festival, produced by Enzian Theater and held throughout Central Florida from April 12-21, 2019, offers nearly 200 narrative features and documentary short films from 41 countries around the world, in addition to celebrity guests, special events, film forums, film sidebars, parties, and the American Independent Competition. Spotlight films are hand-picked selections not in competition. A sampling of spotlight film reviews appears below.

Hail Satan? Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival

Hail Satan?

In Spotlight Films. Screens Sunday, April 14, 2019 at 8:30 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village and Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. at Enzian Theater.

This documentary on The Satanic Temple is not about devil worshippers, but about a group of outcasts and misfits who formed a religious sect now spread around the world to protest combining church and state, and to promote the reproductive rights of women and rights of the LGBTQ community. They adopt Satanic symbols, such as wearing black, using heavy eyeliner, donning devil’s horns, and painting pentagrams mostly to irritate authority figures, according to the Temple’s co-founder and spokesperson, Lucien Greaves. It’s all rather tongue-in-cheek until one rogue sect leader moves away from their tenet of non-violence, and takes the performance art into dangerous new territory. The film presents lots of information—presented in an entertaining manner—but never answers the question about whether or not Greaves takes himself or his Temple seriously, satirically, or a little bit of both.

  • Directed by Penny Lane
  • Stars Lucien Greaves (not his real name) and a cast of other people using fake names
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, and some language
  • 4/5
Ode to Joy. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ode to Joy

In Spotlight Films. Screens Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 9:30 p.m. at Enzian Theater and Sunday, April 21, 2019 at 4:45 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village.

Charlie suffers from cataplexy, a rare neurological disorder that causes loss of muscle control under extreme emotions, and in his case, feelings of joy. He lived a careful life avoiding babies, puppies, weddings, and romantic love until one day an exceptionally beautiful and spontaneous woman walks into his library and causes a scene. After this strange initial meeting, they begin a short-lived romantic relationship because of his conflicting desires to be happy and miserable at the same time. The closer he gets to happiness, the more misery he inflicts upon himself (in the form of horrible entertainment choices, unstimulating conversations, and physical pain to damper excitement). His brother and sister complicate the situation further, as does the woman’s odd co-worker. Sweet, sad, and humorous, this film includes an unusual story, an eclectic cast, and truly funny scenes depicting human frailty to which all of us can relate.  

  • Directed by Jason Winer
  • Stars Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Jack Lacy, Melissa Rauch, Shannon Woodward, Jane Curtin
  • Run Time: 97 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexual references
  • 5/5
Clara. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Clara

In Spotlight Films. Screens Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 21 at 1:30 p.m., both at Regal Winter Park Village.

This Canadian science fiction film makes its Southeast Premiere at the Florida Film Festival. A disillusioned science professor, who has lost faith in love, religion, and life, hopes to find meaning by discovering another Earth-like inhabitable planet. After getting fired from his job at the university because of his bad attitude and disregard of rules, he hires a strange otherworldly young woman named Clara as his research assistant. She’s beautiful, artistic, and wiser than someone with her spotty education should be. She also has an open-mindedness that challenges the professor’s tendency to take things literally and not see beyond his facts and figures. This film is heavy with science that sometimes slows things down a bit, but otherwise is an intriguing look at the possibility of life on other planets.   

  • Directed by Akash Sherman
  • Stars Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Ennis Esmer, Kristen Hager
  • Run Time: 105 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated
  • 3/5
The Biggest Little Farm. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

The Biggest Little Farm

In Spotlight Films. Screens Monday, April 15 at 7:00 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village and on Saturday, April 20 at 10:30 a.m. at Enzian Theater.

This documentary focuses on a Los Angeles couple who leave the big city to start a new life managing Apricot Lane Farms in the foothills of Ventura County. In an attempt to create a life in perfect harmony with nature, director-cinematographer John Chester (who also narrates the film) and his wife, Molly (a food blogger and chef), chronicle their eight-year endeavor to live an eco-friendly lifestyle with plants, livestock, and wildlife all working together aided by one farming expert and several others devoted to their cause. Fulfilling their dream came with many physical, financial, intellectual, and emotional challenges, which are detailed in this beautiful and inspiring film for all ages. Stunning close-ups of nature, artistic cinematography (including some clever match dissolves), engaging storytelling, dramatic scenes of birth and death, and profound insights about life and nature raise this film to a masterful level of filmmaking.  

  • Director: John Chester
  • Stars John Chester and Molly Chester
  • Run Time: 91 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief language
  • 5/5
Amazing Grace. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Amazing Grace

In Spotlight Films. Screens Saturday, April 13 at 6:00 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village.

This unpolished documentary takes viewers behind the scenes and front row center for a two-part gospel concert by Aretha Franklin at the Watts New Temple Baptist Church in 1972. Intended as a documentary to support the gospel album, technical difficulties prevented director Sydney Pollack from finishing the film and getting it released, so it sat in the studio’s vault for more than 45 years. Now pieced together by director Alan Elliott, the film presents Franklin’s spectacular performances, complete with quirky choir singers, enthusiastic audience members (Mick Jagger attends part of it), and loving commentary by Reverends James Cleveland and C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father). Shots are often blurry, candid, and inconsequential. Video and audio are occasionally out of sync. Apparently the technical problems also extended to the church’s air conditioning because Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland are drenched in sweat throughout both performances.   

  • Directors: Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack
  • Stars Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, C.L. Franklin
  • Run Time: 87 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: G  
  • 3/5

For a complete list of films and to learn more about the Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Old Man & the Gun – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex don’t usually make the news unless the addicts are already famous. In this true story based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, a man named Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) has a life-long addiction to politely robbing banks with a smile (and a gun) that make him newsworthy and notorious.

The Old Man & the Gun stars Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Even in his later years when he teams with two other elderly men for his robbery sprees – the early 1980’s are the years covered in this film – Tucker wears a nice suit, tie, and boots while “on the job.” Although he carries a concealed gun and shows it to threaten bank tellers and managers, he’s non-violent and likely never used the gun for anything other than show. Likewise, the other two members of the so-called “Over the Hill Gang” (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) drive, haul the money, and carry out their respective tasks without causing any unnecessary disruption or fear throughout the bank.

A Sweet-Talking Bank Robber

Sometimes no one even knows the bank had been robbed except for the employee who’d been involved. Such is the case when burned-out police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) takes his two children with him to the bank for a quick transaction. He’s as shocked as everyone else when the branch manager announces they’d just been robbed. Suddenly, Hunt becomes intrigued by this sweet-talking elderly bank robber, and the case renews his enthusiasm for his job. It isn’t long before Hunt notices similar crimes across Texas and other nearby states – all with the same descriptions of a suave bank robber.

For his part, Tucker shows little signs of slowing down or changing his patterns. He robs banks, eventually gets caught and incarcerated (18 times), and then breaks out of prison most of those times. Other than one brief marriage as a young man, crime is his way of life. He says for him robbing banks isn’t about making a living, but about living. That is, until he meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an honest, earthy woman with a horse farm…and lots of integrity. How can these two opposites possibly work out a relationship unless one of them is willing to change?

The Hunt and the Jewel

The romantic relationship is secondary to the main story, however, which is the cat-and-mouse game between Tucker and Hunt. Both men seem to enjoy the challenge, and thrive on playing their roles (as do the actors Redford and Affleck who portray these characters). Acting is outstanding among the central characters: Redford (in his announced final role) oozes charm whether he’s robbing a bank, stealing jewelry, lying to his girlfriend, or taunting a police detective; Affleck’s character gradually evolves throughout the film and revives professionally and personally through the biggest “hunt” of his life; and Spacek’s character, Jewel, sparkles so brightly men of any age or chosen career path could fall in love with her. The cars, set design, costumes, and music are a flashback to the early 1980’s that help bring the story alive without much contrivance (although there’s a major continuity error involving a photograph).

Make no mistake. Forrest Tucker is a criminal, not a hero and definitely not a family man. The fact that his house faces a cemetery reveals more truth about this adrenaline junkie than his softly spoken lies, assurances, and compliments ever could.

The Old Man & the Gun

  • Based on a true story, this film focuses on the later years of The Over the Hill Gang, three senior men who rob banks more for fun than profit, led by career criminal Forrest Tucker.
  • Stars: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Elisabeth Moss
  • Director: David Lowery
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)
  • Click here to watch a trailer for The Old Man & the Gun.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

 

 

The Little Stranger – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s difficult to determine which takes precedence in this supernatural thriller – the creepiness or the creakiness. Set in a crumbling old mansion on the English countryside, the film provides the house with its own monologues consisting of mysterious knocking, thumping, ringing, banging, and lots of creaking.

Domhnall Gleeson stars in The Little Stranger. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

The story concerns Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a caring country doctor, who has maintained a lifelong fascination for Hundreds House and its wealthy inhabitants, the Ayres family. His mother worked there as a maid in his youth, and she later took on multiple jobs to support his desire for a medical education. She died an early death from overwork, and the good doctor now seeks a family of his own.

The Mystery of Hundreds Hall

It’s 1948, and Dr. Faraday is now working with an established doctor in the area and receives a call from someone at Hundreds Hall regarding an ailing young maid (Liv Hill) who suffers from an unknown malady. While there, he encounters the Ayres family again, the secretive mother (Charlotte Rampling), the shell-shocked and horribly disfigured war veteran son, Roderick (Will Poulter), and the chronically depressed grown daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson).

While treating the patient and later returning to try electro-stimulation on Roderick’s burns, and eventually to court Caroline (who appears to prefer women to men), Dr. Faraday has frequent flashbacks recounting his one visit to Hundreds Hall for a festive party in the mansion’s glorious heyday back in 1919. He remembers another Ayres daughter being at the party, a pretty young girl who died while still a child. He also relives his other experiences of that day, including eating with other maids in the kitchen and breaking off a stone acorn from one of the elaborate wall fixtures.

A Slow-Moving Thriller

Now creaky, dilapidated, and possibly haunted, the sprawling three story mansion still represents an elusive lifestyle to Dr. Faraday. By proposing marriage to Caroline, he thinks he can help her family with their health problems, ease his own loneliness, and finally gain full access to the house he has always admired. Surrounded by secrets, lies, delusions, dysfunction, and supernatural forces, what could possibly go wrong with his plans?

This slow-moving thriller (based on the Gothic novel of the same name by Sarah Waters) offers no concrete explanations, but presents an interesting twist on the typical ghost story and haunted house scenario. The oppressive atmosphere within the house grows steadily as the movie progresses, shifting from uncomfortable at the beginning to terrifying at the end. The sound effects team must have thoroughly enjoyed themselves giving the house its own distinctive “voice.”

As in the 2017 period piece, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson delivers a solid performance as a man struggling with inner turmoil while attempting to retain an outer calm. As a man of science, he’s the last to admit that something supernatural is going on at Hundreds Hall. The mystery isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film, but even then – like any good horror story – questions and doubts will remain in the mind of the viewer.

The Little Stranger

  • In 1948, a young country doctor attends to a strange family living in an old mansion that appears to be haunted.
  • Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Josh Dylan, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
  • Director: Lenny Abrahamson
  • Genre: Mystery/Horror
  • Run Time: 111 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing bloody images)

Juliet, Naked – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Let’s begin with a clarification: The movie’s title is not what you think. There’s no Juliet and no nudity. “Juliet, Naked” refers to the title of a long-lost acoustic demo song that was never released on obscure American singer Tucker Crowe’s (Ethan Hawke) first record album.

Juliet Naked stars Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

The legend of Tucker Crowe – which includes that first album, his music, his fans, his family, and his mysterious disappearance from the limelight – is the central energy around which everything else vibrates in this film. There’s his obsessive fan base in England, headed by a middle-aged professor named Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) who runs a website and video podcast devoted to the reclusive singer he’s never met. There’s Duncan’s longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), a museum curator whose growing unhappiness in their relationship is due to Duncan’s selfish focus on his idol, instead of on her need to settle down and have children.

A Disjointed Family

Tucker’s large disjointed family of ex-wives, ex-lovers, and ignored children view him in an entirely different light. They’re angry at his lack of commitment, lack of interest, and abandonment of family. The only exception is Jackson (Azhy Robertson), his youngest son. As far removed from the public eye as possible for the past 25 years, Tucker currently lives on his latest ex-wife’s property so he can do a better job parenting Jackson than he did with his other children.

Annie’s disdain for the unreleased Tucker demo (recently discovered by the recording studio) places the final wedge between her and Duncan, and coincidentally provides the link needed  for a new romantic relationship to develop. After she posts a negative review of “Juliet, Naked,” Tucker sends her an email saying she “nailed it.” From there, they begin online communication that leads to a face-to-face meeting. Unfortunately that meeting ends up being in a hospital after Tucker suffers a heart attack. Their potential romance seems possible, but there’s plenty of baggage from the past for both to overcome.

Book by Nick Hornby

Based on the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, the story examines the need for family, the search for meaning in life, and the power of forgiveness. The film contains plenty of humor as well, with Annie’s insecurities, Tucker’s humility, and Duncan’s absurdities. Shot on location in England, Juliet Naked comes alive through the three main actors — Byrne, Hawke, and O’Dowd, who beautifully portray their multi-dimensional characters.

Even though Annie and Tucker have significant flaws, there’s something to admire in both of them. When Annie finally wakes up to reality and learns to speak her truth, she boldly goes forward, inspired in part by an elderly woman who attends an opening at the little museum she inherited. Tucker tries repeatedly in multiple ways to make amends for his earlier drinking, promiscuity, and irresponsibility, despite resistance from his family.

Duncan (whose ridiculous Tucker Crowe web show provides the opening and closing framework for the film) is generally more pitiable than admirable as an academic who lives vicariously through the music, film, and television that he researches. Even so, by the end of this fresh romantic comedy, Duncan undergoes some change. He appears to have replaced one passion for another – a horizontal progression at least.

Juliet, Naked

  • A lonely British woman begins dating the music idol of her former boyfriend.
  • Stars: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Lily Newmark, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart
  • Director: Jesse Peretz
  • Genre: Romantic Comedy
  • Run Time: 105 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language)
  • Other books by Nick Hornby: About a Boy  and  High Fidelity.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of 200 Love Lessons from the Movies and the newly released Scantily Clad Truths.

Dog Days – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In the tradition of ensemble dramatic comedies including He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), Valentine’s Day (2010), and  New Year’s Eve (2011), this new film focuses on the dog days of late summer when the lives of attractive Los Angeles residents with shiny white teeth interconnect through their adorably quirky dogs.

Adam Pally co-stars in the ensemble cast of Dog Days. Copyright 2018 LD Entertainment.

The stories include a Gertrude-Stein obsessed barista named Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) who lusts after a handsome veterinarian (Ryan Hansen), but fails to notice a daily customer (Jon Bass) who’s fallen in love with her. When Tara finds a tiny chihuahua hiding behind the coffee shop, she learns that the vet is more fascinated with himself than with animals, and her coffee customer conveniently runs an animal adoption business.

Interconnected Stories

Tara lives in a no-pets-allowed apartment building, which explains why she can’t adopt the dog and turns little “Gertrude” over to the animal adoption business. Her crazy musician neighbor, Dax (Adam Pally), sneaks in a huge canine that he’s watching for his sister, who’s pregnant with twins. Dax’s experiences with the slobbering, ill-mannered mutt are among the funniest in the movie.

There’s also Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev), a television anchorwoman who visits a dog therapist (Tig Nataro) to help herself get past a bad breakup. There’s turmoil on the television set, as well, when a former athlete, Jimmy (Tone Bell), is hired as her co-anchor without her knowledge or consent. When their dogs form a canine companionship, their owners do likewise.

Happily Ever After

Other interconnected stories involve a flaky dogwalker, a lonely widower who lost his dog, a dog-loving pizza delivery boy, and a withdrawn adopted child who desperately needs a pet. With so many stories, it’s a sure bet that people will fall in love, tempers will flare, good guys will get rewarded, bad guys will get punished, and at least one dog is going to die. As with the other ensemble films that came before it, these stories have only two hours to be resolved and reach the happily ever after endings.

The least funny story may be the most compelling. Eva Longoria and Rob Corddry portray the new parents of an adopted little girl. The child takes no delight in any of the beautiful toys and luxury items they purchased for her. She’s unresponsive to their attempts to nurture, engage, or entertain her, and only finds happiness with the chubby pug that mysteriously enters their life. Longoria delivers a heartfelt performance in which her self-doubt, eagerness to please, and longing to love threaten to overtake her at any given moment. Yet, they don’t, and she remains a strong character who keeps the long-term goal of creating a family as the primary motivation for everything she says and does.

Overall, Dog Days is lighthearted entertainment compared to the big-budget special effects summer blockbusters. It’s a fluffy little poodle among cinematic pit bulls.

Dog Days

  • Dogs help bring people together in Los Angeles through interconnected comical and dramatic stories.
  • Stars: Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Finn Wolfhard, Lauren Lapkus, Eva Longoria, Jessica Lowe, Adam Pally, Thomas Lennon, Tone Bell
  • Director: Ken Marino
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for rude and suggestive comment, and for language)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of 200 Love Lessons from the Movies and the newly released Scantily Clad Truths.