The Misadventures of a Film Fest Fan(atic)

sffopenerI love attending film festivals. I love the manic dash from theater to theater to catch as many movies as possible; I enjoy comparing notes with complete strangers who become my new best friends as I queue up for the next movie; I like the feeling of triumph when I squeeze in four or five movies in one day. Most of all, I enjoy helping an unknown movie by writing about it, and I like suggesting good films to readers who might appreciate them. I only write about movies that I like, and I make an effort to contact the filmmakers to let them know I appreciated their work. I find there are too many negative reviews and too much snarky writing, and I won’t contribute to that. For me, festivals are all about the films: How many can I see; how can I give a little-known gem some exposure; how can I let others know about this movie.

The Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) is in full swing in my new adoptive hometown, and I was eager to cover it, because of its focus on American indie features and documentaries. As a matter of fact, the fest’s slogan is “the Hearts and Minds of Independent Film.” Not only am I writing about the fest for my TCM post, suggesting titles to readers for future viewing, but I am also covering it for a local radio station, WSLR.

sffwestposterUnfortunately—and inexplicably—the SFF’s p.r. firm has a different view of “press coverage” than I do. The fest has always had the aura of a cocktail party rather than as a venue for hard-core cinephiles (a la Telluride, or even Ebertfest). Sarasota is a big-money town, and the SFF woos those fest-goers by bringing in major stars and notable celebrities to mingle among them. For example, one of the events this year is Tea by the Sea attended by stars and any fest-goer willing to pay big bucks. I don’t recall any other film festival where a key event is a “tea by the sea” at a beach club in a luxury hotel. But, according to the main programmer, only one-third of the festival’s revenue comes from ticket sales; they are dependent on donations, memberships, and gifts for support. So, if teas by the sea help the festival thrive, I am all for them.

However, the festival’s press office, organized and run by a p.r. firm, is so focused on local coverage of teas, red carpet events, and regimented photo ops with directors and actors that critics and writers actually covering the films are short-changed. There seems to be no interest in critical coverage of the festival’s approach to programming: i.e., How does it compare and contrast with other festivals; what does it offer that other fests do not; what are its themes, sidebars, and emphases; how many films will get a theatrical release in the future, or be seen on Pay Per View or Netflix? For those of us not interested in teas and red carpets, getting press passes, vouchers, tickets, or even answers to questions from the p.r. office is like pulling teeth.



After a frustrating incident with the press office this year, in which I was made to feel like a liar for trying to pick up the tickets I was promised the week before, I was determined never to cover the SFF again. But, then I spent the weekend watching the movies . . . and I was humbly reminded of why I do this. It’s about the films—films that don’t have the same chance in the marketplace as the tripe delivered by the Hollywood studios. I realized that I am a link in the chain of the word-of-mouth campaigns that many indies count on. And, any reader that I influence to watch these films is another link in the chain.

I can honestly say that I have yet to see a film at this year’s fest that I did not like, but I don’t have the space to mention all of them. I will focus on three that readers can see at fests, in theaters, or via Netflix.



My favorite film so far is the New Zealand western Slow West, which follows an adolescent boy from a wealthy Scottish family as he searches for his lady love in the American West. Like a lamb among lions, young Jay is easy prey in the western wilderness until bounty hunter Silas Selleck agrees to help him get to his destination. Jay is unaware that his Rose has turned outlaw, or that Silas is only helping him so he can collect the $2000 bounty on Rose and her father. Everyone’s new favorite actor, Michael Fassbender, makes a suitable western protagonist, complete with a half-smoked cigarillo hanging out of his mouth. Kodi Smit-McPhee costars as Jay, who is definitely at that awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood.

As with recent modern westerns like Tommy Lee Jones’s The HomesmanSlow West de-romanticizes the western story through its ruthless characters, graphic violence, and gritty interpretations of familiar settings, such as the general store and the “little house on the prairie.” A western produced in New Zealand with “foreign” sensibilities, Slow West includes some unique touches that would never be found in Hollywood’s Old West. But, they add a different spice or flavor: For example, while traveling through the wilderness, Jay and Silas come upon three black Africans singing a traditional Congolese song. Jay stops to enjoy the music, speaking to them in French before moving on.



But don’t let the unusual touches and modern look fool you; Slow West follows the mandate of the classic western to bring the virtues of civilization to the frontier, though the cost of progress is high. After years of deconstructed and revisionist westerns, that was an unexpected ending. I looked at a few reviews of this film, but they were so misguided that I grew annoyed, because the reviewers obviously did not understand the genre’s central conflict—the forces of civilization vs. the forces of the wilderness. If they had, they would have noted its classic structure; instead they were blinded by the peculiar New Zealand touches, prompting erroneous descriptions of Slow West as black comedy, absurdist, and even psychedelic. If you like westerns, don’t read the reviews; just go see the film. It plays the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival this month and the Chicago Film Critics Festival in May before opening in limited release. It will also be available on Direct TV.



The Connection (aka La French) is the flip side to William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Directed by Cedric Jimenez, this French crime drama also tells the story of the infamous Marseilles drug ring that exported the world’s most potent heroin to New York. Events unfold from the perspective of French magistrate Pierre Michel, a legend in Marseilles, who fought tirelessly for years to bring the mob to justice. Jean Dujardin, who won the Oscar a few years ago as the lead in The Artist, plays a completely different character here. He is excellent as a tough cop driven to outmaneuver the well-heeled drug kingpin, played by Gilles Lellouche. The complicated story spans many years and covers several threads of the investigation, but the screenplay does an admirable job of keeping the events organized in a cause-and-effect structure to maintain an exciting pace and to avoid confusion.

Though set in the 1970s-1980s, The Connection is a contemporary film, which allows filmmakers to comment in retrospect on the era that it depicts. Casual drug use was ubiquitous in the 1970s, but it opened a door for organized crime to peddle hard drugs, allowing them to control cops and politicians as well as the streets. The Connection shows oblivious citizens dancing the nights away in glamorous, mob-owned discos while drug-related violence escalates. As one mobster notes, junkies as well as hippies and normal folk all use their drugs, so they will always make money.



The temptation to compare The Connection to Friedkin’s Film School Generation classic is too great to ignore. Both feature cops who are so driven to find their criminal counterparts that their personal lives are affected; both push beyond the limits of legal tactics to continue their investigations. Like Friedkin, Jimenez makes substantial use of hand-held camera throughout the film. However, Friedkin had been a documentary filmmaker, and his controlled, hand-held sequences add a gritty realism that perfectly captures New York, circa 1978. Unfortunately, Jimenez’s hand-held work emulates that of today’s young Hollywood directors who use shaky cam to artificially add a sense of spontaneity and excitement. That is not a compliment. How do you create intensity in a film that is already twitchy from the over use of hand-held camera? Jimenez’s answer was to run with the camera in those moments, making the action and movement chaotic and difficult to watch. That does not prevent me from recommending The Connection, but if you catch this film in a theater, sit in the back. The Connection also plays at the Chicago Film Critics Film Festival next month and will open in art-house theaters in limited release.



Finally, a brief word about The Road Within. This warm comedy is a remake of the German film Vincent Wants to Sea, which is the story of three teenagers with various disorders who escape from a clinic, steal a car, and hit the road. While the story and characters are predictable and familiar, this film was a crowd pleaser at the fest. The Road Within was adapted and directed by first-timer Gren Wells, who did extensive research and put her actors through intense rehearsals to ensure they became characters and not caricatures. Zoe Kravitz (Lenny’s daughter) plays Marie the anorexic; Dev Patel (The Best Marigold Hotel movies; Slumdog Millionaire) suffers from OCD; and Robert Sheehan plays someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. The material is elevated by the performances and camaraderie of these three actors. In addition character actor Robert Patrick is both infuriating and heart-breaking as the father of Sheehan. This simply shot film will not suffer from viewing it on a small-screen, so catch it when it is released on DVD in July.

7 Responses The Misadventures of a Film Fest Fan(atic)
Posted By michaelgsmith : April 13, 2015 3:59 pm

This is a very healthy rant. As both an independent filmmaker and a blogger, I feel your pain. I know from experience that there are very few film festivals that care about actually promoting true independent films (or even good films). The festival circuit has become a money-making racket for festival organizers and a means of promoting films that are soon to be released (either theatrically or on home video) by their distributors.

I once saw the World Premiere of an independent film at the Sundance Film Festival and was depressed to see the “Sony Pictures” logo at the beginning of the movie! Most festivals only care about chasing celebrities and courting distributors. Whenever I attend a fest now, I always make it a point to see films that don’t yet have distribution. There’s really no other point in going.

Posted By Ro : April 14, 2015 1:04 pm

Just wanted to thank you for sharing and that I totally agree with your viewpoints. Have always been a movie buff, especially Westerns. They helped me escape the negativity of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Fillmore Districts Black ghetto mind set and expand to mainstream cultures. Now, in my twilight years I’ve gone back to see those movies of the 50′s and to the future thru new movies from Australia, Korea, and Japan. Indies fill the bill. Again, many thanks for letting me know that there are others who feel the same as I do.

Posted By Michael : April 20, 2015 1:06 am

I am a filmmaker who has lives in Sarasota for 20 years and I have never attended the festival as it is just a big party for rich people. Very tedious.

Posted By george : April 20, 2015 1:43 am

Susan, have you ever been to the Nashville Film Festival? It’s a fest where screenings are packed with ordinary people. It’s not just a “big party for rich people,” as Michael described Sarasota.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 20, 2015 1:52 am

George: I have not been to the Nashville fest, though I have noticed that some of the movies from the SFF go there next. I have always thought it looked like a good one, but it occurs when I am still in school for the semester. I wish more fests played during the summer when I have time off.

Posted By robbushblog : April 30, 2015 4:50 pm

These look like good selections. I hope to see them sooner rather than later.

Posted By michaelgsmith : April 30, 2015 5:09 pm

Just saw SLOW WEST and loved it. Hope it finds an audience.

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