Atlanta Film Festival 2012 | Day 2

atl-film-fest-logo 75“Appropriate” is not in Varla Jean Merman’s vocabulary, while “inappropriate” certainly is.


OK, it’s really day two of the festival, but I didn’t make it to opening night (having two book manuscripts due in the next three months does cut into one’s film viewing time). Anyway, I saw two interesting documentaries and one better-than-average midnight movie today, and caught part of another documentary which is definitely worth checking out when it opens in theaters. I also discovered a great theater, the Midtown Art Cinema, which is headquarters for most of the festival: It’s located in a lively neighborhood of Atlanta, there are a variety of dining choices within walking distance, and it’s part of the Landmark chain (the same folks who own the Tivoli in St. Louis).

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Without a Net, directed by Kelly J. Richardson, follows a group of slum kids from Rio de Janeiro who are accepted into the training program of a small circus. The circus itself is a bit mysterious: It just set up tent one night in a parking lot near their homes, and since they don’t exactly live in one of the wealthier neighborhoods in town, no one seems to be asking any questions. The kids are all natural athletes and quickly pick up the circus arts—juggling, trapeze, acrobatics, contortions—and their talents are put to good use in five weeks of sold-out performances at the end of the season.

That probably sounds like one of those generically uplifting tales of young lives saved from poverty by dedicated outsiders (you know, the kind of documentary that wins Academy Awards), but Richardson has a more interesting story to tell. She takes us into the homes and families of these young people, showing us that, although they may be poor, they live in a vibrant community with strong interpersonal connections. She also reveals some of the less savory aspects of the circus operation—the performers go unpaid and are pushed to do dangerous tricks without proper safety precautions—and it’s impossible not to notice that the circus owner is much lighter skinned than the kids who are putting on the show. You can see the trailer here:

If you enjoy drag humor, you’ll definitely want to see Varla Jean and the Mushroom Heads, directed by Michael Schiralli; if not, you’ll probably want to give it a miss. And if you don’t know what a mushroom head is (outside of the produce section), you might want to consider whether you’re really up to a drag mockumentary that gives new meaning to “so bad it’s good.” It’s a showcase for Jeffery Roberson in his drag persona, Varla Jean Merman, and features a talented supporting cast that includes real-life Broadway musician Seth Rudetsky and real-life porn star Tom Judson, aka Gus Mattox. The conceit of the film is that Varla Jean, after years of performing in dive bars and bathhouses, as well as suffering a little unpleasantness with the law, has decided to give her career a boost by creating a children’s television program. Of course, “appropriate” is not in Ms. Merman’s vocabulary, while “inappropriate” certainly is, and the result is one of the funnier movies I’ve seen in some time. Check out the trailer here:

film last kind words_250Eli’s dad got laid off at the mill, so the family returned to the farm his dad grew up on, now managed by his uncle. Something’s not right, though—there are strange tensions among the adults, Eli meets a beautiful girl who offers him an apple, and there’s that story about a runaway slave who was hung in the nearby woods. Clearly this farm has secrets, and discovering them is the point of Last Kind Words, a midnight movie directed by Kevin Barker. It has some good scares, some intriguing ideas (perhaps a few too many, in fact), great cinematography by Bill Otto, and an above-average cast including Brad Dourif (Doc Cochran on Deadwood, and the voice of Chucky the homicidal doll) and Sarah Steele (Please Give, Margaret). The pre-title sequence is as good as it gets—suspenseful, symbolic, and shocking—but the main part of the movie is a little slack, too willing to settle for prefab situations and too uninterested in working through the implications of its premises. Still, it gets the job done, and for the genre it’s more than acceptable. The trailer is on view here:

I can’t fully review Girl Model because I didn’t see all of it, but what I did see was intriguing. This documentary by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin investigates the unsavory trade in underage models recruited from Siberia for what they are told will be high-paying jobs in Japan. Sometimes those jobs materialize but frequently they don’t, and the girls (as young as 13) end up thousands of dollars in debt. Some become prostitutes, a career transition aided by the fact that their modeling audition tapes are made available to some fairly unsavory characters. The filmmakers obtained extraordinary access to the girls, and also to an American scout named Ashley Arbaugh, who will probably regret being so cooperative, as she comes off in the film as a cross between a shyster and a pimp. You can see the trailer here: | Sarah Boslaugh

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