After moving from chaotic but communal Beale Street into the more professional setting of the Peabody Place Muvico theater last year, the Indie Memphis Film Festival (aka "The Soul of Southern Film") takes another big step this fall for its 6th annual festival, expanding its program of 70-plus films from last year's jam-packed four-day schedule to a more leisurely paced eight-day festival.
"Part of [the reason for the change] was that we really wanted to grow this festival to the next level," says Les Edwards, head of the Indie Memphis organizing committee. "In talking to people that we respect, that know about film festivals and how they evolve, the one thing that we heard was that we needed to go to a week. That sounded daunting, but what we realized was that we were stuffing so much into four days that we were stressing out not only ourselves but the filmgoers."
After a slate of films last year that was strong on documentaries but arguably weak on narrative features, the Indie Memphis committee thinks it has put together a stronger, deeper, and more consistent program this year.
"It's always about getting the best films that you can get, and it's always about supporting the local film community," Edwards says. "This year, I think we did a better job of studying other film festivals and looking for movies that fit our niche."
The strength of this year's festival is apparent from its high-profile opening-night films: recent indie hit Bubba Ho-Tep and controversial Nick Broomfield documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.
"We wanted to get Bubba Ho-Tep last year," Edwards says, "but it had just been finished and the timing was wrong. This year it's a hot film, but the problem was that there are only a half-dozen prints and they're all showing in bigger cities." To get around that problem, Indie Memphis offered to pay for an additional print of the film to be made, which they're giving to the film's distributors after its Memphis screening.
Full festival passes to this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival are $60, with individual screening admission $5 (with the exception of Bubba Ho-Tep, which is $7) and a six-screening mini-pass available for $25. A Saturday night awards ceremony and festival party will be held at the Power House, with music from the Tearjerkers. The festival runs Thursday, October 23rd, through Thursday, October 30th. What follows is a critical guide through this year's slate of films. --Chris Herrington
Thursday, October 23rd, 7 and 9 p.m.
The latest from controversial British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (best known for such first-person travelogues of subcultural sleaze as Biggie and Tupac and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam) is a sequel to his generally well-regarded 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.
In the first film, Broomfield focused on the attempts by various parties (Wuornos' lawyer, her mother, the Florida state police) to sell Wuornos' story (which will soon be told Hollywood-style, with Charlize Theron in the lead role), turning the film into an indictment of tabloid culture and exploitation.
In this update, Broomfield follows Wuornos' march to the gallows, right up through her execution last fall at the hands of the state of Florida, resulting in an indictment of the death penalty itself and the public officials who administer it (particularly, in this case, Florida governor Jeb Bush). Unscreened. 89 minutes. --CH
Saturday, Oct. 25, 3 p.m.
Following in the footsteps of William Least Heat-Moon's novel of the same name, Italian filmmakers Francesco Conversano and Nene Grignaffini document life down the back roads of the South in Blue Highways: Voices of the Other America.
Their journey begins in Memphis, where they stop to record opinions on race relations, including one from Raiford of Raiford's Hollywood Disco. His "no discrimination" policy conflicts sharply with that of the black owner of a local hot dog stand, who says he wishes the Jim Crow laws were still in place.
From there, the journey moves south and race issues remain a hot topic, but the film makes a dramatic switch when it reaches Louisiana: Race conversation turns into dialogue about Cajun music and heritage. 50 minutes.
-- Bianca Phillips
Thursday, October 23rd, 7 and 9 p.m.
With its combination of Elvis and Egypt, this recent box-office surprise would seem to be a Memphis must. Bubba Ho-Tep is set in the present day at a Texas nursing home where the real-life Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell, the square-jawed hero of the Evil Dead series) is spending his final years -- after having faked his own death -- impersonating an Elvis impersonator. When trouble arises in the form of an evil Egyptian spirit, Elvis teams up with fellow tenant Jack (Ossie Davis -- yes, really), an African-American man who believes he is John F. Kennedy, for a little evil-spirit ass-kicking. If those elements weren't enticing enough for B-movie aficionados, consider who's responsible: Bubba Ho-Tep is directed by Don Coscarelli, the man behind such sure-fire cult fare as Beastmaster and the Phantasm series.
Whether Bubba Ho-Tep is a political allegory (a hambone Elvis and a black JFK is a pretty Clintonian tag-team, and a lot of us wouldn't mind seeing that so-called Bubba making a comeback to combat evil spirits from Texas right about now) or just a self-conscious attempt at creating an insta-camp-classic, the elements seem to be in place for some gonzo entertainment. Unscreened. 92 minutes. -- CH
Friday, October 24th, 7 p.m.
Director Ralph Clemente has produced a classic bit of film noir that takes place in the days leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Based on actual events, Florida City tells the story of a young, morally compromised sheriff who has never had to do much more than pin on his badge in the morning and lock up a few drunks at night. He gets in way over his head during the investigation of a brutal murder with international implications. Could it be that the United States military had advance warning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and was, for one reason or another, willing to murder American citizens to make sure that information remained secret? Could it be that a drunken, small-town sheriff, determined to prove he wasn't entirely worthless, nearly exposed the whole conspiracy? If Oliver Stone remade The Big Heat on a shoestring budget, it might very well resemble Florida City. Filmmaker scheduled to attend. 92 minutes. -- Chris Davis
Saturday, October 25th, 6:45 p.m.
Family matters most in Susan Brigham's Greasewood Flat, the tale of a traveling blues musician who comes home to his family after years of alienation. When Johnny's gigs at a California club fail to draw a crowd, he and his drummer Fred set out for his mom's restaurant and farm in Mississippi. Greasewood Flat tells a touching story of transformation as Johnny learns to sacrifice his old ways in order to pull his family through tough times. Filmmaker scheduled to attend. 120 minutes. -- BP
Friday, October 24th, 7 p.m.
The latest from director Michael Almereyda, a veteran director perhaps best known for his 2000 modern-day Hamlet, which starred Ethan Hawke, is the tale of a young woman who travels to New Orleans in search of her missing sister, enlisting the help of a down-and-out retired private eye.
Happy Here and Now's cast includes recognizable actors such as Ally Sheedy, David Arquette, Clarence Williams III, and Gloria Reuban and also, which may be of more interest locally, authentic New Orleans music figures such as the late Ernie K. Doe and Memphis fave Quintron. The film won a Special Jury Award at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. Almereyda is scheduled to attend. Unscreened. 90 minutes. --CH
Tuesday, October 28th, 7 p.m.
The South is known for its obsession with beauty pageants, and obsession is the word in this home-movie-style documentary. At 82, Ms. Helen Pennel is more than certain that she has everything it takes to land the coveted title of Ms. Alabama Nursing Home. She wears her tiara (as well as her oxygen mask) with pride and boasts that there just aren't too many women her age who are coherent, let alone beautiful and charming. Pat Glazier, who heads the nursing home's entertainment committee, agrees that Ms. Helen is the total package and takes it upon herself to become both her coach and her biggest fan. Issues concerning femininity, class, race, age, and beauty are all explored in this thoroughly entertaining, gently unsettling, and occasionally heartbreaking film. 40 minutes. -- CD
Tuesday, October 28th, 9 p.m.
This is what film festivals are all about. Director Jim Mendiola's digital-video feature debut is so promising that you feel like you're witnessing the birth of a major new filmmaker on the American indie scene; an entertaining yet inventive film artist who could well become to his native San Antonio what Richard Linklater is to Austin and Kevin Smith is to New Jersey.
Speeder Kills is an exuberant, extraordinarily convincing, quasi-autobiographical, media-mixing mockumentary about a San Francisco artist returning to her hometown of San Antonio and the local punk band that becomes her subject.
Speeder Kills is so stuffed with interesting ideas that the viewer may be less interested in the punk band at the center of the story (a real band that had broken up but reunited for the film) than in the fascinating glimpses of the films-within-the-film (essays on taco stands, female pool sharks, family history, and a Ramones-loving tattoo artist that collectively portray a vibrant, seedy community worth getting lost in), not to mention the fictional bands that the world will never get to hear (Aztlan A-Go-Go!). 84 minutes. -- CH
Friday, October 24th, and Saturday,
October 25th, midnight
Stoked is a feature-length profile of Mark "Gator" Rogowski, one of the biggest skateboarders of the '80s, who is now serving a 31- year prison sentence for the rape and murder of a skate-scene acquaintance.
In some ways, Stoked picks up where last year's popular skateboarding history lesson Dogtown and Z-Boys left off, following the sport's rise in the '80s behind a second generation of stars such as Rogowski, Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, and Steve Caballero.
The story arc here, of a young hotshot who finds fame and fortune atop a rising subcultural entertainment form, only to hit the skids when industry changes make his talents less valuable, is pretty familiar stuff. It seems to lie somewhere between the film-to-video porn-scene rise-and-fall depicted in Boogie Nights and the contemporaneous glam-to-grunge musical transition that left hair-metal goons and goofs scratching their heads and wondering where the groupies and blow went. The true-crime element of Stoked, which would seem to be central, actually gets fairly short shrift. Skating fans may love it, but Stoked is probably a bumpier ride for folks who've never heard of Tony Hawk. 80 minutes. --CH
Saturday, October 25th, 3 p.m.
Director Cynthia Hill is in touch with her subject matter. Having grown up in tobacco country, she knows that the farmers who raise the sweet, golden leaf aren't wicked monsters trying to figure out how to market cancer to teenagers. That's the province of industry executives. The farmers are good country folk interested in three basic things: God, family, and getting by. And no matter what your feelings about tobacco happen to be, you have to admit the independent farmers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Each year the government cuts back on the amount of tobacco they can produce, and little by little their world is unraveling. "Is my house note 18 percent less?" one farmer asks after hearing about the most recent cutback. "Can I eat 18 percent less food?" 89 minutes. -- CD
The slate of local films at Indie Memphis this year is perhaps slighter than in years past, but there's still plenty of interest. For starters, the city's three most prominent filmmakers will all be back.
Craig Brewer, whose debut feature The Poor & Hungry was probably the most popular film in the festival's history, will take a break from his recent trip to Los Angeles (where he's pushing forward on a couple of new projects) to debut a new short film, Resolutions of the Complacent Man (Saturday, October 25th, 3 p.m., and Monday, October 27th, 9 p.m.; 11 minutes). Resolutions reunites Brewer with the cast and crew of his first short film, One Night Stand Off. In this elegantly written, wide-screen color short, Rob Knox stars and narrates as a man confronting his 30s, otherwise known as "the great undoing of [his] own character."
Ira Sachs, whose locally shot The Delta became a film-festival and Sundance Channel success, will be back with Portraits and Identity: Three Short Films by Ira Sachs (Monday, October 27th, 7 p.m.; 62 minutes), a showcase Indie Memphis is holding in anticipation of Sachs' upcoming local production, Forty Shades of Blue, a feature film executive-produced by Sydney Pollack and starring Rip Torn, which is set to begin shooting in Memphis early next year.
Finally, exploitation auteur John Michael McCarthy, creator of popular local trash cinema like The Sore Losers and Teenage Tupelo, will be debuting a new short, Rock & Roll Soundtrack (Sunday, October 26th, 3 p.m., and Thursday, October 30th, 9 p.m.).
But there are also new (or new to Memphis) local filmmakers of note this year. Morgan Jon Fox's tender coming-out drama Blue Citrus Hearts (Sunday, October 26th, 7 p.m.; 115 minutes) makes its local festival debut after first screening at the MeDia Co-op early this year. Indie Memphis begins a busy month for Fox, whose film has been chosen to close Reeling 2003: The 22nd Annual Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Reeling is flying Fox and a couple of cast members up for the screening and writes of Blue Citrus Hearts in its program notes: "Reeling is honored to close this year's festival with an unassuming film of extraordinary power. Bold, delicate, yet resilient, Blue Citrus Hearts is an exquisite wildflower of a film. This film will remind even the most jaded why we come to film festivals and why we love film." After the film's November 13th screening in Chicago, Fox will head to Dallas where the film will screen at the Outtakes film festival November 15th and 17th.
Another local feature of note is M. David Lee III's Dog Me: Potluck (Tuesday, October 28th, 7 p.m.; 100 minutes), a naturalistic ensemble comedy from a filmmaker some may better recognize as the sports anchor at WHBQ-TV Channel 13. Dog Me: Potluck rather dubiously claims to be a Dogme95 film. (It makes a great show of scrolling through the Dogme manifesto at the outset, only to break one Dogme commandment --the restriction against music that doesn't emanate from an on-screen source --in the film's opening seconds.) But taken on its own terms, it is quite engaging. The film is a little slow in setting up its central house-party conceit, but once all the characters are in place, it's as smoothly directed and acted as any local feature in recent years, having some of the same character- and dialogue-driven charms as the recent indie hit The Anniversary Party.
Other local films of note include the ghost-story feature The Visitor (Monday, October 27th, 7 p.m.; 43 minutes), the Tyson-Lewis match documentary Fight Night on Beale Street (Tuesday, October 28th, 9 p.m.; 60 minutes), and Hateful Couple (Friday, October 24th, 9:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 29th, 9 p.m.; 24 minutes), another smart, deadpan short film from Ben Siler, whose series of experimental videos have been a highlight of the MeDiA Co-op's Digital Film Festival. --CH
What would a Memphis film festival be without a heaping helping of films devoted to Southern music? This may be the "Year of the Blues," but the Indie Memphis slate of musical documentaries focuses on country and bluegrass.
There's a wonderful scene in The King of Bluegrass (Saturday, October 25th, 1 p.m.; 66 minutes) where primo picker Marty Stuart stands at the grave of bluegrass innovator Jimmy Martin and declares that it's his favorite place to bring tourists. You see, Martin isn't dead; he's just a little bitter and more than a little eccentric. These days, Martin spends his time hunting coons, playing with his pet goat, and performing every chance he gets. His hobbies include counting his royalty checks and complaining because the Grand Ole Opry never invited him to become a member. The King of Bluegrass is a too-brief portrait of a true country-music outlaw who, for better or worse, never compromised.
In Alive at Brushy Mountain (Sunday, October 26th, 9:30 p.m.; 110 minutes) Nashville singer/songwriter Mark Collie who, after a long dry spell, has just been picked back up by a major label, makes a crazy choice. Instead of putting together a slick studio record, he decides to record a slate of hard-luck honky-tonk songs live inside of the notorious Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
They should have given Searching for Tony Joe (Wednesday, October 29th, 7 p.m.; 60 minutes) a different title. They should have called it Slacker II: The Next Generation. Searching for Tony Joe revolves around a group of hipster buddies from Austin, Texas, who have an obsession with Tony Joe White, the singer/songwriter responsible for such standards as "Poke Salad Annie" and "Rainy Night in Georgia." Though the boys do end up meeting and spending time with their somewhat obscure idol, Searching for Tony Joe is less a documentary about a musician than it is a great vacation video by some guys you might want to hang out with.
If you've ever thought about quitting your job, buying a cowboy hat, and heading off to Nashville to become a songwriter, Lawrence Robbin's documentary Music City Long Shot (Friday, October 24th, 9 p.m.; 49 minutes) may change your mind. First of all, Nashville songwriters don't wear cowboy hats; they wear too-tight Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. That little factoid knocks a lot of the romance out of the picture from the git-go. Music City Long Shot focuses on Jon Robbin, a plumber and onetime honky-tonk singer from California who, through diligence and hard work, has become a moderately successful Nashville tunesmith. What does that mean? It means he assembles tired clichÇs and turns them into country gold. The title notwithstanding, Music City Long Shot makes the prospect of becoming a successful songwriter seem bright, as anybody with a guitar and a copy of Bartlett's Quotations can crank out the twangy aphorisms. -- CD