Asheville Film Festival—take two

It’s the sophomore year for the Asheville Film Festival. And, once again, the greatest interest centers on the “big” films: the more mainstream offerings.

That’s justified, since this year the festival has acquired some pretty heavy hitters.

A-list Hollywood screenwriter Dan Harris (X-2), showing his debut directorial feature, Imaginary Heroes, opens the proceedings. An impressive cast star in this tale of a disintegrating family, headed up by Sigourney Weaver as the pot-smoking, sharp-tongued matriarch.

Hungarian-born director Istvan Szabo (whose 1981 Mephisto copped the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) gives us a new film — and Being Julia, starring Annette Bening in a backstage story about an aging actress, certainly seems promising.

The closing-night movie, however, may be the festival’s most stimulating prospect. Bill Condon’s biopic Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson as sex-research pioneer Alfred Kinsey, is the writer/director’s first film since he won the 1999 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, for Gods and Monsters.

And speaking of monsters, a look at the festival’s features in competition reveals an uncannily dark roster of offerings.

Since I wasn’t a judge this year, I didn’t have the chance to see all the entries up for honors, but I did manage to unearth quite a few of them — and there’s some impressive work here. If anything, it’s a stronger group of competition films than we saw last year. Sufficiently stronger, in fact — I won’t even attempt to guess at the winning entry this year. But here’s a brief look at some of the contenders.

Feature films in competition

Black-Eyed Susan

This is one of two (!) intriguing entries from writer/director Jim Riffel (who made the cult-ish horror flick Dead Dudes in the House in the early ’90s). Shot largely in black-and-white (with occasional outbursts of color), it’s the quirky, macabre story of what goes wrong when two friends and two inept accomplices rob a dead man in the apartment next door. The scheme is supposedly foolproof — until the old man’s very peculiar relatives show up. Part black comedy, part horror, the film is an often-rich mixture of flair and substance. Some scenes — especially a most disconcerting party — are incredibly stylish, while the occasional interpolations of a mute girl (Emilie Jo Tisdale) lip-synching ersatz ’40s songs smooth over the structure and add to the atmosphere. Much of the dialogue is genuinely clever and funny (especially the arguments over Barry White’s recording history), and if the film has a central flaw, it’s that it goes on a little too long for its own good.

(Friday, Nov. 5, 4 p.m., Diana Wortham Theatre)

The Devil’s Courthouse

L.D. Donahue’s fanciful horror film — based on an authentic Blue Ridge Parkway location haunted by a made-up legend — doesn’t ultimately hold together, but it generates enough atmosphere in its first half to make it worth a look. The N.C. locations up the local interest for this story of four young people — played by Brighton Ellithorpe, Amanda Ladd, Warren Sain Underwood, Lori Sanders — who go looking for the mythical Devil’s Courthouse and find rather more than they bargained for.

(Friday, Nov. 5, 10 p.m., Fine Arts Theatre; Saturday, Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m., Fine Arts Theatre)

The Failures

Exploitation-film (Paint It Black) and TV-film (Dead Last) director Tim Hunter helms this beguilingly quirky film from a script by newcomer Hal Haberman. Detailing the adventures (if those they can be called) of depressed quasi-Goth girl Lily and the even-more-depressed William, it starts out a bit too much in the so-hip-it-hurts mold, but soon develops its own personality. The premise — Lily meets William and decides to help him commit suicide in part to get back at her father over her own mother’s suicide — sounds a lot darker than it turns out to be, and the film ends up surprisingly touching. Plus, B-picture favorite Michael Ironside is on hand as the embodiment of William’s depression. Best of all, The Failures, at a tight 95 minutes, knows when enough is enough.

(Saturday, Nov. 6, 10:30 p.m., Diana Wortham Theatre)

Human Error

A little bit like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a bit more like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and even more like a computer-age variant on Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone, Robert M. Young’s Human Error is perhaps the festival’s most stylistically ambitious entry. Based on screenwriter Richard Dresser’s play Below the Belt, it immerses its main characters in a world of computer-generated imagery as it tells the story of two workers pitted against one another by a manipulative boss improbably named Merkin (Tom Bower, High Crimes). Their grim, animated world is beautifully rendered, while the dialogue — though often betraying its stage origins — is witty and perfectly delivered by the three principal actors. Definitely one to catch.

(Sunday, Nov. 7, 3:30 p.m., Diana Wortham Theatre)

Mass of Angels

The other festival entry from Jim Riffel is somewhat less appealing than his Black-Eyed Susan, but it is not without its points of interest. Mass of Angels, unfolding in the “truth or illusion” mold, details the story of a young woman (Emilie Jo Tisdale) who is either a patient in a mental hospital having something beyond bad dreams about being a gravedigger who has been cursed for burying a child — or else she’s a gravedigger who is having nightmares about being a patient in a mental hospital. The plot further involves some pretty creepy Rosemary’s Baby-style material, and the film is strong with genuinely disturbing imagery. It’s an odd piece that’s perhaps too artsy to quite work as a horror film and too horrific to make it as an art flick. Still, Tisdale offers a good central performance.

(Saturday, Nov. 6, noon, Diana Wortham Theatre)

New Guy

Another genre-mixing film, New Guy marks the debut of Turkish-American writer/director Bilge Ebiri — and an audacious debut it is. Sometimes funny, sometimes frightful, the movie is a strange, claustrophobic work about the new guy (Kelly Miller) at a vaguely defined job who quickly finds that things at his place of employment are nightmarishly not as they seem. Richly detailed — with many of those details left unsettlingly unexplained — it’s a finely crafted little film boasting one of the most interesting uses of music in recent memory. Ebiri’s brilliant selection of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets serves as a kind of building motif for the film — and finally becomes a thematic statement on the story.

(Saturday, Nov. 6, noon, Fine Arts Theatre)

Strange Fruit

This gets my vote as the most intense — and best-acted — film out of the competition features I screened. Taking its title from Billie Holiday’s famous song about lynching, Strange Fruit is writer/director Kyle Schickner’s often-surprising look at racism and homophobia in rural Louisiana. A dynamic Kent Faulcon (Dragonfly) stars as an upscale, gay African-American lawyer who returns to his home in the bayous to investigate the murder of his boyhood friend (another gay black man). The local sheriff refuses to even call it a murder: Instead, he dismisses it as “aberrant sexual behavior” that got out of hand. Strange Fruit works on a number of levels — as might be expected by its double-edged title — but the real surprise (and the glory of the film) lies in its powerful characterizations, much more compelling than its thriller premise suggests. (In fact, the script even pokes fun at its thriller status: Faulcon mutters at one point, “What is this? A Grisham novel?”) One scene, centered on “coming out” and the ensuing fallout, is so outstanding it alone would make the film worth seeing. But there’s much more to admire in Schickner’s film, including a fine soundtrack that not only boasts the title song but also Bessie Smith’s classic “Graveyard Blues.”

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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