Dreams on film

Ready or not, Asheville’s first film festival is here. As an early festival proponent as well as both a preliminary and a final judge, I can confirm firsthand that it’s been a long, involved process requiring many hours of work from many people.

I know I wasn’t alone in often finding myself having to put “real life” on hold to attend to festival-related matters — more often than not concerning the preliminary judging process, which whittled down the list of entries to the finalists that would vie for “Best Film” honors.

The entries — at least in the narrative (i.e., nondocumentary) feature-film category in which I was involved — were nothing if not diverse. They ran the gamut from professional Hollywood productions to relatively high-budget independent works to ambitious, impossibly underfinanced projects, often by first-time filmmakers.

Indeed, the first film screened — Dennis Ray’s 40 East — was not only a virgin effort but deserves at least a footnote for being possibly the least-expensive feature ever made. Ray (the publisher of local arts journal Rapid River) realized his film for less than $150! (Eat your heart out, Ed Wood.) And while it didn’t make the final cut, it was certainly impressive in those terms — and a testament to what independent filmmaking is all about: getting your idea up there on the screen.

Any way you look at it, the diversity of the original entries made for an interesting viewing experience. Sure, the submissions included some clunkers. But even those were eye-opening — and a few of them proved that more money does not necessarily a better movie make. (One entry’s high-end screener case appeared pricier than the entire cost of making some far better films.)

It’s very easy to talk about the movie you want to make — and something else again to actually get it done (and then have the chutzpah to submit it to public scrutiny).

From that standpoint, all the entries deserve a degree of respect. In this case, our competition short list contained eight feature films, which were then turned over to Marci Miller, Chip Kaufman and me for final judgment.

Yes, I know which film won — and no, I won’t tell you. Documentaries, shorts and student films were winnowed by a different team of preliminary judges and were finally judged by Paul Schattel, Mike Rangel and Frank Jones — but they ain’t talking, either. (Judges’ biographies can be found in the official film-festival guide elsewhere in this issue.)

For that matter, there’s also an Audience Award — whose recipient won’t be known to anyone until festival’s end. So for now, grab your popcorn, sit back and consider Xpress’ reviews of the following feature-film competitors.

Feature films in competition

The Angel Doll: This entry explores the interaction between two young, Southern boys from very different socioeconomic backgrounds during the 1950s polio epidemic.

The polio aspect — the poor boy’s sister is succumbing to the disease — steers the film away from being a simple period piece. Specifically, the ignorance of many townspeople (who are afraid to let their children have any contact with the girl’s brother) evokes the misconceptions about AIDS today.

The era is splendidly evoked thanks to the filmmaker’s insistence on keeping things simple (a hallmark of a good independent film). Some may find the story a bit too sentimental — an even greater concern given that the filmmaker died before the work was completed. But there’s sloppy sentimentality and then there’s honest sentimentality.

I’d put this film — concerning two boys’ friendship and a search for an “angel doll” as a Christmas present for the polio-stricken sister — in the latter category.

The boys are convincingly played by Michael Welch (Star Trek: Insurrection) and Cody Newton (who had a small role in The X Files). Asheville’s own Joanne Pankow — a veteran of many films — has a small but effective role as a nurse at a facility for terminally ill children.

(Saturday, Nov. 8, 11:30 a.m., Diana Wortham Theatre)

Artworks: Hollywood actress Virginia Madsen (Ghosts of Mississippi) lends her talents to this thoroughly professional-looking first effort by Ohio-based filmmaker Jim Amatulli.

Essentially, the film is a caper thriller about stolen artworks, but Amatulli goes somewhat deeper in examining the psyche of the Madsen character — as well as offering at least one pithy insight into the world of art and how easy it is to confuse notoriety with fame. Rick Rossovich (Truth or Consequences, N.M.) co-stars as Madsen’s love interest, while Kannapolis-born Eddie Mills (Sheer Bliss) rounds out the trio of thieves.

(Saturday, Nov. 8, 6 p.m., Fine Arts Theatre)

Everything in Between: Local filmmaker Lyle Laney made this character study about half brothers brought back together by the death of their mother. Their already-strained relationship is further complicated when the returning brother falls in love with his brother’s estranged wife, who’s already at loggerheads with her soon-to-be-ex-husband over the question of selling the family property.

Shot locally on a low budget, Everything in Between perhaps bites off more than it can chew in trying to render the complexity of its characters’ relationships. But the ambition itself is admirable, and the movie is well shot, with some standout images (a reflected shot of the Jackson Building is one of the most striking visuals in the entire festival). The film is also notable for its refreshing depiction of the modern South, which doesn’t pander to the usual outdated stereotypes and cliches.

(Friday, Nov. 7, 12:30 p.m., Fine Arts Theatre)

Film School Confidential: Douglas Underdahl’s satirical look at life in a film school is a small triumph of creativity over budget.

Playfully employing assorted filmmaking styles with clever good humor, the movie follows the hopes and fates of a group of students. The satire is generally very much on-target (as anyone who’s ever been involved with such an institution can attest) and only slightly exaggerated for comic effect.

In the end, Film School Confidential may slide over into something more ordinary in its plotting, but it never completely loses its edge. A splendid film-within-the-film sequence using Barbie dolls — obviously inspired by the supposedly destroyed but still around “underground” Todd Haynes film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story — achieves the extraordinary feat of being at once funny, moving and disturbing.

(Saturday, Nov. 8, 3 p.m., Fine Arts Theatre)

Final Solution: First-time filmmaker Cristobal Krusen’s South African-made film about apartheid may not tell you an awful lot you don’t already know about the topic, but it offers something a little different by not forgetting the returned hatred of those suffering under the oppressive system.

Moreover, the film deals boldly with the use of religion as a cudgel to help keep the system in place. Every inch professionally and smoothly done, with a noteworthy central performance by South African actor Jan Ellis, the film is a strong study of the effects of racism.

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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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