AFI DALLAS 2009 – The long belated wrap up (Part One – The Ladies of AFI DALLAS)

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on May 1, 2009

No sooner did I get comfortably back home in L.A. than I was immediately in the thick of things with the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and all of the AFI stuff (Life Achievement Award, AFI Conservatory Thesis screenings and the upcoming DWW showcase), oh AND The upcoming edition of The Vision Awards. So my apologies for the lack of “original content” in between the plethora of press releases, but I’m still figuring out how to do all of this stuff at once.

Anyway, I have had some time to think and think and think some more about this year’s AFI DALLAS Film Festival, and I feel there is so much to write about that I have decided to do it in three of four parts.

So in no particular, in fact very random order – here goes:

Part One – The Ladies of AFI DALLAS

One of the overriding themes for me this year was the influx of very cool women that came to Dallas for the festival. Some of these women I have known, known of, and in some cases been a fan of for a little while now. Yet most of these women I met for the very first time at AFI DALLAS and thrilled that I did. They are (in alphabetical order):

Alice Krige – We had Anthony Fabian’s thoughtful drama SKIN at AFI FEST last fall and we were fortunate enough to have it come to AFI DALLAS for an encore of sorts since it became part of AFI’s very cool Project 20/20 program. The program basically travels various filmmakers that have had their films play at the AFI film festivals around the world to literally and truly use film and filmmakers as a way to build a bridge between cultures. It’s a shining example of AFI taking an ambitious lead to do something outside of trotting out classics for another look and promote and utilize film for the next generations. It’s one of those things that make me proud to be here.

Anyway, we got a huge bonus at AFI DALLAS by having Alice Krige come to town to represent the film with the director, Fabian. She provided one of those high expectations payoffs by putting the “red” on my carpet to shame with a crimson gown that just stopped everyone in their tracks. Not only that, she exuded all kinds of ethereal grace and charm. Great moment.

Jordan Ladd – I almost have to include Jordan’s father, David with this shout out because I really spent time with them both while she was in Dallas. Let me begin by saying that if I was a cheerleader for any single film this year, it was for Paul Solet’s creepy instant classic GRACE. And Jordan gives the kind of performance in the film that transcends genre and should place her several rungs up the respect ladder if the right people are paying attention. So, I kinda almost willed both the film and her and Paul to be at AFI DALLAS (thank god that James Faust and Michael Cain will listen to me sometimes with recommendations for this festival). But beyond that, within moments of talking to her and her father, I wanted Jordan to move in to my condo so my wife and I would have the prototypical nicer-than-nice and coolest neighbor that anyone could conceive of. Unassuming is a word. And two words that trump that one are “Jordan Ladd”. And her father, David Ladd was great too. If you didn’t know your film history or (as I was) could be lulled into forgetting it, you would think you were just hanging out and talking to a proud dad just happy to be there and see the attention his daughter was getting for her new movie and not a guy who has forgotten more than a lot of us will ever know about film production and the business. Even if that movie involved her as a mom dealing with a newborn baby with a bloodlust for mommy. If we could have, we would have extended both of their visits for the duration of the festival.

Karina Longworth – I was looking forward to having Karina attend a film festival of mine for some time now. Tough, tough writer and critic and I was anxious to have her around not just to weigh in on the programming (in this case) that AFI DALLAS offers but frankly because I wanted an opportunity to hang out with her and get to know her a little. And the truth is, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with Karina as I had hoped. But watching her moderate a panel and then give MSN’s James Rocchi all he could handle at a lunch afterwards was more than worth the price of admission. Listening to the give and take between those two was fun. I have to think that if you were a movie blow hard then she would scare the shit out of you. But if you can hold your own, have something to say, and are willing to lay it out there with her then I have to think she gets the automatic invite to any party (movie-related or otherwise) you might want to throw.

Heather Matarazzo – I kid you not, AFI DALLAS scored Heather to be part of our jury this year because we are Facebook buddies. I had admired Heather not just due to her work in film but her outspokenness regarding her choices and career. And from the moment she arrived, I had everyone at AFI DALLAS thanking me for reaching out to her. Never for a moment do I believe I’m the only one that cares as deeply as I do about this stuff, but Heather combines that damn near uncompromising notion of what potential is out there for us too achieve through film, but goes about delivering her opinions – which are strong and direct to be sure – more gently and considerately than I could hope to. You hope for an “ambassador” when you ask someone to serve on a film festival jury – and she was the epitome of that.

Carri McClure – Here’s the thing about personal publicists: They can make the dealings with their clients a joy or a wanna-slit-your-wrists job – bottom line. I came from personal PR, and it kills me when the personal pub is simply a road block. Either out of a lack of imagination, laziness, or just because they happen to be a sour pain-in-the-ass, it is rare, rare, rare to find a personal publicist that both “gets it” and is genuine in their dealings with you. Carri does. In consecutive years, we have had her clients Ron Livingston (twice) and Robert Towne come to Dallas and the experience all three times has been near-flawless because Carri knows what she’s doing. And she also plays fair. And let me be clear – she is tough on the facts and the details on behalf of her clients. She is no push over by any means. BUT she also works toward the greater good of the event and her client to make sure that things will run smoothly and logically – as opposed to just standing in the way of everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. There are actors and actresses that I advise the people in charge of film festivals and events I do to cross off their lists because life is just way too short to deal with the person in charge of their PR.  Carri is at the other end of that spectrum. And that trust and working relationship make me want to give her first “dibs” with her clients whenever I do events.

Monique Parent – Another My Space and Facebook pal. My first year at AFI FEST, Monique allowed me to publish an article she had written about the intricacies and oftentimes awkwardness of shooting explicit love scenes for films. But we had never actually met until this year when we had an idea for a filmmakers’ panel for Women in Film Dallas. I wanted her presence and opinion on that panel and knew she would have the right personality to bring to town. And that thought was right on all counts. Monique is smart, beautiful and a straight talker. You could see a filmmaker wanting to write a part for her just for the excuse to have her on set – let alone raising the game of their film. She has done plenty of service in the land of soft core and really, really deserves someone giving her a Tarantino-type spotlight role in a cool indie thing somewhere.

Robin Wright Penn – Robin’s publicist Mara Buxbaum (who is a friend) more-or-less made it clear to me that the only way Robin would be coming to Dallas was if I could…let’s just say…uhm…take a personal interest in her well-being while she was here. No problem. Now Mara had been to Dallas with the Wilson brothers a year or so ago so she knew what to expect (and more importantly knew it was “safe”), but this was a specialized situation. And frankly, it’s important to have someone like Robin come to the festival – not just for this particular one but for the future well-being celebrity-wise. Because, AFI DALLAS only being in its third year is still in that process of forming a reputation as a destination for people of Robin’s ilk. And you know the “ilk” I’m speaking of, don’t even pretend. Therefore, even though I had Mara’s trust in this case, we still need to impress each and every big league actor and actress and send them away very happy and gushing with praise with how we run this particular film fest machine. Because they’ll tell two actors and then they’ll reassure two actors and they’ll convince two more actors and so on and so on…

Two, Robin was coming to town to support a documentary, HAZE, about teenage binge drinking – which I personally thought was an important one beyond just being a good film. And as the spokeswoman for The Gordie Foundation which was deeply involved, if not the outright inspiration for the film, it was important to Robin for her participation to be done properly. And that’s what impressed me. Because we get “demands” all of the time. And a lot of the time, those demands come from a place of personal comfort or convenience or sheer “testing” to see how much they can get away with (like the old lion film reviewer we flew into town – gruff but not lovable). And Robin’s specifications (I won’t even characterize them as demands because I want to make sure the context is precise here) were all in the service of what she thought was right for the film, for The Gordie Foundation and for her friends Leslie and Michael Lanahan, who began and lead that foundation in honor of Leslie’s son, Gordie. Robin has seen that documentary and the testimonials countless times by this point and I saw it still bring her to tears after all this time and all of those repeated viewings. Seeing that made me want to be just that much more careful to help navigate the tricky press and publicity waters for her and them. She was patient and dutiful on behalf of the film and the foundation and deserving of a lot of respect for making the trip.

Lisa Rosman – When Kim Voynar isn’t writing for Movie City News, I think she serves as Lisa Rosman’s (who works and writes for US Magazine and Flavorpill) publicist. She sold me on the fact that I needed to bring Lisa to Dallas to be a panelist and talk movies because in one bought plane ticket and hotel room we would be instantly upping the ante on the AFI DALLAS coolness quotient. And, as I have come to trust – Kim was right on the money. After moderating one panel with Lisa as a participant and one dinner rife with banter and provocative topics – film and otherwise – I became an instant fan. She has style, she’s got a knowing awareness spiced with just the right amount of acerbic – and all in a classic dame package. I became an instant fan – simple as that.

Tiffany Shepis – Again, thank you facebook. And, to be fair – thank you very much Loyd Cryer at Texas Frightmare Weekend because he teamed up with me to make Tiffany’s appearance possible. Some people were scratching their heads a bit on why I instantly jumped at the idea of bringing Tiffany to Dallas to be a panelist but I knew it would be great. And once again, she exceeded all expectations for the couple of days she was there. There are people who are game for whatever you’re gonna throw at them and then there are people like Tiffany. Instantly, you can see why she is an evergreen draw at the Fangoria-type conventions and why she is one of those actresses in the genre that is seemingly always working. If you are a fan or a filmmaker in horror I have to imagine that a crisis ridden internal debate would be “Watch Tiffany on screen or have Tiffany on my set – what’s more important to me at this very moment?!”

Kim Voynar (and her daughter Neve)
– Even though technically (by my own rules for this blog) I shouldn’t – I have to include Kim in this list. I’ve known her and had her attend my film festivals a few times now, but frankly, she kind of sets the tone (or should if I was choosing the person that got to) for how film festival behavior and “dialogue” between film fans and filmmakers and journalists should go as far as I’m concerned. I just flat out like Kim’s writing and her viewpoint on film and socio-politics. She is possibly the most effective devil’s advocate writer around right now. She’ll offer up a contrarian’s position from a balanced, inquisitive place that few people have either the guts or the talent to delve into. And her daughter, Neve (pronounced with a “long E” not like the Canadian SCREAM queen) is primed to follow right in those impressive footsteps. Smart, sweet and fun, Neve had the poor timing to get sick just after she arrived in Dallas after she had been looking forward all year to coming to the festival following her first visit with Kim a year ago. It sucked for her – obviously – but I was also genuinely disappointed. You see, Neve is not just a great, smart kid, but seriously, she has the beginnings of her mom’s writing talent. I was hoping to have her weigh in on our Family Friendly section as only she could. Instead, my goals for her were lowered to hoping I could help Kim get Neve well and feeling better before she had to go back home.

Last week, I was having a conversation with AFI FEST Artistic Director Rose Kuo about the fact that just screening movies does not a film festival make. It just doesn’t. If that’s what you think, then you’re fooling yourself. That’s film without the festival as far as I’m concerned. It’s the filmmakers, the actors, the jurors, and the journalists. It’s the people that are there doing Q&As, participating in panels, talking up movies in the lounges that make a film festival unique and special and a place you want to be or should want to be. And this group of women were a major reason that AFI DALLAS was something special this year as far as I’m concerned.

“Eli Roth was my camp counselor.”

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on January 23, 2009

Back at Sundance – Day #4

This was the day I was looking forward to since I opened up the Sundance film guide and started mapping out what I was going to see.

Today was Scary Sundance Day!

First up was a short film titled, RITE. Alice Conway gives us a disconcerting front row seat for a little girl’s preparation for a very important ceremony. The beginning is very similar to a great film we had at AFI FEST a couple years back, Nicole Barnette’s FOURTEEN. In that film, the little girl was being prepped for a marriage to a creepy old Mormon guy. This one goes another direction. Effectively. I won’t give it away, but it takes the notion of the rites of adulthood to a proper or improper (depending on how you look at it) extreme.

Then it was time for GRACE. Directed by Paul Solet and starring Jordan Ladd, it’s your basic story where a pregnant woman’s baby dies prior to birth, beset by grief she carries the dead infant to term and then wills it to life after it’s born. And then there are uhm…complications… One of the things we learned during the Q&A after the film was that when he was a kid, Paul’s camp counselor was Eli (HOSTEL) Roth. It explains a lot.

Anyway, here’s some things you learn: You can put up all the fly paper and protective netting in the world, but you’re never going to convince flies they should stay away from your kinda dead baby. To ensure that things can get as worse as they possibly can, it helps if mom steadily becomes more and more psychotically focused on keeping said baby alive. Finally, lesbians carrying an unrequited torch can’t be trusted to make the right decisions to keep the horror from happening. I loved this film. Loved it. It takes you down a very, very dark path – methodically and thoroughly, rich with theme and detail. I will finish with this thought: If a rotting but living baby has a bloodlust, is it really necessary to define it as “vampire” or “zombie”? I mean, why must we always get hung up on labels? I think I can state what’s important with this quote from the film: “She’s special, she needs special food.”

Next on the scary hit parade was Jason Eisner’s short film, TREEVENGE. Well, fun scary, I guess. Let me set the scene for you: A pristine field of evergreen trees faces an onslaught of men wielding axes and chain saws. It’s a horrible scene of torture and slaughter and the trees don’t understand. (We know this, because their horrified peeps and squeaks are translated via subtitles.) Then, they’re taken to Christmas tree lots and separated from their friends and family and then put in houses and forced to have decorations put on their branches by more horrible people. Eventually, of course, they exact their,…wait for it…TREEVENGE. In every violent and gory way imaginable. It’s great.

And the evening’s closer was Tommy Wirkola’s DEAD SNOW. Let me say this first off: No matter what country you’re in and regardless of what language the people speak, there will always be young people willing to go to some reasonably isolated place ignoring any logical reason they should do otherwise, for the express purpose of being killing fodder. Second, those young people – even in Norway, in this case – will get a visit by a scary old guy kindly informing them that they’re all gonna die. It’s a grand tradition held since that old coot on the bicycle in the original FRIDAY THE 13TH. And it continues here. And then, it’s time for the zombie Nazis to join the party. I don’t think it’s necessary to spell out what exactly happens, but here are two more truths to leave you with: First, the only thing that pisses a zombie Nazi off more than young people stealing their treasure is young people having sex after stealing their treasure. Second, inevitably while in a killing frenzy against whatever mob of bad things that are threatening you it’s important to also kill your friend or girlfriend because they picked the wrong moment to arrive on the scene just out of your peripheral vision.

I mean, let’s face it – that’s really their bad. Right?