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New Directors: Banana, Transpecos, Spa Night, and The Fits

One day I will figure out to keep up with the cinematic madness but April contained none of those days. A week ago the Nashville Film Festival wrapped and I have yet to share with you the prizes my jury bestowed! Not that you've been clamoring to read about films you've never heard of but one of the joys of film festivals is in the discoveries. Hence my great thrill to be asked to sit on the "New Directors Jury". Let's survey a handful of the competitors starting with the two winners, both of which made one step closer to theaters this week.

I'm starting with this one because it's out very soon (June 3rd in NYC / June 10th in Los Angeles) and you absolutely shouldn't miss it. I'm already eager to see it again. We need directors with fresh voices and a unique gaze and we've got one in Anna Rose Helmer. The Fits follows a young girl named Toni (Royalty Hightower, pretty great) who spends her days helping her older brother with his job cleaning a boxing gym. She's fascinated by the boy rituals and the girl rituals which are happening just down the hall where a local dance squad rehearses in another gymnasium. Just when you think you've figured out the film's theme (there's certainly much to ponder in its gender dynamics) one of the dancers has a violent fit and faints and you realize Helmer has a lot more yet on her mind. There's no easy allegories here and maybe it's a little opaque but there's much to ponder in its metaphysical poetry, thoughtful camera work and editing and, above all else, its persistent fly-on-the-wall curiosity, the camera a soulful twin to Toni's ever-searching eyes. B+ (A-?)

Breaking News: The Fits got a poster (left) and a perfect moody trailer this week from Oscilloscope Pictures. 

More after the jump including an awards magnet which keeps winning festivals... 

JURY PRIZE (and AUDIENCE AWARD) Transpecos by Greg Kwedar
BEST ACTOR Gabriel Luna in Transpecos
You may have heard of this title if you follow festival news. It was the audience award winner at SXSW where it premiered and it followed that good news with three prizes at Nashville (Film & Actor from my jury + the main Audience Award) and then it took another audience award from the Dallas International Film Festival. In short: people like it a lot (it's probably benefitted from being decidedly mainstream entertainment within the festival circuit and therefore a lot more accessible than many low budget indies. 

The drama takes place near the border of West Texas and Mexico where three border patrol agents get a much more eventful day than they bargained after a disagreement over searching a car devolves into violence and plot twists. The initial incident sets off a dangerous ripple effect though there's no water in sight in the arid Southwestern vistas shot by cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron. To reveal more would be spoiler territory but though the story has a few "really?" moments, the filmmaking team is obviously committed and it's a brisk suspenseful 86 minutes. And the acting is really good: Clifton Collins Jr,  Character Actor You've Seen Dozens of Times and even in drug war movies like this (hello, Traffic) is the gruff senior officer, rising young actor Johnny Simmons (Scott Pilgrim, Perks of Being a Wallflower) is the newbie still learning the border ropes; and the MVP is Gabriel Luna (who you might remember as Taylor Kitsch's boyfriend-of-sorts in True Detective S2) who is just fantastic as the central character, torn between duty and kindness, rules and improvisation, and increasing disorientation from the downward spiral of events. More lead roles for Luna please, Hollywood. Get on that quick. B/B+

News: While I was writing this post, Transpecos was picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn. They aren't a powerhouse distributor these days (their biggest recent hit was I think Robot & Frank at $3 million) but in the 90s they had a solid track record of shepherding good films by green directors to theaters like Ang Lee's Wedding Banquet, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, Stanley Tucci's Big Night and more. Maybe they can get back to that honorable calling?

BEST ACTRESS (shared) Brogan Ellis & Lauren McQueen in The Violators
The IMDb explains it like so...

When Shelly meets Rachel, two dysfunctional girls from radically opposed backgrounds set off on a collision course that will leave one of them shattered, the other re-born.

The Violators revolves around Shelley (McQueen) who lives in poverty with her older and younger brother and tries to keep life manageable for everyone (shades of Shameless actually). Their good for nothing violent father is in prison where the kids hope he'll stay. Enter Rachel (Ellis) who has ambiguous ulterior motives for getting involved in Shelly's life including her relationship to a local heavyweight, pawn shop owner Mikey (Stephen Lord, appropriately slimy / highly watchable).  The Violators doesn't break any new ground in its depiction of the downtrodden and petty criminals and it unfortunately has a lot of trouble with the ending - which feels unearned and a shade too twisty -- but the actresses are finds who may have bright futures and it's sensitively directed by first time filmmaker Helen Walsh. C+

News: This film received a BIFA nomination this past winter for the producers David A Hughes & David Moores and will be released in the UK this June.

This is the only film we awarded that I personally didn't care for at all. It's a bio of a fictional man who created a game (or rather stole one) that is not unlike the Rubik's Cube, and became filthy rich in the process. He becomes increasingly isolated (even refusing to speak for years) and pines for his accomplice in intellectual property theft who has since married. She wants nothing to do with him other than her regular royalties. I'd place my feelings about it under the trying-too-hard label. It's not kind to fault ambitions but it's tough to cut the ambitious a ton of slack when they seem all too certainly pleased with their success and some of the most overtly comic elements are major mistakes. But for what it's worth it's not too often you see debut directors like Adam Pinney attempting labyrinthine fake biopics with seriocomic tone and if there is another one before this I bet it wasn't also performed with period costumes and sets! C-

Note: The Arbalest won the Grand Jury prize at SXSW. It's quite polarizing. Those that love it really love it. 


Spa Night (Andrew Ahn)
This Korean American LGBT film won Breakthrough Actor at Sundance for Joe Seo. He plays David, a closeted high school graduate who is torn between keeping his parents afloat with dead end jobs (he gets one at a local spa, which comes with its own temptations) or going to school. Early in the film there's some interesting cropping of the compositions which suggests that Ahn might be trying to provide a visual parallel to gay hookup social media (where chests and torsos take precedence over, you know, faces). But he doesn't commit to it, really and the narrative doesn't go anywhere choosing to stay in the realm of well observed character study. Which makes the film as frustrating as David's personality which is very meek and indecivise. Seo is quite moving in the role toward the latter half but coming of age stories are often hard pressed to feel new or revelatory, even with uncommon (for movies) cultural trappings. B

Banana (Andrea Jublin)
You might have seen Jublin's claim-to-fame The Substitute (2007) since it was nominated for the Oscar for best live action short. The Italian director is back in the classroom (behind and in front of the camera) for this coming of age comedy about an aggressively optimistic young pudgy boy. He's nicknamed "Banana" for his favorite yellow sports shirt and his enthusiasms are always threatening to be stamped out, either through adult cynicism, unpleasant truths, or general middle-school meanness. Along the way we also spend time with his family members and teachers (including Jublin as a theater teacher who was once nearly Banana's step-brother). It's not fancifully distorted like Amelie but it flirts with those overdetermined tendencies whereby a precocious soul might help transform or fix other people. But somewhere along the way I went from annoyance to feeling really happy about this little kid's determination to cheer himself on even when others wouldn't. It must have been the undertow of melancholy... Banana is not naive about life's difficulties but chooses to embrace life fully whilst hoping for the best. B



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