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Film Reviews by Lisa Blanck
Florida Film Festival 32 - Long Form
| Tuesday, 05.09.2023, 02:01 AM |   (2029 views)

Out There: A National Parks Story

At Florida Film Festival 32, In screened many long form films that were equal to or better than many big budget releases. Some of them deserve to get picked up and distributed, whether through streaming or the box office.  One of the best parts of attending a prestigious film festival is getting to know the people involved in making the films. Directors, producers, writers, composers, talent. Thanks in advance for trusting me with your projects and spending time answering my questions. And remember, if your film was chosen to run in the FFF, you're golden.

Just a week before the FFF began, Director Diego Vicentini was working furiously on Simónhis narrative feature debut. The Venezuelan – based political drama already had a Festival slot, and Festival staff were anticipating he'd make deadline for his film's World Premiere. Luckily the gods were paying attention and this powerful, emotion-driven film played to two standing-room only showings. Cut with a skillful eye for pulling the most out of Vicentini's cast as well as capturing the various locations, the story revolves around Simón and his friends, all students and Venezuelan freedom fighters, trying to survive a tyrannical government.

Simón and his compatriots undergo many days of mental and physical torture at the hands of their captors, and the scenes are brutal. Forced to flee Venezuela, Simón turns asylum seeker and heads to Miami, leaving his fellow students behind to continue the fight. He is informed by U.S. Immigration that once he is granted asylum, he cannot return home. Yet his heart and mind are always with his countrymen, and the guilt he feels about being alive haunts him throughout the film, pushing the narrative forward to unexpected places. A well-crafted film about Venezuela's corruption, that may never actually be seen in Venezuela, Vicentini's team makes wonderful use of both lighting and locations, giving the viewers a seamless, high-octane experience.

Stay Awake
Competition Feature Narrative Stay Awake is a family drama. Attendees may have flocked to the film based on the casting of Chrissy Metz (This Is Us), but it's the touching relationship between Michelle's (Metz) sons Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Finn Argus) that really drives Director Jamie Sisley's film.  Stay Awake is haunting in its portrayal of a woman battling severe depression and medication abuse, while being only semi-aware of the toll her struggle is taking on her boys.  The teen-age brothers are forced to 'adult' each other while their mom has checked-out of life. 

I find it remarkable that this is Sisley's first Narrative Feature.  Sisley's intent was to keep the project focused on the reality that these things can happen to anyone in any family.  That the struggles and challenges in our lives make us all imperfect humans, and that we should find a way to forgive ourselves those imperfections.  In Sisley's words, with Stay Awake he wanted to 'de-stigmatize' issues of depression as well as questions about our sexuality.

Sisley dedicated Stay Awake to his younger brother, who lost his life in a car accident at the age of 19.  The compassion the brothers show each other on-screen rings true; their relationship possibly sprouting from Sisley's own life experiences.  When In Focus asked Sisley about working with Ms. Metz, he told us, "I can tell you that having the opportunity to work with Chrissy was one of the great highlights of making Stay Awake for me. The empathy and warmth she brought to Michelle was everything I hoped for and more. Her talent as an actor, and the gift she has for connecting with audiences is truly inspiring to me."

Judy Blume Forever
A writer.  An icon.  An influencer.  A wife.  A mom.  A bookstore owner.  A secret sharer.  The Spotlight Film, Judy Blume Forever, takes us into the life of a woman who has no fear about pulling back the curtain on the lives, loves and issues about growing up that have perplexed children and teens for decades. 

Ms. Blume tells us that she married early but felt that she was just "playing at being a wife".  She wrote daily, every day when her kids were at school.  She reveals that "success was slow and sweet and that was good because it kept me home writing."  And with every book she penned came hundreds of hand-written letters from her young readers, thanking, commenting, and most of all, questioning her on how to navigate life.  Questions her readers were too shy, frightened or embarrassed to ask their parents.  There's a lot of love in those boxes of letters.  And a lot of forgiveness.

Ms. Blume is also completely outspoken against the book banning that has infected our country in the last year, and not just because she's a writer, but also because she's a mom.  "A book cannot harm a child.  Banning hurts children.  Book bans put burdens on children.  You're trying to cancel children."  No child has ever died at a read-in.  Book banning is a passing horror based on fear.  Judy Blume's books take the confusion and fear that accompany change and shows us that, though we are all different, we all have the same struggles and questions.  A teacher,  a shoulder and beloved confidante - Judy Blume is all three. 

Out There: A National Parks Story
Filmmaker Brendan Hall grew up on a lake, didn't think much about nature; Hall wanted to be a filmmaker.  During college he took he first road trip and was immediately hooked on the great outdoors.  His documentary, Out There: A National Parks Story, takes you along on his coast-to-coast journey with his childhood best friend through many of the U.S. National Parks.  

Starting with sunrise in Acadia, Maine and ending in a California sunset, Hall's film is both a beautiful travelogue and a narrative, easily connecting with viewers thirsting for a visual adventure.  The characters the filmmakers meet along the way include an official park photographer, Parks Department employees, a Native American storyteller and repeat park visitors. All willingly share their various reasons for needing to be among towering trees and roaring rivers.

The film took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at FFF 32, with one of the most frequent comments overheard by In Focus-Magazine being 'when is he going to come to OUR park?"  Sounds like a good reason for the creative duo to hit the road again.  Out There gives you a roadmap and the incentive to disconnect from the grid and reconnect your inner compass.  

Immediate Family

Immediate Family is the new music documentary from The Wrecking Crew's Director Denny Tedesco, and it's one of the Competition Documentary Features in the Festival.  But the new film is so much more than just another music doc.  It's truly a visual serenade to four musicians behind the most popular singer-songwriters of the boomer era.  Though the heyday of AOR and the release of music in physical, rather than digital formats, has come and gone, the songs themselves, and those who brought them to our welcoming ears, continue to live on.  

The doc focuses on four session players: Bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist/vocalists Waddy Wachtel and Danny 'Kootch' Kortchmar.  Where they came from, to what songs and which performers they contributed their decades-deep well of talents, and where they are today.  Immediate Family is also the name of the film's quartet when they perform in person, with the addition of guitarist Steve Postell.  

The clever way Tedesco once again interweaves the opening bars of such classics as You've Got A Friend, Rich Girl and Poor, Poor Pitiful Me, starting with just Immediate Family's on-screen parts and then blending in the rest of the tracks, definitely brings the smiles and "wow" factor to audiences.  Combined with heartfelt interviews by singers including Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt, Don Henley, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, the film is an absolute delight.  The list of tracks to which these four session musicians have contributed is extensive, as are the number of gold and platinum albums on which they have played.  

If there's any film for which you would pay to see the outtakes as well as the material that was omitted from the film itself due to time restrictions, Immediate Family is that film.  It's not just a chronicle of a moment in time; it's part of our heritage with songs that remain embedded in our hearts and minds. 

Why would two good friends have a falling out?  Well, it's usually over a woman.  According to Director/Writer/Actor Justin Matthews, that was the germ of the idea for The Duel, a Competition Feature at the FFF.  This laugh-out-loud, well-shot film is the debut feature for Matthews and co-Director/Writer/Actor Luke Spencer Roberts.  They each got their studio creds on shows we all know including Fear the Walking Dead and The Morning Show.  But experience alone can't float a project if you don't have production skills and a well-written script to go along with it.  And The Duel has both.  

The Duel
It's a buddy movie, but the buddies, Colin and Woody, have come to an impasse they they simply cannot ignore until one of them falls victim to the fatal thrust of a cutlass.   Like many immature men who just can't get over themselves, believing their masculinity is being publicly questioned, they choose to take up fencing swords and battle to the death, rather than step aside.  And who better to provide the swords than actor Patrick Warburton, who was an amazing 'get' for this film.

There's a wonderfully shot sequence in an underground waterway involving a pig, that, according to Matthews, was one of the most challenging sequences to get in the can. Per Matthews, some of the scenes were adapted on the spot, as Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate with call-sheets.  But you can't tell which ones were re-set because the filmmakers just keep the action, and fun, rolling along without a hitch in continuity.  The Duel has already garnered a number of well-deserved accolades from festivals across the country and deserve all of those and more.  

The Artifice Girl is a film that didn't receive a great deal of attention at this Festival, which was an oversight by filmgoers. It was definitely one of my guilty pleasures.  This sci-fi Competition Feature, directed and written by Franklin Ritch, who also is one of the stars of the film, is at its core, a tale about morality and Artificial Intelligence.  Does humanity have the right to control the destiny of what we create, even if the creation is an artificial life form that would never have existed without us?  What happens when an AI evolves beyond its original purpose?  I'm going to guess that when The Artifice Girl started principal photography, the public tumult about artificial intelligence hadn't yet approached the level of concern we're experiencing today.  

A long time ago I read a short story called 'EPICAC', in a Kurt Vonnegut collection.  In this story, a supercomputer is employed by a lonely man to write love sonnets to the woman he is trying to woo.  Though the woman in question, Pat, eventually falls for the man because of the poetry, the computer also develops feeling for the man and wishes to marry him.  The man explains to the computer that it's impossible for man and computer to marry.  And EPICAC short circuits her/itself, out of grief.  Though The Artifice Girl in question lives far beyond the years of her creator, the emotions generated by each piece of work are quite similar. 

The Artifice Girl
The Artifice Girl is gritty and thought provoking.  Most of the action purposely takes place in small, constrictive rooms.  It's split in segments of decades.  In the final segments, Ritch's character is portrayed by Lance Henricksen.   Do androids dream of electric sheep?  After serving humanity, will androids develop their own societies?  Will we, one day, be the victims of our own good intentions?  There's no way to tell right now.  The one thing I can tell you is that this review was NOT written by AI;  all punctuation and style errors are my own.  

Greetings From Queertown: Orlando
And finally, we have Greetings From Queertown: Orlando, a locally produced doc by Director Jess Keller, Executive Producer Rick Todd and Producer Tiona Langley.  The movie is important to Central Florida and the LGBTQ community, many of whom appear in the film .  All of those involved, both on-screen and off, including Watermark Publishing Group and Adrenaline Films, have made important contributions to securing rights for our gay neighbors, relatives, friends and co-workers.  It could be seen as a companion piece to Surviving Pulse, the 2022 doc about the survivors of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, but, of course, contains all of the joy that was omitted from the earlier documentary.

Director Keller told attendees, in a standing-room only filmmaker talk-back, that she was honored that she was chosen to bring Greetings to fruition.  With fascinating interviews from politicians and drag queens, plus historical clips, Keller brings to life stories about Central Florida's underground gay nightlife, the battle against HIV/AIDS and the fight for not only acceptance but inclusion that continues today. 

It's former Mayor Glenda Hood who, though not a supporter of the mid-70's gay community, had relevant advice.  She suggested LGBTQ community representatives "get on the boards of corporations, start being the people MAKING the decisions".  It's advice that definitely stands the test of time, and the best way to ensure that hate won't win.  The film garnered the Audience Award for Best Florida Feature at FFF 32, and the closing credits include a catchy, soon-to-be released song/video about how the LGBTQ community 'makes the City Beautiful'.  

Lisa Blanck is the Associate Editor and Movie Reviewer for In  Her background includes 30+ years of digital editing for WESH2 News and WKMG News.  She also edits on-air promotional spots for Matter Of Fact, a highly-rated nationally syndicated news and information program.  For more than 30 years she has covered the Florida Film Festival and the World Peace Film Festival, with additional experience in advertising, marketing, promotions and live special events at MTV Networks.  She was previously a columnist for the Focus In Newspaper.

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