Atlanta Film Festival - Movie madness at the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival

CL's picks for the 35th annual fest

The Atlanta Film Festival reveals that movies from our own backyard can be as strange and exotic as subtitled dramas from distant lands or documentaries devoted to offbeat subject matter. For its 35th year, the Atlanta Film Festival presents 125 narrative and documentary features and short films. In addition to 35th anniversary showings of Network and Taxi Driver, the cinema celebration screens a retrospective of the work of young Mexican director Nicolas Pereda and special programs devoted to music, sports, gay issues and locally made movies via the Georgia on Our Mind Film Series, from April 28-May 7 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.


Product placement — the conspicuous, paid-for presence of brand names in popular entertainment — stubbornly resists an ironic treatment. When comedies attempt to satirically shill for real merchandise, the gag nearly always falls flat, like the time Jerry Seinfeld plugged his film Bee Movie on "30 Rock." But with Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, director Morgan Spurlock essentially gets to have his pomegranate juice corporate sponsorship and drink it, too.

The gonzo documentarian who unhealthily binged in McDonald's food in the acclaimed Super Size Me takes a faux-friendly attitude to big companies in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Spurlock's idea is to use corporate sponsorship to bankroll a film about product placement, so the movie's story is his pursuit of a product partnership, while he explores the endless ways advertising has been proliferating in modern media.

Spurlock doesn't so much attack the manipulative nature of advertising as simply draw attention to all the ads like background noise — inspired by the likes of Iron Man, he teams up with a gas station chain for Greatest Movie Ever Sold collectible cups. The audience already knows about the hidden persuaders, but it's useful to remind us of them.

The film provides an intriguing look at the pitching process, like "Mad Men" a half century later. At one point, the beverage company shoots down all of his amusingly risqué ideas for commercials in the movie, and Spurlock puts a brave face on his stung feelings. He worries that, no matter how "meta" the project may be, he's actually compromising his integrity and consults with the likes of Ralph Nader. Spurlock chats with weary, indignant filmmakers, but while director Peter Berg voices frustration with the product placement process, no one points out the Battleship board game in the background — which just happens to be the subject of his next action flick.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold can serve as a juicy metaphor for the contemporary economy — with income disparity and bankrupt governments, we're all destined to curry the favor of corporate overlords. Spurlock doesn't dig very deeply, but when the film ends with a big push, you feel a little queasy, rather than mock-triumphant. By its nature, however, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold feels unfinished — things like its screening at Sundance and actual success can't be included, so its final act remains unwritten until the DVD release. Talk about great marketing. Fri., April 29, 7:30 p.m. Morgan Spurlock will be in attendance.

LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: Other intriguing documentaries such as Blank City's portrait of Manhattan's creative explosion during the seedy 1970s; Hot Coffee's in-depth exploration of one of America's most famous class-action lawsuits; and Get Real! Wise Women Speak, which features interviews with the likes of Nikki Giovanni and former Atlantan Jane Fonda.

DISABLED BUT ABLE TO ROCK (3 out of 5 stars)

Unsuspecting onlookers at karaoke bars or sci-fi conventions have no idea what to make of Atlanta's Betsy Goodrich, aka Danger Woman. The documentary Disabled but Able to Rock reveals how the bespectacled, curly haired woman likes to dress as a superhero and fight the forces of "homophobia, race-ophobia and disable-phobia," apparently by singing at an ear-splitting volume.

Director Blake Myers discovers that Goodrich is no performance artist hiding behind an exaggerated persona, but an individual trying to find her way in the world despite some serious challenges. In a film that spans more than a decade of Goodrich's life, we discover that she's a high-functioning autistic person who holds a job as a sorter at a Borders bookstore and enjoys being Danger Woman whenever possible.

Disabled but Able to Rock explores the difficult home life on the other side of Danger Woman's mask. The first half of the film shows how she shares a shockingly cluttered home with her more severely autistic brother Jebby and their minimally supportive mother, who seems at the end of her patience after a lifetime of raising grown children. Goodrich's father died from a chloroform overdose, either through suicide or recreational misadventure, and other drastic domestic changes occur over the course of the film.

Goodrich struggles to gain more independence as her concerned relatives and guardians try to ensure that she doesn't overextend herself. Disabled but Able to Rock indicates the complexity of mental disability: Sometimes Goodrich seems to have the judgment of a child, other times she seems perfectly responsible. Paradoxically, she admits she's lonely but doesn't want to date anyone more disabled than herself, and pines for an online friend nicknamed the Phantom Highlander.

Myers' film has a loose, tag-along quality as he follows Goodrich, although the spontaneous approach tends to leave questions unanswered, like whether she has help scheduling her Dragon*Con experiences, or the details of an apparent sexual assault. Goodrich comes across as suspended between grown-up aspirations and childlike make-believe, but her uninhibited enthusiasm wins her fans. Alt-rockers the Aqua-Bats wrote a song about her, while her audience at Dragon*Con meeting rooms seems to laugh with her, not at her, as if they recognize that the Danger Woman joyously rescues Betsy Goodrich from the difficulties of everyday life. Wed., May 4, 8 p.m., Plaza Theatre; Sat., May 7, 4:30 p.m.

LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: The Music Film Series includes the feature Pleasant People, about the life of an aspiring musician in the Deep South; the ABBA drag competition documentary What's the Name of the Dame?; hip-hop documentaries Beatboxing and Bouncing Cats; and Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, a profile of the legendary funk-punk band.


WHITE IRISH DRINKERS (2 out of 5 stars)

White Irish Drinkers, a family drama from director John Gray, rises and falls based on its period detail. Set primarily in Brooklyn's hard-partying, working-class neighborhoods in 1975, White Irish Drinkers looks and sounds like a personal, low-budget film of the era, comparable to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, only about fighting Irish instead of brawling Italians.

Best known as the creator of TV's "The Ghost Whisperer," Gray takes a little too much pleasure in jokes that require 20/20 hindsight. "It'll play a week and never be heard from again," moviehouse owner Whitey (Peter Riegert) says dismissively of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Characters dismiss the prospects of making a career out of computers. Travel agents: That's a job with a future.

White Irish Drinkers hinges on the tense relationship between two brothers: Brian Leary (Nick Thurston), a mild-mannered aspiring artist, and Danny (Geoffrey Wigdor), a petty thief seemingly unable to make a heist without arguing with his partner. Their boozing, abusive father (Avatar's Stephen Lang) loves picking fights with Danny, while Brian's so nonconfrontational, he keeps his artistic talent a secret.

The film's most persuasive scenes involve Brian's gift for drawing and painting, particularly when he impresses a former classmate (Leslie Murphy) by spontaneously sketching her portrait in the frost on a bar's front window. Gray captures the funk of Brooklyn nightlife before the rise of the disco era, as Whitey hopes that a short, unofficial concert from the Rolling Stones will save his cinema's failing finances. The title comes from the way Brian's boorish buddies reject marijuana and other drugs in favor of alcohol. "We're white, Irish drinkers," they declare as if it's a matter of cultural pride.

The script gets most of the little details right while relying on the most obvious plot points imaginable, and you can successfully guess the major romantic and would-be tragic plot twists within the film's first 10 minutes. Riegert, Lang and Karen Allen (as the boy's long-suffering Ma) give vivid character portrayals, but the young leads lack the magnetism to make their overly familiar crises compelling. White Irish Drinkers so pungently captures the vibe of its setting that you wish John Gray the director had replaced John Gray the screenwriter. Thurs., May 5, 10 p.m.

LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: Mother-daughter drama Coming Up Roses with Bernadette Peters; the small-town dramedy We Are the Hartmans with Richard Chamberlain.

DER SANDMANN (3 out of 5 stars)

We've all tried to fend off drowsiness by rubbing away the little particles of grit from the corners of our eyes. In the phantasmagoric Swiss comedy Der Sandmann, Fabian Krüger plays Benno, who comes down with a potentially fatal case of sleep-induced sand secretions. First Benno awakens every morning to discover handfuls of sand inexplicably between his sheets, and then notices streams of silicate draining out his shirt or pant cuffs during his waking hours. Some men worry about losing their hair, but Benno's losing his sand. Or maybe his mind.

Writer/director Peter Luisi draws equally on Jim Carrey comedies and Franz Kafka short stories for his freaky premise. A haughty, duplicitous clerk at a rare stamp store, Benno has a gorgeous girlfriend (Florine Elena Deplazes) and an even more passionate disdain for the plain young woman Sandra (Irene Brügger), who runs the coffee shop beneath his apartment. The barista disrupts Benno's slumbers whenever she rehearses her one-woman musical routine, a slinky tango with creative echo effects. They maintain a note of open hostility even sharper than the usual rom-com couple that bickers through the first act, until Benno suspects that she has a connection to his condition. Is the name Sand-ra a coincidence?

At its best, Der Sandmann plays like Being John Malkovich or another Charlie Kaufman script, with Benno's problem revealing increasingly bizarre side effects, particularly when he snorts the sand like cocaine. Benno seals up his pants to keep from leaking sand in front of his neatnik boss, only to have his trousers swell up like sausage casings. A phone-in TV psychic offers baffling advice: "The solution is nine." Benno increasingly suspects that the key to his nocturnal emissions lies in his subconscious, and the deeper he delves into his dreams, the more his apartment swells with sand dunes.

Krüger's alternately arrogant and desperate performance suggests David Duchovny in a madcap frame of mind, with Brügger's deadpan sweetness providing a perfect match. At barely an hour and a half the film still feels overlong, as if the premise would better suit a tight 30-minute short. But Der Sandmann sustains too many clever jokes and surprising ideas to keep anyone in the audience from dozing off. Fri., May 6, 5:30 p.m.

LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: The Passport Film Series at this year's festival includes international films such as the Norwegian horror flick Troll Hunter, which looks like Monsters meets The Blair Witch Project; the German biopic Young Goethe in Love; and two films set in China's capital: the documentary Beijing Taxi and the sex comedy Red Light Revolution.


AFRICA UNITED (3 out of 5 stars)

A funny thing happens to three Rwandan kids on the way to a World Cup football tryout. Early in the sunny, shameless comedy Africa United, pint-sized street hustler Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje) and his younger sister Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu) accompany their friend Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva) for an audition in the capital city of Kigali to show his skills in the World Cup opening ceremony in South Africa. To save money they sneak aboard a bus, only to realize they made a mistake when they arrive at Kinshasa in the Congo.

Since they've already illegally crossed one border, Dudu's can-do attitude inspires them to push on and attempt to travel the length of the continent in time for the big game. Africa United succeeds best as a vibrant travelogue as the kids travel from a Burundi Lake Resort to a Zimbabwean jungle medical school to "Soccer City" stadium in Johannesburg, with peppy African pop songs playing all the while.

Ndayambaje delivers his constant sales pitches with such sassy confidence, he's inevitably reminiscent of "Diff'rent Strokes"-era Gary Coleman. Africa United impressively sets an upbeat tone while acknowledging the depths of the country's problems with poverty, illness and violent unrest. Putting a spin on Africa's AIDS crisis, Dudu opens the film by demonstrating how a condom can be inflated to make a makeshift soccer ball. Later, an HIV center gives the kids money to take HIV tests, helping to bankroll their impromptu road trip.

Dudu's team of travelers expands to include a youth on the run from a mob of brutal rebels as well as a beautiful teenager sick of sexual exploitation. Africa United takes some manipulative, melodramatic twists but primarily presents a lighthearted adventure worthy of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Dudu even entertains his friends with an elaborate tale that combines soccer with a creation myth, rendered in stop-motion animation.

Directed by English filmmaker Deborah Gardner-Paterson, Africa United lacks the narrative punch of Slumdog Millionaire, another Third World feel-good movie, and seems unlikely to match the Oscar-winner's crossover success. But Africa United movingly captures the way the South African World Cup felt like an entire continent's coming-out party, and will end the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival on an irresistibly cheerful note. Be sure to bring your vuvuzela. Sat., May 7, 7:45 p.m.

LIKE THIS? THEN TRY: The Scoreboard Film Series includes sports-related documentaries such as Late Rounders, about college football players' attempts to break into the NFL; Pigskins & Magnolias: 12 Days of Fandom, a love letter to the Southeastern Football Conference; and Starting at the Finish Line: The Coach Buehler Story, about Duke University's groundbreaking track and field coach.