Coop and Mike McCarthy during the Q & A for “Cigarette Girl”
The 7th year of the annual Oxford Film Festival in Oxford, Mississippi kicked off the night of Thursday the 4th by taking over half of the Malco Oxford Studio Cinema and roping an area off for the media, filmmakers and other assorted guests. While I had attended screenings at large festivals during my tenure in Los Angeles, I was only moderately enthused about covering a local one. I figured I’d see a few underwhelming indie flicks and slink on back home to Clarksdale for some light writing and shut-eye. Boy was I ever wrong.
The Oxford Film Festival was one of the most fun and rewarding experiences I’ve had since returning to the state. Because of its smaller size, you can meet nearly every filmmaker, celebrity and media contact in attendance. No matter what type of access badge you possess, you’re invited to every party; and to top it off, the selection of films surprised and delighted even a hardened veteran such as myself. This truly is a singular experience and I encourage anyone interested in film to attend the festival next year. Allow me to convince you…
The first night I caught a new film by Joshua Goldin, starring Mathew Broderick titled “Wonderful World” about a hopelessly bitter man (Broderick) who is forced to re-examine his gloomy attitude when his Senegalese roommate (Michael K. Williams), his only friend, goes into a diabetic coma.
While I thought the film was sweet and had a few exceptional good moments, I was more excited about the late screening of Mike McCarthy’s futuristic, rockabilly noir opus “Cigarette Girl.” As you might remember, I attended the “Cigarette Girl” Memphis premiere and wrote a review on it. Because of my familiarity with the filmmaker, I was asked by the coordinators of the festival to introduce the film and host the after screening Q & A with McCarthy. Seeing “Cigarette Girl” again and spending time with McCarthy and his admirers was a highlight of my festival experience.
The next day I decided to start off with a film from Japan with an intriguing premise. “Happy Ending” features a frumpy librarian/movie nerd named Momoko who starts to notice some strange coincidences in her life, especially when she continually bumps into the man of her dreams. Soon her movie nerd friends come to the realization that her life has somehow turned into a romantic comedy film and they all pitch in to help her see it to a satisfying conclusion, much to the chagrin of her best male friend who is quietly in love with her. Definitely my favorite film of the festival, “Happy Ending” could easily become an American remake if a Hollywood bigwig ever discovers it. While I’d hate to see that remake trend continue, the premise of this film is too perfect for an American audience to miss.
The next film I saw became the low point of my festival experience. “A Quiet Little Marriage” (the trailer presents it as light, but it’s anything but) by director Mo Perkins had already won awards at the Austin Film Fest and at Slamdance. That baffles me as I found it nearly unwatchable. Dax (Cy Carter) doesn’t want kids, so his wife Olive (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) pokes holes in her birth control diaphragm. Cy finds out and starts secretly crushing up birth control pills in her morning coffee. No, this is not a comedy. Instead it’s an awfully depressing, mean-spirited, clichéd relationship drama with no likable characters, annoying music and little redeeming value save some good acting from the leads. An intense disappointment for me since so many people recommended I catch this one. Fortunately, it was the only film I did not enjoy.
“Made in China” cleansed my palette. Count this one as another feel-good movie that deserves a bigger audience. Johnson (Jackson Kuehn), a loser from Texas who is obsessed with novelty toys, gets laughed out of his hometown after trying to find investors for his loony projects. Undaunted, he empties his bank account and heads for Shanghai to find investors to manufacture his can’t-lose, top secret idea. As unscrupulous con artists take advantage of his innocent charm, Johnson pushes forward, determined to succeed despite massive setbacks. This movie scores big due to a tight script, a loveable concept and Jackson Kuehn’s hilarious, deadpan performance as a fish out of water who doesn’t know how to give up. Director Judith Krant likewise knows how to please a crowd by opting for a light and whimsical tone while ironically shooting in one of the worlds most politically stern countries.
“Carried Away” echoed the same whimsical tone as many of the festival’s other narrative films, but its successful fusion of drama and comedy made it an audience favorite. Ed Franklin (Gabriel Horn) returns from Hollywood to Fort Worth, TX to visit his dysfunctional family for Christmas. When he learns that his gruff, ex-military father has abandoned Ed’s beloved Granny (Juli Erickson) to a miserable rest home, Ed decides to bust her out and head for California. With Ed’s furious family hot on their tail, Ed and Granny race across the country and suffer misadventures after Granny’s medication begins to wear off. This film is highlighted by an impressively strong performance by Juli Erickson and an ensemble cast with unmistakable chemistry. I was not surprised in the least when “Carried Away” won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the film fest.
Director of “Now or Never” Angie Hill, Mike McCarthy, and the stars of “Now or Never” Carlisle Forrester and Summer Sinclair
I spent the rest of the fest sampling a few of the short films submitted by filmmakers with ties to the Mid South. Matthew Graves, employed by the University of Mississippi in its Media and Documentary Projects Center, wowed the crowd with two technically impressive horror/comedy shorts, “Tricks and Treats” and “Footsteps.” Likewise did Angie Hill, Summer E. Sinclair and Oxford native Carlisle Forrester with their narrative short “Now or Never” about a party game that tests the motivations and loyalties of the couples who attend. “Now or Never” won Best Narrative Short at the festival, a well deserved honor for an original story concept that boasted some outstanding performances.
The primary advantage of a film festival also serves as a disadvantage for those who would like to see every film in the fest. It’s simply not possible and although I kept my schedule filled, I missed some interesting events… “Night of the Loup Garou,” a horror-comedy about a Cajun werewolf terrorizing the citizens of Taylor, Mississippi, just outside of Oxford, features an all-local cast that includes Haven Nutt (daughter of Ole Miss head football coach Houston Nutt), Collins Tuohy (daughter of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy of “The Blind Side” fame), Johnny McPhail, Rhes Low and many more recognizable Oxford faces. With Coach Nutt and other local celebrities in attendance, I regretted having to miss this screening.
I also wish I had been able to attend the panel in which critic and professional celebrity interviewer Elvis Mitchell sat down with character actor and Academy Award Winning Director Ray McKinnon (Left who played Coach Cotton from “The Blind Side”). McKinnon, who last came to Mississippi to play a role in the film “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag,” was flabbergasted when presented a special Achievement in Film award at the fest’s ending ceremony.
All of the festival winners received a “Spirit of the Hoka” statue in honor of the famed Oxford indie film shack known as “The Hoka,” once owned and operated by local film and juice bar guru, Ron Shapiro. Shapiro, who also presented the awards, was very hospitable when I showed up at his juice/coffee bar The Main Squeeze looking for a smoothie during a mid-festival break. I highly recommend paying him a visit.
The entire event was handled professionally and I commend the coordinators for their fantastic programming and organization. The part I enjoyed the most was meeting all of those in attendance… From the actors to the directors, the volunteers to the coordinators, the big media to the small (especially the two student reporters from The Daily Mississippian, both named Emily, who managed to show-up even the seasoned professional media with their sly networking skills), and everyone in between. I’m already looking forward to the 2011 Oxford Film Fest. I hope to see you there.
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