Once again the fine staff of the Oxford Film Fest have topped themselves to produce the biggest turnout yet. My congratulations to all involved and I already can’t wait to see what is on the menu for 2012.
Films I saw (click the titles for more info/trailers):
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Short, 1980)
The legendary actor cooks and eats a boot to make good on a lost bet and filmmaker Les Blank captures the event on film. An interesting goof even if the film doesn’t offer much in the way of profound commentary on filmmaking or any other issue.
Spanola Pepper Sauce Company (Short)
Directed by character actor and filmmaker Ray McKinnon, this slightly amusing monologue features a Southern dandy of a company owner who stands in a field and talks about “the old days” while having some sort of nervous breakdown about marauding vampires attacking his family. Well done except I don’t have a taste for films that are essentially an actor’s monologues disguised as short-form cinema. I prefer viewing more challenging and ambitious projects.
Two Mississippi bounty hunters run afoul of local mobsters, corrupt lawmen and a beautiful woman when they discover a map to buried treasure. For a first effort, Director Billy Chase Goforth achieved some impressive feats in completing this faux retro-grindhouse action flick. I’m going to have to pick his brain about creating effective and unsettling dream sequences. Both Goforth and Houston Nutt III (son of University of Mississippi coach Houston Nutt) display some great chemistry as co-stars.
Written and directed by Neil LaBute, Julia Stiles plays a mistress who confronts her lover’s wife after she is mistakenly sent an affectionate text message intended for the wife. Gorgeously shot and well acted by Stiles but yet again, it’s just another actor’s monologue with a somewhat funny punchline. No matter how high profile the filmmaker is, these simple day projects don’t impress me nearly as much as the complex, narrative and documentary shorts that filmmakers spend days, weeks and years crafting.
By far my favorite film of the entire fest. On a decaying Arkansas farm, two exasperated brothers try to locate the perfect stuffing for their screeching invalid mother’s pillow, but the solution to their problem could be more horrifying than the problem itself. This film shows a mastery of Southern Gothic storytelling and excels on all levels. Congratulations to the filmmakers for winning “Best Short” and to actor Ed Lowry for “Best Actor”.
Four groups of people separately find someone to bond with as each deal with a recent tragedy in a coal mining town in the mountains of Kentucky. Although I found the subject matter dreadfully boring, the interaction between the characters was pure cinematic gold. Despite the glaring lack of external conflict, I found myself haunted by the characters and the beautifully honest subtext of their conversations.
Southern Belle (Feature Documentary)
Chronicles a week-long summer camp in the mountains of Tennessee where teens and young women reenact the dress and customs as “Southern Belles” of the Civil War-era. This fascinating documentary takes a non-commentary approach to the subject matter, yet still manages to capture some controversial points of view. Unfortunately for every well-spoken and intelligently philosophical instructor/participant at this camp, there is another who unwittingly lets their well-meaning ignorance get the best of them on camera. Overall, it is a positive film that begs watching and discussing with a rational audience that doesn’t mind having its assumptions of Southern culture challenged.
A very brief horror short that seems unfinished and ultimately does not deliver what the title promises. I did like how the use of electrical sockets convey a sense of dread.
A horror/comedy fake reality TV show that follows two incompetent monster hunters as they run afoul of some unexpectedly clever vampires. A nice concept that delivers on some laughs, but it also misses some opportunities to expand on the concept. Enjoyable to watch despite the shortcomings.
Blood Therapy (Short)
A very dull vampire short with a half-hearted twist that treads a lot of familiar ground. While I appreciate the intent, I felt a stronger story could’ve helped this project; However, the opening title sequence showcased some promising camerawork.
Happy Face (Short)
I’m going to be hard on this one since its high production value was completely ruined by its lack of a good story. A famous actress in a mental ward hatches a plan to leave the business for good (I think that’s what it was about). The story and conclusion were vague, and if the audience managed to figure it out like I did, they probably still weren’t impressed by anything but the highly skilled camerawork.
Night of the Punks (Short)
This goofy send up of films like Demons and Night of the Demons had some funny moments and a very competent F/X crew. With a bit more time and money, I bet the filmmakers could come up with a fun feature-length version of this, but I would hope they could innovate some originality to the story next time.
My second-favorite film of the fest and definitely one of the most disturbing shorts I’ve ever seen. An ultra-creepy guy who collects black market memorabilia from his favorite serial killer unexpectedly discovers an item more prized than anything in his collection. The acting, cinematography, writing and music all came together perfectly in a genuinely unsettling film that shows how implied violence can be more effective than actually showing it. Even more unsettling is that there is a real online market for this sort of collecting (seriously, look it up!). Filmmaker Michael Usry hinted to me that this short may be expanded into a feature. If so, I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket.
River City Dead (Short)
Oxford acting legend Johnny McPhail stars as a hard-boiled detective battling vampires, zombies and Nazis in River City. Workaholic filmmaker Daniel Lee directs this love letter to exploitation and horror films. It is also worth noting that his artfully gothic short Faithful Departed won this critic over at the first Annual Clarksdale Film Festival last month.
The Hanging of Big Todd Wade (Short)
An Oxford community project, this western short was in such high demand by the viewers that five additional screenings were arranged to accommodate them all. Sad sack (Big) Todd Wade gets convicted of a crime he did not commit and even though the entire town has turned against him, Todd’s most notable quality just might help him escape death. Filled with absurd humor and exceptional production value, this film delivers its final punchline with satisfying gusto.
Blood Feud (Short)
A boy whose DEA father is killed by a ruthless Mexican cartel attempts a hasty and ill-advised plan for revenge. Although this incomplete film acts more as a trailer for a larger film yet to be filmed, it shows some promise by allowing the audience to sympathize with the lead character and fear for his life. I do hope filmmaker Johnson Thomasson follows through on his intent to deliver a full version of this one.
The Mistake (Short)
A college girl wakes up in a stranger’s bed and attempts to piece together the events of the previous night to discover how she got there. This had an interesting way of throwing off the audience from its true intent. At first it feels like a date-rape “after school special”, but eventually transforms into something else, leading up to an unexpected twist that left me surprised and pleasantly shocked.
Treat or Eat (Short)
A young girl dressed as a witch feels apprehensive to go trick or treating after hearing stories about the fabled “Child Eater”. A very amusing Halloween short in the vein of PG horror movies from the 80’s, director April Wren has crafted a short film sure to get into Halloween and horror festivals across the country. The film features a hilariously cute performance out of up and coming child actress Rachel Adkins and filmmaker Daniel Lee plays a very intimidating bogey man as well. A must-see for fans of films like Poltergeist or Monster Squad.
A reclusive drifter convinces a sympathetic friend to help him fight an unusual problem that prevents him from ever living a normal life. I had the pleasure of catching this film at the Clarksdale Film Festival and I feel it signals the emergence of a significant talent. This minimalist horror short capitalizes on atmosphere and visuals over dialogue to achieve a quietly tense and suspenseful tale. Young filmmaker Michael Williams from West Point, MS shows an uncanny confidence and mastery in his abilities to craft a fine, compelling film. He’s one to watch out for.
Where I Begin (Feature)
A man returns to his Mississippi home town to seek some measure of redemption after a rape accusation forced him out of town ten years ago. This Oxford-based feature was also in such high demand, I couldn’t get into the scheduled screening. Luckily a screener copy prevented me from missing the film altogether. While this melodrama features some exceptional acting (from lead Alex Walters especially) and camerawork, its slow pace, music video montages (although the music was quite good) and loose editing keeps it from reaching its full potential. Fortunately, the film’s overall quality and aesthetic promises great things from filmmakers Thomas L. Phillips and Melanie Lynn Addington in the near future.
Congratulations to the winners of Fest! See you all next year!
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