SLEEPLESS AT SIDEWALK

SLEEPLESS AT SIDEWALK

It was gonna happen sooner or later. I’ve been hearing nothing but good things over the past few years from Chris Gore about this festival called Sidewalk that takes place in Birmingham, Alabama, so it was inevitable that the time would come that I would have my chance to go play out on the Sidewalk. Well that time finally came as I was invited to Birmingham not only to cover the 6th Annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, September 23 – 26, but to join the feature film jury panel as well. Of course I accepted. I’m no dummy. It was going to be an interesting weekend, but no words of praise could’ve prepared me for just how interesting.

Thursday – Out of the Plane, Into the Furnace

It’s always nice being picked up at the airport of a strange new city by someone you know, or at least by someone that’s supposed to know you. This eliminates the chance of you being ripped off by the local taxi community as they love sniffing out out-of-towners and relieving them of their hard earned drinking money.

Kelly Marshall, PR and hospitality goddess, was there to greet me, with her was Gill Holland, fellow feature film juror and producer of “Greg the Bunny”, “Hurricane Streets” and the upcoming “Loggerheads”, amongst a slew of other productions. With very little time to waste were taken to our hotels to check in and then whisked away to the Sloss Furnaces for a special kick-off screening of locally produced zombie flick “Hide & Creep”. The Sloss Furnaces are a national historic landmark that have been around since 1881, standing as a leading foundry iron producer until they were shut down in 1971. The furnaces, now cold and quiet, exist as a visitor center and art exhibit with resident artists producing metal art and giving tours of the facility. It also serves as one helluva backdrop for a zombie movie as we all found out that evening.

The whirlwind of new faces and places was picking up speed as, on the way to the furnaces I met, amongst others, Mark Stolaroff – indie producer and founding partner of Antic Pictures – Vladimir Vitkin – “X,Y” filmmaker – Bill Rose – “The Loss of Nameless Things” filmmaker – and Lauren Winters and Jeannie Jo of filmBUZZ. Regular Film Threat readers will know filmBUZZ from their film festival marketing research reports that appear here on occasion.

Before the film was a filmmaker reception at a park next door to the furnaces. This is where I was able to meet up once again with Sidewalk mastermind Erik Jambor (director / co-founder). We had met briefly last January at Sundance where I believe we had first discussed my coming out for this year’s Sidewalk event, but the fever that had taken me over during the last half of my Park City trip boiled those memories into a cloudy stew. So it was this Thursday evening that I was able to finally meet Erik proper.

And so began the seemingly endless onslaught of free food and beer. Ever had a fried green tomato before? Neither had I. I had only seen the movie and laughed. And I’m happy to report that it’s quite delicious. So the meet and greet continued as I washed fried green tomatoes down with a few Beck’s. Mr. Beck’s and I have tangoed before, but this weekend we formed a hot, steamy relationship that would make many blush. So before long, the reception started winding down. The wise few grabbed a couple more beers for the road before heading over to the furnaces where a packed crowd sat before a giant movie screen awaiting the premiere of “Hide & Creep.” There were plenty of folks involved with the film in attendance, but for the most part, these were paying moviegoers who were hungry to see something new. So far so good. I had only stepped off the plane a few hours ago and already the festival was a smash success.

Hide and Creep
Directed by Chuck Hartsell and Chance Shirley

Focusing more on laughs than actual scares, this Alabamian zombie invasion still has plenty of smarts behind it and never abandons its audience by ignorantly betraying the living dead sub-genre. Here, we see zombies rise from the Earth, they need to be shot in the head and they’re not all too quick like the new batch of X-Treme zombies sprinting across our movie and television screens. Being that this was a competition feature film, I had screened it at home where I found the humor, as well as the performances, holding my interest throughout. But watching it with an audience was an entirely different experience apart from the obvious atmosphere boost from the Sloss Furnaces. The crowd ate it up. They laughed, cheered and screamed in all the right places. As a filmmaker, you really couldn’t have asked for a better reception. This film has spirit and it’s this spirit, matched with a wealth of local talent, that helped this production overcome budget limitations. “Hide and Creep” gives zombie nuts plenty to celebrate.

Then it was on to Los Angeles for an after party. The restaurant Los Angeles. And yes, mildly amusing jokes were made by those who had just flown in from the City of Angels. So did this place have a distinct L.A. flavor? To tell you the truth, my lack of sleep the night before and the numerous beers since my arrival didn’t work all to well with my perception of the place. However, there was a noticeable lack of pretentious people around, so in that sense that establishment failed in living up to their name. Good for them. Instead, it was more friendly filmmaker meeting and this was when I ran into Chuck and Chance, the filmmakers behind “Hide and Creep”. It was Chance and I, as well as a few other lost souls, that wound up closing the bar that evening. I also met several folks from another competition feature film, “Alice’s Misadventures in Wonderland,” one of which was director Robert Rugan who warmly welcomed me to Birmingham. In fact, it was warm welcomes all around. Was I taking crazy pills, or did I wind up in one of the friendliest cities in the country? The rest of my weekend proved the latter, but I really wouldn’t have minded the former.

Friday – I Saw a Vulcan’s Butt

Weeks before leaving for this trip, I realized that I would be in Birmingham almost two full days before the festival actually began. So what was this all about? Was it bad scheduling? Was it a trap? No. It was a plan to get filmmakers, jurors and festival crew and guests well acquainted with one another and what better way to do that than send us all out on a field trip together. Our day started with a trip to Vulcan Park where a gigantic statue of Vulcan (no, this has nothing to do with Spock) stands atop his perch as a proud symbol of Birmingham’s heritage. I knew nothing of this Vulcan before Friday and was loaded down with the info, but mostly what I took away from this bare-assed symbol of hometown pride was that Birmingham locals really do hold it in high regard…that and if you’re standing at just the right spot in town it looks like Vulcan’s holding his dick. Thanks for the person who gave me that info – you know who you are.

So after roaming the park and museum for a bit, it was time for a filmmaker and festival guest lunch where we grubbed down some very delicious chicken and veggies. Once again, the idea behind this trip was to better acquaint ourselves with everyone as it’s just too difficult to get a hold on who everyone is at the numerous parties taking place during the weekend. So, bellies full, we all took turns introducing ourselves. The plan worked perfectly. So far the field trip was working in bonding us together as a group. And that bonding would only continue.

Next, we headed back to Sloss Furnaces for an iron pour and tour of the historic facility. I’m pretty sure this was a whole new experience for most of us and it will always be remembered. The tour of Sloss was informational and creepy, but what really stood out was that we were able to make and take with us our own pieces of iron poured art. We were all handed little blocks of…some…thing…of which we etched in designs that melted down iron scraps could fill and create instant artwork. The Beavis and Butthead came out in all of us as we watched these iron pieces melt down in a matter of minutes in this tiny little furnace that was so cute you would just want to go up and give it a hug…well, that is if you were deranged and were a sucker for third degree burns. We happily watched this melted iron get poured, by professionals mind you – all we did was make the etchings – and ultimately we wound up taking home these little chunks of metal that we would all have to explain later at the airport.

From being at the furnaces for the past few hours, we were all covered in filth and sweat, so it was time for everyone to clean up and change (anyone seen wearing the same clothing later that evening was pointed and laughed at) and then it was time for a brief reception before we all headed off to the opening night screening of “Silver City” at the Alabama Theatre. Yes, John Sayles’ latest has already opened in other cities, but it still has yet to be scheduled for a Birmingham release, so this screening was to be a real treat…until everyone realized that it sucks.

Silver City
Directed by John Sayles
It’s fairly traditional that the opening night festival movie blows and “Silver City” does all it can to live up to this tradition. Other than his genre works, I’m no big follower of Sayles’ work, but I recognize him as a well respected filmmaker. So it was shocking to see this film that was really an immature rant against Bush with no imagination whatsoever and even less skill. It was embarrassing and the words “sucks”, “blows” and “turdburger” were deafening as they ricocheted around the Alabama Theatre lobby.

Later, a party was arranged on the rooftop of one of the hotels, but a malfunctioning keg found some of us striking out on the town to find other venues of drinkery and this was actually a pleasant turn of events. It gave us a chance to explore and we all wound up at a place called The Garage, a little strip mall type place turned into a bar slash junk retailer. Very relaxing and a perfect drinking and socializing environment, so much so that our group began to dissipate and it was only a select few of us that wound up at a strip club afterwards, closing that place out and getting back to our hotel rooms at 4 in the morning. Good times? Absolutely. But they soon turned a little rough as there was an 8:30 AM juror breakfast I need to be at.

Saturday – The Running of the Films

At last, movie watching madness has begun, but not before an early morning juror breakfast held at OHOP – not IHOP – OHOP. This informal breakfast gathering was put together so jury wrangler Arik Sokul could lay some ground rules – very basic stuff like don’t feed the monkeys and don’t talk reveal how much you like the filmmakers’ films. Breakfast was great and it was just the fuel I needed to pick me up from the night before. And then on to the movies I went.

Kathryn: The Story of a Teller

This charming documentary focuses on Kathryn Tucker Windham, Alabama’s treasure, who is known for her amazing storytelling skills. We hear from the countless Alabamians who love and cherish her work, but the film is always at its best when it puts Kathryn front and center as she spins yet another tale. “Kathryn” went on to win the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Buddy
Here was a nice surprise. Didn’t really know much about this one, but I decided to take a chance on it and won! Straight out of Norway, “Buddy” tells the story of Kristoffer and his buddies videotaping themselves doing goofy “Jackass” type shit that ends up making them big, local television stars. Yeah, it does sounds a little stomach churning in print, but what keeps this film from being the turd it should’ve been is that it has plenty of heart and that these characters are actually likeable even if they aren’t perfect. The on-camera stunts actually take the backseat to the human story of these characters – Kristoffer is caught between two loves, one of his buddies is struggling to hide the fact that he has a kid and his other buddy is somewhat of an agoraphobe. These characters are more than just full-contact class clowns and they make for a very pleasing watch.

Piggie
If you love “Buffalo 66”, and I know there are a lot of you out there that do, you’d be wise to check out Alison Bagnall’s “Piggie.” Alison co-wrote “Buffalo 66” with Vincent Gallo and with “Piggie” she presents us with another interesting love story that’s just as funny as it is uncomfortable. The film has us join the daily adventures of Fannie, a teenage girl who spends her time playing with road kill, sleeping in the pig pen with her pig, taking care of an elderly woman down the street and making up her own country western songs. Yeah, Fannie’s a bit of a strange one, and you might want to blame it on the lack of a mother in her life, as well as lackluster parenting from her father whom she live with. But when a stranger rolls into town, on the run from big city drug dealers, Fannie finds focus in her life that she never had before. She sets out in pursuing this stranger and making him her new boyfriend, whether he approves or not. Alison Bagnall wrote the script with lead actress Savannah Haske and in the end created a film that’s extremely natural and lifelike. “Piggie” is a major accomplishment.

Alice’s Misadventures in Wonderland

Yep, it’s another Alice in Wonderland movie, ‘cept this one doesn’t suck – way far from suckitude in fact. This version finds our Alice working at an office she hates for a boss she hates even more when she’s lured into a Wonderland by a freak in a white gas mask. This Wonderland’s twists and turns, while bearing all of the similarities of Lewis Carroll’s classic story, is made up of television parodies, filled with plenty of demented characters we’ve all seen on the boob tube. It’s a couch potato nightmare (wet dream maybe?) and Alice must solve puzzle after puzzle to try and find her way out, but now before she runs into the Evil Queen who is played by the one and only Will Keenan. Now that’s some brilliant casting there for ya. In fact, the entire cast is an absolute blast to watch. A lot was accomplished with this film, from the impressive CG, to the set designs, to the hilarious script, this is an indie that has more than most. His was also, from what I could tell, the most packed screening of the weekend with nearly 2,000 people in attendance at the Alabama Theatre.

That’s four movies for the day and I have to say that that’s pretty damn good. So it was off to an Alice in Wonderland themed party where a classically dressed Alice danced with a guy in a giant rabbit suit when break dancers weren’t dominating the floor. Eventually, several people took to the dance floor, but ultimately there was more lip flapping and schmoozing than ass shaking at this party.

Once that was all said and done, some of us headed back to the rooftop of my hotel as there was promise of free beer. Free beer there was indeed and I hung out on the rooftop for a while, babbling drunkenly until I decided to call it an early night…well, earlier than the night before…or so I thought. Getting back to my room, my alarm clock was telling me that it was, once again, 4 in the morning. That panel in the morning was going to be rough.

Sunday – Some Last Few Things Before Meltdown

Fortunately my panel wasn’t until 11:30 in the morning, but I still couldn’t beat the feeling that dementia was going to set in at any moment. The panel was on alternative forms of distribution and I was there to represent Film Threat DVD. Accompanying me on the panel were Michael Grady, manager of production and development at Dimension Films, Mark Stolaroff and “Blair Witch” filmmaker Dan Myrick who was also on the feature film jury panel with me. Producer Molly Mayeux moderated. I did my part, but fortunately Mark and Dan were the big talkers here as I just couldn’t get my eyes to stop crossing as the little man in my head had unleashed a flood of molten lava in my skull.

An hour and a half later and the panel was finished and the option was there for me to go back to the room and take a little nap. It was awards night and I didn’t want to feel like a slug for the ceremony. So did I go back to the room and sleep? Fuck no! It was time for more movies.

The Loss of Nameless Things
Directed by Bill Rose

Documentary filmmakers are wonderful because they go out there and find all of the interesting people for you. Real people with really interesting stories. Such is the case with Bill Rose and his film “The Loss of Nameless Things”, the story of Oakley Hall III, a mad genius playwright who lost his gift as well as his theatre company when a fall from a bridge killed him artistically. Oakley’s horribly smashed face was miraculously reconstructed, but it’s brain damage that has changed him into a completely different person who, at first, would have problems forming complete sentences or even really knowing who he was. Rose’s film takes you through Oakley’s tragic healing process which ultimately leads him to see the very play he was working on the night of his fall, go into production by a local theatre company. By the time this event comes around, Oakley has recovered somewhat. He’s a kinder, gentler man now rather than the angry, eccentric artist he was in his earlier years. He knows of his past, he just can’t contemplate being able to create such great works. That was a completely different Oakley than the one that exists now. “The Loss of Nameless Things” is a fascinating, yet tragic story that will inspire the artist inside audience members to come out and produce while it can.

D.E.B.S.

Here it is, the closing night film and it’s one that’s dodged me during the past few festivals I’ve attended. Now that I’ve seen it I can say that it was worth the wait. This film, about teenage female spies taking on the world’s super villains, has all of the energy of the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and more, it’s just more focused and less spastic. More laughs, cooler gadgets and sexier girls put Ronald McG to shame. This is a really fun movie with a great soundtrack – you have stuff like The Postal Service and Garbage as well as plenty of 80s hits. Look for it!

The awards ceremony took place at a theatre inside WorkPlay once everyone had filled themselves with some stellar BBQ. WorkPlay is an entertainment complex housing a soundstage, two recording studios, performance theatre and offices.




Posted on October 1, 2004 in Festivals by
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