18 November, 2013

Georgia productions at the Savannah Film Festival: "The Spectacular Now" (****), "Last Vegas" (**), "The Sacrament" (***)

In addition to a host of Georgia-lensed SCAD student work, this year's Savannah Film Festival screened an assortment of Georgia productions. James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now," both set and shot in Athens, already closed out the Atlanta Film Festival earlier this year and went on to a successful theatrical run over the summer, but Savannah hosted a special screening of the film with director Ponsoldt, writer Michael H. Weber and star Miles Teller (a frequent attendee and former Discovery Award recipient) in attendance for a Q&A. Jon Turteltaub's "Last Vegas" served as one of the special gala presentation films and despite not being set anywhere near the Peach State, most of the movie was shot here. Horror film dynamo Ti West filmed his latest, "The Sacrament," in the Savannah area during the duration of last year's film festival, so it only made sense for him to come back to the Hostess City for a special premiere. Plenty of cast and crew members were on hand for the unveiling. In addition to these narrative features, documentary jury contender and Audience Award winner, "Mayan Blue," has Georgia ties as well. The film showcases Mayan ruins beneath Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, but comes from Athens-based Standoff Studios. (A review for "Mayan Blue" will be featured later.)

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley star in "The Spectacular Now"
"The Spectacular Now," James Ponsoldt's ode to teenage love based on the novel by Tim Tharp, was filmed in Athens during the summer of 2012. Though the novel is set in Oklahoma, Ponsoldt—along with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—made the choice to shoot and set the film in his hometown. Aiming to dignify the teenage drama, Ponsoldt and his stars, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, did just that—bringing to life a stirring tale of young love and all of the bad decisions, beginner vices and family tensions that so easily accompany it. "The Spectacular Now" is the opposite of teen movies from the 1990s and 2000s, showcasing all of the acne and sweat-stains that come part and parcel of being a teenager, but also all of the growing pains and feelings of misunderstanding. Teller and Woodley both won special acting awards at Sundance, where the film premiered—and rightly so—with Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk and Kyle Chandler rounding out a stellar cast. "The Spectacular Now" not only shines as a true Georgia film, it also stands out as one of the year's most sincere dramas. 4 out of 5 stars.

Mary Steenburgen stars in "Last Vegas"
The odds were always slim that "Last Vegas" would ever come across as anything but a geriatric attempt at recreating "The Hangover"—and at least it delivered on those expectations. There is something to be said of gathering together a cast of five Academy Award winners—Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen. Director Jon Turtletaub, although not a critical favorite, does have a history of making successful, mostly-likeable, family-oriented blockbusters. Unfortunately, the combined power of these extensive résumés could not rescue this tired screenplay from the toils of disingenuousness, sexual overcompensation and frequent emotional over-saturation. I was caught off guard by a few unexpected chuckles at the start of the film (thanks mostly to Kline), but the beginning is certainly the peak—with too many mood swings and desperate attempts to look cool speeding up the descent. It is tragic that such gifted actors are presented with an opportunity to act alongside their peers and friends but find themselves too confined by these one-note characters that show no dimensional changes throughout the film's labored 90 minutes, aside from a brief elevation or two from De Niro or Douglas towards the end. One component that I have no complaints about, though, is Mary Steenburgen. The gracefully aging beauty is still a gifted comedic actress and succeeds at charming her leading men—and the audience—despite the mess that surrounds her. 2 out of 5 stars.

AJ Bowen stars in "The Sacrament"
"The Sacrament" is the latest film by rising horror star Ti West. After making a name for himself with films like "The House of the Devil," "The Innkeepers" and a contribution to festival favorite "V/H/S," West attracted the attention of Eli Roth—a producer on this film. Shot in the Savannah area last fall, "The Sacrament" follows two journalists as they join their photographer friend as he travels to see his sister, who has left the country and joined a mysterious and cautious commune located purposefully far away from modern civilization. The camp, known as Eden Parish, is comprised of a few hundred people and led by a charismatic but unsettling figure known simply as 'Father.' As the journalists get closer to finding out just why these people were so eager to leave their lives in America behind, a series of events unfolds and it becomes clear that they need to leave. While sinister motives are never truly revealed, the film succeeds in its ultimate goal of shocking the audience. AJ Bowen, Gene Jones and, especially, Amy Seimetz lead a strong cast, but the main problems exist deep in the expectations placed on the audience. Many questions are posed but left unanswered and many plot devices are ended with a bang but no real explanation or development. Violence is extreme and manages to shock, but the film is most chilling when all is peaceful—before the scares were even intended. Production values are fantastic, but the style of the film forces the audience to forgive too many inconsistencies in storytelling. "The Sacrament" is unconventional in terms of today's horror filmmaking—leaving behind sci-fi, fantasy and revenge for good, old-fashioned deceit. Unfortunately, West's knack for the genre isn't best showcased here, as he leaves too many threads hanging, both narratively and technically. 3 out of 5 stars.

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