When was the last time two perfect strangers stopped you on the street in front of a movie theater and struck up a conversation? That’s par for the course for me at the Savannah Film Festival where my wife Alice and I have been enjoying ourselves this week. Now in its 19th year, the event is sponsored by SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design. We’ve met friendly people from near and far, as well as a number of working professionals, and caught up with movies we missed at earlier festivals and L.A. Press screenings. All that plus full-time access to Leopold’s Ice Cream, which I wrote about in detail LAST YEAR when we first visited this beautiful city and I served on the festival jury.
It takes more than a good film lineup for an event like this to work; having a place where people can gather and engage in spontaneous conversations is essential. We’ve had many wonderful encounters at festival headquarters in the historic Marshall House hotel, but because it’s just one block from the Trustees Theater (a converted 1940s movie house) and its companion venue, the beautifully restored 1922 Lucas Theatre, we’ve had just as many chats right on the sidewalk. A former downtown department store is now the college library; this year it has housed a cutting-edge demonstration of Virtual Reality, including short films made by SCAD students. It may seem like just like another gimmick–a video game come to life–but when I saw the first two episodes of Randal Kleiser’s science-fiction series Defrost (about a woman who’s been awakened after being cryogenically frozen for thirty years) I have to admit I got hooked. Of course, writer-director Kleiser is a longtime professional and he gathered a first-rate cast led by Bruce Davison, Tanna Frederick, Carl Weathers, Christopher Atkins and Harry Hamlin. But it’s the concept as well as the execution that makes this short-form series so intriguing. (I turned around to see who was pushing “my” wheelchair at one point and it turned out to be Randal himself.)
In addition to seeing such good films as Barbara Kopple’s rousing documentary Miss Sharon Jones! and the upcoming Arrival I agreed to host a q&a following Bleed for This with its star, Miles Teller, writer-director Ben Younger, and the real-life boxer Teller portrays, Vinnie Pazienza. It was an unusually lively session, as Vinnie is a true, larger-than-life character. Younger said that when people ask how close the film is to the truth, he had to pull away from reality because no one would believe the facts–and the people–as they really are. Having been away from moviemaking for a decade, after making a splash with his debut feature Boiler Room in 2000, Younger knew that he had to deliver the goods on this low-budget film, and he asked his cast (including Teller, an almost-unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, and Ciaran Hinds) if they were willing to commit to doing something great. They all brought their “A” game and it shows.
One of the perks of a festival like this is getting to hear the filmmakers speak, and I was especially glad to hear screenwriter Eric Heisserer talk about the ambitious science-fiction saga Arrival, in a q&a session with the always energetic Scott Mantz. Learning about his devotion to the original short story by Ted Chiang and his collaboration with Canadian director Denis Villenueve was enlightening–even though the film itself deliberately leaves us with questions that aren’t easily answered.
I admired Molly Shannon’s moving performance in Other People and enjoyed seeing her onstage afterwards… loved getting to chat with Miles Teller’s outgoing grandmother Leona Flowers (whom Alice is calling her new best friend)… and am doing my best to take some long walks to work the great Southern cooking I’m consuming on a daily basis.
Festival programmer and SCAD professor Sheila Bolda asked if I would join her in a discussion of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast following a showing of an exquisite 4K digital restoration, and I readily agreed. This forced me to do some crash-course homework over the past week, but it’s been a rewarding assignment that has forced me to exercise some brain muscles I haven’t used in a while. A number of people attended the screening and stayed for our conversation with fellow film teacher Tracy Cox Stanton. There are still several days to go, more movies to see and people to meet. Talking with the students here almost makes me want to sign up for classes myself…and I can’t think of a more congenial place to have this kind of experience than Savannah. Even the damage from the recent hurricane that came through town hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm I feel everywhere I go.