The New Orleans Film Festival kicks off Thursday with the regional premiere of 12 Years a Slave, which was filmed locally with an all-star cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt and is already garnering Oscar buzz in advance of its national release.
Over the course of eight days (Oct. 10-17), the festival screens more than 75 features and documentaries, as well as programs of short, animated and experimental films. There also are panel discussions with filmmakers, parties and more.
Besides 12 Years a Slave, the curated portion of the festival includes highly anticipated releases. August: Osage County is a comedy based on Tracy Letts' play of the same name about a group of strong-willed women coping with their dysfunctional family. In director Alexander Payne's (Sideways, Election) Nebraska, a desperate man attempts to claim a sweepstakes prize, and the film features a capstone performance by Bruce Dern. Kill Your Darlings is an account of a 1944 Manhattan murder and subsequent investigation that involved Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Other curated films include Good Ol' Freda, about The Beatles' secretary Freda Kelly, and the documentary Brasslands, about Slavic brass bands, both reviewed below.
New Orleans filmmakers and actors are well-represented throughout the festival. Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis appear in 12 Years a Slave. New Orleans native and experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio's film Visitors is a trancelike examination of the use of technology, especially space travel, with a score by Philip Glass. Other films with local connections include New Orleans native Jessica Oreck's Aatsinki about life north of the Arctic Circle, and Eddie Jemison's King of Herrings, reviewed below. Lily Keber's documentary Bayou Maharaja: The Tragic Genius of James Booker is the closing night film (to be reviewed in Gambit's Oct. 15 issue).
The festival also includes screenings of Chinatown (10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 13; 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15; 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16; Prytania Theatre), starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The 1974 classic was the last film Roman Polanski directed in the U.S. On the cult classic side, there's an outdoor screening of the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona in Lafayette Square (7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15).
For full schedule and details, visit www.new- www.neworleansfilmsociety.org.
Death Metal Angola
10 p.m. Fri., Oct. 11; 8 p.m. Wed., Oct. 16; Theatres at Canal Place
Bookended by Wilker Flores quietly chugging metal riffs on an off-brand guitar and growling into a microphone in a dusty hallway, Death Metal Angola captures the growing scene of hard rock bands in the rebuilt African nation, led by young survivors of war. Sonia Ferreira recalls with detail the brutal civil war from 1975 to 2002 that left thousands of children orphaned and a generation lost. Ferreira is Flores' girlfriend and the film's hero — she cares for 55 children at Huambo's Okutiuka orphanage, which serves as Huambo's sort of rock central and a gathering place for the area's "rockers," as they call themselves. Director Jeremy Xido follows Flores as he assembles Angola's first-ever rock festival and gathers the cash and patience to bring several hardcore and metal bands from several Angolan cities and provinces to perform in Huambo. But Ferreira is at the film's heart. In one heartbreaking scene, 9-year-old Pancho arrives late at night and unannounced at the orphanage and interrupts Ferreira and Flores (who is playing an acoustic guitar). Here, Ferreira sits at the balance of young Angolan survivors and a new generation following closely behind.
The film is riveting to watch as the clock winds down before the show must go on, but it becomes a celebration of heart and compassion as rockers — swimming upstream with their extreme music in an unlikely circumstance — display the great care they have for one another, and how that mirrors their spirit for a new Angola. Though rock music has made some waves in Angola, its underground popularity in the 2000s gravitated toward its extremes, with bands forming under the influence of the speed of thrash, hardcore's chugging breakdowns and death metal's guttural howls. The bands explain that heavy metal best interprets their pain, with the music as their "scream in revolt." (To illustrate, the film's editing team — and Christian Frederickson, who composed the film's interstitial ambient music — bleed the violent sounds of machine guns and explosions into the band's performances.) Rather than wallowing in darkness and despair, the band members use the music to escape their realities and embrace joy. It could easily have felt heavyhanded, but Xido brilliantly tells a heartwarming story of young musicians overcoming hardship and coming together in a moment of triumph. —ALEX WOODWARD
Good Ol' Freda
7 p.m. Oct. 11, 15 & 17; Chalmette Movies
Thousands of teenage girls would have done almost anything for a chance at the ultimate dream job, but the offer went to 17-year-old Freda Kelly. The low-key Liverpudlian teenager accepted a secretarial job for The Beatles in 1961 and kept the post through 1971, and despite the countless books, films and tell-alls about the band, she had yet to tell her story. In director Ryan White's touching and personal portrait Good Ol' Freda, Kelly opens up about her behind-the-scenes experience with the worlds' greatest rock band, from its humble beginnings in Liverpool's musty clubs to the tragedies and crumbling relationships that led to its demise.
Kelly is incredibly charming, sweet and funny as she recalls her career, from helping answer hundreds of fan letters to penning monthly newsletters to fans, all while cozying up to each Beatle and each Beatle's family. Manager Brian Epstein hired her because she was perfect for the job — a humble fan who could speak for other fans and wouldn't want anything in return (other than a paycheck, which Ringo Starr's mother, while tipsy, had asked Epstein to increase). The film intersperses Freda's story with her going into her attic, where she keeps a few boxes of unsorted memorabilia (she gave most of it away). What begins as a well-crafted scrapbook from a forgotten attic reveals itself to be a much deeper and more intimate look into Kelly's life — not only how her close relationships with her Fab Four friends shaped her life, but how she wants to finally commit her story to tape to give her family something to remember about her. Good Ol' Freda is essential viewing for any Beatles fan (and a sort of companion piece to the excellent Anthology series), but it ultimately is an engrossing, moving film about keeping family together despite time and loss.
If you want to know about Freda's romantic relationships to The Beatles — well, she says, "That's personal." — Alex Woodward
4:45 p.m. Sat., Oct. 12; 2 p.m. Mon. Oct. 14; Prytania Theatre
New Orleanians should be able to appreciate the annual trumpet festival in Guca, Serbia. It's a celebration of traditional Serbian brass band music, and the tiny town is overwhelmed with a half million visitors who come to see which of 60 bands will be crowned champion.
Produced by the Meerkat Media Collective, Brasslands focuses on two primary stories. Brooklyn band Zlatne Uste travels to compete in the new competition for international bands, and the Serbian band Dejan Petrovic competes for top Serbian band honors and represents Serbia in the international competition.
As the festival approaches, the film fills in the recent history of Serbia, a nation embroiled in a civil war in the 1990s, scarred by genocidal "ethnic cleansing," and bombed by the U.S. and NATO. A U.S. ambassador attends a ceremony welcoming international bands, and it's clear some aspects of the festival serve as a marker of more open and peaceful Serbia. Another subplot of the film involves rivalries between "white" Serbian bands and "black" Roma or gypsy bands. As the film follows the leader of Dejan Petrovic, performing at a wedding and preparing for the festival, it seems like the story is going to expand into a frightening view of unhealed wounds and buried hostilities. A gripping below-the-surface tension propels the documentary through its first hour.
But ultimately, the film is about Balkan brass band music. It's never the ecstatic, frenzied music of bands like Gogol Bordello or as funky as New Orleans brass bands, but it offers the pleasures of large brass ensembles playing popular folk music. The Serbians are staunchly traditional, and they're even unforgiving, repeatedly and conspicuously noting that the name Zlatne Uste (ostensibly "golden lips") is grammatically incorrect and confusing. It's also a problem for many that the American band includes female members.
The filmmakers very capably and subtly portray the great pride Serbians take in their music and some of the bitterness that still surrounds national and ethnic tensions. The festival is a chance for people to overcome that by sharing music, but it's also a competition, and everyone wants to win. — WILL COVIELLO
King of Herrings
5 p.m. Sun, Oct. 13; 3:45 p.m. Tue., Oct. 15; Prytania Theatre
Directors Eddie Jemison and Sean Richardson seem indebted to Jim Jarmusch in their film King of Herrings. Like Jarmusch's early cult favorite Down By Law, their black-and-white film is set in New Orleans and focuses on a small band of eccentric, down-on-their-luck laggards. They idle in a cheap diner, devote a lot of time to scrounging income from any source except work and yet have whimsical if not poetic notions of being the masters of their world. If Jarmusch didn't create this world in Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes, he's its unavoidable patron saint.
Down By Law benefited from stars Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni and a much more dynamic and eccentric plot. Herrings has charm, but it's a more sedate story.
Jemison stars at Ditch, a philandering bully, who along with sidekick Gat (David Jensen), spends much of his time with the duo of The Professor (Joe Chest) and his shadow Leon (Wayne Pere, who also appears in 12 Years a Slave). The film seems to be set in contemporary New Orleans, but The Professor at times masquerades as a magazine salesman, knocking on doors to peddle Readers Digest, or at least that's how he presents himself at Ditch's wife Evie's door.
The characters joust with one another while playing cards, drinking, issuing physical threats and wooing women with significant others. Leon, who speaks with the help of a device held to the larynx to amplify vibrations, is the most amusing character, in part because of the unfortunate way his most dramatic lines are filtered into a robotic rasp.
It's an entertaining film, though Ditch is not a terribly rich or multidimensional character for the lead. The film is also claustrophobic. In all of the scenes shot in Anita's Restaurant on Tulane Avenue, the only other character to appear is the man working the counter, and even outdoor scenes are devoid of street traffic. Perhaps this motley crew could rule such a small world, which is amusing for this brief visit. — WILL COVIELLO
Some Velvet Morning
9:45 p.m. Mon. & Thu., Oct. 14 & 17, The Theatres at Canal Place
Neil LaBute's Some Velvet Morning is classic LaBute. He's known for exploring misogyny, as with the group of coworkers who abuse a deaf woman in play and film In the Company of Men. In his play Fat Pig, in which a spineless guy falls in love with a woman but then rejects her because of her obesity, LaBute also seemed to universalize one man's shortcomings as the genetic makeup of men.
In Some Velvet Morning, LaBute gets an outstanding performance from Stanley Tucci as Fred, a man with a lot of money and disturbing hostility toward the women who get involved with him. Fred arrives at the door of Velvet (Alice Eve) and it's unclear how welcome a surprise it is, but she opens the door for him. Fred says he left his wife, and it's very clear that whatever intense history there is between him and Velvet, LaBute is going to divulge it very slowly. The film takes place in real time as the two slog through everything on Fred's mind, and Velvet does her best to manage his volatile temper and advances.
Tucci brilliantly deploys LaBute's wickedly ambiguous and manipulative use of language. It's unclear whether Fred is angry because he's on the verge of losing everything or simply won't take no for an answer. He half screams, half pleads with Velvet, "I'm standing here naked," ostensibly saying he's humbled by the circumstances he's in, including possible rejection by her, but his inflection is full of sexual desire and veiled threat.
Eve is alternately aloof and dispassionate and feisty and vulnerable to his overtures. It's a wonder Velvet puts up with Fred, but having her do so allows LaBute to build to a stark, unpredictable and unsettling ending.
LaBute capably dramatizes malevolence, but whether he is reveling in villains, exposing some truth about men or revealing something about himself is debatable. He's crafty about previewing and not giving away everything the twists at the end of Velvet Morning. For some, however, it may be hard to stomach all the anger and sadism for the sake of a drama. — WILL COVIELLO