ATLFF 2010: "Battle" Fatigue and other "Grooves"

A new Battle of Atlanta is brewing at the AFF!  Whether a coincidence or a tongue in cheek programming decision, two films with the word “battle” leading the title are screening on the same day within hours of each other!  Twice! Ironically, both films have a civil conflict of sorts as part of the plot.  Will this be the mother of AFF wars, or just a minor skirmish?  Choose your side! Battle for Bunker Hill ** Stars out of Four

Peter Salem, a convicted Wall Street exec, arrives in a small Kansas town to see his two daughters; only his embittered ex Hailey and her fiancé Jim, the richest man in town, aren’t having it.  Peter’s set to leave when something strange occurs:  A civil alert sounds, followed by a total power outage and a failure of any device controlled by a computer chip to operate.  With no means to communicate or receive information, the town is an island in the wheat fields.  Uncertainty leads to fear, then panic, then paranoia.  Jim and his redneck cronies seize control of the town, in the name of protection from the unknown.  But his action really covers a desire to drive Peter away, lest he reconciles with Hailey.

The Battle for Bunker Hill resemble The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”:  Bunker Hill doesn’t rise to the tension and creepiness of that episode, but like it, the focus of the townsfolk shifts from the unseen problem to the neighbor who is seen, and is believed probably to be behind it all.  The film speaks to the post-911 world (Peter, who was recovering from a bender, just missed being in Tower Two when the plane struck) where any unexplained occurrence can be construed as a threat, especially if a foreigner’s around; and our current political climate where groups use fear to turn citizens against another groups’ agendas to their own.

Bunker Hill has some kinks and rough edges.  The pacing could be tighter, the script more polished and the acting better.  It is still an entertaining actioner, and speaks its message loud and clear.

The Battle for Bunker Hill screens Saturday, April 17 at 4:15 pm, and Tuesday, April 20 at 4:35 pm.

The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek ** Stars out of Four

This is a yarn of four misfits – a drug addicted gay colonel, an elderly Chinese general, a nerdy ex-slave and a sociopathic teen prostitute – whose destinies bring them together to save the Union during the Civil War, told in a send-up of Ken Burns’ uber-doc The Civil War.  The elements of The Civil War are parodied to great comic effect, from the pan and scans of historical photos to the commentary by minor historians and readings of historical documents.  Director Wendy J. Cohen and her artistic team do a bang up job of concocting fictitious period art, photos and music that blend with actual documents.

However, the film loses its punch midway through.  At about 100 minutes long, the mock-visual style grows tired and the jokes thin as the story becomes heavy with the characters’ back-story and plot lines.  Efforts to pump up the humor late in the show fail to bring it back to the level shown at the start.

The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek screens Saturday, April 17 at 2:20 pm, and Tuesday, April 20 at 12:20 pm.  Director Wendy Jo Cohen and others will be in attendance.

Wheedle’s Groove **** Stars out of Four

Soul music makes one think of music cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, and Memphis.  Not Seattle:  That’s the home of grunge.  But during the 60s and 70s, Seattle was host to scores of soul and funk groups like Black on White Affair, The Soul Swingers and Cold, Bold & Together, who packed clubs and competed with mainstream acts for spots on local soul music charts.  This scene was largely forgotten until local DJ Mr. Supreme begin finding 45 records (remember those?!) for those groups in music store bargain bins.

With Mr. Supreme’s collection as a basis, the filmmakers of Wheedle’s Groove resurrect the lost history of soul music in Seattle.  A rich history it is:  The filmmakers state that they’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg.  Former band members and Seattle musicians – including Quincy Jones, Sir-Mix-A-Lot and soft jazz king Kenny G – recount the groups, the music and culture of the Seattle soul scene.  The filmmakers also attempt to explain why these groups never – or at best, barely – achieved mainstream recognition and the demise of Seattle soul.

One has to wonder why the producing giant Quincy Jones was not very aware of the scene in his own home town at the time, and why he didn’t help very many of the Seattle groups reach the mainstream.  The Seattle musicians, though, hold no grudge against Jones or anyone, or show any bitterness for not hitting the big time.  They had their time, and loved it along with their band mates, happy to still have music (few of them continued careers in music) and their memories.  In scenes of a CD release party, these men, now in their fifties and sixties, sing and play with the same fervor as in their heyday, and sound as tight and clean.

Mr. Supreme says there are probably more Seattle soul recordings out there waiting to be found.  For now, Wheedle’s Groove serves as a primer to Seattle soul, and motivator for seekers who would complete its history.

Screens Sunday, April 18 at 7:10 pm.  The filmmakers will be in attendance.

The Eyes of Me ** Stars out of Four

Shot in Austin, Texas, The Eyes of Me follows four blind teens at The Texas School for the Blind over the course of a year.  Each student talks frankly about his or her disability, how the school has helped them deal with it, and their life ambitions.  In between, we see them experience the ups and downs of life.  One teen is Chas, an aspiring rapper who makes the decision to drop out of school and live independently.

Told in a straight-forward style, the film uses rotoscope animation to illustrate the subjects’ stories; this is done sparingly, though, thus avoiding a gimmicky look.

The film serves to remind us of the humanity of the disabled.  It is easy for the “able” to see them as less than whole because of a disability, instead of people who dream, achieve and face trials and obstacles apart from those resulting from their disability.

Screens Tuesday, April 20 at 7:15 pm and Wednesday, April 21 at 5:00 pm.

Stephen Hart is a Clayton County Georgia librarian by day, and a screenwriter and filmmaker nights and weekends. He is a staff writer for CinemATL.