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The 47th Atlanta Films Festival and the urgency to see good movies

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The 47th Atlanta Film Festival will open on Thursday, April 20, with “Polite Society.” It is a crowd pleasing combination of action comedy and family drama. The plot follows the efforts of Ria (Priya Kansara), a Pakistani-British teenage girl, desperately trying to derail her elder sister’s arranged marriage. Since plucky Ria is a martial arts enthusiast who dreams of becoming a stunt double, her plan includes some killer karate moves. The UK production premiered stateside at the Sundance Film Festival, where Focus Features acquired it for US distribution. The screening at Atlanta aims to build anticipation before the movie opens on April 28.

The festival slate includes 151 works, including feature films, shorts, and some music videos. Physical screenings are the main event, but a streaming selection is also available for those who can’t get to the Plaza Theater, the main venue. It is actually a small sample out of 7,246 submissions from over 200 countries all over the world. While open to foreign talent, the Festivals provides an outlet for local talent: 23% of the projects are Georgia-made. It is also an Academy-Award qualifying festival. If your short film plays here, you can submit it for the Oscars. Full disclosure: Georgia is Popflick’s home base, and we are proud sponsors of the Festival. We'll be presenting two panels in the fest’s Creative Conferences: “Meet the Atlanta Film Festival Programmers'' and “Feature Filmmakers from Georgia-Tied Films at ATLF.” Join us if you can!

Priya Kansara shows off mad martial arts moves in full marriage regalia in "Polite Society"  / Photo credit: Tariza Pahizadeh, Focus Features

Priya Kansara shows off mad martial arts moves in full marriage regalia in "Polite Society" / Photo credit: Tariza Pahizadeh, Focus Features

Scanning the program, you will find titles previously screened at places like Sundance, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. It is not a bug but a feature. The aim of regional festivals is to promote local talent and provide local audiences with a chance to see films that otherwise would not make it to their market. And this particular task becomes more pressing as theatrical film distribution changes in times dominated by streaming.

If you live in Los Angeles and New York, chances are your alternative films needs are well served. Everywhere else, the number of screens dedicated to independent, foreign and classic cinema is dwindling. Take my hometown of Miami. Over the last four years, O Cinema shut its two venues in 2019 and downsized, eventually taking over the small Miami Beach Cinematheque. 2023 brought the downfall of hallowed Tower Theater, which closed its doors when shady political maneuvering by city representatives canceled a management contract with the University of Miami. Even major franchise Regal is feeling the burn. They announced the eventual closure of his 18-screen theater in South Beach, one of 39 venues they will close soon.

We have considerably less screens and an onslaught of movies fighting them: foreign films, American independents and an ever-expanding catalog of classics jostling for space. Heck, even 80s blockbusters like “Lethal Weapon” crowd programming. Some overflow spills into streaming, but if you still favor watching movies on the big screen, you will often have to settle for the TV on your den. Check out the case of Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up.” The latest project from one of the best American directors of our generation premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. Its two leads are Academy-Award nominees Michelle Williams and Hong Chau. In another era, those selling points would guarantee a wide release. Not anymore.

Here is where regional film festivals come in. More and more often, they are becoming the only chance for cinephiles to catch ambitious movies on the big screen. Tellingly, “Showing Up” will play at the Atlanta Film Festival, giving local cinephiles a chance to catch up. My dear Miami Film Festival did not include it in its lineup. Two weeks after the movie opened, it has yet to be programmed in any cinema around here, commercial or art oriented - to add insult to injury, Reichardt is a Florida native. For a moment, I thought of hopping on a plane or hitchhiking a ride to Atlanta to see the movie. For the average consumer, there is no drama waiting for streaming availability. For us, it’s cosmic injustice.

So, if you are in Atlanta or happen to pass by during the Festival, don’t miss the chance. It might be your only chance to see them in a proper theater. Make time for “Polite Society,” a joyful exercise in cartoonish action and even more cartoonish family melodrama - think Steven Chow doing a young adult comedy. Here are some other films to watch out for:

Divinity: a psychotronic sci-fi freak out that will remind you of genre pieces from the seventies, filmed in beautiful black and white. It’s a humbling experience to see Generation X It Boy Steven Dorff playing a mad scientist gone to seed, a capitalist who trades into a serum that grants eternal youth. Two brothers with mysterious motivations show up to stop him. I felt the heavy vibes of an old El Santo El Enmascarado de Plata movie at play. That is a good thing in my book.

Scarlet: The pandemic shutdown hindered the release of Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s devastating adaptation of a Jack London novel. Hopefully, his new film is equally good and remains free of obstacles. Digging back into literature, he transplants Russian Alexander Grin’s “Scarlet Sails” to rural France after WWI. Juliette Jouan and Louis Garrel play unlikely lovers in a fairy tale romance of epic scope.

Jesszilla: This hard-hitting documentary by Emily Sheskin follows Jesselyn Silva, a 15 year old Latina girl fighting hard to fulfill her dreams of making the Olympic boxing team. Just as the goal seems within reach, a cancer diagnosis gets in her way. The movie is part of the CineMas section, dedicated to Latino and Hispanic cinema.

Master Gardener: old master Paul Schraeder continues his exploration of conflicted masculinity with Joel Edgerton playing a horticulturist who finds trouble when his wealthy employer (Sigourney Weaver) recruits him to care for her great-niece (Quintessa Swindell). I know how that sounds, but remember the wonders he made with a priest falling into environmental panic in First Reformed (2017) - and The Card Counter (2021) was full aces.

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future: don’t let the title scare you away. Chilean filmmaker Francisca Alegría’s fascinating debut feature film is a moving and scary meditation on family ties and environmental decay. Mia Maestro is Magdalena, a dead woman who resurrects and rises from a polluted riverbed to insinuate herself in her family’s lives. Leonor Varela plays her beleaguered adult daughter Cecilia. My favorite movie out of 2022 Sundance.

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