Atlanta Film Festival lightens up in 2010 

Nine days of movie mania at Landmark

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During the interview, Wardell quipped that indie filmmakers and festival staffers were sad clowns, but if anything, they're the opposite: sober on the outside, laughing on the inside. So what's the opposite of a sad clown: A mirthful mourner? A cheery doomsayer? A happy scold? Even when the going gets grim, don't be surprised to notice smiles at the corners of their mouths.

click to enlarge The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek - COURTESY ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL

THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK (3 out of 5 stars, Sat., April 17, 2:20 p.m.; Tues., April 20, 12:20 p.m.)

Ken Burns' epic PBS documentary The Civil War may not be required viewing to enjoy this pitch-perfect historical satire, but it couldn't hurt. Director Wendy Jo Cohen uses a phony version of Burns' formula – including dramatic readings of letters, archival photos, talking-head experts and lush shots of the actual sites – to recount the Civil War's most decisive, yet most obscure battle.

The Union's heroes at Pussy Willow Creek include septuagenarian Chinese General Li; a one-armed former prostitute disguised as a drummer boy; a nerdy, biracial former slave; and an opium-addled, cross-dressing dandy whose ex-boyfriend fights for the South. The film strains a bit to extend the concept to feature length, but includes plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-them gags in the margins. Plus, with interviewees from venues such as the "Tolerance Institute," the film skewers the kind of history that spins events to suit political agendas.

FUNNIEST LINE: "I pray to see battle, and pray doubly to meet Sinclair Whittier on the field, where I shall not give him the satisfaction of showing that I recognize him," the gay colonel confides in a letter, putting the military campaign on the same level as two exes snubbing each other.

click to enlarge John Malkovich (right) in Saturday Night - COURTESY ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL

SATURDAY NIGHT (3 out of 5 stars, Sat., April 17, 9:30 p.m.)

Even if you have mixed feelings about "Saturday Night Live," the 35-year-old late-night sketch comedy institution, this documentary provides an intriguing peek into the process that you don't see on Tina Fey's "30 Rock." Actor and one-time host James Franco follows the creation of a single episode, from the Monday pitch meeting in Lorne Michaels' office to the cast and guest host John Malkovich hugging during the closing credits.

Franco's celebrity no doubt gained him his backstage pass, and he clearly enjoys hanging around with pals such as Bill Hader (who does a killer Willem Dafoe impression). Saturday Night proves light on context or conflict, and explores little of the show's history or the volatility of the creative process.

Nevertheless, it captures the mixture of adrenaline and drudgery that drives the show, particularly with the Wednesday table read, where about 50 new sketches are cut down to nine by airtime. In the film's most fascinating aspect, two sketches kill at the table read, but one fails to gel at the dress rehearsal and is axed by airtime. It makes you wonder if the table read would actually be funnier than "Saturday Night Live's" finished product.

FUNNIEST LINE: "You're trying to pitch a play idea you have that's like Dangerous Liaisons in a hot tub, called J'Acuzzi," head writer Seth Meyers says to Malkovich at the initial meeting. And in fact, the sketch makes the cut for the live broadcast.

click to enlarge Big Font. Large Spacing - COURTESY ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL

BIG FONT. LARGE SPACING (2 out of 5 stars, Sat., April 17, 10:15 p.m.; Wed., April 21, 4:45 p.m.)

At a college in Cardiff, England, two pothead students (James Kristian, Gareth Aldon) realize they have a 5,000-word psychology paper due the next day and pull an accident-prone all-nighter to get it done. Current and former college students alike will identify all too well with the guys' half-assed yet desperate approach to scholarship. Director Paul Howard Allen has a pleasing, soft-spoken tone comparable to Scottish comedy director Bill Forsyth. (You could call this one Gregory's Girl Goes to College.)

Unfortunately, there's only so much visual or dramatic interest the film can find in two young men typing at laptops. The locations remain confined to their flat and the apartment of two co-eds, making the film nearly as claustrophobic as Paranormal Activity. The edgier subplot between two mismatched female roommates (Amy Morgan and Kimberley Wintle) ultimately gets the highest marks.

FUNNIEST LINE: "I can't believe I'm ironing notes on obsessive-compulsive disorder," one of the guys comments after a tea-spilling incident.

click to enlarge Jeff Foxworthy in I Am Comic - COURTESY ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL

I AM COMIC (2 out of 5 stars, Sun., April 18, 5:30 p.m.; Tues., April 20, 9:40 p.m.)

In the spirit of The Aristocrats comes this documentary about the life and art of stand-up comedians. The film features scores of interviewees, ranging from the owner of Atlanta's the Punchline to jokesters you've never heard of to established comics such as Janeane Garofalo, Jeff Foxworthy and Tommy Davidson (who comes across like a Zen guru of comedy).

During the film, former comedian, narrator, and Art Carney look-alike Ritch Shydner becomes compelled to return to the stage. He'd be the first to admit his initial open-mic stints fall flat, but his performance doesn't improve that much by the end of the film. More judicious editing would have helped, but the film includes some hilarious, eye-opening stories about sex, drugs and life on the road. Overall, most of the comics would probably agree with a comment from Dana Gould: "I don't do this because I want to. I do this because I have to."


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    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

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