Beginning Friday (March 19), moviegoers eager for regional alternatives to standard Hollywood fare have several intriguing choices, as film festival favorites “That Evening Sun” — a wonderful movie that suggests a more convincing “Gran Torino” — and the local dystopian sci-fi mini-epics “Cigarette Girl” and “The Conversion” return to Memphis.
Extra added attraction: Actor and Oscar-winning filmmaker Ray McKinnon will be present at the 7:10 p.m. Friday screening of “That Evening Sun” at Malco’s Ridgeway Four, to participate in a post-screening public conversation and question-and-answer session that will be moderated by Yours Truly.
Winner of the Best Narrative Feature Award at last year’s Indie Memphis Film Festival, director Scott Teems’ “That Evening Sun” is a sneaky and thought-provoking movie that subverts the triumph-of-the-lovable-curmudgeon theme of the Clint Eastwood effort.
A more vulnerable figure than Eastwood, Hal Holbrook plays the film’s lead codger; his co-star, portraying a menacing “redneck,” is the Arkansas-based McKinnon, who’s also a producer of the movie. McKinnon has directed two fine features, the mournful neo-Southern Gothic “Chrystal” (2004), with Billy Bob Thornton and McKinnon’s wife, actress Lisa Blount; and the comedic “Randy and the Mob” (2008), which suggests a collaboration between Hal Needham and Martin Scorsese. McKinnon won the Best Live-Action Short Film Oscar in 2002 for “The Accountant,” which he wrote and directed. Audiences probably know him best, however, for his roles in the HBO series “Deadwood” and in such films as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” and especially for his recent turn as Michael Oher’s high-school football coach in “The Blind Side.”
(Incidentally, the return of “That Evening Sun” to theaters comes at a propitious time, or at least the producers and distributor Freestyle Releasing hope so: Mia Wasikowska, star of the current 3D mega-smash, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” appears in the film as the McKinnon character’s daughter.)
Meanwhile, across town at the Studio on the Square, Malco has booked a double-feature of Southern-fried speculative fiction: Mike McCarthy’s “Cigarette Girl” (recently described by Variety as “the sort of movie a young Russ Meyer would be making if he had digital cameras and were addicted to graphic novels”), paired with Edward Valibus Phillips’ “The Conversion,” produced by the local Corduroy Wednesday collective. (DVDs of the latter film are available for purchase through the online store at Live From Memphis.)
Worthy if imperfect, “Cigarette Girl” and “The Conversion” demonstrate that even in the era of “Avatar,” “Star Trek” and “District 9,” science fiction remains a genre of ideas more than special effects, which is why clever filmmakers with limited resources continue to pursue strange visions of alternate worlds.
Set in a dystopian Memphis in which tobacco use is restricted to ghetto-like smoking districts, “Cigarette Girl” stars striking Cori Dials as the title cancer stick-dispenser, who begins smoking enemies — with a gun — when her attempt to kick her nicotine habit begins kicking her brain.
“The Conversion” is less noir, more Dickian. Originally produced as an online serial, the film imagines what might have happened if last year’s federally mandated conversion from analog broadcasting to digital television had been a conspiracy intended to plunge America into “technological chaos.”
Because the movies are sharing the same auditorium, the films will alternate showtimes Friday through Tuesday, so that “Cigarette Girl,” for example, gets the primetime 7 p.m. slot Friday, while “The Conversion” screens at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Wednesday, however, is all “Cigarette Girl,” while Thursday belongs excusively to “The Conversion.” This is because McCarthy does not want his film to compete with the Thursday opening night of the four-day “Sivads of March” festival at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which he is helping helping to organize, along with the purveyor of The Bloodshot Eye.
Tickets prices for “Cigarette Girl” and “The Conversion” are $5 for matinees, and $7 at night.
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