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Jeff Simon: A major film festival for Western New York? Maybe

Jeff Simon

"Marshall" will have its local premiere at 8 p.m. Oct. 7 in the North Park Theatre.

It's, without question, the Buffalo movie premiere of the fall -- our first chance to see the movie about the early career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown and Kate Hudson and directed by Reginald Hudlin. It was filmed, in part, all over town last year.

But it's also something else perhaps even more important. It's the possible augury of an answer to a question that has bedeviled Buffalo's most dedicated movie audience for years: Why can't this city have a first-rate film festival?

"Marshall," was a late addition to the Buffalo International Film Festival. Its studio is trying to unveil it to America in as many film festivals as possible. It will open both the Chicago and San Diego film festivals. Buffalo's screening will coincide with San Diego's.

'Marshall' to have Buffalo premiere at North Park

What is terrific here is that in Buffalo we are finally -- FINALLY --- seeing at a local film festival the kind of movie that announces in capital letters that it is making a bid for major importance for both its festival and the community where the film was made. It's the kind of film that, if it's as good as many hope it is, could even land in some Oscar conversations. (Boseman has been that good in his movies.)

Sight unseen, "Marshall" has to be accounted a potentially major American movie, a story about one of the great modern American figures. That makes it part of the continuing antidote to whitey-white Hollywood "prestige" movie-making which, just a few years ago, seemed virtually bleached to the world. That wall to wall bleaching has been conspicuously over for a while. Serious films about black life are now possible in Hollywood; "Marshall" is an exhibit under glass.

Having one of its national premieres in a festival in one of the cities that gave the film a home is what an important film festival ought to do. It's a juicy bit of luck that festival planners fell into when their needs coincided with the studio's marketing plans for the movie.

It's an ancient truism in this world: Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The Buffalo International Film Festival just got very lucky. It's the kind of luck that with effort and shrewdness can be followed up to make an even better and higher profile festival next year.

Our problem locally is that we have had two annual events that called themselves "Buffalo" film festivals which, in effect, competed for the attention of both movie distributors and Buffalo's dedicated movie audience.

The Buffalo International Festival -- which calls itself BIFF -- was the brainchild of the late Ed Summer. The other is the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival (called BNFF), which was the brainchild of Bill Cowell, which draws to a close this weekend, mere days before BIFF begins.

They have always been very different -- maybe not as distinct as night and day but certainly as different as lite beer and chardonnay.

To meet Cowell and Summer years ago at the respective beginnings of their festival enterprises defined them with enduring clarity. Cowell was a homegrown horror film maker. His heart was in pursuit of film making education and the kind of audience manipulation which many consider exploitation.

Summer had worked for Disney before coming back to Buffalo and was dedicated to the art of film as it is defined at other film festivals and talked about in university classes or feature stories in newspapers.

Cowell plugged away hard and was known for cutting corners and making promises to potential exhibitors he couldn't deliver. Nobody ever said that entree into the film business is antiseptic. It's grubby down there at entry level and Cowell's festival has never quite seemed to surmount it, no matter how much effort goes into it. His festival this year -- which wasn't able to come to Buffalo for theater showings -- has been in Niagara Falls. It was scheduled to begin with the arrival by helicopter of Robert Davi.

Davi is a wonderful character actor who specializes in villains and psychotics and cops so worldly they could just as easily be bad guys. His avocation is to be a Sinatresque singer. No matter how much affection he might inspire, film taxonomists would have to consider him pretty far from a Hollywood A-lister.

"Marshall," on the other hand, is a film full of B-list people but with large A-list potential. No matter what, it has to be accorded an A-list project, at least in its ambitions. Its star, Boseman, already has been superb playing both James Brown in "Get on Up" and Jackie Robinson in "42" and is about to go nuclear in American hype for his starring role as Marvel's "The Black Panther." His "Marshall" co-star Sterling K. Brown stars in the TV smash "This is Us" and is an Emmy winner playing Chris Darden in the O. J. Simpson trial mini-series.

BIFF will end its festival this year with the first directorial effort of the Western New York-raised film editor who is one of the best there is. He is Kevin Tent from East Aurora. His sister is Lauren Tent, the education director of the CEPA Gallery. He is usually associated with the films of director Alexander Payne -- "Election," "About Schmidt," "Nebraska," the soon-to-be-release "Downsizing."

But his filmography also includes James Mangold's "Girl, Interrupted" too. His first film as a director is "Crash Pad," a comedy starring Thomas Haden Church, Domnhall Gleeson and Christina Applegate. It closes BIFF at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9 in the North Park Theater.

BIFF, in fact, has not proved to be only Buffalo challenger to the hegemony of Cowell's BNFF.

Another local horror filmmaker -- Greg Lamberson -- has created an annual event called the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival, whose purview couldn't be more self-explanatory. Lamberson is well-known among local film admirers. Years ago, he worked for the Amherst Theatre. Along with making films of his own, he now reviews films occasionally for The Public alternative newspaper. His postings on social media are highly visible, especially when concerned with his opposition to convicted pedophiles being allowed to continue making horror films.

His most famous film, called "Killer Rack" -- an avowedly feminist fantasy about homicidal breast implants -- has even been turned into a play which is one of the more uproarious offerings in local theater. (At the Alleyway Theatre through Oct. 7.)

'Killer Rack' at Alleyway shouldn't work, but it does

With Lamberson's festival competing with Cowell's on one level and BIFF successfully staking out the high ground, BNFF is likely to have trouble maintaining the position it has with both distributors and audiences.

To anyone who ever saw the very idea of a "Buffalo Film Festival" as an impasse where rivals couldn't help canceling each other out, what now seems to have happened is that one of the rivals--BIFF -- is poised to make a serious leap in profile in 2018.


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