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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Closing Night Film Fest 919: JoJo Rabbit, Joe Letteri of WETA & A Love Letter to Film

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

During Film Fest 919, Chapel Hill, NC, on the final day - even though you’ve had all week practically to read the glossy brochure - there is it: A Love Letter to Film on Page 24. It’s black-and-white, quarter-page, a left-hand read drop-shadow framed note from a future groom to his “beautiful Bride-to-be” that compares a theater aisle to “that other aisle” she will soon walk down.

If you’re not crying right now, FF919 opened with MARRIAGE STORY with Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, and Laura Dern, and then some romantic film buff buys an ad for his future wife.

That’s the synchronicity woven into the aesthetic choices of this remarkable sophomore year of this festival.

And they also just handed three-time Oscar Nominee Anthony McCarten its highest award for achievement in screenwriting.

There’s no recap necessary to understand the brilliance of headlining a Kiwi scribe instead of a typical A-List Hollywood popcorn movie star, but here it is anyway. McCartenWin919

McCarten, hailing from the ends of the earth in New Zealand, arrives like a prize-fighter at the afterparty held in the Italian-themed Siena Hotel lounge upon receiving his engraved plaque from Carol Marshall, Randi Emerman, and Festival Programmer Claudia Puig at the SilverSpot Cinema. He is flanked by Ray Williams, also a festival star, and a cadre of partygoers, admirers, and film fans. 

When you realize this is not only the writer of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING and DARKEST HOUR, but of the box office billion-dollar baby BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, based on the life of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, it occurs to you this may be a biopic theme.

Especially since the Kiwi’s latest bell-ringer THE TWO POPES, with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, has unspooled during the week.

When you ask McCarten “what is the connection between Hawking, Churchill, Mercury, and the Popes,” he gives you a hard stare.




The Oscar nominee hits you with those quizzical seven-layer Celtic eyes, of indeterminate color, behind which a thousand unwritten characters reside.

It’s almost awkward how electric his answer is, because it ties together these impossible legacies with a neat bow.

“Underdogs,” McCarten instructs. “They all had flaws to overcome - came from nowhere - had to fight to become who they were.”

An astute publicist from Netflix, his distributor, smiles from another seat in the bar; this tiger has been flown in from New York as Anthony McCarten’s wingman.

But he hardly needs one, as Award Season 2019 may just be fourth-time’s-a-charm.

And the Academy math makes sense: Two popes, three nominations, fourth try for Oscar?

That was yesterday, along with a raucous screening of DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, Eddie Murphy’s grand return to the cocky ice-cream-cone kid of 1984, but set in the 70’s.

The swag for this 919 screen gem is a collectible, signed, “Special Theatrical Program 2019.” It’s wild, because this thing is a parody-program of sorts, cut the size of a record album, in line with the tongue-in-chic blaxploitation 101 this film provides.DOLOMITEbook

Snoop Dogg has a cameo, along with Wesley Snipes, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, and a knee-shaking chanteuse named Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

It’s required viewing this award season, based on a real-life magic man of the movies, Rudy Ray Moore, who was also an early stand-up comedian.

Today, Joe Letteri of VFX house WETA Digital showed up to do “a Masterclass in Visual Effects.”

That’s what moderator Sean O'Connell from Cinemablend announces post Q & A. After a play-by-play on WETA's digital highlight reel, that blows so many minds in the audience, you wonder how they’re going to get up and walk out when Letteri winds down the billions of polygons world-building.



Let's face it, WETA has cast a digital spell over nearly every major Hollywood blockbuster’s inner visual guts, from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise, to “Game of Thrones” by way of the Planet of the Apes reboot, KING KONG, AVATAR, to Marvel's AVENGERS films, and, wow, ALITA BATTLE ANGEL.

JoeLetteri919Fest Letteri's speech pattern amps up. He throws out little remarks like “Maya is just a platform; we build tools in C++ and Python. Those are the two languages most used now… We use artificial intelligence to train the background (CGI) players to emulate human behavior, like riding horses…”

An unassuming man with beaucoup Oscar hardware in a gray suit, Letteri has suddenly become everything the real Wizard of Oz was not: The Real Thing.

As in? How WETA pulls back the curtain to show the future of motion-capture, face-replacement, skin-texture perfect motion pictures.

Gadzooks, you’re staring right into a digitally animated sun with radiating torch-lit pixels, truly cellular-level human skin creation with a smile, all built in green and blue screen on the inconceivable actual place of a grocery store parking lot.

It takes some people a wine or two to shake off the Uncanny Valley WETA’s spokes-genius has just revealed, such is the level of mastery at Film Fest 919.

Even the Garden Party (featuring guitarist Lady Jasme) and morning Mimosa soiree at Caffè Driade isn't enough to make reality seem like reality anymore.

LadyJesme After the Closing Night screening of Taika Waititi’s JOJO RABBIT at 7:30 pm, this evening, Film Fest 919 will officially be a wrap…

Well after the Wrap Party, that is.

JOJO RABBIT has one viewer coming out with “I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did,” and other over-awed reactions.

Ironically, this is another film starring Scarlett Johansson, who seems to be bookending this slate of films.




While the hush falls, the light emits from the wall, and the audience goes quiet, another massive blow-out celebration awaits in the SilverSpot Cinema…

What a way to end #FF919. FilmFest919Thank you, Chapel Hill, NC, this was awesome. Until next year, watch what we do next on

[FilmFestivals thanks Film Fest 919 Founders Carol Marshall & Randi Emerman.]

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