SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Human Rights Filmmaker Jason Outenreath

Making its world premiere at this year's SXSW was the feature-length documentary They Live Here, Now, conceived and directed by human rights filmmaker Jason Outenreath. Shot on location at Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter in East Austin, it depicts the daily lives of recently arrived immigrants as they relate their frequently harrowing stories about their journeys to the United States.

With this film, Outenreath pushed the boundaries of the documentary format by blending actual portraits of immigrants who live at Casa Marianella with scripted characters who were drawn from real life. Here, he explains the reasons for this unorthodox approach.

Your feature-length documentaries, They Live Here, Now and

Country Kids, as well as a number of your short films, have focused on immigration.

Can you tell us about why this is frequently your subject?

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua for a couple of years. I studied in Mexico, and I also lived there afterward. I developed close relationships with the people there. When I came back to the U.S., I sought out groups that were immigration-oriented. As a filmmaker, I felt a social responsibility to respond to what was happening and how people were being treated. Immigrants deserve to be treated with the same dignity as any other human being.

How did you locate Casa Marianella?

I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone in passing mentioned Casa Marianella to me and said, “You might be interested in this place.” I began visiting it on a fairly regular basis, not with a camera or anything, but I was just blown away by the community and the diversity of people coming there. When I was pitching my project to them, it involved talking to the entire house, just standing in front of immigrants from 20 or 30 countries.

It was something that left a really deep impression on me. As I realized the gravity of this place in Austin that deserved more attention for the services it was providing, it also needed to be celebrated for the immigrants and what they had gone through to get there.

How long did it take to secure the subjects and make the film?

It took about three and a half years. I make relationship-based films, and I'm very concerned with the connections I make. So I spent the first year, you might say, in preproduction, forging those relationships and learning about the house before I began filming at all. The editing process took about a year and a half to complete, and I edited it myself.

Filmmaker Jason Outenreath talks about his new film, “They Live Here, Now" at SXSW. Photo: Kurt Gardner.

 

Were there some people who were afraid to come on camera and tell their stories?

Yes, they were divided along two lines. There were a lot of people who didn't want to appear on camera or who were very afraid of what that would mean to their legal status or their families in their home countries. At the same time, there were also people who wanted to be heard. My job as a filmmaker was to work with the people who wanted to share their stories while also respecting their privacy.

I didn't set out to make a political film, but I have my political ideas, and they're embedded in it. I think it goes back to the respect that people deserve, regardless of where they're from or what their circumstances are.

In terms of adding the narrative story to the piece, what was the purpose?

There were two main goals I had with interweaving that story. As a documentary filmmaker, one of the questions that I ask is, “What constitutes social reality?” I'm always interested in pushing the boundaries and asking both myself and the audience, “What really is documentary?” I had artistic reasons for doing it, too, and it does enrich the story of Casa Marianella.

I had ethical reasons as well. I wanted to show aspects of the house that were essential to that experience, but I couldn't get conversations with lawyers and recent arrivals who just came to the house. Those are things you just can't film without putting someone's actual legal status at risk, so they were some of the reasons I decided to weave in the fictional narrative.

The storyline of the fictional character [Nayeli] would have been impossible to film without the reality of the house and the reality of the people she was interacting with. She was a composite character of a lot of people I'd met, working at the border and living in Mexico and Nicaragua. The actress [Regina Casillas] brought a lot to the role. I feel like I've met that character before.

She blends quite well into the film, too.

Right. Nobody was told that she was an actress. I wanted it to appear as if she was coming to Casa Marianella for the first time. She went through all the actual steps that someone would go through to be taken in. I had in mind the arc for her story, but a lot of the scenes were improvised. I just gave general direction, like, “You're going to cook rice,” and she would say, “I don't know how to do that,” and I would say, “Figure it out.”

What do you want to inspire in viewers who see the film?

I'd like people to identify with the immigrants in it who were brave enough to share their really personal stories. Hopefully, they'll take a stake in the next chapter of this story, since it's not really a culminating project so much as it is ongoing. I hope people will watch it and think, “I really need to do something about this. I need to be a part of the solution.”

It's obvious you're going to continue to tell these stories.

Right. I wouldn't say solely immigration, but I can see myself continuing in the specific vein of human rights films. I feel a very strong need to use filmmaking to tell humanizing stories about people.

Where is They Live Here, Now going next?

That's in process at the moment. I'd personally love to see it shown in schools and educational institutions. It's so important to humanize the issue, especially with younger generations, since they are the people who will be making some of the decisions in the future.

The PBS documentary series Independent Lens would be a great place, too.

Absolutely. Other festivals as well.

What other projects do you have in development?

I'm working on my first fiction feature film, which I'll be shooting this summer. I'm also working on a web series about the indigenous cultures of Oaxaca, Mexico.

 

Featured photo: 'They Live Here, Now': Refugee Teo sits thoughtfully before lights out at the Austin based refugee house, Casa Marianella. Photo: Jason Outenreath.


Opening Shows This Week

FEEDBACK MONTHLY FILM FESTIVAL @ Regal L.A. LIVE Cinemas

April 5, 2018 7:00 pm

The FEEDBACK Monthly Film Festival coming to Los Angeles.. Our LA home is Regal L.A. LIVE Cinemas, located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles (beside the Staples Center) at 1000 W Olympic Blvd. The ...read more


L.A. DANCE PROJECT @ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

April 5, 2018 7:30 pm

The Wallis is thrilled to announce L.A. Dance Project as its first Company-in-Residence! Collaborating with the company's Artistic Director Benjamin Millepied, The Wallis welcomes L.A. Dance Project in a series of programs in both ...read more

TOWNE STREET THEATRE'S 10 TEN-MINUTE PLAY FESTIVAL @ Stella Adler Theatre

April 5, 2018 8:00 pm

For a decade, Towne Street Theatre (TST) has produced the popular Ten-Minute Play Festival. This year's succession of lively and compelling 10 ten-minute plays are based on the theme of "celebration" and tell stories ...read more


THE WILLOWS @ Bootleg Theater

April 6, 2018 7:00 pm

At The Willows funeral home, Mark is being groomed to take over the family business from his father. But an unexpected reunion with the one that got away could derail those carefully laid plans ...read more


CLASSIC ALBUMS LIVE PERFORM LED ZEPPELIN I @ La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

April 6, 2018 8:00 pm

Classic Albums Live has earned their reputation of performing rock's most influential albums live on stage note for note, cut for cut. Featuring a roster of world-class musicians from across the globe, they will ...read more


DEATHTRAP @ Lonny Chapman Theatre

April 6, 2018 8:00 pm

The Group Rep presents Ira Levin's comic thriller Deathtrap directed by Jules Aaron, produced by Larry Eisenberg. A successful-but-currently-stalled playwright whose recent offerings have been flops, conspires with his wife to “collaborate” with a ...read more


ICE @ 24th Street Theatre

April 7, 2018 7:30 pm

A bilingual, humorous journey in search of what it means to be “American.” Two baseball players from Sinaloa, Mexico arrive in the U.S. with big dreams... but no documents. Armed with their Tia's famous ...read more


CLASSIC ALBUMS LIVE PERFORM PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL @ La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

April 7, 2018 8:00 pm

“The Wall” was Pink Floyd's eleventh studio album, released in 1979, and is regarded as one of the most famous concept albums of all time. Classic Albums Live, with its roster of world-class musicians ...read more


THE SEAGULL @ Atwater Village Theatre

April 7, 2018 8:00 pm

This modernized, comedic reinterpretation of Chekhov's masterpiece The Seagull is a comedy custom made for Los Angeles. One of the most beloved plays of the last hundred years, The Seagull reveals its writer's great ...read more


GERONIMO: LIFE ON THE RESERVATION @ Santa Monica Playhouse The Main Stage

April 7, 2018 8:00 pm

The critically acclaimed, seldom told story of Geronimo's life as a POW on the Fort Sill Indian Reservation. Starring veteran performer Rudy Ramos (Ironsides, The High Chaparral, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movie, The ...read more


SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, Producers of 'Heavy Trip'

The producers of ‘Heavy Trip' talk about the making of first Finnish comedy to premiere at SXSW.

Touted as the first Finnish comedy ever to premiere at SXSW, Heavy Trip is the story of a group of best friends who are members of a band named Impaled Rektum, possibly the most obscure heavy metal group in Finland.

They've been perfecting their style in the basement for the past 12 years, but their ultimate dream is to escape their confines of their tiny village and land a real gig. When they stumble upon an original sound, they throw caution to the wind and hit the road to play the hottest metal music festival in Norway.

This delightfully offbeat comedy provides amusing jabs at familiar metal clichés, as well as a cast of characters that you can root for.

Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, the film's producers and partners in the production company, Making Movies Oy, sat down with me on Saturday, Mar. 10 at SXSW to discuss the development of the film and the challenges of making the most expensive Finnish comedy ever produced.

What was the inspiration for Heavy Trip?

Kai Nordberg: It was the inspiration of the directors (Jukka Vidgren and Juuso Laatio), who came up with the idea for the film. We grew up in the ‘70s, the golden era of heavy rock coming up in Europe. So these two guys came up with a script that had all the rock clichés, but still treated it with respect. It was something we found inspiring. And it's great music!

Are any of the characters based on fact?

KN: Yes! The directors!

Kaarle Aho: Especially the [character] with the long hair (Turo) was loosely based on one of the directors. He was from a small village and he used to play heavy metal music. The real inspiration for him was having grown up in a small place where having long hair and listening to heavy metal music was a weird thing to do. It made him an outsider.

The way the characters in the film are ostracized, too. How popular is metal in Scandinavia?

KN: I wouldn't say all of Scandinavia. It's Finland and Norway. It's not popular in Sweden or Denmark. But it's still huge, especially in the countryside, outside the biggest cities. It's hard to say why, but it's a fact that Finland has the most metal bands per capita in the world. And Norway is number two.

KA: It must be something to do with the weather — or the aggressiveness of the music!

And it's the villages where it's popular.

KA: Yes, the villages. Hipsters live in the big cities.

How does it feel to have the first Finnish comedy premiere at SXSW?

KN: It's a huge honor and a huge achievement. We've been in business for 25 years, and...

KA: It's also the first comedy for our company.

Kaarle Aho and Kai Nordberg, producers of the Finnish heavy metal comedy ‘Heavy Trip' at SXSW (Photo: Kurt Gardner)

How do you think Americans will receive the film?

KN: I think it will go down very well. Much of the comedy is unintentional. It's based on the characters. We don't laugh at the characters — we laugh with them.

And I recognized the metal tropes. They're universal.

KN: Absolutely.

How were the actors cast?

KN: Basically, the directors had some ideas of who could be whom, and their main idea was not to take the most obvious guys — the famous ones — and bring in new faces.

KA: Did they all know how to play instruments beforehand?

KN: No, not at all. In the band, there are four characters and they each represent a genre. One is sub-heavy metal, one is thrash, one is death, one is shampoo metal. I was just at our domestic premiere, speaking with the costume designer. She said it was a very careful process to find costumes for every guy, for him to present a certain type of music within the genre.

There are some interesting special effects in the film. How were those handled?

KN: They were all done in Belgium, one of the co-producing countries of film.

KA: It was the last missing piece of the puzzle. We needed a co-producer to take care of the special effects.

KN: In terms of content, what special effects do you mean?

The characters jumping into the sea, the explosions; the huge concert venue.

KN: Basically, all of Norway, the mountains and the fjords, it's all built up. Most of it was shot in Helsinki. But it all comes down to the content. How can we put together a huge concert where they could perform? At some stage, we realized it was too complicated to do it outside.

KA: We wanted to go to a real festival and do it outside...

KN: We contacted festivals in Finland and Norway, but they have their own agendas. They can't just let us put an extra gig in the middle of their festival. So we said, “Okay. Let's have the concert in a cave, a huge cave." We started looking for that kind of location to see if it was possible, but it was not. There are a lot of shipyards in Helsinki, so finally we used a big shipyard building.

The effects do the job, and they do it well. They give the film a polish.

KN: That's true.

What was the most challenging thing about making Heavy Trip?

KN: It wasn't easy, I tell ya. It was such a great project. Still, at the end of the day, I would say it was the comedy side of it. Comedy is the most difficult genre in all arts. You can move the storyline, you can build up the characters, but is it going to be funny? This is the question. Is it going to work? Is this joke going to go over with the audience at all?

KA: Our domestic premiere in Finland was this past Tuesday. It was the first time we saw the film with a real audience. Still, ten minutes before the film, we didn't know if people were going to laugh. And you know, it's very embarrassing to make a film where no one's laughing.

KN: Luckily, they did laugh. They seemed to enjoy themselves.

Heavy Trip -Trailer (official) from Making Movies Oy on Vimeo.

Featured photo: Left to right: Max Ovaska, Samuli Jaskio and Johannes Holopainen in 'Heavy Trip' (Photo: Making Movies 2017)


BRETT RATNER, FILM GURU and THE TEN BEST FILMS at the 2017 Hollyshorts Festival

"You have to be in it for the right reasons - because you love storytelling.  That's the skill set of any filmmaker.  If you want to do it because you want to be famous, get laid, get rich, or whatever, then it's not going to happen for you." - Brett Ratner, from his IMDB page.

 

Steve Whitney of Kodak Inc. with Brett Ratner at Hollyshorts Awards Night

The Hollyshorts Festival recently concluded with an awards ceremony featuring 45 minutes of producer/director Brett Ratner in converation with Steve Whitney of Kodak Inc., followed by a 25 minute rush to hand out all the filmmaking awards.  The names were read out in quick succession, each accompanied by a slide show visual for a few seconds.  It was a weird scene, or at least it struck me as such.

The way that these film artists were scurrying up to the stage and then scurrying back to their seats, without even a moment to bask in the limelight just struck me as wrong, and I felt angry on their behalf.  The first award given out had gone to Brett Ratner, who hadn't had a film in the festival.  That had made me angry too.

What a typical Hollywood move, to shower the people at the top with attention and awards, while those at the bottom, who had so little, weren't even allowed a few moments of public acknowledgment (much less celebration) when they had finally won something!

Still, I had to admit that there were things in Brett Ratner's opening remarks that had surprised me, even touched me.  He described how his life was changed at 10 years old when he saw Scorcese's Raging Bull for the first time. He was smitten with a love of film and didn't really care about any other subject at school.  He found out that Martin Scorcese taught at NYU Film School, and from that point on, he was obsessed with going there to study.  He shot thousands of hours of film, hundreds of thousands of hours.  When the time came to apply to colleges, he only applied to NYU.  Then he went for his interview and was told that his grades weren't good enough, and he was being rejected.  "Did you look at my short films?" he asked. He was told that his films didn't matter - his bad grades disqualified him for consideration.  "I didn't know what to do," he told the Hollyshorts audience.  "I had no Plan B.  There was nothing else I wanted to do."

So what was he to do? What would you have done?  This was the pivotal moment, the dramatic turning point when sad young Brett became Brett Rattner.

He went to the Dean of NYU and told the secretary that he had to see the Dean.  Did he have an appointment?  No. Well, the Dean was a busy man, and he didn't have any openings for the next few weeks.  "But I can't wait three weeks.  I have to see him now," Brett insisted.  And it turned out to Brett's lucky day.  Because someone didn't show up for an appointment, and Brett got fifteen minutes with the Dean, and he made his point that admission to the film school should be based on how good a film director you are, not how good an all-around student you are.  And the Dean agreed to look at Brett's reel of short films.  And long story short, that's how Brett Ratner got into film school.  And got on the road to directing the Rush Hour Trilogy and X-Men: The Last Stand and other movies and a slew of music videos.

Not my kind of movies, I admit.  But I admire the dynamism and vitality of his visual storytelling.  And the money he's earned.  I'd like to experience some of that.  And his claim on our attention does have more to do with the money his films have garnered than with any claim of artistry.  But when I went to Brett Ratner's IMDB page, I was surprised to find how influential his production company, RatPac, was in making it possible for the visions of other filmmakers to be realized.  He had used his entreprenurial platform to make films he believed in, and not only the ones that were certain to make a profit.  I have a lot of respect for that.

I also enjoyed the lengthy comments on his IMDB Bio page, which re-enforced his gut-level commitment to film as a storytelling format, and to making good movies.

"When I was a film student at NYU, there wasn't a platform like the internet for filmmakers ... Now Steven Spielberg has someone every month prepare "The Best of YouTube."  There's so much short-form content better than feature films out there.  And there are huge opportunities out there now for young filmmakers to have something seen."

I also passionately agree with his statement that "the worst thing we have in today's movie culture in Rotten Tomatoes.  I think it's the destruction of our business.  I have such admiration and respect for that.  When I was growing up, film criticism was a real art.  There was intellect that went into that.  You would read Pauline Kael's reviews or some others ... Now it's about a number.  But that number is an aggregate, and nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it's not always correct.  It's hurting the business, and it's just insane."

So hey - maybe Brett Ratner was exactly the right person to preside over those awards.  And maybe he deserves his own "icon" award, or whatever.  I still wish that Hollyshorts had shown more respect for the filmmakers whose work they had chosen to exhibit, and especially for the winners of their own awards.

Free vodka is nice, and God knows I enjoyed all those flavors.  But I'd still prefer to see the winners given a chance to accept their award and maybe hear a few words about the film itself.  And then the free vodka.  Okay?

MY AWARDS, SANS CEREMONY

Whatever committee made the Hollyshorts choices got a few right, such as giving Kevin Wilson Jr. the award for Best Director for My Nephew Emmett.

But choosing Shoot Me Nicely over COMPANION for Best TV pilot?  Really?  I mean, come on.  What the hell were you smoking?

Michael Friedman, Alain Uy and Ray Stoney from COMPANION

Yes, most of the really exceptional films went uncelebrated.  And I am here to rectify that, to the best of my ability.

So here are my choices for the TOP 10 HOLLYSHORTS FILMS.

Drum roll please.

(I've written about all these in previous Hollyshorts columns - hope you will check those out.)

The bottom 5 (6-10), in no particular order and irrespective of genre category:

REFUGEE by Joyce Chen and Emily Moore - best documentary I saw in the festival.  I will never forget it.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY, Written by Casey Cannon and Angeliki Giannakopoulos, directed by Phedon Papamichael - This would have been memorable with any good actor, but James Brolin makes it special.

I KNOW JAKE GYLLENHAAL IS GOING TO FUCK MY GIRLFRIEND, Written by Sean Wing, Directed by Nino Mancuso -  No it's not perfect, but it's funny, and it really stayed with me.  Oh that Jake!

A STUDY IN TYRANNY by Andrew LaurichThe answer to the question: what would happen if I went back in time and tried to kill Hitler?  Here's a hint: He's Hitler!  No matter how nice he seems, he's still Hitler. And always will be.

FIVE MINUTES WITH MARY by Matt Beurois - It's amazing just how much you can say in five minutes.

The top 2-5, again in no particular order and irrespective of genre category:

11th HOUR by Jim Sheridan - Manages to say so much about 9/11 in 11 minutes.  Beautifully imagined.

MY NEPHEW EMMETT by Kevin Wilson Jr. - The tragedy of Emmett Till as you've never seen it.

MUSTARD SEED by Linda Roessler - Says volumes about the Holocaust in a few minutes.  No link here because I was unable to find any.  A shocking and beautiful film, and not without hope.

A TREE. A ROCK. A CLOUD. by Karen AllenIt's set in a particular time, but the story feels timeless, as if it has always existed.  Slows down time in a magical way, transporting us into a scene with great spiritual significance.

And the number 1 Film, Numero Uno, the Twisted Hipster's Palm D'or goes to:

"MOTHER" (Matka) by Piotrek Golebiowski - In 1943, a retreating Nazi regiment takes over the home of a Polish family, forcing them to live in their attic.  This is a work of art.  The final frame will freeze your blood.


SALMA HAYEK! ED ASNER! JOHN STAMOS! JAMES BROLIN! THE TAO OF CLOUT, Hollyshorts 3

You see it right there as you walk through the Chinese Theatre's Photo Gallery,  past Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh and Jack Nicholson and right across from glam Marilyn and Jane Russell, with their big money smiles.

Yes, it's the super-heroes of late 20th Century cinema, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, still reigning supreme in the early 21st Century.  (Well, at least Lucas is, and Spielberg has achieved legendary status.)  But seeing them here in their youth, they look very human, even ordinary.  They in fact look very much like many of the filmmakers whose work fills the slots in the Hollyshorts Festival, and whose dream it is to be the next Spielberg or Lucas.  That is, to make quality movies with their individual stamp on them that also do great box office.

Yes, that is the dream, but right now they'd be happy with an agent and a deal memo, or maybe just some positive feedback - anything to give some hope and feed the dream.  It's a very crowded field out there, much more so than in the days when Spielberg and Lucas were achieving their indie cred.  And while the need for "content" has never been greater, there are so many talented artists willing to do anything to get their shot, that it's harder than ever to make an impression, much less to employ their "individual stamp."

Ironically, since both men started out with independent-spirited movies like The Sugarland Express (Spielberg) and THX1138 (Lucas),  it is the blockbuster mentality engendered by their monster hits like Jaws, Indiana Jones and Star Wars that hold the movie industry transfixed and make it more difficult for individual sensibilities to be appreciated - at least until those sensibilities equate with dollars signs, as with Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton.

There was a short dystopian film in the Hollyshorts festival, REAL ARTISTS by Cameo Wood, that had a terrifying twist on this blockbuster obsession.

Based on a short story by renowned sci-fi author Ken Liu and taking place in the near future, it centers around aspiring animator Sophia Baker (Tiffany Hines, pictured here) who dreams of being able to work for Semaphore Animation Studios, famous for turning out one hugely successful film after another.  Her obsession is such that - like many fans today - she does her own "fan edit" of Semaphore's latest release.  To her amazement, this results in her being contacted by Semaphore and getting an interview with a top-level executive, played by Tamlyn Tomita, who offers Sophia a job there.  A dream come true, right?  But then the young animator discovers the "formula" behind the studio's success, and she has to make a decision.  What, after all, is her individual creativity worth?

Of course, most filmmakers don't have such stark decisions to make.  And they know that the best way to get their film noticed is to entice a well-known actor or two to take part.  Here is a round-up of several films in the festival that use actors with name recognition, with varying degrees of success.

FILM SHORTS

(Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

INGENUE-ISH, Written by John Stamos and Caitlin McHugh, Directed by Stamos - If you were to imagine a 10 minute movie by the "Full-House" actor John Stamos about the trials and tribulations of a 30-something actress, you would probably come pretty close to describing this film.    Pretty girl-actress? Check.  (Caitlin McHugh, co-writer and John Stamos's real-life girlfriend.)   Bad life-decisions? Check.  (She wakes up in the bed of a stranger.) Actor crisis? Check.  (She has a big audition, and she hasn't begun looking over the script.)  The piece is tongue-in-cheek and full of charming moments, and the ending has just the right kind of arch humor about the entertainment industry.  But in-between there are too many gross/grotesque incidents involving dog poop, as well as an improbable fight between Caitlin McHugh and another actress who is competing with her for the role in question.  On the whole, it's enjoyable, but it tries too hard to be funny and there just isn't much to it.

 

HOT WINTER: A FILM BY DICK PIERRE by Jack Henry Robbins - Jack Henry Robbins is the son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (who executive-produced this short film).  The film is about a climate scientist and all-around genius who talks and acts like a porn star.  Stylistically, it certainly shows the influence of his father's political sense of humor in such films as 2015's The Brink, as well as various satirical shorts at Funny or Die.  This film was awarded BEST COMEDY at Hollyshorts, and I do remember laughing a lot while watching.  But after it was over - it melted away faster than an Arctic iceberg.  When something is really funny, it stays with me quite a while.

SUPER SEX by Matthew Modine and GETTING ED LAID by Deborah Pearl - It's one thing to have one film in a festival about trying to help get "Lou Grant" actor Ed Asner laid; it's something else when there are two, and they were created completely independently of each other.  Super Sex by actor Matthew Modine is about and adult brother and sister (Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins),who are trying to come up with a unique birthday gift for their dad.  Their pursuit of said gift leads them to Ruby Modine (Matthew's daughter), who does not play a choir girl, and that leads to the father played by Ed Asner.  In Getting Ed Laid, Ed Asner plays a retired 85 year old professor who is in Tokyo and orders a sexual companion, then suddenly worries about the effect that Viagra may have on his heart.  The escort shows up in the person of Jean Smart - quirky and sexy, but very aware that she is a woman of certain age (over 50) - and the two of them have a memorably amusing encounter.  Both films are funny and both have their flaws.  Modine's film is all set-up, with only a quick silly joke as a payoff.  Deborah Pearl's film has some unnecessary complications to its setup and overdoes it a bit with the payoff, but it has two great characters, terrific dialogue, and a bewitching sense of humor, where the perils and problems of aging are concerned.

MODERN HOUSES by Matthew Dixon - Calling all Lily Taylor fans - and I know you're out there!  You will definitely want to catch Lily in the role of a cutting-edge architect about to unveil the model for her most ambitious design for a high-profile critic.  But something just isn't right with it... She keeps making small changes, but will it be enough?  Perfectionism feeds on itself in this painful drama, which feels like a parable from the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Not always easy to watch, but essential viewing for fans of Lily Taylor and the pursuit of perfection.

THE SON, THE FATHER by Lukas Hassel - I wasn't familiar before this with the work of Lukas Hassel, who has guest-starred on several TV series and starred in the horror film The Black Room.  But judging from his work on this film, where he is a quadruple-threat - writing, directing, producing and playing the father of the main character - he is a talent to be reckoned with.  Hassel sums up his film this way: "The events on a young boy's birthday has consequences far into the future for himself and his family."  Well, yes, but it's Hassel's sense of the grotesque that really makes this film stand out, along with the horrifying character of the boy's mother.  There aren't many American movies that dare to depict a mother in such an irredeemable way, not to mention the pain we see her inflict.  And then there is a transitional cut, very bold and memorable, in which Hassel's father character changes drastically before our eyes.  This is a terrifying little film, and Lukas Hassel shows himself unafraid to take chances.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY, written by Casey Cannon and Angeliki Giannakopoulos, directed by Phedon Pappamichael - This powerful 15 minute film features James Brolin in a wonderfully-understated performance as a widower and retired accountant who suddenly starts tying up all the loose ends of his life and totalling up his accounts.  What's going on?  What is he planning to do?  Frances Fisher turns up in a brilliant cameo as a woman  Brolin meets in a bar, but the film plays its card as close to its metaphorical chest as Brolin does until the final revelation, which I found genuinely shocking and completely credible.  This film has been another festival darling, and it's not hard to see why.  A memorable performance by Brolin in a different kind of role.

11th HOUR by Jim Sheridan - This is an 11 minute film about 9/11, and it may be the best evocation of that dark day that I've seen.  It takes place in a Hell's Kitchen bar run by Salma Hayek's character and her Irish husband, a police bar where cops are used to coming after their shifts.  Now they've assembled here, but the atmosphere is tense, the need to lash out at someone is pervasive, as the losses they have suffered is too much to bear.  Guns are drawn from holsters, violence is in the air, as an older policeman counsels patience.  Then someone unexpected shows up, someone who cuts through all the tension and takes the focus away from revenge.  It's based on a true story, but what makes it stand out and then linger in the memory is the way that Jim Sheridan has framed the narrative, and the enormous shifts in tone that occur organically within such a tight timeline.   I was so glad to be able to see this on a large screen, where the larger-than-life events of that day needed that kind of scope for the tragic undertow to be conveyed.  I wish more people had that opportunity.

MY NEPHEW EMMETT by Kevin Wilson, Jr. - Just as Jim Sheridan was able to bring alive the events of 9/11 by looking at them from a different perspective, so Kevin Wilson is able to conjure up the events surrounding the killing of Emmett Till by making them personal.  This doesn't feel like history, this doesn't feel like "significant events" that happened almost 65 years ago.  Rather, Kevin Wilson takes us with him into the dust of that Mississippi summer, and the attempts of Emmett's preacher-uncle and aunt to protect him from the whites who don't understand Emmett's big city ways.  And just as Jim Sheridan was able to make Salma Hayek an integral part of his ensemble, so Wilson is able to ease Jasmine Guy into his mix as Emmett's aunt without distracting from the central drama.  But it is L.B. Williams as Emmett's uncle who really makes a claim on our attention, as he battles against forces of hate and malevolence that simply will not be reasoned with.  Kevin Wilson won the BEST DIRECTOR prize at Hollyshorts, and again it was well-deserved.  There is something so visceral about this short piercing film that you come away feeling the parched dust in your throat and a heaviness in your heart for our cycle of violence.

TV SERIES

COMPANION, written by Matt Ferrucci and Nick Mouyiaris, produced by Ferrucci, Mouyiaris and Alain Uy - In addition to the film shorts, there were also several "proof of concept" episodes or fragments presented for TV series.  But this was the only one that seemed to me to have both their concept and their execution together, and the only one that I could see finding a place at a studio and in our hearts.  In the half-hour comedy series, Michael Marc Friedman would play Nick Foster, a "sober companion" who looks after wealthy clients with a history of abusing drugs, alcohol, whatever.  As the Companion team so eloquently puts it: "Basically he's a babysitter - except the babies are rich assholes who shoot dope and drink their millions away."

So far they've only shot the pilot episode, which was screened at the festival.  This has Nick trying to keep disgraced NBA superstar Jay "J Train" Tyrell (Ray Stoney) on the straight and narrow as he attempts to rehabilitate his badly-damaged image and get back into the league.  Not easy when Tyrell has five children with six baby mamas (it's complicated) and now apparently has a 6th child on the way with his wild new girlfriend.  The episode had a great flow and was consistently fun and suprising.  What made it work so well for me was the chemistry between the actors Friedman and Stoney.  Also, it wasn't written so that Tyrell was simply the fuck-up and Foster his keeper.  No, Foster needed something from Tyrell too, and this gave the show a nice balance, and a sense of unpredictability too.

It wasn't certainly the first show I've seen in a while about heterosexual men which explored the bonds of friendship and insecurity in an interesting way.  It feels contemporary, fluid and even sexy.  I can certainly see guys tuning in who watch sports on TV and spend hours listening to the anchors on ESPN.  It has that male vibe, but with a quick wit and a cool eye for all the lies that men tell each other, along with the lies we tell ourselves.

The plan is for Nick to have several different clients, so this would be an anthology series, but with some clients recurring (breakdowns do happen) and others being run into again by chance.  I have no idea how that aspect of it will work, but I'd take this series any day over Ballers.  What I've seen so far has the kind of magic coming off it that I associate with TV success.  We'll see how far they'll be able to take that.  Here's hoping they'll be given a decent shot.

 

 

 


"OPEN YOUR MIND, COMPANY GEEK, AND LET THE WORLD IN!" - Hollyshorts, Part 2

Ah, the '6os.  When simplistic lines like that actually seemed to mean something.  When there was a "them" and an "us," and you knew which side you were on.  But not anymore.   While there are great causes and great moral questions aplenty, the morality of any particular individual has never been more self-centered and pragmatic than it is  now.

"Never?" you may ask.  "Never?"  How can you quantify that?

Because cell phones in particular - and technology in general - has made information available to the individual in an  unprecendented way, that allows us to manipulate reality, and be manipulated by others, in ways that never existed before.  That is, the individual has never had more powerful means of communication at his or her control, especially in Western societies, where net neutrality exists, and the government doesn't control the flow of information.

At the same point, the individual has never been more disposable and replaceable than now, and this is certain to increase, as AI and robotic technology advances, and the individual worker in almost all fields becomes more obsolete.  This makes for a very interesting crossroads in world history, which the filmmakers of today are chronicling in ever-burgeoning numbers.

They have the tools.  They will not be stopped.  But who exactly is there to listen to all these trees falling in our cinematic forests?

Yours truly, the Twisted Hipster.

Here now are some of the best "fallen trees" from the recent Hollyshorts Festival.  These are the more obscure ones, with few celebrity connections to make them stand out - just talent.  I am bringing them to your attention in the hope that you will be able to track down the ones that appeal to you most and see for yourself.

DOCUMENTARIES

Wally Green, who produced/stars in "The Tables," abt ping-pong salvation

THE TABLES by Jon Bunning - This tells the true story of what happened when Wally Green (the "Tony Hawk of table tennis") paid to have two all-weather ping-pong tables installed in the middle of Bryant Park.  All of a sudden the drug addicts were pushed out, replaced by a (mostly-male) group of ping-pong fanatics, who have tournaments long into the night, even during snowstorms.  Wally Green himself, charismatic and gap-toothed, makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, but mostly he leaves it to others to express the ways in which this changed their lives for the better, giving hope to the homeless and others.  It's a fun and affecting peek into the lives of some hardcore New Yorkers.  Not my favorite documentary, but it was awarded Best Documentary at the Festival.

ONE WAY HOME by Qinzi Fan - This is an extraordinary documentary as well as an act of great bravery.  It depicts the education of Tibetan students by the Chinese government.  To quote the film's website: "What is the cost of free government-sponsored education?  Tibetan children Tashi and Tuju were chosen to study in Mainland China, chosen to study with thousands of Tibetan kids in the schools for only Tibetans.  These boarding schools prepare them to return to Tibet as China's new elite, but the "first-class education" comes with a deep loss of identity, language and culture."  I don't know how Qinzi Fan was ever able to get permission to tell this story, but if you want to see how "1984" really happens - how a government tries to wipe out a people's identity - then watch this film.

WOODY'S ORDER by Ann Talman -  This is the film version of Ann Talman's play about her brother Woody, who has cerebral palsy.  We finally see Ann perform her play for Woody, who doctors said would only live to be 12 but who is now almost 70.  The relationship between Ann and her brother is deeply-moving, and having these home movies of the two of them playing together as children is beautiful and heart-rending.  That said, I prefer the stage version, because Ann is such a great actress, and seeing her take on her brother's personality as well as her own creates something magical, of the imagination, that is somehow more enduring and deeper than than the thing itself.

REFUGEE by Joyce Chen and Emily Moore - This was my choice for best documentary, and a very good one it is - perhaps even a classic of its kind.  The filmmakers follow around Aicha Diop, a solitary but indomitable West African woman in her 60s, living in New York City, as she does battle with the forces of Immigration, struggling to bring her five children over to join her.  I can't imagine a more relevant story or one more filled with mind-blowing twists and turns.  The filmmakers frame it in such an intelligent way that. even while you're rooting for Aicha to succeed, as she cleans houses and does whatever it takes to re-unite her family, you are still allowed to ask the question: is it a good thing for the rest of us to have Aicha's children here?  Quality work by first-rate filmmakers.

NARRATIVE FILMS

THE HISTORY OF MAGIC: ENSUENO by Jose Luis Gonzalez - This was the only animated film I saw in the festival that stayed with me, both for its originality and authenticity.  The southwestern Chicano imagery has great flow and humor and a seemingly endless sense of inventiveness.  This ballad of a young girl's bike ride home gives us her hopes, fears and dreams in six minutes.  It's a small segment of a much larger tapestry - can't wait to see the rest!

FISHER COVE by Sean Skene - There's a mysterious force loose in Fisher's Cove that keeps tugging at the line of Sean Skene's fisherman and then disappearing.  The fisherman takes this personally, and he refuses to leave until he finds out who or what is behind this.  When he finally does, in a death-defying manner, I just wish that he'd had a more interesting interaction with what he finds.  Despite this, Skene's visual style is so memorable and compulsively watchable that his short film stays in the mind long after it's over.  Also, second most adorable dog in the festival.

NILES CANYON, directed by Sallyanne Massimini -This film is a little bit cheesy and a little bit over-familiar in subject matter, but it rises above others on the considerable talents of writer/actor David Paul Francis. Telling the story of a man's redemption by a mysterious woman found bleeding by the side of the road, Mr Francis also plays the main character.  Large in size, he also has an enormous emotional depth.  His speech to this woman about the darkness inside him and the regrets that have driven him to the brink of suicide pierced through the mass of words and imagery from this festival and found a permanent place in my heart.  Thank you, Mr Francis, you are a talent to be reckoned with.  Here's hoping you have many more opportunities to showcase your pain.

JUST GO! by Pavel Gumennikov -  This film won Best Romance at Hollyshorts, but it is less a film than an excuse for an extended chase scene; as such, though, it is pretty spectacular.  Just is a handsome, athletic 24 year old man who lost his legs in a childhood accident.  He is flirting with a pretty girl when two bearded thieves steal the girl's purse and make a quick getaway, not believing they have anything to fear from the disabled man who pursues them.  Oh, how wrong they are!  The film showcases both Just's physical dexterity and his ingenuity.  In a basic sense, this film harkens back to early filmmaking and the kind of simple storytelling that featured physical elements and chase sequences that could never be matched in effectiveness in any other art form.

LACRIMOSA by Tanja Mairitsch - This is a sublimely beautiful exercise in surreal filmmaking.  It centers on a young woman's dream world, where she encounters her lost lover.  He was a painter, and she is delighted to see the work he's done since his untimely death.  It's easy to take a film like this for granted as the kind of dazzling stylistic piece that one expects to find in such a festival.  But the way that Mairitsch keeps her imagery connected to her main character's dealing with the loss of her first love is anything but "typical."  And then there are those underwater sequences, so hauntingly lovely.  Again, filmic in a pure sense, what film was created to do.  Brava!

LIMBO by Konstantina Kotzamani - This 30 minute film won the top award in Hollyshorts as BEST SHORT FILM GRAND PRIZE, and it is truly remarkable.  But what is it about?  I still don't know.  On IMDB, it is described as: "The leopard shall lie down with the goat. The wolves shall live with the lambs.  And a young boy shall lead them."  All I can say for sure is that, while watching it, it seemed to communicate directly with my unconscious.  A profound if puzzling experience.

WOMAN WITH AN EDITING BENCH by Karen Pearlman - This is a very effective film and festival favorite about Elizaveta Svilova, the dedicated editor behind Dziga Vertov's revolutionary documentaries in Stalin's Russia, most notably his masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera (No. 1 on the list of Best Documentaries of all time, according to 'Sight and Sound').  This film employs Svilova's own innovative editing techniques in telling the story of how she outwitted the Soviet censors and kept Vertov from being deported to a gulag.  In paying homage to Svilova, this film celebrates all those who dedicate their lives to giving form to creativity despite the dangers and hazards that may be involved.  A must-see for all film-lovers.

THE FARE by Santiago Paladines - This was the AFI thesis film for an Ecuadoran filmmaker with a very bright future.  He takes on the subject of human trafficking, and he does an excellent job of creating that world, in which Johnny Ortiz plays Javier, a trafficker-in-training.  His boss, Wellington,  puts Javier in charge of Cristina, an 11 year old middle-class girl, forcing him to rape her to show his allegiance.  Paladines demonstrates a sure hand throughout, and he gets a much better performance from Ortiz than John Ridley & compay did in American Crime.

 

IT'S JUST A GUN, written by Daniel Klein, directed by Brian Robau - This thesis film for Chapman University is notable for some jazzy camera movement and the dexterous use of cross-cutting to tell the heartfelt (if somewhat familiar) story of how the "good luck" of finding a discarded firearm can quickly turn fatal.  Director Robau and writer Klein have the good sense to frame this in an unexpected way, showing how the gun has the potential to save some young public school kids from being bullied by the older kids at their school.  I wish they'd found an equally inventive way to get the cops involved - right now it seems fairly lame. Nevertheless, lots to admire here.

THE SUITCASE by Abi Damaris Corbin -  This is a flawed but exciting 9/11 thriller by a USC student who graduated high school at 13 and got her B.A. by 17 (so maybe she isn't a student anymore).  It dramatizes the story of a corrupt baggage handler (Mojean Aria) who pilfers items from traveler's suitcases.  On 9/11, he happened to look inside one suitcase which contained items of no value for him, but whose significance he realized after the planes hit the World Trade Center.  He tries to alert his boss - who sees this only as an admission of the handler's thievery - and then the SWAT members who swarm the airport, but no one will listen.  The handler then goes on a frantic search for the luggage, at great risk to his own life.  All that is well done, and the film comes off interestingly as an indictment of the police/military mindset in much the same way that the first Diehard movie was. The problem is that we see the same dynamic played out again and again, and it strains credulity that the baggage handler keeps being able to gain access to restricted areas.  But this is still a nail-biting thrill ride by a director with skills and smarts beyond her years.  I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

WATU WOTE: ALL OF US, written by Julia Drache, directed by Katja Benrath; and LUNCH TIME by Alireza Ghasemi - Two festival favorites from abroad, both extraordinary films.  The first is drawn from a real-life 2015 event, when Al-Shababb terrorists attacked a bus, intent on killing all the non-Muslims.  The second is an Iranian film about a 15 year old girl who goes to the morgue to identify her dead mother's body, but the officials there won't let her see the body because of her age.  Both movies show the cruelty and the compassion that people are capable of.  Both leave us with a sense of the heroism that everyday people can demonstrate in terrible situations. Both should be seen by well-fed Westerners, who forget how many individual freedoms we take for granted.

CROWBAR SMILE by Jamie Mayer - This is a coming-of-age story about a young pool boy (Tristan Lake Leabu) who falls in love with the 30-something college professor whose pool he attends to.  It's an intelligent and well-directed example of the genre, and the Holly-shorts folks thought enough of it to put it on the Opening Night roster.  I'm not sure it's that good, but it has a sweet and believable twist when the boy and professor seem about to get it on, and the director really knows how to portray the awkwardness of adolescents waiting around for their lives to begin. But what's up with that title? Yikes!

EMERGENCY by Carey Williams -  This is a one joke comedy-thriller, but it's a very good joke.  A few members of a minority fraternity on an urban college campus come home to find a scantily-dressed white girl passed out on the floor of their front room, probably from a drug overdose.  They know that someone has to call 911, but who? Three of the students are dark-skinned, and the fourth is Mexican.  Each of them spins a horror story of what would happen if he were to make the call - all the imagined stories end with the caller either shot or locked up for what has happened to the girl.  They call around, trying to find some white friend who can come over and notify the authorities.  ("Hey, you know White Jason?  Have you seen him around campus lately?  Do you have his number?")  But all their calls to white friends go straight to voicemail.  Meanwhlle the girl starts choking on her own vomit, and somebody has to do something. Will they ever find a person light-skinned enough to call the cops?  The answer is both satisfyingly funny and sadly believable.  A trenchant piece of satire which has been made just realistically enough to keep it from getting smarmy or overly smug.  (It reminded me a lot of early Spike Lee, both in its POV and its style.)

BENNY GOT SHOT by Malcolm Washington - Another AFI Thesis Film and Festival darling - it won BEST DRAMA at Hollyshorts - it's another urban film exemplifying how black people fear that their lives may really not  matter, at least when it comes to the authorities.  Iantha Richardson plays Naomi, an autopsy assistant at the L.A. coroner's office, whose kid brother has gone missing on the same night that there's been a police shooting in the area where he had been headed.  Naomi calls around desperately, praying that the next body she sees on a slab isn't him.  Director Washington does a nice job of keeping it real, letting the tension rise of its own accord, forgoing musical underscoring or any other well-worn device to remind us of how much is at stake.

SWEET MADDIE STONE by Brady Hood - Maddie Stone is many things, but "sweet" is not one of them.  Street smart, tough as nails, hates to lose at any cost - now you're getting closer.  Maddie Stone's dad is a notorious criminal, and she's ruled the yard in her Glasgow school as a result.  But now her dad has been sent away to prison, and she has to instill fear on her own.  Jessica Barden plays her with a ferocity that doesn't obscure her extreme vulnerability - in fact, it emerges directly from it.  An older - and much taller - student (Barney Harris) senses her weakness and takes over as the school drug-pusher.  He offers to take her on as his assistant, but her sense of importance does not allow her to accept.  When she finally swallows her pride and agrees, he rejects her, laughing in her face.  Maddie's response to this gets her kicked out of school.  What will become of sweet Maddie Stone?  Her future may not look bright, but it will not be boring, that's for sure.  Brady Hood has created a resonant character, and I hope she re-appears in a feature-length film.

 

THE LANGUAGE OF BALL by Ramon Rodriguez and THE CAGE by Ricky Staub 

These two movies about basketball and teenage guys couldn't be more different, but both are spectacular in their own ways.   Both use almost no spoken words to convey their messages.  The Language of Ball  tells the story of a young man (Eshan Bay) who speaks no English and has just moved into an urban neighborhood, going to the local basketball court with his ball.  He is taken up by another young man at the court, who goes around with him to all the courts in the city, playing two-on-two competitions.  In the course of the day they bond and get to know each other through "the language of ball."  While in The Cage, the focus is one young black man in North Philadelphia who struggles to break free from "a cycle of betrayal, anger, violence and death."  The intensity of the images is raw and visceral, and the performances from William Lee and all the other amateur actors are remarkable.

FIVE MINUTES WITH MARY by Matt Beurois - This is one of those films that goes by so quickly, with such a deceptively simple concept, that it's easy to miss its brilliance and the way it captures a huge event in such an off-handed way.  The film begins with Daniel, a bearded young white guy - probably a student - hiking a solitary trail in Joshua Tree National Park.  His cell phone rings, and he sees that the caller is his friend Charlie, who Daniels knows is on vacation in Paris. Except it's not Charlie on the phone, it's Mary.  And Mary is at a rock concert in Paris where a horrific terrorist event is still going on.  All of a sudden we - along with Daniel - are plunged into the violence of the modern world.  It's something we can never get away from, no matter how safe and removed we may seem.

THE LIGHT IN THE AFTERNOON by David Steiner - I'm ending this reviewpalooza with a 15 minute French film that was screened by a screenwriters group called Stage 32 at Harmony Gold, where the closing awards festivities for Hollyshorts was held.  This is an intriguing and oddly romantic film about the life and death of a couple.  Narrated first by Shannon (Morwenna Spagnol), we are introduced by her to Aurelian (Writer/director David Steiner), a French intellectual who expresses only contempt for "the  mundanity" of daily life and for "the mediocrity" of other people.   Shannon is repelled by his attitude, saying that he can afford these elitist views because he doesn't have a job and doesn't worry about a money.  She does have a job, and she does worry about money, and she keeps urging him to try experiencing daily life and see how that made him feel.  He agrees to do so if she will be there with him.  After some hesitation she agrees - and then comes the twist that changes everything and leads to the second half of the film, narrated by Aurelian several years later.  The film has a beautiful arc, and it results in a sense of wisdom genuinely earned.  Like so many of the best short films discussed here, "short" does not mean "small."  Like any successful work of art, they open up vistas that allow us to see with greater clarity and a sense of wonder what has always been right in front of our eyes.

 


From SHOOTING HITLER To GYLENHAAL F%CKING YOUR GIRLFRIEND - HollyShorts 2017, Part I

The 2017 HollyShorts Film Festival ran from August 10-19 and featured some 400 films, running from 3 to 40 minutes each.  I vowed to see at least 300 of those offerings, but don't think I saw more than 250.  That was still a bewilderingly large number of films, especially when the time between blocks of films was often less than 10 minutes.  After awhile I felt a bit like Malcolm McDowell's character in Clockwork Orange, though without the contraption to keep my eyelids pinned open.  I could have used that at times, especially during the two blocks of midnight screenings, when there wasn't a film either night that made being there better than being in bed.

All in all, though, I have to express some surprise and delight at how many excellent films I was treated to.  I'd say there were as many 50 short films that I would highly recommend - that is, 20% of what I saw.  Which is a remarkably high number.  The quality was much higher on the whole than what I'd seen a few months before at the Pasadena Film Festival.  The great thing about short films is that you can often access them online at YouTube or Vimeo or the producer/director's website free of charge, and doing so will be very much worth your time.

I've already profiled Karen Allen's lovely film, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud in my last column.  Here are a few more short films that you absolutely positively have to catch up with, if you are a dedicated cinephile or just someone who appreciates the new and differerent.

FROM THE OPENING NIGHT PARTY (shot by the Twisted Hipster)

4 REMARKABLE FILMS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST (Not Documentaries!)

MUSTARD SEED by Linda Roessler - I haven't been able to find any link or image for this film, which is a real shame. It says more in 6 or 7 minutes than most do in 2 hours about the matter-of-factness of the Jewish genocide, as well as the existence of compassion amid all that destruction.  The film starts out with a shot of a beautiful field being tilled by a humble farming family.  Then we see shots of insects: a bee gathering pollen, a grasshopper trying to climb over a leaf.  It is a peaceful world, and I wondered if this was some kind of nature film.  Then a truck shows up, the size of a laundry truck or a postal delivery van.  Two guards in brown uniforms get out of the cab, along with a peasant in dark clothing.  They come over to the mother, father and 7 year old daughter working the field and force them all to strip naked and get into the back of the van.  What happens next is both exactly what you expect and completely surprising.  A devestating and yet not a hopeless experience.

HOPE DIES LAST by Ben Price - This is a brilliant little film set in Auschwitz about the life of Josef Paczynski, a Polish political prisonor who shaved the camp commandant Rudolf Hess every day for four years.  There is a remarkable interplay between prisoner and leader.  The prisoner would like nothing better than to slit the Nazi commandant's throat.  The Nazi commandant is fully aware of this and is fully confident that the prisoner never will.  This strange little battle of wills is a triumph for all concerned, and it well deserves the Hollyshorts prize it received.

 

 

 

"Mother" (Matka) by Piotrek Golebiewski - Oh my God, what a movie.  What a movie!  It tells the story of a family of humble Polish peasants - a father, mother and two daughters - whose home is commandeered by a Nazi regiment that has taken up residence in their town.  The family is forced upstairs to their attic (shades of Anne Frank), where they starve and live in constant fear, while the Nazis eat well and await their next orders.  The commander of the regiment is a decent older man who is all for leaving the Polish family alone, but his adjutant is a sadist who is frothing at the mouth to kill the Poles or at least rape the pretty wife. Who will win? The film is shot in a dreamy black-and-white with light suffusing at the edges, and there is a thrilling confidence to the director's slow, steady pace. One thing is for sure: even when the Poles win, they will somehow manage to lose. Somehow this 15 minute film captures an essence of what it means to be from frequently-annexed country of Poland.

A STUDY IN TYRANNY by Andrew Laurich - This dark comedy is very dark indeed, but also very funny and very beautifully shot. It builds off of the most popular answer to the question of "If you had a time machine, where's the first place you would go?" So, yes, our hero - a contemporary guy in his 20s - has gotten a gun and gone back in time to kill Hitler. The film doesn't show us his time machine or offer explanations, we are simply there in Hitler's garret, this American guy's foot twitching nervously while he holds a .357 magnum under the wooden table. Hitler here is also in his 20s. He's a callow youth, still painting classical landscapes, still hoping to get into the Academy of Art and make that his life. The American disabuses him of that notion, whipping out a paperback biography of Hitler from his back pocket that details Hitler's rejection by the art establishment and his subsequent turn to politics and genocide. Hitler the artist scoffs at this. "But I'm a vegetarian," he says. "I like dogs." Also shot in black and white - which I have to say feels like the right choice - this takes a twist and a turn that somehow makes history seem like the biggest joke that could ever be played on the human condition. Which it very well might be.

4 SCREAMINGLY FUNNY FILMS

AFTERNOON DELIGHT by Matteo J.  Mosterts - There were a few porn parodies in the festival, but I thought this was the funniest.  It begins in familiar fashion with a guy saying goodbye to his wife, then loading in a porn dvd called "Afternoon Delight" to his player.  He sets himself up with lubrication and tissues and presses "play," grinning with anticipation at the erotic "delights" that await him.  And sure enough the film he's watching starts out in time-honored fashion with the cable guy coming to the door of a large and lavish house, owned by a busty blonde lady whose white robe keeps slipping open.  The man watching the film squirts some silky liquid onto his fingers, waiting for the payoff.  But then things start going awry in the film-within-the-film, and the man watching it keeps getting increasingly frustrated.  Then his wife returns, and-- well, I don't want to spoil it for you, even if that would be very much in keeping with the film itself.  This 9 minute film has masterful pacing and knows just how to play off our expectations.

CONTROL by Alison Becker and Kimmy Gatewood This short film was shown on opening night and also won a best comedy award, honors that I think it deserved.  It encapsulates brilliantly the dilemma of the modern-day control freak, who has more ways than ever to exert control over his/her environment, which only ends up squeezing all the breathable air out of the room.  Or out of one's life.  In this case, the central character (played by the film's writer, Alison Becker) decides to do something about it, but even while planning her own suicide, it has to be done with matching colors and with implements that compliment each other.  What makes this work so well, again, is how well it was thought out and planned - with such great "control."  So, see, being a control freak can have its upside.  A lesson that Alison's character here is sadly unable to benefit from.  (And bow-wow, that is the sweetest little dog I've ever seen!)

THE BIRTH by Sarah Hatherley - There are almost as many comedies about giving birth as there are porn parodies, and they are even harder to do well.   The problems are many, ranging from the fact that so much is at stake for everyone to the fact that we care so much about everything turning out well to the fact that it's all been done before, and how can it be made to seem new?  This short film is not problem-free, by any means - the doula is a one-joke eccentric, who the filmmaker fails to involve in the central action.  But the central couple in this home birth - played by Glenn Maynard and Dana Miltons - keep it just real enough to keep us caring about them, while also giving us permission to laugh at the central dilemma, which is that the husband is a wannabe film director who sees this birth as his one great opportunity to make his masterpiece, while the wife - who thought she was going to be okay with that - finds herself in too much pain and distress to allow him to go through with it.  "Now?" he keeps asking. "Can I start filming now?"  "No!!!!!" she screams.  "Is that a no that really means yes?" he asks desperately.  "No!!!!" she screams again, and so it goes along.  This kind of comedy is very difficult to keep developing while also keeping it real, but director Hatherley is able to do just that, while also coming up with a hilarious final image.

I KNOW JAKE GYLLENHAAL IS GOING TO FUCK MY GIRLFRIEND by Nino Mancuso and Sean WingThis definitely wins the prize for the funniest title in the festival, but funny titles rarely lead to funny movies. This one is the exception.  It starts out funny, it gets funnier, and it leads to a conclusion that will have you discussing it with your significant other long after the movie has ended.  It revolves around a Hollywood screenwriter, played by writer Sean Wing, whose sexy girlfriend already has an attraction to Jake G. from the tearjerker movie "Rainy Day" that the two of them see together at the start of this movie.  Sean tries to put a damper on his girlfriend's enthusiasm for Jake by claiming that he thought the female co-star in the tearjerker actually stole the movie away from him.  The next thing you know, the actress who Sean has raved about shows up at the girlfriend's yoga class, and the girlfriend tells her how much Sean admired her work.  One thing leads to another, and, yes, Sean and his girlfriend end up at a Hollywood party with the irresistible Jake G. himself.  Sean clings  onto his girlfriend, trying to prevent his worst fears from coming true.  Will he succeed?  Can he posssibly prevent Jake from fucking his girlfriend?  Well, as we've seen with so many of these excellent movies, fate has a way of being very hard to outwit.  But I hope you get a chance to see the film and find out for yourself.


WHATEVER HAPPENED TO KAREN ALLEN? (Answer: A Lot)

The 2017 Hollyshorts Festival of short films is entering its final weekend at the TLC Chinese Theatre 6, and I highly recommend checking out the guide and catching some of the films if you can.

The Festival began on Thursday August 10th with the 30th Anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and by the conclusion on Saturday evening will have screened 400 films of 40 minutes or less (chosen from the 6300 films that were submitted).  I've managed to see around three-quarters of all the films, and I can report that there are some brilliant short films being made.  Films that definitely deserve your attention.  Since many can be accessed by online links or will appear at future local festivals, you may indeed have a chance to see them elsewhere.  I'll be providing a complete run-down of the best films I've seen at the Festival early next week, so be sure to look for that.

One of the films shown in the Hollyshorts festival was A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., adapted and directed by Karen Allen from a short story by Carson McCullers.  The story is gossamer-thin, a small slice-of-life interaction between a boy and a strange man in his 60s at a village tavern at 6 in the morning.  The boy has a paper-route, and he's stepped into the coffee shop as he always does after dispensing the papers. The older man calls the boy over and tells him, "I love you."  All the people in the shop - mostly men about to go to work in the paper mill - laugh at hearing this.  The man then goes on to explain himself, to give his own philosophy of love, which he came by through a great deal of suffering.  There is something vaguely religious about the scene and the "love" that the man expresses, but it remains oblique and enigmatic. as Ms. McCullers certainly intended.

In this, the first film she's directed, Karen Allen slows the pace of life down to a crawl.  We are as far away from the pace of the other films in her festival block - mostly urban dramas, suffused with hip-hop music and rhythms - as it is possible to be.  The film is shot in black & white with the exterior scenes suffused with dawn's early light.  (In Ms. McCullers' story, it's raining hard.)  The Berkshires landscape is almost painfully beautiful, and Ms. Allen lingers on it as long as she can before the boy (played by newcomer Jackson Smith) enters the tavern/coffee shop.  The strange man is played by Jeffrey DeMunn,in a performance of astonishing delicacy.  Where this character seemed like something of a holy fool in the McCullers story, DeMunn comes across here as an almost otherworldly figure, who seems as if he comes from a different species than the hard-edged, cynical townsfolk.  He is a wanderer, a lost soul who has somehow been found, who has stumbled upon the secret of living.  Again, everything transpires so slowly that it almost feels like we are out of the time/space continuum, as if the older man and the boy are communicating on a higher plane than the other patrons exist within.  This emphasizes the spiritual quality of their dialogue, where DeMunn seems like a guru passing on his wisdom to one of the few people who might understand him.  But does the boy understand?  Does the story that DeMunn's character tells him change the boy's outlook on life?  Ms. Allen retains the story's sense of enigma, though the film version feels larger, more spacious, more striking.  It feels less like a slice-of-life than it does a religious scene painted by Caravaggio, if Caravaggio painted in black-and-white.  Which is to say there is a meditative quality to it that is deeply heartfelt.  Personally I'd like to see it again, because the slowed-down pacing requires some adjusting to before the surprising aspects of what transpires can be fully appreciated.

 

I chatted with Karen in the Chinese Theatre's lounge area on the day after her film screened.

"I first read the Carson McCullers story when I was 22," she said.  "It just made an immediate impact on me, and this has stayed with me ever since.  It feels like something that I just had to do, and I'm so glad that the opportunity finally came along to do it."

The film has already been awarded "Best International Short" at the Manchester Film Festival, and Karen was named Best Director at the Rhode Island Film Festival.  She deflects my question about any other films she might like to direct and speaks instead about the stage plays she has directed, mostly for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City and the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Mass., near where she lives.  "Theater was my first love, and I keep going back to it," she told me.

Of course, for many people around the world, Karen Allen will always be Marion Ravenwood, the feisty and independent woman in Indiana Jones's life.  She played this role in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and there is simply no overstating the effect that her character had on boys of many ages in Raiders of the Lost Ark - a film that itself has a place in the American psyche just behind Star Wars.  And no wonder - story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Steven Spielberg.  These are the folks you want steering your ship.

"Well, sure, we had George Lucas and Steven Spielberg working at the top of their game," she said. "But you have to remember that Spielberg's last film at that point was 1941, which was a critical and financial disaster.  He has never experienced failure on that scale before, and he was definitely licking his wounds. We were all aware how much he had at stake with this film.  And he was prepping ET at the same time that we were shooting Raiders, so yeah, there was a lot going on."

Karen and Jeff Bridges in STARMAN

In addition to her role in Raiders, I'm partial to her performance in Starman (1984), in which she's trying to help an alien played by Jeff Bridges get back to his planet.  There's a lovely innocence to the movie, and there's so much chemistry between the two of them.  Karen has continued to do movie roles over the years, often in independent films that tend to get lost somewhere in distribution.  She stars in a new indie film coming out September 8th, Year by the Sea, in which she plays a woman who retreats to Cape Cod in the hope of reclaiming who she was before marriage and children.

Karen Allen will always have a place in the hearts and minds of film afficionados as the lovely girl next door who emerges more vividly as a genuine person the more you get to know her.  At age 65, there is still a natural, unvarnished beauty about her, personable and soulful.  And when she smiles, there is once again that girl next door, lovely but not remote, inteligent and full of mischief, who could also be your best friend.

"I'm in a period of transition," she said.  "I'm looking around for how best to spend my next 20 years.  I'll let you know when I find it."