Pasadena Film Festival, part 3: THE WORLD IS BROKEN. CAN IT BE FIXED?

HIPSTER'S LAMENT

The ABC-TV dramatic series American Crime is just two episodes into its third season (Sundays 10-11 pm), and it's already a crashing bore.  As usual, the series is pursuing multiple storylines, which include a Mexican man searching for his lost son in the fruit-picking fields, the many Grapes of Wrath-type exploitations of workers by management there, teenagers saved from the sex trade and human trafficking who are trying to get their lives back, an African-American caseworker for those teens who wants to get pregnant by her ex using IVF, and something with Felicity Huffman as an unhappy wife that I can't make any sense of. The show is created by John Ridley (Oscar-winner, 12 Years a Slave) and boasts some of the best writers on TV - Julie Hebert, Diana Son, Keith Huff - and some of the best actors on any series - Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral, Benito Martinez, Lili Taylor, Conor Jessup.  The show has always been deeply entrenched in the progressive agenda and many times in the first two seasons it veered toward agitprop.  But those  seasons also featured great risks, great writing and 3-dimensional characters who audiences could care about.  This season, however, it has ditched its multiple perspectives for a soapbox.  The second episode ended with a finger-wagging sermon on the evils of corporate farming aimed right at the sweet spot of white guilt.  I think I understand where it's coming from: life under Trump is a never-ending cycle of horrors and frustration, as the government rolls back all the social progress made under Obama and encourages the worst aspects of consumerism and economic exploitation.  I get it, dudes, and I share your outrage.  But you've stopped writing a story and simply turned your show into a screed.  Not good. I'm sure you have loads of tricks up your sleeve, but I've stopped caring.  Go, make a documentary.  'Cause right now, your drama lacks any drama, and - sad to say it, but your show really sucks.

Reed Birney and Blake DeLong star in the urination epic Shy Guys

The recently-concluded Pasadena Film Festival also featured several films, both fictional and documentary, which tried to address the many ills of the modern world.  Some of these were small, humorous films about small, personal subjects like potty-training (House Broken) and pissing at public urinals (Shy Guys), others were small films about big issues like slave labor (The Raft) that for one reason or another never caught fire.  But a few of these films were excellent efforts that have stayed with me.  They are worth tracking down and catching up on if possible.

Victor's Last Class by Brendan Brandt is both one of my favorite films in this festival and one of my favorite documentaries in recent memory.  Its premise is simple: a noted west coast acting teacher, stricken with cancer, has publicly declared that he is going to end his own life.  Brendan, a sensitive actor/filmmaker, has heard about this and approaches the teacher, Victor Altorio, in the hopes of changing his mind.  Thus begins a five-month cat-and-mouse game in which it's often difficult to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse.

Victor is a very out there gay man in his 50s who has lived his life on his own terms and encourages his acting students to do the same.  "Tell the truth to the people you love!" he exhorts (this is also the film's tag line), and his acting exercises are all designed to get past our social filters, our censors and defense systems, so the truth of primal emotion and real feelings can be revealed.  But Victor is a complex individual who can also be very evasive, and so is his truth.  It's clear from the outset that he enjoys the attention that Brendan is giving him, enjoys performing for the camera and saying outrageous things.  But does he mean them, or does he just enjoy the shock value that he knows they will have?  Or both?

Much like the Gary Cooper character in the great Frank Capra movie John Doe, Victor seems to understand from the beginning that there is no movie without his suicide.  In the Capra film, Barbara Stanwyck plays a hard-hearted reporter sent to cover Gary Cooper's final days who ends up falling in love and trying to save him.  Something similar happens here, though it's more complicated.  A seduction is clearly going on.  On the most obvious level, Victor is heavily flirting with Brendan, a good-looking straight guy in his 30s.  Victor says as much several times, and Brendan replies very sincerely that he's been falling in love with Victor too - and that's why he can't stop trying to save him.  But is that the truth?  Certainly a complex bond forms between them, which is one of the considerable pleasures and achievements of this film.  Yet, as much as Brendan genuinely wants Victor to live, part of their bond is a tacit understanding that there is only one way this can go.   We as the audience come to understand this too, on the same unconscious level as Brendan and Victor do.  In the end, we all do a strange Dance of Death, and Victor emerges for me as one of the more memorable and elusive characters in recent cinema.

Gabriella Stone and Alex Lynn Ward in It Happened Again Last Night

It Happened Again Last Night is a fairly straightforward short about spousal abuse with some interesting spins.  Written and directed by Gabriella Stone and her male partner Roze, and starring Ms. Stone, the film depicts the spousal battery of Paige by her husband Stephen, and her attempts to leave her husband for her female lover Kris.  The film feels very real without being pedestrian or like a public service announcement.  Even the more predictable elements - as when we see the young Paige being beaten by her dad, and then repeating that pattern with her spouse - have an understanding of how shocking human violence is on a personal level, and how it comes out of nowhere and then feels inevitable after it's happened.  Similarly, the outbursts of love and hate feel casual, almost sloppy, in the way real events unfold.  The actors may be a little prettier than most of us, but they're not Hollywood models, just attractive people caught in a very unattractive situation.  Gabriella Stone won the Best Actress award for the Pasadena Film Festival, and she is very good.  But so is her husband, played by Randy Wayne.  He looks like a cowboy - almost a combination of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain" - but his behavior is brutal and brutish.  He seems to hate himself for it, and yet that doesn't stop him.  That really works, and it gives the film added urgency.  Plus there's the cinematography by Roze, which is gorgeous throughout.  You wouldn't think that a film this disturbing should look this good, but it ends up re-enforcing the tragic toll these events take on all those involved.

Bruce Beatty in Neighbor

Neighbor is an example of a film which is kind of brilliant without being very well made or even particularly good.  It was written and directed by Tony Gapastione, and at the festival talkback he freely admitted that he was learning how to make films on the fly.  Here is Tony G.'s logline for his 11 minute film: "A homeless man witnesses a kidnapping, and when he goes after the perpetrator he uncovers a dirty little secret in suburbia."  Except no - that's not in fact what happens.  The homeless man is beaten up when he interrupts a white guy moving two young girls in tight clothing from a car to a van.  Then the dark-skinned homeless man cries out for help, wandering into a leafy, suburban neighborhood and into the backyard of an upscale family just as dad gets home and is revealed to be ... yes, the guy who just beat up the homeless man while trafficking teenagers.  Ouch, that makes my brain hurt and would get an "F" from Mr. McKee the film guru.  But there's something so earnest about the way that Tony G. chronicles the homeless man's anguish that it somewhat mitigates the heavy-handedness of his message.  And then the credits roll - a full two  minutes of credits, and it may be the best two minutes in the entire festival, as three actual victims of human  trafficking tell their real stories silently with a succession of handmade signs. The three stories are completely different and yet equally wrenching.  I understood more about the pain of being exploited from those two minutes than from anything else I have ever seen on the subject.  Now if Tony Gapastione can just find a way to make his films as memorable and compelling as his credits, he may turn out to be a filmmaker who can change the world.

Johnny Rey Diaz and Aliyah Conley in I Am Still Here

I Am Still Here is a feature from writer/director Mischa Marcus on that same subject of human trafficking.  The subject is inherently disturbing, and the early parts of Marcus's film succeeds in making it painfully real in a way that I found difficult to look away from.  The sight of these girls as young as 10 being manhandled by adult men of many ethnic backgrounds prompts a visceral disgust, at least from this Twisted Hipster.  But halfway through the movie, the timeline skips ahead seven years, when the girls have become seventeen year olds, and the movie starts falling apart.  First, it's just hard to believe that they are still in this hell, that Ricky (their pimp) has been able to keep it together while moving them from location to location.  Second, the little girls are now young women, with womanly figures and curves, and the grotesque spectacles of before are replaced by more familiar (if no less nauseating) male behavior.  Then there's a turning point when the central girl, Layla, is able to get away, saved in very unconvincing fashion by one of the deviants who has "fallen in love" with her.  Scenes in this section verge on the ridiculous, as Layla is treated respectfully by her well-to-do admirer, who we have already learned has made his money by trafficking in pornographic images of young girls.  In the end, the film is elevated by the brilliant performances, especially from Aliyah Conley (who plays young Layla) and the other young girls, and from Johnny Rey Diaz, who makes Ricky the trafficker/pimp into a monster of stomach-turning proportions.  I look forward to seeing what Mr Diaz will do in his next role, even as I remain haunted by his depiction of unredeemable evil in this one.


Pasadena Film Festival Roundup, part 2: FEARING (AND BEING) THE OTHER

The great 20th Century theater critic Harold Clurman said that the relative health of any society could be measured by the vitality of its theater scene.  I'm not sure that this is true anymore in the age of Trump, where his election can be viewed as the triumph of self-interest over conscience and moral self-sacrifice, and skyrocketing theater prices increasingly threaten to make the art form a fashion  accessory for the well-to-do.  But Clurman's quote did occur to me when I was watching the parade of films marching by my over-worked eyes at the recently-ended Pasadena Film Festival.

After all, filmmaking has become a truly democratic art form, with the tools now accessible to pretty much everyone. The number of films made each year in this country is astronomical - I've heard 50-60,000; but it wouldn't surprise me if it was more than that.  Still, the number of films that gain distribution each year has held pretty steady at around 350.  And there's the reason why these festivals are so important for the filmmakers, as they seek a way to give their films a leg up in their Darwinian struggle for recognition.  It also creates the kind of "vitality" that Clurman had in mind, where so much competition forces the filmmakers to be as inventive as possible.

Matthew Murumba is in the film DON'T TELL LARRY

And what was my takeaway from all these films - the dominant emotion that they left behind in their wake?  Fear and Anger.  Fear of the unknown, anger at the Other - the outsider.  Also desperation and loneliness.  "And those were just the comedies," the Twisted Hipster cracked.

Well no, not exactly.  As I wrote in my last column, the Festival had its share of dating comedies and rom-coms, some ending happily or at least with some hope.  But there were several horror-comedies that tried to capitalize on the formula of tongue-in-cheek scare tactics that made The Scream Trilogy such a success.  And then there was a comedy like Don't Tell Larry.  A six-episode web series totaling 16 minutes, it tells the seemingly familiar story of what happens when two office workers forget to send an evite to their excitable office mate, Larry, and then go to great lengths to cover up their omission.  Writers/directors Greg Porper and John Schimke do a terrific job of establishing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cubicle, as Katie Hall and Matthew Murumba invent lie after outrageous lie to cover up their original miscue.  Larry is played by Kiel Kennedy as a passive-aggressive outsider who wants to be liked - and he is the kind of character who in other times might have been played just for laughs.  But here things escalate to the point where the comedy becomes very violent - and yet doesn't stop being funny.

Michael Pugliese and Briana White star in the Sci-Fi horror thriller, Occupants

One of my favorite films in the Festival - in fact, perhaps my numero uno - is the feature-length Occcupants, a sci-fi horror thriller (also very funny at times), written by Julia Camara and directed by Russ Emanuel.  This is a found footage film in the vein of Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project (still exerting a powerful influence on new films after almost 20 years).

We are informed at the outset by the Peterson Research Institute that a married couple has disappeared, and they have put together the recovered clips we are about to see in order to help solve the mystery of what may have happened.  We then meet Annie the documentary filmmaker (Briana White) and her architect husband Neil (Michael Pugliese), an attractive and laid-back couple in their early 30s.   Annie announces that she has set up cameras all around their house (except the bedroom) in order to document the effects of the vegan detox diet that the couple is about to embark upon (at Annie's insistence - Neil is a reluctant participant).  "I've heard that some people have had visions while on the diet, and I want to see if these show up on the videos."  But, while Annie and Neil don't experience any such visions, something strange does begin showing up in the video footage: an alternate version of Annie and Neil in an alternate reality in the same house.

Russ Emanuel directs his lead actors in Occupants

This is the point at which some audience members might raise some reasonable questions about what's going on.  Camara and Emanuel know this too, and they have enlisted a third major character to address these doubts.  This character is Dr. Alan Peterson, head of the Research Institute and a mentor of Annie's from a previous documentary.  He is played to perfection by Robert Picardo, the well-known TV actor (Star Trek: Voyager, Frasier, The Wonder Years), who grounds the movie just firmly enough in a paranormal reality to allow me to continue suspending my disbelief and go with the movie's very idiosyncratic flow.

What really resonated for me here was the witty way that writer Julia Camara dramatized this state of living with the Other - in this case, the Other is just another version of the main couple, albeit a grimmer and less compatible version.  But Camara and director Russ Emanuel know how to keep raising the dramatic stakes and finding unexpected ways for the two versions of the couple to interact with each other.  I ended up with a lot of admiration for the way they also kept deepening the metaphor of these parallel realities which begin to intersect and then compete for control of their space.   It's no wonder that they are one of the few films in the festival to obtain a distributor and to have a commercial future.  The film will be released on Netflix and Amazon Prime in June and may get a limited theatrical release at the same time.  So look for it.  Occupants.  Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo are all terrific, and Camara and Emanuel are talents to reckon with; they are already at work on the sequel.

Graham Sibley stars in the 25 minute Sci-fi thriller Mirrored

Mirrored, written by Andrew Henderson and directed by Bradford Hill, is another noteworthy Festival entry that takes on the dilemma of duplicate selves.  This dystopian film is set in a renegade cloning clinic in the  not-too-distant-future where scientists are now able to clone their clients' personality and consciousness - for a price.   But there has been a terrible error.  The identity of a living criminal named Derek Krat has mistakenly been downloaded into a dead man's young body, played by Graham Sibley.  But the cloned Derek is less than cooperative when the mess-up is explained to him and reeks havoc on the illicit clinic.  Finally the real Derek Krat is called upon to take out his cloned younger self.  It's a classic showdown, very smoothly engineered by Mr. Hill, who also displays a genuine talent for the color and composition of shots.   The performances of Sibley and Brian Gant (the real Derek) also elevate the dramatic tension, as Henderson/Hill conclude with a final twist that forces us to think about the endangered status of our fragile identities.

Westley Thornton in Dana James Jones's film, Our God Machine

Our God Machine from writer/director Dana James Jones is another dystopian fantasy, a genre that has really blossomed since the Bush-era meltdown of 2008, to the point that it's hard to shock us anymore with worst-case scenarios.  In this one, a young military man named Jack wakes up to find himself in an underground bunker with three other compatriots, two women and a man.  In a twist on a thread in the TV series Lost, Jack discovers that it is up to the four of them to keep disaster at bay by peddling a stationary bicycle linked up to a power source for several hours each.  What caught my attention, though, was something that was probably not purposeful on Mr. Jones's part.  All four of the bunker mates are white, as is the above-ground commander who we see giving orders on the computer screen.  The only non-white person we come into contact with is a recreational runner in the above-ground "normal" world - which we soon find out is only an illusory video loop intended to soothe the cabin fever anxieties of those imprisoned down below.  So it appears that in this fractured world of the future, only white people make the decisions and supply the power.  Only white people are real.

Carlos Abdalla and Isabella Bazler in Andy Cruz's film Perception

In Perception, a short film from writer/director Andy Cruz, the white people again have all the power, all the control. But Isaac, a 10 year old Mexican boy with an artistic gift, is the only one who really sees the world around him.   Ideas for sketches come to him with the force of visions, revealing people's destinies and what's in their hearts.  But in the real world, Isaac is powerless and almost invisible.  The only person who sees him other than his father and older brother is Kimberly, a cancer-stricken white girl his age, the daughter of the copper-lining dealer that Isaac's father and brother do odd jobs for.

Isaac has had a hopeful vision of Kimberly with her lush blond hair all grown back.  He's drawn this sketch and wants to give it to her.  Driven by this need, he disobeys his father and older brother and walks from his barrio home to Kimberly's father's mansion.  The result of this ill-advised nocturnal journey needs to be worked out on a bigger canvas, which I hope will happen in the near future.  Mr Cruz has the makings of a memorable feature film here, which also couldn't be more timely.  White people have seldom been crueler in their use of power than now - something that Isaac undoubtedly would see in his visions, not that this would do he or his family much good.

Jah Shams and Troy Curvey III star in Robbin Rae McColluch's Oakland in Blue

In Robbin Rae McCulloch's impressive  dramatic short Oakland in Blue, there are no white characters, and yet the white world seems to be lurking oppressively just off-screen.   Kennedy (Jah Shams) is a recent Ivy League graduate who has just returned to his Oakland 'hood to reunite with his childhood friend Marcus (Troy Curvey III) and start making their dream of an independent record label a reality.  Marcus is a rap artist who has run up a $10,000 debt with Kennedy's drug- dealing uncle while Kennedy was in college.  Now Kennedy has to help resolve his friend's debt or else lose him forever.  His education in the white world won't help him here.  He will have to recover his 'hood self and 'hood instincts in order to do that.  Meanwhile his crossover dreams will have to be put on hold.  Which, on the whole, might not be that bad a thing.  There are people who love him here.  Who loves him out there?


Pasadena Film Festival Roundup, Pt. 1: Funny in Search of Money

Bruce Ladd is Beethoven and Nan McNamara is a modern day musicologist in 33 Variations at the Actors Co-op

Hipster Tip of the Week:  33 VARIATIONS by Moises Kaufman at The Actors Coop.  They just added two more performances - Saturday the 25th at 8 and Sunday the 26th at 2:30 - of this brilliant production about a contemporary musicologist stricken with ALS who is determined to solve the mystery of why the dying Beethoven devoted so much of his dwindling energy to composing complex variations on a "mediocre" waltz.  I found the play to be more accessible and moving here than in Kaufman's own production with Jane Fonda which played at the Ahmanson in 2011.   (Purchase tickets at actorsco-op.org or by calling 323-462-8460)

 

PASADENA FILM FESTIVAL

During the first talkback at the recently-completed Pasadena Film Festival (PFF), following the showing of seven short films, one well-meaning audience member raised her hand and said in a tentative voice: "Well, I really enjoyed all the films, they were very well-done, but here's what I don't understand: how do you make any money with these?  I mean, where do you get a return on your investment?"

This elicited a big chortling laugh from the audience and lots of nervous titters from the filmmakers, who glanced at each other uncomfortably.  How do you answer a question like that?  A question that was - let's face it - kind of taboo.  I mean, it's the indie world, people!  Money is the 800 pound gorilla who is obviously there, so why mention it?  Unless of course you have any of it, in which case, do we have a film project for you!

Marco Neves and Jessica Hardin, husband-and-wife co-founders of the Pasadena Film Festival

One by one the filmmakers - most in their late 20s or early 30s - intoned variations on the same response:  These are passion projects.  The work is its own reward - the satisfaction of taking an idea all the way to production and editing and bringing that idea to fruition as a movie that you feel proud of.  But of course it's also a calling card for the industry, showing off what they can do in their chosen profession if given the opportunity.  And the chances of that happening?  Another taboo.  Don't talk about Fight Club.  Or about how hard it is to get these hard-fought little victories of visual expression in front of the eyes of agents, managers, producers or - hold for it - studio execs!

Well, never fear, the Twisted Hipster is here to cut a swath through the Festival underbrush and reveal the gems hiding beneath the piles of actors' headshots and self-publicizing social media posts (with apologies to those films I was unable to catch because of scheduling - I'm sure there were many that deserve mention).   And before the outraged emails from actor/filmmakers come zinging out of outraged laptops: yes, I get the need to self-publicize.  Been there, and, to some extent, done that.  The winding path of the Twisted Hipster has included a few years on the Yellow Brick Road of performing, picture and resume in hand, trying to get the Wizard to cast him in something lucrative and exciting.  And lucrative.  But one's own pressing need to be cast - or to be famous - is not in itself a great basis for a good film.  While I sincerely hope it does the trick for you with casting agents, well, that is really all it was meant to do.  Right?  (Be honest now.)

Meredith Hama-Brown stars in Matthew Tichenor's 34 minute film, CINEPHILIAC

PART I:  TRYING ON SOME COMEDY SHORTS

The bane of the film festival circuit - or so it seems to the Hipster, based on his limited experience of such events - is The Relationship Comedy.  They seem so easy to do.  All it takes is two or three actors, a coffee shop booth or a few stools at a bar, and a compelling situation - and presto, change-o, we have cinematic magic!  Maybe not Annie Hall magic, but maybe something reminiscent of Seinfeld - or at least Friends.  But in fact, no -  these shows stay in our minds for a reason, and their level of irresistible charm is not easy to duplicate.  Which doesn't stop many an intrepid young filmmaker from trying and falling flat on his/her face.

The most successful example of this genre in the PFF was Cinephiliac, a flawed but inventive romp through film history and genres as a woman in her 20s has a wonderful first date, meeting the man who may in fact be "the one" - but then losing him over and over again in various movie scenarios - a kidnapping, a journey on horseback in the old West, a Science Fiction showdown like something out of Minority Report - all leading to the young woman's coming to terms with her own fears about love and commitment.   It's an intricate high-wire act, and writer/director Matthew Tichenor displays a great deal of wit, both verbal and visual, along with an impressive command of film vocabulary.

Almost as sophisticated though a little too smarmy for its own good, THE LETTER by writer/director Brian A. Ross takes the well-worn trope of the depressive who is such a failure that he can't even manage to commit suicide, and he finds a way to spin this into the unlikeliest of rom-coms, as our anti-hero meets a woman who is at wit's end searching for her lost dog.  There's a final twist at the end whose shock value somewhat diminishes the bittersweet feeling of the blossoming romance, but even the Hipster has to admit that it's funny in a very Twisted way.

J'AI TOUT MANGE, a short by John Humphreys

J'AI TOUT MANGE (I eat everything) is exactly what producer/director/writer John Humphreys describes it as: a film student's attempt to understand the excitement and spontaneity of French New Wave films by making one himself.  The film  doesn't have much of a story - a hipster writer, broke and on the verge of no longer being young, tries to please his girlfriend by stealing an engagement ring for her.  This theft is not portrayed very persuasively, yet there is something wonderfully innocent and genuine about this six minute film which does indeed capture some of the magic of early Truffaut.  I prefer this guileless amateurishness any day to the pseudo-sophistication that plague so many other festival entries.  It's apparent that these filmmakers have gone to school and learned the tricks of the trade, but they don't yet have the things that can't be taught: something to say and an original way of saying it.  Which sure as hell doesn't stop them from trying.

ZOE LILLIAN, an actress to watch

I especially felt for some of the talented actors who were condemned to go down with leaking ships.  (As mentioned before, the Hipster has been on such ships, which have all long ago sunk far beneath the celluloid sea, hopefully without a trace).  But every so often, an actor in one of these festival entries managed to rise above the level of their material and shine with their own light.  In the case of Zoe Lillian, she rose above two comedic films in the PFF, Have a Little Faith and The Shickles.  The first is a short, a rebellious stab at the Catholic Church that had funny moments but didn't seem very probable; the second is a 98 minute ode to Topangan non-conformity and Jewish family dysfunction which all seemed a bit too familiar.   In both films, Ms. Lillian is called upon to portray sexy young girls - in the first she seduces a virginal Catholic boy, in The Shickles she experiences the joys of cunnilingus for the first time - and she somehow manages to avoid the clichés of how such behavior is usually portrayed, as well as the clichés that abound in the dialogue and storylines of both films.  Her work in both is spontaneous, fresh and clever, even while everything around her is succumbing to the obvious.  I look forward to her future performances and hope that she's able to keep keeping it real.

Finally, I have to mention a remarkable 30 minute film called Tale of the Kite, which ultimately took its maker 13 years to create.  In a story that rivals that of Boyhood, Michael Fallavollita had made a short film with the well-known actor John Schuck (Law and Order SVU and two Star Trek movies) and a 10 year old boy named Kevin DeSimone about the boy's close bond with his widowed grandfather.  Ten years later, Fallavollita ran into Kevin DeSimone at a film festival, where he found out that the DeSimone was still acting, propelled by his experience in the earlier short film.  The filmmaker then went back and filmed an entirely new section with the now-21 year old DeSimone as a test pilot whose plane has gone down, which greatly deepens the earlier section of the boy being taught by his grandpa how to fly a kite.  The two stories blend together nicely and the pathos of seeing the same actor at ten years old and at 21 simply cannot be duplicated by any amount of CGI.  Bravo, Mr. Fallovollita, for sticking with your passion project and displaying a fortitude that is one for the ages.