I Spy: Espionage Tonight DWF20 Filmmaker Profile

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I spy…a lot of laughs and action in Rob Bralver’s Espionage Tonight, a wild, zany, dark, funny film that casts a spy thriller as a reality series. Bralver started out as an editor, transitioned to a writer/director and he’s now directed more films than he’s edited, but his sense of story is honed in the editing room, taut and well-paced.
“I always wanted to make a spy movie. My career prior to this film was in documentaries, and I became very familiar with the crafting of narratives and the business of entertainment. I noticed a lot of similarities between that world and the D.C. world of politics and espionage, which I’m equally fascinated by. There’s a lot of overlap between the two in terms of tradecraft. Sleight of hand, disguise, misdirection, PR, all kinds of tools where the only difference is the final product – entertainment or news. This movie was my way of exploring those parallels in hopefully a new and fun way, as we now live in a time where all the barriers and distinctions are gone. Facts, stories, recreations, policies – it’s a free for all, no matter your political orientation. While maybe that’s concerning in terms of possible real world repercussions, it’s also ripe for comedy,” Bralver says.
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Bralver’s previous work includes Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story. “It’s a story about ambition, family, and loss. I learned a lot on that one, lessons that I expect served me well on everything going forward in work or life. There were very similar themes in Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton and Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” he relates. “It was not by design, but these very different stories and different people were all in their own way about outsider figures dealing with extreme loss and finding ways to overcome, and building new families and works to value to sort of reformat and re-strengthen their lives. Espionage Tonight was a departure from that kind of story on the surface, but I think at it’s core it’s the same thing on a different scale. The whole national landscape kind of needs to dust off the past and get a clean slate.”
That may sound heavy, but the film itself is pure fun. “Don’t worry too much about the details. Sit back and enjoy being lost for the ride. It’s meant as an impression of our new reality, where distinctions and exposition really don’t matter, lots of things never get resolved or never mattered to begin with, and the only resolution is probably getting on a boat and sailing away. I also hadn’t seen a movie like Airplane or Hot Shots in a while, and wanted us to have a new one. Don’t take it too seriously…but then think about it a week later.”
Put it this way – the lively, scathing, funny film is a lot more Survivor than Survivor could ever dream of being.
– Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke
 
 

 

Let’s Go to the Movies Again

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Dances with Films offered an incredibly strong slate of films Thursday through Sunday, the closing weekend of the festival. And our only regret is that the fest is over. Time to hang up our dancing shoes until next year.

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Thursday’s Espionage Tonight was a brilliantly structured dark comedy in which a reality TV show about spies is created to win back the faith of the American public. Audiences go undercover on missions around the globe. Real spy and reality tour guide “Swamp Fox” is alternately deadly and hilarious.

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Director Rob Gordon Bralver says the choice to create a reality style was done to save money, but budget doesn’t show on screen.  “We had tons of locations thanks to producer Amy Child, who made little miracles happen. Music is just me listening to iTunes so I could find what fits, and keep the film in its wierd comedy pocket,” he relates.  Lead actor Joe Hursley says for him, the filmmaking process and the point of the movie itself is “Trust your inner psychopath.”

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The festival’s Grand Jury Winner, One Less God was a harrowing take on the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack on a tourist hotel. Deeply involving, moving, and packed with suspense, the large cast and humanitarian soul of the movie painted a picture of pain, beauty, and love.  Thoroughly engrossing.

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Writer/director/producer Lliam Worthington says “We knew people killed in the attacks, we just wanted to understand what was going on, the loss and the pain, and the people. I wanted to see the people. We have to continue to see people as a global society.” Worthington used some of the actual cell phone communication transcripts between handlers and operatives word for word during dialog for the terrorists; the 63-day shoot which took place off and on for a year never lacks in verisimilitude.

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The strong ensemble cast and sweeping, lush cinematography of Tater Tot & Patton add to a compelling tale of a millennial who escapes her own life at her uncle’s South Dakota ranch, forcing him from his placid, if liquor-drenched, existence. A well-balanced drama that pulses with life.

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Jimmy the Saint is a fresh, Los Angeles-based take on the Russian mob, true love, gambling addiction, and a street scene as authentic and involving as the film’s throbbing, vibrant heart. It’s a film that’s both violent and feel-good, a difficult feat to pull off – but it absolutely does.

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Director Branden Morgan shot “really cheap” in just 13 days, averaging 9 script pages each day. The thriller deals with “identity and liberation. Everyone wants that.” The pitch-perfect cast says the fact that Morgan began his career as an actor paid off. “He constantly guided me through,” lead Zach Hursh attests. And guidance was key, through strong physical action, and the learning of Russian dialog by lead actors.  What’s next for Morgan? “My partner and I sold another weird adult drama to Sony Crackle.”

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Jimmy the Saint above, The Scent of Rain & Lightning below

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The Scent of Rain & Lightning is packed with stunning images in a strongly performed if convoluted story of murder, lust, and revenge set in a fresh Oklahoma setting. Based on a novel, director Blake Robbins deftly visualizes images in an adaptation made by Casey Twente and, Jeff Robinson. Tweetner’s wife heard about the book while listening to NPR and tracked down the author. “I tried to treat visuals like a complicated jigsaw puzzle,” Robbins relates. The film was shot in 21 days and took full and visually stunning advantage of its location. “The 39% tax break rebate from Oklahoma is what made us move the setting of the book from Kansas,” Robbins says. Co-produced with co-star Maggie Grace, the film is moody and noir.

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All I Want is an ensemble piece. A group of friends attend an anniversary party for two of their own, only to find out the couple is quasi-celebrating a divorce. The comedy-drama gives plenty of space to a large cast, exploring relationships with pleasant abandon. Writer/director/producer West Lang says he and star/co-writer Melissa Center wanted to feature a community of great actors. Center notes “We are all buddies in real life, we’re part of a lab of like-minded actors who are all about the craft.”

Until next year – Dances with Films has turned down the music.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

 

 

Dances With Films 20 – Grand Jury and Industry Choice Award Winner: One Less God

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Above, One Less God director Liam Worthington, DWF’s Leslee Scallon far right
As Dances with Films co-founder Leslee Scallon likes to say, all the films at the festival deserve a “5” – the highest audience rating score on festival ballots. All the same, not every film can win top accolades.
One Less God, an ensemble film inspired by the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, took both Grand Jury Award and Industry Choice Award.  The tense and heartbreaking film includes points of view within a group of hostages and from the terrorists.
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Liam Worthington, writer/director of the project explains what drew him to the subject.
“I have always had a special affinity for India, having travelled there when I was young. Then when the 26/11 attacks took place, co-producer Nelson Lau and I both had friends who lost people close to them, so we felt a very strong personal connection, and the overwhelming tragedy and sheer audacity of the attacks awoke a deep desire to understand. The news cycle was all about the specifics of what had happened, but what I really wanted to know was why. I wanted to get to the heart of the tragedy, and beyond it, to the people on both ends of the gun. And now the questions we began exploring nearly a decade ago, have sadly only deepened and become even more important and relevant than ever. “
Worthington’s initial training was as an actor. He began writing and directing for the theatre and the circus.
“I founded a theatre company with some other actors and began creating shows and workshops around youth suicide prevention working with mental health organizations in Australia, and also touring. I received grants to run circus workshops for street kids and young offender groups before I had my first opportunity to cross over into film,” the Australian director relates.
“Over the course of a year I was commissioned to work with a group of young people suffering from psychosis, and together we made a 40 minute Star Wars fan film.
Since then its been a pretty typical road of lots of study, shorts, music videos, POC’s and I’ve written, directed, DP’d, edited, VFX’d and belatedly produced.”
While he says he had not previously aspired to produce features, after several projects fell by the wayside following years of development, he decided to make sure the next film could live or die based only on his own decision. That film was One Less God.
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“It’s been an enormous amount of work, but I needed to take my dreams out of other peoples hands. So I committed to gathering my resources, cash in on my good will,
and produce One Less God at all costs, and I was very fortunate to also be able to enlist the help of a team of other great producers.”
The suspenseful, harrowing, and beautifully wrought film is packed with meaning. But asked what he most wants audiences to know about it, Williamson says “I wanted to craft a story that would be a genuine movement towards greater humanism and compassion. One that might aspire to promote healthy discussion afterwards, as opposed to the discourse that takes place in the emotionally charged wake of an actual terrorist attack, and rarely achieves anything except to heighten fear and increase the polarization.”
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The director notes that “This film was made by people of many different faiths: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jews, Buddhists and those of no faith as well. I think together we have made a deeply humanist film that also shrinks from nothing, and I think that is vital right now in this divisive political climate. On first glance One Less God may appear to be a film about terrorism, but in truth ,that is just the framing we use to explore our shared humanity, the value of life, and what separates us from love.”
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Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

Ramona Otto Goes “Inside the Jewel Box”

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Above, detail from the work of Ramona Otto.

Artist Ramona Otto’s solo exhibition at the Fine Arts Building in downtown Los Angeles is a glittering look at found art.

The cathedral-like interior of the 1917-era Fine Arts Building is a spot-on perfect venue for Otto’s 17 jeweled sculptures which evoke Faberge eggs and intricate mosaics. The show, curated by Nancy Larrew, runs through July 8th.

The lush, sparkling, and layered works began, Otto says, with her search for vintage treasures at flea markets, yard sales, and antique shops, found pieces for her dynamic artistic puzzles.

Otto intends her art work to complement the architecture of her exhibition space, and she does, with both location and art quite literally dazzling. The Santa Monica-based artist has been crafting her found-art works for over twenty years, as well as working as an elementary school teacher for gifted children.

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There are some swirling, rich works here that Otto says represents the body of her work. “I have always used vintage pieces in my art. I like the history and the stories associated with the pieces that I find.  The sculptures in this body of work are assemblages made from vintage jewelry. However, I continue to make other art that is made from a wide range of vintage and antique materials. I made most of the furniture in our house, and in the exhibit, you’ll see a cabinet from my studio that is made from vintage signs, yardsticks, hardware from an antique printer’s type case, and a hand carved folk art carving of an angel that my husband gave me.” As well as her jeweled “Dog is My Co-Pilot,” below.

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Otto says her work is all about her love for a “treasure hunt” and the “preparation, organization, and research involved in finding something illusive, the excitement of searching for hidden gems, the thrill of finding the unexpected, and the payoff of completing a time-consuming endeavor.” 

She says that collecting the materials for each themed piece can take many years. “It provides me with many ‘thrill-of-the-hunt’ moments. Each time I find a piece that will work perfectly, my heart skips a beat. My studio contains several ‘cabinets of wonder’ to keep everything organized.”

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Above, a look at Otto’s studio.

If finding the pieces to complete her art is a long experience, so is crafting each work.

The actual making of the piece is very labor intensive, taking many months to over a year. When I work on a piece, I surround myself with piles of jewelry with a combination of infinite possibilities. Searching for pieces with the right shape to convey the right idea is very much like completing a puzzle without a picture to guide me.”

The exhibit itself takes its title and approach from the exhibit space, in a tribute that is as involved as Otto’s art-making process.

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Above, interior of the exhibition space.

“When I visited The Fine Arts Building for the first time, memories from my childhood came rushing back to me. Growing up in Grinnell, Iowa, we had a great deal of civic pride over an architectural gem that we felt lucky to have in our small hometown. It was common knowledge that a famous architect, Louis Sullivan, had designed the Jewel Box Bank.” She notes that in that moment she had her first artistic experience with architecture.

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Above, interior of the Grinnell bank. Courtesy of BarBBlog

“I loved the intricate terra-cotta carvings on the façade, the griffins that stood guard over the entrance, the soaring ceilings, the gleaming brass cages where we cashed checks, and the stained glass windows that filled the space with a rainbow of colors. When I saw The LA Fine Arts Building for the first time, I was immediately struck by how many of the architectural components were reminiscent of the ones in the building that I loved as a child.”

Otto says she was thrilled to have found the perfect venue for her sculptures, including it’s child-friendly attributes. “As a former teacher of gifted students, it was always very important to me to inspire creativity in my students. I love that the venue of the Fine Arts Building is child friendly. Everything is behind glass so parents don’t have to worry about small hands reaching out to touch the art.”

 

Otto also loves inspiring viewer curiosity, including many hidden “Easter eggs” in her work.  In short, along with the beauty of her works, the intricacy of their creation is carried through to the intricacy of the finished design, challenging and meaningful, playful yet thoughtful.

Ramona More 2 Pearl Before Swine by Ramona OttoHer “Pearls Before Swine” features a vintage art deco mannequin followed by fiberglass and wooden pigs, riffing on everything from “lipstick on a pig” to “silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and of course, “when pigs fly.”

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Meanwhile her “Easter Bunny Delivers a Faberge Egg” takes on Easter themes with a wooden rabbit and an egg mounted on an art deco light fixture. Note the “easter eggs” within this spring-themed confection, below.

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Otto also cites her piece “Elephant in the Room;” created of white rhinestones, the piece includes letters that spell out ‘ignore me,’ with its circus headgear referencing  the mistreatment of elephants when they worked in the circus, as well as hidden references to the parable of “The Elephant and the Blind Man,” Dr. Seuss’ “Horton” character, and Jean de Brunhoff’s “Babar” among others.

While these incredibly clever references and word play are terrific, more to the point is the deeply involved visual layers that Otto uses. The richness of her color palette, the tactile texture of her work, and the rather astonishing combinations of items that she fits together are enormously compelling. To look at a piece is to dive beneath its jeweled surface and into a hidden depth of shimmering light. 

Saturday, July 1st, the gallery will host a reception from 3- 6 p.m., with an artist’s talk at 3. There will also be a second closing reception on Sunday July 2nd, from 2-4 p.m.  The Fine Art Building gallery is open regularly 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. It’s located at 811 W. 7th Street in DTLA.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: courtesy of the artist and by Leonard Monje; Grinnell Merchant Bank courtesy of BarBBlog.