Day 5: Grand Finale at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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Lots of laughs today as the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival drew to a close.

The short Horseshoe Theory hilariously proves that politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.  A weapons deal between a white supremacist and a member of the Islamic State becomes, well, a romantic comedy. Director and writer Johnathan Daniel Brown perfectly cast Jackson Rathbone and Amir Malaklou as the pair in a film that was “inspired” in part by The Notebook and You Got Mail.  The 3 day shoot included a scene with a $50 jerry-rigged rain machine. Brown attests that he’s currently working on a feature adaptation of the project. “We want to place it in a bigger world – and we’re pitching it as Brokeback Mountain with more killing. We’re also working on another short – we like to make gross stories about silly vulgar things that terrify people.” And make them laugh.

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The international premiere of narrative feature The Great Unwashed was also brilliantly hilarious. Set in London and Wales with an absolutely spot-on cast of British comedy and sketch performers and writers, the story of a millennial (Jon Pointing) on the run from killer hairdressers is zany and inventive. Joining his hippie older brother (and co-writer Nick Horseman) and his wife in the Welsh woods – plus random loony neighbors –  the film mixes comic mobsters with the affect of a murderous A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director and co-writer Louis Fonseca, a former stand-up comic himself,  culled his stellar cast perfectly. Shot in two weeks “in less than a square mile of the forest” he notes that the “hippie story line came first, and then we came up on what is the opposite of that – hairdressers. We felt like we were at holiday camp, we had such fun and we didn’t sleep much.” The film includes attack geese and the presence of the Welch “Spirit of the Forest.”  Fonseca says his father was the official “goose wrangler – geese are nasty creatures ready to attack visitors. We did our goose shot in one take.” Fonseca and Horseman are currently writing another film set in Wales -about a war between ice cream vendors.

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Withdrawn, the story of a slacker/small time grifter/aimless college graduate stars Aaron Keogh – “I’ve been training for this role for 25 years or so,” he jokes – as Aaron, with writer/director Adrian Murray as his put-upon roommate.  From trying to solve his Rubik’s cube to trying to hack into another’s credit card account, Aaron is a character for our time: lost, adrift, addicted to video games and Internet news.  Played out in many long takes, Murray says his cinematic approach was in part imagined due to “watching the menu background on Lost DVDs, where characters move in and out of frame. I was watching the show while sick, and I wondered if I could do that as a film. ” Most of the dialog was improv, with a cast of friends who knew who was going to bring what to the game. Of the protagonist’s news viewing habits, Murray remarks “I wanted to put his struggle in perspective. In another part of the world he’d be building a bomb. I was also commenting on the cycle of news and the information and knowledge degradation and loss.” The short Pet Monkey preceded the film, a wild and quirky piece about a man who wants to buy his girlfriend a pet monkey while secretly harboring a shed full of stuffed and plastic monkeys. Actor Sky Elobar spoke about the single day shoot in Rochester, N.Y., in which he was promised one of the art director’s purchased monkeys as a souvenir but groused that he “never got one.” Elobar was found by director Eric Maira off his titular role in late night cult favorite Greasy Strangler.

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Last but not least, the festival presented the amusing and touching documentary Dina,  which focuses on a woman with autism and other mental health issues. She survived a vicious  knife attack by an ex-boyfriend to marry kindly but more severely autistic Scott. Winner of the Grand Jury award at this year’s Sundance fest, the story offers an intimate portrait of a relationship as thoroughly relatable as it is special.

MLFF’s delightful fest trailer, featuring stop motion animation, was discussed preceding the film by co-director/creator Emily Hoffman. She’d attended the festival last year and was thrilled to be invited to make the trailer. “We had such an amazing time last year when we went to the hot springs at midnight, we knew we had to make the trailer about the springs outside town. We made stop motion puppets and placed them in goo made from borax, glue, and paint.” Hoffman’s roommate Dan Dietrich created the music which involves manipulated notes made from a recording of his own voice.  “It’s an awesome, ephemeral thing,” Hoffman says. “We wanted to make it nice because you have to listen to the trailer so many times,” she says. Hoffman crafted the trailer with partner Ariel Noltimier Strauss.

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We only wish we could listen to it longer – but these were the last screenings of MLFF 2017.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

 

Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Day 4: Sierra Spirit Award Recipient John Sayles and More

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With a triumphant screening of John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, an extended q & a with director Sayles, star Vincent Spano, and Sayles’ life and creative partner Maggie Renzi, day 4 of the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival was packed with film pleasure.  Day 4 also brought  the documentary Olancho and the narrative dark comedy Neighborhood Food Drive.

Olancho tells the story of talented Honduran musicians who perform and record songs for members of a local drug cartel, and songwriter Manuel’s escape to the U.S. Involving footage of life in the Honduran region of Olancho, terrific portraits of Manuel, his band, and his family all make for a fascinating look at a relatively isolated portion of Honduras, as well as its music. First time filmmakers Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold taught school in the region in 2010. According to Griswold, “We taught for over two years, and some of the children we were teaching were kids of the narcos. We knew enough people that when we came back to film, people knew our intentions were good. At first we didn’t realize how important the connections we made were to keeping us safe, such as Manuel’s father  – but these relationships helped us a lot and got us out of situations that would have otherwise been dangerous.” Valdes adds “In Olancho, death is a part of everyday life. I taught 6th graders, and not a day went by without someone saying who they’d found dead on the street. You don’t think about it until you come home, and your mom at Thanksgiving says ‘that’s hairy.'”  Following the travails of Los Plebes de Olancho lead singer Manuel, as well as the wild exploits of accordian player Orlin,  viewers get an insightful look at Olancho’s world.  An elegaic short about life in Havana, Paloma, preceded the film.

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The witty short Crown Prince directed by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik opened for the narrative Neighborhood Food Drive. Crown Prince played with the concept of a prince from Luxembourg set loose in New York City. Burch notes that the cast was “all comedians” and she wrote “character bios but then let the actors do improv based on that.” Shot in a glossy black and white, the piece was a fun crowd-pleaser. The directors are currently working on a feature project. Neighborhood Food Drive, directed by Jerzy Rose and co-written by Rose, Mike Lopez, and Halle Butler, is an exceedingly dry dark comedy about a struggling Chicago restaurant, its deluded owners, a naive intern,  her waiter boyfriend, and their professor/couples counselor hosting a fundraiser.  What comes together is less a charitable event than a disaster. Peppered with in-jokes, a fun/scary synth horror score,  and “hall of mirrors strangeness,” as writer Butler attests,  the film lives up to Rose’s hope that it would be “like nothing anyone would ever have seen before.”

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The screening of John Sayles’ classic Baby It’s You was as enjoyable as it was still cutting-edge after all these years. The film was made in 1983, but its strong performances and tight, smart, emotionally real script by Sayles are still fresh. The high school to college love affair is deftly portrayed, and the direction is emblematic of Sayles as a true “actors director.”  After the screening, co-star Vincent Spano presented the Sierra Spirit Award to Sayles. “John Sayles exemplifies the spirit and dedication of remaining independent. He has a dedication to getting films done his way,” Spano says. In graciously accepting the award, Sayles added “You don’t do these things alone. I write, direct, and edit most of my movies, but you are working with so many talented people – my favorite part of the job.”  Producing partner Maggie Renzi has worked on 14 of Sayles’ 18 features.  “We were very lucky,” Renzi says. “There used to be an art house audience and our movies fit into that niche, and then VHS happened, and you could fund anything. It was a very lively independent marketplace; you could get money for $3-million movies. Now you cant get money for $1 million movies.  It’s much harder for filmmakers today.” Sayles notes that on the positive side, access to filmmaking equipment and skilled filmmaking personnel is much easier today.  As to Baby It’s You,  which was the only film Sayles has ever done screen-tests for “”When Vincent came in, I said that’s the guy. He was just right for the part. A week before we started shooting, Paramount wasn’t sure about their actors and wanted people of their own. But I held my ground.” He also held his ground in regard to story, rejecting a studio re-edit and ending up with the film he’d wanted to make, albeit one that received limited release at the time. Spano  points out “He has a lot of faith in his actors. The character, the story, it’s there on the page, and it was pretty certain who the characters were. He gives you everything you need.” Likewise, Sayles was impressed with the work of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who recently passed away.  “He was the best operator I ever worked with…I never had to look in the camera after the third day, he got what I wanted.”

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With an after-party at the local nightspot Rafters – and live music by Jelly Bread,  day four of the fest that rocks the Sierras drew to a close, promising more fine films tomorrow.

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  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

 

Dynamic Docs and Scintillating Shorts: Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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The second full day of programming at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival brought two dynamic documentaries and a great group of shorts. The docs program is incredibly strong at MLFF this year, and both “What Lies Upstream,” an indictment of government handling of a massive chemical spill, and “Forever B,” a fascinating and appalling look at the fallout from a child molester are compelling projects.

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Shorts Block 2 brought a wide range of films including “Sadhu in Bombay,” an intimate rough and tumble portrait of a bitter Mumbai chauffeur, the pencil-drawing animated “Insect Bite,”  and “Oui Mais Non (Yes but No Thanks),” a French Canadian film about the relationship between a zany/crazy neighbor girl and a young wife which was strange, funny, and exhilarating. “Cold Shivers” gave the audience just that, as director Marius Myrmel deals with the fall out from an incestuous mother/son relationship. Abstract animation came to the fore with the projected animation visuals of “Chella Drive,” a reflection on a Southern California suburb; “The Sacred Mushroom Edition” amusingly details a conversation between two fallen angels about rock and roll. “Lucas Camry Alex” is a wild slice of life set in New Orleans that focuses on relationship problems and ends with an indelible image of a burning car in the Gulf of Mexico.  Michael Arcos, one of three directors on the sultry,  fascinating film says “Lucas was the actual guy who owned a car he wanted to destroy for insurance reasons…the project cost us $400 and a car. We shot with four different cameras. We made it for ourselves,” he says. New Orleans, which itself is a character in the film is “Like a junk Disneyworld, it has a pretty harsh underbelly. ” Arcos says he’s drawn to that slightly seamy side of life, and is now focusing on another short called “The Booth” which depicts private viewing booths in adult stores. “4:15 PM The End of the World” rounded out the shorts program in which a cynical deliveryman meets a hitchhiker who claims to be Jesus but may in fact be a murderer. Eerie and darkly comic, this is an assured and memorable work.

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Now to those docs: “What Lies Upstream”  is every inch the passion project of investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback, who traveled to West Virginia to uncover the truth behind a massive chemical spill that left no doubt about the power of lobbyists and bureaucratic cover-ups all the way to the top levels of government. As much a suspense thriller as a documentary, Hoback’s exacting eye became tuned to two vast problems involving pollution today: “There is so much money influence, and then bureaucracy and careerism. The mentality in agencies like the EPA and the CDC is that in order to look like they’re doing their jobs, they don’t do their jobs at all. That’s the crux of it.” The West Virginia spill left 300,000 people without drinking water for months, and leads to a trail of corruption. “Every documentary filmmaker will say the same thing,” Hoback reports. “If you haven’t figured out the real meaning to your story, you just need to wait. What I found was that if you wait long enough, the money will find a way.  Without campaign reform, you can’t address lobbyist dollars and political appointments. There’s a lack of a firewall between politicians and science. It’s like a corrupt police department, and we need independent research and an auditing system.” Beautifully shot and masterfully told, this is a must-see film about the environmental perils – and the governmental ones – around us.

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“Forever ‘B'” presents the fascinating and deeply strange story of the Broberg family circa the 1970s. Mother, father and 12 year old daughter Jan fell under the sway of a charismatic pedophile – who had affairs with both parents and kidnapped Jan twice.  The film had its world premiere at MLFF. Director Skye Borgman notes “It’s a very messy story, and it was hard to get that sympathy in there for the parents, but we always came back to the truth and how it would guide us. The book that Jan and her mother eventually published had more crazy twists and turns in it than I presented in the film, but didn’t reveal all that we did. I’m not sure how we gained their trust – we sat and listened for eight hours. It took them forty years to get to the point where they were able to reveal what they did.” Borgman says the editing process was extremely difficult,  inter-cutting the horrifying and intense interviews with Jan, her sisters, and her parents with reenactments of events, audio tapes provided by the FBI, and family photographs. A jaw-dropping story, the film serves as a cautionary tale in the extreme.

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Another day of provocative, exciting programming at MLFF – and another reason to make the drive “into the woods” for films you won’t want to miss.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

Mammoth Film Fest Does It ‘Strad Style’

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In case you haven’t yet heard of the truly terrific doc Strad Style, you will. The funny, sweet, suspenseful story of believe-it-or-not a self-taught violin maker is the perfect example of the eclectic programming and wonderful filmmaking you can spot at MLFF.

At what marks the first full day of films at the festival, we took in Shorts Block 1, the doc The Challenge, the aforementioned Strad Style, and the visually wild narrative film Space Detective. 

Shorts Block 1 included the fascinating, sinuous claymation of Adam, the spooky dystopian nightmare of Ape Sodom, and the visually beautiful abstract Serpentine, whose creator Bronwyn Maloney notes that “part of the aesthetic of the film came from technical limitations and just embracing them. It began as a narrative film, but I became less interested in that as I went along.” One of the short’s central images, a crocodile with arms and legs, comes from a metaphor she herself embraces as a symbol for self-identity and “feeling fierce.” More abstract cinema:  Fault Lines, an exploration of spatial forms, and Coacinae, the title of which refers to the name of the Roman goddess of the first sewer of modern civilization. This visually lush piece carried a somewhat narrative throughline connecting money and the sewer – the ultimate in filthy lucre. My Gay Sister is a lovely slice-of-life that is both a coming of age story and a tender look at a ten year old’s burgeoning sexuality. Director Lia Hltala shot in the north of Norway and did intimacy exercises with cast and small crew to create the realistic, intimate feel of the film.  “I cast the main character, the ten year old, through street casting. I found her outside a 7-11.” The film employed a great deal of improv; rainy weather kept the cast and crew close.  Boys offers an American coming of age tale. Director Eyal Resh presents a sensitive depiction of the friendship between two adolescent boys and their sexuality. Producer Stephanie O’Neil says their film’s crew also did a lot of work “to get them comfortable with each other. it was a lot about building a relationship with each other, a friendship. Our film was very scripted, but we let our actors riff on it, and we filmed everything they did.”

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The Challenge was a somewhat surprisingly verbiage free documentary filled with strikingly beautiful visuals and a lush score. A dreamy invocation of life in Quatar, the world’s richest nation, viewers see images of a Lamborghini, a gold motorcycle, falconry competition, and SUV races across red sand dunes.  Accompanying the feature length film was the short Hairat. Director Jessica Beshir used a mysterious poem to evoke the mood surrounding her depiction of a man who trains wild hyenas outside the walled city of Harar in Ethiopia.  “It was going to be part of a longer documentary,” Beshir attests, “but it became something eles entirely. I shot on two different nights, the farmer has a real relationship with the hyenas, they have a trust to enter the space he commands.”

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Strad Style is a brilliant piece of filmmaking by director Stefan Avalos, intimately portraying the life of violin maker Daniel Houck, who sets out to make a perfect copy of a famous violin for impressario Razvan Stoica, whom he met over the Internet. Houck, who lived on an isolated farm in Ohio,  had created other violins, but nothing like this. “I was making another documentary about violins,” director Avalos explains, “when I heard about this guy, that he was really crazy and obsessed, and I thought that might be a fun five minutes. But I met him, and even though I already had a lot of footage shot, I made the right decision to go in a completely different direction.” Houck adds,”He had no idea about me, he only saw a few YouTube videos, but I think it was not a coincidence that we formed a trust, that we made this film. It’s not a coincidence when things like this happen.” Since the film came out, there have been many changes in Houck’s life, which is no longer isolated on a remote property. “The house really was in the middle of nowhere, with bad electricity and no heat, it was like going on safari,” Avalos laughs. “It was just the crew of me, I shot it, lit it. It was fun, like going back to film school,  it wasn’t hard to make although there was a lot of stress, cold in winter, hot in the summer.” Avalos says the hardest part of making the story was that he’d shot 70 hours of film and his first cut was “3.5 hours, and it was good. It was painful to chop it.” Houck, who is also an artist and low-rider enthusiast as well as a master craftsman of famous replica violins, says the film, which won best doc at Slamdance earlier this year, was a “once in a lifetime experience. I’m not a filmmaker, it won’t happen again. I’m taking advantage of this. I love and appreciate the opportunity to be here – it gets me out of Ohio.”  Avalos will be showing the film in more festivals, and is currently looking at several distribution possibilities for a film that deserves to be widely seen. An accompanying short, Sleep with Me, is Summre Garber’s sweet portrait of a podcast creator who helps the sleepless find rest.

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Space Detective, the narrative feature we viewed today is zany and inventive, the story of an exiled Terran space detective replete with a femme fatale and space goons galore. Writer and star Matt Sjafiroeddin  says the film took “about a decade” to make with director Antionio Llapur. “We started as a short, and suddenly we thought we had a feature.” The sci fi film which employs live action imagery in surreal fantasy style and uses a palette of vibrant colors as well as black and white, is an homage to everything from Las Vegas – where the filmmakers are from – to Star Trek, yet wholly original.

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Still haven’t made it to Mammoth? It might be time to “head for the hills” and see what’s next at this always surprising, always interesting fest.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke