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AIFF15: No Spoilers

Monday 13 April 2015

Usually, I’d be writing about the Ashland Independent Film Festival as it unfolds during each Festival in early April.

I didn’t do that this year.

I don’t have a good reason why, really. Herself wanted to do this year’s AIFF in a more low-key way. We’ve often done 20, 22, even 24 film slots during prior Festivals. For a festival with five slots a day Friday through Monday and four on Thursday, that means films pretty much all day for 15 hours a day, with meals and sleep snatched in between. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a big time commitment.

This year, we had a warm up at the Seattle Cinerama, which was showing Lawrence of Arabia on their super-big screen on the Saturday before Easter (so, the Saturday before AIFF). That’s a reasonable warm-up for a film festival (or a double-feature at OSF).

The other thing was the list of films this year. We have a way of choosing films that tries to balance what we each want, or are willing, to see. It’s a four-point rating scale: 0 is “no, please no!”, 1 is “eh, if you insist”, 2 is “this could be good”, and 3 is “oh, my, yes!”. Add the scores for each film and you’ve got a plan. Way too many films were coming in at a total score of 2 or less (out of a max of 6), so we picked the few that hit the higher values.

The upside of this is that what we saw was generally excellent; no really stinkers. The downside is that if something was amazing but low on our list, we missed it. Oh well.

Here’s what we saw, and how they stacked up:

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey  Actor Hal Holbrook has been doing his one-man Mark Twain show on and off for over 60 years: it was his first professional gig, in 1954, and he’s still doing it to this day (we saw it a couple of months ago). He’s performed the show, which changes from day-to-day, over 2,250 times. This movie is a biography that covers a little of his personal life and a lot about how he created and performs as Twain.

I’ve seen the Holbrook/Twain live performance at least a couple of times; it’s a funny and thoughtful reflection on American society and politics. The movie does a good job of blending Holbrook’s personal life and the production of the Twain show.

Highly recommended.

Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation  I had been anticipating this film, as The Nation has always been a favorite publication, and there was the promise of a historical look at the magazine and the stories it had covered.

Sadly, while there was some history of the magazine, and the back story about the interns was interesting, there was way, way too much fluff. I don’t need yet another establishing shot to tell me that we’re back in NYC when the next shot is the interior of the magazine’s offices. Similarly, the closing section about the cruise, and just about all the follow shots of the magazine’s editor were superfluous. Some of the history of the magazine was interesting.

It’s not in the “there’s two hours of my life I’m never getting bad” level of bad, but if someone else wants to watch it while I’m there, I’ll go read the magazine instead.

Wildlike  Here’s another one we had been anticipating: a new feature starring Bruce Greenwood (“Nowhere Man”, Star Trek (2009), Flight) about a “troubled teen” who takes off into the Alaskan wilds.

Mr. Greenwood is a fine actor; his counterpart, played by Ella Purnell (MaleficentTarzan) and the rest of the cast are also no lightweights, so success is not a surprise.

What was a surprise was the extent to which the writer, director and cast avoided any Hollywood-ization of the story. Rene (Mr. Greenwood) is a mature adult, but he is neither all-wise nor tragically flawed; he has his own problems, but they are normal and well within the scope of believability. Similarly, Mackenzie (Ms. Purnell) has problems that are (unfortunately) too possible without being overwhelming; her actions are believable and human without descending into maudlin.

I really loved that all of the actions and reactions were normal. There was no exceptional heroism, nor exceptional villainy. The creators avoid using music to push emotion; the visuals of the Alaskan wilderness were beautiful without pushing into glorious. Comedy was used as it would naturally occur, not forced into the script to elicit a reaction.

One of the best feature films I’ve seen in years. Highly recommended.

Proud Citizen  A Bulgarian playwright wins second place in a playwriting contest; her reward is production of her work in Frankfort, Kentucky.

It’s almost a Mamet-like film; you start in one place, and after a series of twists and turns, all of which are small in individual scope and believable in context, you wind up with the lead character at a place you didn’t expect.

Acting and production are spot on for a film that feels by turns like a feature and a documentary. At one point Herself said she wondered why the cameraman didn’t answer a question, and then remembered oh yeah, it’s not a documentary. None of the actors felt overly polished; the naturalness of the performances was outstanding.

Also highly recommended.

Animation Shorts  This has always been one of our favorite blocks, but it has been slipping in the last few years. This year, all but one of the films were foreign, so not in competition; the one in competition was a Plympton film that I swear we saw at AIFF last year.

The films were good, many very dark and dealing with dark subjects (depression, suicide, loss). But I’m not looking for AIFF to merely re-project films that can be found elsewhere; I want AIFF to show films that are novel and are not just re-runs of what’s been selected by other festivals.

There were a few good films. The best was probably one about a therapy session called Through the Hawthorn. That film is Highly Recommended.

Man from Reno  A weird film. Almost a live-action Japanese anime-like film noir. A pretty and reclusive author, a dead guy, and a local sheriff collide in a weird tale about…well, watch it and find out. It’s a little on the long side (could use some editing), but it’s a weirdly interesting film. Recommended.

Barge  One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, anywhere. “Real” without being artificially gritty. Individuals whose stories are normal and interesting, without being maudlin or over-dramatic. A situation (life on a river barge) that is an iconic part of the history of the country (c.f. Holbrook/Twain, above). A movie paced in a deliberate and reflective manner that avoids become a snooze-fest, or something only the blue-hairs would enjoy. A team effort, without over-the-top sacrifices (nobody dies, no one is even injured). Ordinary troubles that remind us that everyone can fit in to society. Highly Recommended.

 

That’s it! So few blocks, but such high quality. Now we nap.

 

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