So many KIFF titles.
So little time.
Yes, blogheads, I’ve only recently completed my annual ritual of watching all (well, most of) the movies screening at this year’s Kansas International Film Festival scheduled for Sept. 29-Oct. 6 at the Glenwood Arts Theatre in Overland Park. And, as we’ve come to expect from KIFF, it’s an impressive lineup. (For a complete schedule and synopses of the fest titles, visit www.kansasfilm.com).
There are several ambitious and effective social issue documentaries: “Another Planet” (child labor), “Deforce” (racism and political repression in Detroit), “Genocide Revealed” (Stalin’s “ethnic cleansing” of the Ukraine), “Left by the Ship” (the abandoned Philippine offspring of American military personnel), “Project Happiness” (American teens travel the globe to understand the sources of contentment), “The Phantom Wolves of Sun Valley” (the war over reintroducing wolves to the American West).
There’s a trio of very well-produced films about the Nazi era: “Haberman,” “ Berlin 36” and “A Hitler.”
And there’s a handful of Hollywood movies making their regional debut at KIFF: The psychological thriller “Take Shelter” with Michael Shannon and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain; “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” with Tilda Swinton as the mother of a boy involved in a high school killing spree; “Like Crazy,” a Sundance hit about a British student (Felicity Jones) separated from her American lover (Anton Yelchin) when her visa runs out.
Generally speaking, KIFF documentaries tend to impress me more than the narratives. This is no surprise. One person can make a pretty great documentary.
A “story” film, on the other hand, is an incredibly complicated venture that requires the participation of dozens of people. There’s so much more that can go wrong. This is why my list of 10 Gotta-See KIFF films is so heavy on nonfiction titles. So here’s my list of the movies you should make an effort to catch:
“ISRAEL vs. ISRAEL” (3:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2): A GREAT documentary guaranteed to start fistfights in the lobby.
Terje Carlsson turns his camera on several Israeli peace activists (one of them a former Israeli soldier, another a grandmother) working to stem what they view as their own country’s illegal annexation of the West Bank and the eviction/subjugation of its Arab inhabitants.
These individuals — all Jews — are regarded as traitors by many of their countrymen.
What they’re up against is shown in several key confrontations between right-wing Jewish settlers and their Arab neighbors. Carlsson’s cameras film these incidents from the Jewish side of the battle lines, perhaps giving the settlers the impression that the filmmakers shared their agenda. As a result the cameras captured several cringeworthy displays of racial hatred and religious arrogance. Jewish parents actually urge their children to attack passing Arab women; Israeli soldiers standing nearby don’t interfere.
Watch these scenes and then compare them to newsreels of German citizens abusing Jews in the Third Reich.
Too close for comfort.
“SILVER TONGUES” (7:40 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1): Two lovers (Lee Tergesen, Enid Graham) travel from town to town, assuming different identities and engaging in malicious scenarios with the
unsuspecting patsies they encounter (a honeymooning couple, members of a small church, nursing home inhabitants).
What’s their game? Is the man forcing his paramour to engage in this extreme role playing? And what about his brutal sexual tastes? Is she his prisoner? What the heck is going on?
Writer/director Simon Arthur delivers a jaw-dropping head-twister fueled by two spectacular performances (both leads get to play a half dozen different characters here), amazingly precise dialogue and a dark energy that is both compelling and creepy. You’ll feel beat up after this one…and that’s a good thing.
“BEATLES STORIES” (7:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30): Okay, I know Seth Swirsky’s documentary — an effort to feed his obsession with the
Beatles by collecting stories from people who met them — may not be great filmmaking.
But, c’mon, this is a movie about the freakin‘ Beatles!
Swirsky tracks down the Fab Four’s old girlfriends, fans they encountered on tour, their fellow musicians (like Graham Nash) and others.
It’s not comprehensive — just a bunch of random memories — but it’s wonderful fun, especially for the way in which Swirsky has woven in old documentary footage and lots of Beatles music.
Best revelation: John Lennon’s former personal assistant reveals that in his last year Lennon took an extreme turn to the right, embraced Ronald Reagan conservatism and confessed that he was “embarrassed” by songs like “Imagine.”
Say it isn’t so!
“NUDE STUDY” (7:45 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3): It’s flawed (with a last act that’s a near disaster), yet Stefan Popescu’s oddball lesbian romance grabbed me in ways that are hard to explain.
It begins in Australia where filmmaker Sarah, fleeing personal tragedy, accepts a commission to shoot a film in snowbound Dawson in Canada’s Yukon territory.
Right off the bat we’re hit with weirdness…In the Australian scenes Sarah is played by Jackie Alixander; in the Canadian ones she’s played by a different actress, Victoria Moss.
Her project involves a filmic nude study; Sarah interviews locals for the job and finally settles on Lindsay (Kathryn Foran), a shy young woman whose relationship with a man (Matthew Fulton) is slowly unraveling.
Over time the two women bond, becoming something more than just artist and subject. But male egos run rampant on the Canadian frontier and things get ugly.
“Nude Study” is sexy, provocative and haunting.
“MOMENT OF TRUTH: THE ANDY MEYERS STORY” (5:25 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4): Filmmaker Steven Canfield Crowley meets a mildly retarded middle-aged man who is tired of life and wants to commit suicide on camera.
At first appalled by the idea, Crowley soon gets wholeheartedly on board, promising to fulfill Andy’s last wishes of a weekend at a beachside hotel, a last meal of Chinese takeout and the services of a prostitute.
“Moment of Truth” looks and feels like a genuine documentary (so much so that afterwards some viewers will embrace it as the real deal).
Actually it is a very clever mockumentary. Director Crowley and producer D.M. Atlas play themselves (the latter has lots of fun making himself look like an utterly amoral tool), but the film belongs to Leawood-based actor Rick Haymes, who portrays the sweet, sad Andy Meyers (“Don’t cha know?” he says after every declarative statement) with heartbreaking conviction.
This may be the most believable performance you’ll see all year.
Whether it’s posting personal videos on YouTube, chronicling our bowel movements on Twitter or boring friends and strangers alike on Facebook, we live in an era where everyone can imagine themselves a star.
The centerpiece of “Peep Culture” is filmmaker Hal Niedzviecki’s decision to outfit his home with cameras so that his entire life can be watched by total strangers. (His wife wisely declares their bedroom off limits and makes Hal spend most of his time in the basement).
Niedzviecki notes the changes in his perceptions, his need to be “performing” constantly (even when using the bathroom). He interviews others who are living their lives on the Web and visits a boot camp where everyday people are trained to make themselves more attractive to the casting directors of TV reality shows.
“BEAUTIFUL DARLING” (12:45 p.m Saturday, Oct. 1): The short, tragic life of Andy Warhol “superstar” Candy Darling (born James Lawrence Slattery) is the subject of James Rasin’s evenhanded and finally heartbreaking documentary.
A product of an alcoholic father and a suburban Long Island upbringing, Darling stood out in a crowded field of female impersonators for a couple of reasons.
For starters, she was genuinely beautiful (unlike campy Warhol drag queens like Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn). For another, she was a true transexual who believed herself a woman trapped in a man’s body.
This doc reveals a sometimes stunningly attractive individual who may have been pathologically addicted to being treated like a movie star — she was determined to achieve the success and glamor of her idol, Kim Novak.
But she was adept at projecting a tone that has been called “gracious regality”; it helped mask her sexual insecurity (though much sought after, Darling seems to have been fundamentally asexual).
“HEAVEN + EARTH + JOE DAVIS” (5:35 p.m. Thursday Oct. 6): Peter Sosovosky offers a documentary portrait of a true eccentric, Joe Davis.
Often bearded and shuffling (he has a peg leg…not a prosthetic, but a genuine hand-carved peg leg like Ahab) Davis often looks and acts like a homeless person…or a homeless person impersonating a pirate.
Yet without any formal training he has taught at MIT and the Rhode Island School of Design, pioneering a “bioart movement” that blends science and esthetics for wildly whimsical effect.
At one point in this film Davis builds a crystal radio set out of organic material. And it works. That’s a low-end project. He also sends messages to nearby stars through a multi-million-dollar radio telescope.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. When Davis starts talking about molecular biology, bioinformatics, magnetic fields and genetics it quickly becomes apparent that behind the weirdness is true genius, a genius this film nicely captures.
“LESSON PLAN” (1:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1): This one blew me away.
In 1967 Ron Jones, a charismatic young teacher in Palo Alto, launched a one-week experiment in his sophomore modern history class. Cannily manipulating his students, he created a fascistic movement called The Third Wave, complete with official salute and litany (“Strength through discipline…strength through action”).
The Wave proved so attractive that students at other nearby high schools showed up wanting to join.
Students who asked probing questions or expressed doubt about the Third Wave and its goals were exiled to the library; one actually started an underground movement in opposition. Others more committed to the movement formed a sort of Gestapo to serve as Jones’ bodyguards and to intimidate non-participating students (like a reporter for the school paper).
Filmmakers David Jeffrey and Philip Carr Neel (Neel was in Jones’ class) interview dozens of former students (now in their late 50s), their parents and the school’s principle (who initially supported Jones’ adventurous teaching techniques but later came to see this particular experiment as “immoral”). Most of the ex-students say they don’t regret their participation in the Third Wave, and that ever since they’ve been extremely cautious about buying into movements of any kind.
Jones lost his job over his experiment in social manipulation and now says he would never do it again because of the potential for genuine physical and emotional damage. The film ends with his return to the high school after 40 years to meet some of his old pupils.
I found “Lesson Plan” weirdly moving. And the final credits roll over Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (…you know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”) — the absolutely perfect song for this situation.
“NATURAL SELECTION” (7:30 Sunday, Oct. 2): Good screwball comedy may be the hardest dramatic form around. Nowadays not even Hollywood can do it well. So when an indie filmmaker (writer/director Robbie Pickering) pulls it off, it’s time for celebration.
Linda (Rachael Harris) and her husband Abe (John Diehl) are so God-fearing that once they learned she was unable to have children they stopped having sex, since carnality without at least the possibility of procreation is a sin.
When Abe suffers a near-fatal attack while donating to a sperm bank (he’s been doing it for more than 20 years behind Linda’s back), Linda decides that before he dies she’ll present him with one of the children he has sired via testube. She’s able to get the identity of Raymond (Matt O’Leary), who lives in Texas, is constantly stoned, in trouble with the law and looking for a way out. So, sure, he’ll agree to meet his biological father if only to get out of Dodge.
“Natural Selection” is both a satire of religious extremism, an odd couple road trip and a highly unusual love story. There are a gazillion reasons it shouldn’t work, but it does because Harris (she was Ed Helms’ ball-breaking girlfriend in the original “Hangover”) and O’Leary absolutely own their roles.
She makes Linda’s naivete endearing rather than contemptible, while he gives the shaggy, slackerish Raymond a desperately needed dab of charisma.
OF COURSE, these are just one man’s choices. You may want to take into consideration the opinions of this year’s KIFF jury, which has chosen the following films as finalists for top awards:
Documentaries: “Another Planet” (3:10 Saturday, Oct. 1); “Kinofil” (5:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1); “Left by the Ship” (3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2); “Israel vs. Israel” (3:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2); “A Perfect Soldier” (5:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2).
Narratives: “I Want to Be a Soldier” (5:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1); “Silver Tongues” (7:40 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1); “Wedding Party” (2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2); “Halfway” (4:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2); “Natural Selection” (7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2).
| Robert W. Butler