My Top 10 Picks from Twin Cities Film Fest


Well, it’s been almost two weeks since the 2015 Twin Cities Film Fest wrapped. I knew the tough part would be selecting the top 10 and so I took my time posting this. I use the same criteria when selecting my top 10 films from a given year. So when I say ‘top movies’ it’s sort of a cross between a ‘best of and favorite’, so these films made an impression on me, combining the virtue of being entertaining, deeply moving, thought-provoking, and indelible.

So with that in mind, I present you my top 10 picks:

[Click on the title to read my full review]

10. Touched with Fire

I really didn’t know what to expect from this, but the subject matter intrigued me. A directorial debut from Paul Dalio, the film seems to have been crafted as a love letter to bipolar artists and creative people. I was quite impressed by Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby who played poets who are manic depressive. It’s a heartfelt and sensitive tale of an unconventional love story.

9. Too Late


This is one of those unique films in which the risky experimentative film-making style paid off in the end. It’s another feature film debut from Dennis Hauck, and it contains only five 20-minute uninterrupted takes, amounting to 100 minutes of non-linear narrative. It’d be a shame if the style was only a gimmick, but thankfully the story is intriguing and actually quite emotional in the end. Plus it’s got an amazing performance from the criminally underrated thespian John Hawkes. His 2015 Northstar Award of Excellence from TCFF is so well-deserved!

8. Remember


As I mentioned in my review, there have been so many Nazi vengeance tales been made on screen before and yet this one manages to inject something new and different into the sub-genre. That alone is a feat in and of itself. Director Atom Egoyan made this with not much frills but the film is brimming with mystery and suspense. Boasted by an astute and heartfelt performance by Christopher Plummer, I was engrossed in the story despite not much action in the film. That finale packs quite an emotional punch, and it’ll make you forgive the generic and boring title, as it actually fits the plot VERY well.

7. It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong


Films that contain mostly of dialog between two people is tricky because a lot is required of the chemistry two actors AND of course, the script. Well, director Emily Ting in her directorial debut certainly managed to create a compelling film thanks to those two ingredients. Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung (who I found out was a real-life couple after I saw the movie) have an effortless chemistry together. Everything flows nicely and in a natural way, the actors seem comfortable and fit the roles perfectly. But the strength of the film is in the dialog (also written by Ting), which comes to life as the night wears on.

6. A New High


A homeless shelter in Seattle took a novel approach in helping their residents overcome their addictions, and that is to give them an epic goal to summit one of the most dangerous mountains in the country, the 14,400 ft Mt. Rainier. The film shows the residents train for that mission and the drama that happens in the group, led by former Army Ranger Mike Johnson, who spearheaded this unorthodox rehabilitation project. The film asked the question, ‘will their personal mountains be too steep to overcome?’ and it certainly made me ponder about that in my own life. It’s quite riveting to see each recovering addict face their demons head on, plus the vast splendor of the mountain is absolutely stunning to watch. Directors Samuel Miron & Stephen Scott Scarpulla also had to train for mount climbing as well in order to make this film. Their dedication and their labor of love definitely paid off on screen.

5. The Last Great Circus Flyer


There are a ton of great documentaries playing at TCFF every year and so it’s no surprise they made up nearly half of my top 10 list. This one certainly has one of the most intriguing subject matter. In 1982, Miguel Vazguez performed ‘the greatest feat in all of circus history’, that is the quadruple somersault, during a Ringling performance. He certainly had a fascinating life journey to tell and director Philip Weyland certainly did his story justice. It’s one of the most entertaining and moving documentary that showcase not only a series of amazing–you could say impossible–physical feat, but also a portrait of a truly extraordinary and inspiring individual. Even if you’re not a fan of circus or trapeze act, I highly recommend this one.

4. Thank You For Playing


Critics have called this film one of the most important film about video game ever made and it certainly lived up to that. It’s a tear-jerker of a film but one that’s also incredibly uplifting. The story chronicled the Green family, as Ryan and Amy deal with their son Joel who’s diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Ryan is a video game designer and he embarked on creating a most unusual and poetic video game to honor Joel’s life. Most video games deal with a lot of deaths, that is people getting shot or chopped to pieces violently. But never has a game dealt with death the way That Dragon Cancer game does it, tackling the issue of death head on in such a personal, affecting and encouraging way. This well-crafted film should encourage everyone going through a tough time in their lives, and also inspire people to channel their emotion, whether it’s grief or joy, into something truly creative.

3. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made


When I saw this on the TCFF schedule, I knew this would be one I had to see with my husband. We’re both such huge fans of Indiana Jones and we LOVE Raiders of the Lost Ark! The film has a huge dose of exhilarating fun that matches Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece, as it’s truly the greatest homage to a film fueled 100% by genuine passion and creativity. You can’t help but root for the three guys who remade the film shot for shot when they were 11 years old and reunited 30 years later to finish it. It’s also interesting to see how their families share this unusual journey over the span of three decades. Watch for some extra special surprises that would definitely make you want to get up and cheer. A must-see for Indy fans, but really, anyone who loves a good story would be entertained by this.

2. Room


I’m thrilled that there have been a lot more female filmmakers as well as talents represented this year, one of the reasons I love TCFF! So it’s especially gratifying that two of the main gala screenings feature a strong female performer in the lead. I actually saw Room at a press screening before TCFF started, but I’m still going to include it here as this was TCFF’s opening gala.

Room is one of the most well-acted films I saw the entire year, emotionally heartbreaking but not a dour, depressing film. Featuring one of the strongest lead performances this year, Brie Larson shines as a doting mother who’s kept in captivity in a single room for years. The believable relationship between Ma and her young son Jack is crucial to the film and both Larson and Jacob Tremblay nailed it. It’s a deeply immersive film that really get you into the emotional psyche of the characters, thanks to a shrewd direction by Lenny Abrahamson.

1. Brooklyn


It’s always wonderful when a film lives up to your already lofty expectations and then some. Saoirse Ronan is the perfect leading lady to tell the story of Eilis, a young Irish immigrant who moves to Brooklyn and becomes torn between the new city and her homeland. The story is deceptively simple, but I was swept away by the rich, engrossing human drama that’s brought to life by the nuanced performances of the cast.

This is such a gem of a movie and watching Ronan is her understated yet layered portrayal of Eilis is nothing short of mesmerizing. She’s able to convey internal battle within her with just her eyes or a subtle smile, as there’s a great deal of economy of dialog in this film but everything has a purpose. I’m also impressed by Emory Cohen, and actor I’ve never seen before but I certainly want to see more of. He has a James Dean-esque vibe here, charming but vulnerable, certainly a worthy suitor to the film’s protagonist.

No doubt this is Ronan‘s best work among her already illustrious career and I’d love to see her get major acting nominations come award season. Kudos to director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby for crafting a beautiful story that’s engaging and full of heart. I mentioned this in my review already but it bears repeating: lest Hollywood forget, well-written story is the greatest special effects of all.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in random order):

Just because these didn’t quite make my top 10, I still think these films are excellent and definitely well worth your time. In fact, I’m pretty sure Anomalisa would make a lot of critics’ top 10 of the year. I love how film festivals always offer *a cure for the common flicks* so to speak, a breath of fresh air from what you see in mainstream Cineplex today.

THANKS AGAIN Twin Cities Film Fest for the awesome lineup!

The TCFF Insider Series kicks off in December, so be a member so you don’t miss out on film screenings/events all year long!

If you miss my TCFF coverage, click on the Twin Cities Film Fest tab at the top of the page.

What are your thoughts on my Top 10?
Which one(s) of these films have you seen or look forward to?

TCFF 2015 Short Film Reviews Part II – ‘Love American Style’ & ‘Shoot to Kill’ Shorts Block


More great things in small packages! Every year Twin Cities Film Fest screens a plethora of great short films, grouped together in a themed shorts block. Today, we have some of the film reviews from the Love American Style and Shoot to Kill shorts blocks.


These are all part of the
Love American Style Block

The Caper

I LOVE the idea of this short film about two women who bonded over dating fatigue and a love of film noir. This is the kind of short film that could’ve easily worked as a feature and I certainly wouldn’t mind spending time with these characters for an hour and a half. Right from the start I immediately like the two leads, Holly and Anna, played by Katie Willer and Larissa Gritti respectively. They met during dinner at a mutual friend’s house, and they found out they actually have something in common. Holly’s main complaint in her dating life is that men always see her as the ‘best friend’ type, whilst Anna wishes she could actually have platonic relationship with men as they often only see her in a romantic/sexual light.


Matthew G. Anderson is the creator of the Theater People web series, which is a comedy web series about the world of independent theater and the people who live it. He has a passion for classic films and this film paid homage to the genre in a fun, witty way. I think fans of classic Hollywood will enjoy this immensely. The story is clever and genuinely funny. Willer and Gritti have an effortless chemistry, which brings the snarky script to life.

Moving On


The idea of this movie is just brilliant! It opened with a guy named Ross (Mike Ivers), awakened in the morning by a knock in the door and found two movers hired by his girlfriend. Why dump a guy over text if you could guy a moving company to break up with him AND move him out of your home, right? So yeah, naturally that scenario makes for a hilarious and efficient short film. It’s 11-minutes long, including the scene playing during the end credits. Here’s another film I wouldn’t mind watching as a feature, but the beauty of short film is they don’t overstay your welcome (pardon the pun).


The funniest bits are the way each mover handle the movee (is that even a word?). Nick (Robin Lord Taylor, aka Penguin in the Gotham series) lack the sensitivity in handling the delicate situation given it’s his first day on the job, constantly blurting out the most inappropriate things that comes to his mind. Meanwhile, his cousin and co-worker Mason (Ryan Farrell) is more of a follow-protocol kind of guy. 

The three ended up bonding over the course of one day as they pack up Ross’ stuff into the truck. All three actors are great and they seem like they had fun with the roles. The final scene is hilarious and there’s definitely enough material here for a comedic feature. Directed by Marcia Fields & Mike Spear, this is one of the most fun short films I’ve seen so far!


In the Clouds (En las Nubes)

“If it’s in the park, make sure people don’t applaud like in the movies. How embarrassing!” “En Las Nubes,” (“In the Clouds”) the new movie by Argentinean Marcelo Mitnik, works as a short film because it challenges cultural assumptions about love and intimacy that everyone is already familiar with. Of course every woman wants her guy to plan an elaborate proposal, buy a ring and get down on one knee…don’t they?

This 20 minute treat that was named as Best Foreign Short Film at the Reno International Film Festival earlier this year stars Valeria Blanc as Mariela, an Argentinean illustrator, and Jeremy Glazer as Oliver, an American dog food executive living abroad (some might recognize Glazer from “Letters from Iwo Jima”).


Having traveled abroad several times gave me perhaps more appreciation for this story – one of my pet peeves is Americans who travel abroad and expect everything to be like it is in the United States. Or expecting everything on one continent to be the same – as Oliver expresses in the opening scene when someone asks if a new creation is going to work. “Of course,” he assumes. “They did in Chile and Brazil so I don’t see why not here…”

In Argentina, it is explained, they don’t put a lot of stock in the engagement and proposal that we do in the United States. Mitnik has showed this film across the world and it would be interesting to learn what kind of reaction he has gotten. These cultural differences are what make traveling abroad so rewarding although I realize I have been fortunate to have these experiences. For now, I enjoyed this movie bringing a slice of it to Minnesota.


The Incredible Life of Darrell
(part of Digital Firsts – Webisodes)

It takes talent to encapsulate topics like relationships, jobs and best friends into short web episodes. In “The Incredible Life of Darrell,” writer and actor Darrell Lake gives us awkward but amusing glimpses into his life. It is set in Wakooki, a fictional Arizona town, and features a cast of characters that anyone can relate to. At the Twin Cities Film Fest, audiences will be treated to “Date Night,” the first episode starring Darrell as the gap-toothed protagonist, Joy Regullano as Jenny, his pint sized, venom spewing friend in a sweater vest, and Tru Collins (Stacy) as the unstable object of his affection.


The reason these episodes work is mainly because of Lake’s earnest delivery – the end of this short episode features him quizzically offering “I don’t think I understand women.” These shorts are not for children or the easily offended – there is plenty of cursing and inappropriate references which cannot be repeated here. Spoiler alert – if you can’t catch this episode at the Twin Cities Film Fest, you can watch this (and others) on his website. Perhaps next year the film fest can have an “Incredible Life of Darrell” marathon?


These are all part of the part of the
Coming of Age block

Your Blind Spot

From movies like “The Godfather” to “Goodfellas” it seems like there is an endless fascination with the world of organized crime in this country. The new short film, “Your Blind Spot,” also provides an introduction to this world. Written by Frank Wheeler and directed by Paul von Stoetzel, it tells the story of Chad (M. Allen LaFleur), a newly released convict who can climb the mob ladder…of course, he just needs to kill to do it.


LaFleur does an admirable job in the role of a fresh faced young guy in an anonymous small Midwestern town and his descent into the world of dark warehouses and “meetings.” Attendees may recognize a familiar face – in one scene, Twin Cities Film Fest marketing manager Bob Cummings tells LaFleur, “S*** just got real, kid.” At the end when he is out to dinner with his wife, he jumps when a door is opened. Welcome to the underworld.


How far would you go to protect a family member? “Blame,” a short film by Columbia College of Chicago MFA student Kellee Terrell, explores the choice a father faces when his wife discovers a cell phone video showing his only son (who was recently admitted to MIT) and other boys gang raping a girl who lived next door. The wife tries to safeguard his future (“We were only fifteen when we had him and we gave up everything…”) and rationalize (“He’s not like that…she was over here with four boys, who does that?”).


The father, played by Jerod Haynes, does a good job of portraying the emotions a father must go through in a situation like this. The title of the movie is interesting – would you blame yourself or feel like you had failed as a parent? In 15 minutes, Terrell challenges you to imagine what you would do in that situation. One underplayed part of the movie is the fact that it is revealed the cell phone video is the “only” evidence of this crime. And, yet, there were other boys there…


These are all part of the
Shoot to Kill block

The Detectives of Noir Town

Like “The Muppets” and “Avenue Q,” some things are just funny when puppets are involved. “The Detectives of Noir Town” is a short film from Director Andrew Chambers that takes us into a seedy world where puppets and humans co-exist. The “star puppet,” if you will, is Detective John Cotton, simultaneously trying to solve a mystery and find out what happened to his last living relative.


Although the story is easy to follow and provides a coherent beginning, middle and end in approximately seven minutes, it’s the use of puppets that are sure to make this show a crowd pleaser at the Twin Cities Film Fest. In one scene, there is a “bum” puppet, complete with a scraggly beard and winter hat with ear flaps. In another, stuffing flies when a puppet is shot.

The script is part “Naked Gun” (“Look out detective, you’re on the body”) and part “Columbo” (“Where was I? Oh…puppets…yeah…”) mixed with very lifelike puppets with Australian accents wearing trenchcoats and police uniforms. Shot in black and white with a distinct ode to some of the old American movies, the puppet work is professional and impressive. When you’re leaving the theatre, don’t look back…a puppet may be following you.

The Way

The description for this movie reads “An Irish hit man goes vigilante when he finds out his organization is trafficking more than drugs and weapons.” How we’re supposed to get this out of this five minute movie I’m still not sure. “The Way,” directed and co-written by Jake Woodbridge, focuses on two men in separate booths with their backs to each other in a Flameburger restaurant. (And that’s another thing – since when do mobsters hang out at Flameburger? Perhaps the filmmaker was trying to be ironic.)


The short film is filled with bizarre exchanges between the two men like “You ever going to get yourself a winter jacket?” and “You ever going to shave off that piece of s*** on your lip?” I can only imagine the filmmaker has seen too many mobster movies or he was trying to craft a bizarre tribute to them. If there was nuance to be found in this I guess it was lost on me.

Mannish Boy

One of the challenges of short films is to encapsulate a story in just a few minutes. For me, “Mannish Boy,” the new 15 minute movie from Director Ryan Tonelli, falls short because it comes across as a cliché. Set in the 1970’s, it tells the story of Bobby Mayhill (Dalmar Abuzeid), who is struggling to find his way as his older brother Tommy (Kaleb Alexander) is released from a six year prison sentence. As Tommy is released, he frets about his younger brother following in his footsteps.


As Tommy’s “friend,” Jason (Ayinde Blake) defends his interactions with Bobby, he explains his view on the world they live in – “Where we come from, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Good to know these guys don’t have a chance. Much of the movie is set at night or in very dark settings, as if to highlight the choices these young men face.

One of the redeeming themes is the bond between brothers, which Alexander and Abuzeid play well. (In one scene on a basketball court, remembering that Bobby used to play, Tommy says with a rueful smile, “You nostalgic or something?”) There are a few good elements here but it seems like the characters and story deserve better.


What do you think about these short films?


TCFF 2015 Indies Reviews: Krisha & Wildlike

TCFF 2015 is now done and winners have been announced, but the coverage hasn’t quite wrapped just yet ;) Today we’ve got two indie dramas, each starring a strong female lead (always welcomed in my book) telling a compelling story. So hope you get to see them when they’re opened in your area!




It’s fitting that the Twin Cities Film Fest showed “Krisha” as we will all shortly be thrown again into the holiday season, a time of year that can be full of tumult for many people. This feature debut by Trey Edward Shults, which won the Grand Jury and Audience Award when it had its world premiere at South by Southwest last year, focuses on one woman’s attempt to overcome her troubled history and reconcile with her wary family over the Thanksgiving holiday.

While the supporting cast members have infrequent but powerful scenes, the movie really belongs to Krisha Fairchild, the silver-haired matron of addiction and dysfunction, who delivers an unflinching glimpse of someone in the throes of an emotional breakdown. Fairchild is Shults’ real life aunt and I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to film your aunt portraying a woman battling but ultimately unable to overcome her internal demons. Krisha_1There is a lot that is not explained in this movie, but the camera work helps us fill in some of the blanks – Krisha, staying at her sister’s house, is given a room at the top of the stairs where she is sometimes seen ominously glaring at the extended family downstairs. Numerous scenes of the turkey cooking seem to be a metaphor for a disaster soon to come – emotions rise as the temperature heats up, drawing us closer as everything goes to hell.Krisha_2The one quibble I have with the film is the use of strange tonal music during the first 30 minutes – perhaps it’s supposed to be a harbinger of upcoming drama, but I just found it really distracting. Ultimately though, you’re left with a mix of compassion and horror for a woman one of her relatives coldly tells her in one scene, “You are heartbreak incarnate.”




A troubled teenager named Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is sent to stay with her uncle because her mom is having some personal issues. Her uncle (Brian Geraghty) lives in Alaska, Mackenzie who’s living in Seattle did not like what she sees. There’s an uneasy feeling that Mackenzie doesn’t like being around her uncle. We later find out that her uncle has been sexuality molested her. While on a site seeing with her uncle and his friend at some park, Mackenzie decided to escape. Now lost in a city that she’s not familiar with, Mackenzie broke into a hotel room and here is where she met a hiker named Rene (Bruce Greenwood). Rene has come to Alaska to hike its wilderness and Mackenzie wants to tag along. After some arguing, the two set out in the Alaskan landscape and got to know each other.


Newcomer Purnell was quite good as the lead; she basically appeared in about 99% of the movie. She was very believable as the troubled teen that obviously has been abused throughout her young life. I’ve always been a fan of Greenwood and here he’s good very good as sort of a father figure to Mackenzie. His character also has some trouble background and he’s in Alaska to heal some wounds. Brian Geraghty was decent as the creepy uncle even though his time on the screen was pretty small.


Writer and director Frank Hall Green did a good job of setting up the mood and never try to be preachy with the story. With so many beautiful locations in the Alaskan wilderness, I was kind of disappointed that he and his cinematographer decided to shoot the movie in a gritty documentary style. But despite the gloomy look of the movie, there were still some very nice shots of the lush beauty of the Alaska’s landscapes. A movie like this tends to have an ending that would either shock you or just downright depressing, I’m glad Green didn’t go that route and even though the ending was kind of ambiguous, it was satisfying to me.

Wildlike is not a great movie but a good one that deserves to be seen mostly for the two leads’ performances and some of its beautiful scenery.

Stay tuned for Part II of the TCFF Short Films reviews & my Top 10 Favorites of this year’s film fest!

What do you think about either one of these films?


TCFF 2015: It’s a Wrap!! Reviews of ‘The 33’ & ‘Thank You For Playing’ doc, highlights and winners of Twin Cities Film Fest top awards


Woot woot!! Can’t believe the 11-day Twin Cities Film Fest has wrapped last night. I was far too beat to do any kind of blogging when I got home from the final night Mixer aka after party around Midnight. Thank goodness we’ve got an extra hour of sleep thanks to Daylight Savings Time, talk about perfect timing! :D

Well, I still have a few reviews in the pipeline that have yet to be published (a collection of short films and indie drama Krisha review will be up tomorrow). Just because the film fest is done, doesn’t mean the TCFF-related posts are over. I got to meet a few filmmakers throughout the night whom I haven’t got around to interviewing and exchanged business cards, so more filmmaker interviews are coming in the next few weeks! I’ll also be working on my Top 10 list from TCFF 2015 (some of which also won the top awards last night).

Well, TCFF ended on a high note once again. The final day started off with one of the great educational panels (a free event!) with cinematographers and DPs working in the industry, including Checco Varese who shot last night’s gala film The 33. Lots of interesting discussions about some technical stuff, and they answered my question about the whole dialog of film vs digital filmmaking.


THE 33

The last two films both deal with heart-wrenching subject matters but done in such an inspiring and uplifting way. The 33 chronicled the event that gripped the international community when 33 Chilean miners were buried under 100-year-old gold and copper mine and trapped for 69 days!

Director Patricia Riggen did a phenomenal job telling a compelling story of human resilience and the courage of both the miners and their families above ground who refused to give up. Great ensemble cast featuring Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne and Lou Diamond Philips. It was exquisitely shot by Checco Varese, which was shot on location in two different mines in Bolivia, Colombia. It certainly looked authentic as the environment of the set made the actors felt as if they were real miners for a while. In fact, the 33 miners were consulted for the film and the final shots showed the real miners who are still as close as brothers to this day. There were moments that might’ve felt too ‘Hollywoodized’ but overall the film didn’t feel emotionally manipulated. The genuinely stirring score came from the late James Horner, which the film paid tribute in the end.


During the Q&A afterwards, Mr. Varese shared that the mountain would shift during filming inside the mine, just like in the film! He also shared that he’s actually married to the director. What a team, hope they’ll collaborate on a film again in the future!

Thank You For Playing documentary

ThankYouForPlayingPosterRemember I said this year the film fest opened AND ended with a documentary? Well it couldn’t have ended on a better film than Thank You For Playing. The synopsis alone should tell you it’ll be a tear-jerker, but it’s not a sad story, in fact it’s an uplifting one that should inspire everyone going through a tough time in their lives. Critics have called this film one of the most important film about video game ever made and it certainly lived up to that.

The story chronicled the Green family, as Ryan and Amy deal with their son Joel who’s diagnosed with a terminal cancer. When Joel was one year old, he was told he only had a few months to live but he ended up living for another three years. Ryan is a video game designer and he embarked on creating a most unusual and poetic video game to honor Joel’s life. He captured the motion and voice of his son, including his infectious laughter, in the game and took us through the heart-rending journey in making that game. Most video games deal with a lot of deaths, that is people getting shot or chopped to pieces violently. But never has a game dealt with death the way That Dragon Cancer game does it, tackling the issue of death head on in such a personal, affecting and encouraging way. Its website called it A Journey Of Hope In The Shadow Of Death and that could’ve easily been the tagline for this doc as well.


I LOVE that their Christian faith is ever present in the documentary (as well as in the game itself), as they continue to be thankful to God despite their difficult situation. It also showed the church community coming alongside them and helped them through it all, as Amy Green later shared during the Q&A was a huge part of their lives. It certainly altered my feelings about video games, which I tend to see in a negative light given my late brother’s addiction to it. But every form of art can be used for bad or good and in this case, the Green family gave a moving testimony of the empathetic power of the art of video game and how they process their grief through technology. Kudos to filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall for crafting such a beautiful and reflective film honoring the memory of Joel Green. It deservedly won Best Documentary at TCFF last night (see more winners below).

P.S. Stay tuned for my interview with filmmaker David Osit in the next few weeks!

TCFF Favorite Moments in pictures…

“Room,” “Brooklyn” and “Too Late” Win Top Awards at 2015 Twin Cities Film Fest

Post by TCFF executive director Jatin Setia

Concluding a star-studded showcase that featured more than 100 films over 11 nights, the largest-ever Twin Cities Film Fest unveiled its 2015 award winners Saturday night at a ceremony held in downtown St. Louis Park.

Top awards went to the critically-acclaimed mother-son drama Room, which just last month earned standing ovations at the Toronto International Film Festival, Brooklyn, the sweeping, much buzzed-about period immigrant drama starring Saoirse Ronan, and Too Late, the daring independent noir thriller starring Minnesota native John Hawkes who appeared in person to receive the festival’s Northstar Award.

“You look at daring stories like Room and these are the kinds of journeys and characters that stick with you for a lifetime,” said Twin Cities Film Fest Executive Director Jatin Setia. “Leaps of faith like that are why film festivals are so essential – the chance to discover great films before the rest of the world sees them, the chance to champion independent projects that deserve extra attention and the chance to talk about the art and the craft with the very artists who are making the next great movie.”

Awards were handed out in nine categories Saturday night. Each category also officially recognized three standout honorable mentions. “Room,” directed by Lenny Abrahamson, took home the trophy for best feature film; Thank You For Playing, the festival’s official closing night documentary directed by David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, won best documentary; and Skunk, a short film by Annie Silverstein, won the 2015 award for best short.

Minnesota audiences who attended the festival were invited to cast ballots for the 2015 audience award. John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” took home the feature film trophy (honorable mentions included : “The Dust Storm,” directed by Ryan Lacen & Anthony Baldino; “The Polar Bear Club,” directed by Brett Wayne Price; and “Shut In,” directed by Adam Schindler). Sarah Smith’s “D.Asian” took the top audience prize for short films (honorable mentions included Adam Burke’s “Boardroom,” Matthew G. Anderson’s “The Caper” and Bruce Southerland’s “The Last Vanish”)

“This year’s ballots were noteworthy, because they recognized projects both big and small, and celebrated such a wide and eclectic range of tones and topics,” said Steve Snyder, the festival’s artistic director. “I think the diversity of the voting this year reflected the wider diversity of the Twin Cities filmgoing —and filmmaking — communities. And maybe in that regard it shouldn’t be surprising at all. Year in and year out, we hear from filmmakers and studios alike that it’s the sophistication of Minnesota movie audiences that make them want to debut and premiere here. We know good movies when we see them, we know how to celebrate art that deserves recognition, and I think filmmakers across the country know that.”

As always, the festival culminated with two “Indie Vision” awards, recognizing standout independent productions released over the last year that broke new creative ground. The 2015 Indie Vision Breakthrough Film Award went to the Dennis Hauck thriller Too Late, in recognition of its immersive storytelling techniques. (The film was composed of five unbroken and carefully choreographed 20-minute “acts”) The 2015 Indie Vision Breakthrough Performance Award went to Rosa Salazar, actress in the notable Charles Hood’s romance Night Owls, in recognition of a raw, brilliant and pitch-perfect character arc and a performance that required hitting notes across the emotional spectrum.

Here’s the full slate of 2015 award winners, as well as honorable mentions:

Best Feature Film

“Room,” directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

Honorable Mentions:
“It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” directed by Emily Ting; “Brooklyn,” directed by John Crowley; and “The Quiet Hour,” directed by Stephanie Joalland.

Best Documentary

“Thank You For Playing,” directed by David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall.

Honorable Mentions:
“Man Vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir; “A New High,” directed by Samuel Miron and Stephen Scott Scarpulla; and “Out in the Cold,” directed by J.D. O’Brien.

Best Short Film

“Skunk,” directed by Annie Silverstein.

Honorable Mentions:
“D.Asian,” directed by Sarah Smith; “Even the Walls,” directed by Sarah Kuck and Saman Maydani; and “Myrna the Monster,” directed by Ian Samuels.

Audience Award, Feature Film

“Brooklyn,” directed by John Crowley.

Honorable Mentions:
“The Dust Storm,” directed by Ryan Lacen & Anthony Baldino; “The Polar Bear Club,” directed by Brett Wayne Price; “Shut In,” directed by Adam Schindler.

Audience Award, Short Film

“D.Asian,” directed by Sarah Smith.

Honorable Mentions:
“Boardroom,” directed by Adam Burke; “The Caper,” directed by Matthew G. Anderson; and “The Last Vanish,” directed by Bruce Southerland

Indie Vision, Breakthrough Film

Winner: “Too Late,” directed by Dennis Hauck.

Honorable Mentions:
“Anomalisa,” directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman; “Thugs: The Musical,” directed by Greg Bro; and “Out in the Cold,” directed by J.D. O’Brien

Indie Vision, Breakthrough Performance

Winner: Rosa Salazar, “Night Owls.”

Honorable Mentions:
Brie Larson, “Room;” Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn;” Nathan Tymoshuk, “Snail Mail” and “The Writer.”

2015 Changemaker Award:

Dr. Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink.

2015 Northstar Award for Excellence:

John Hawkes.


Shout out to all TCFF volunteers for making the film fest possible! THANK YOU to all who’ve volunteered this year, you all rock!!

Well that’s my recap of 2015 Twin Cities film fest. Hope you enjoyed the coverage so far, stay tuned for some additional reviews and more filmmaker interviews!

Spotlight on indie horror ‘In the Dark’ + interview with director David Spaltro


A skeptical grad student and a paranormal specialist investigate a potentially haunted home and the troubled woman inside whose affliction may be beyond the capacity of either of them to diagnosis.

In The Dark was an attempted shot of energy and breath of fresh air in a popular, but overcrowded genre marketplace, combining both the appeal of the thrills and chills that is a staple of the horror genre, as well as a strong, original story, headed by a female cast of some of NYC’s most talented actresses. A lovingly bloody valentine to the inspirational works of Stephen King, John Carpenter, and 1973’s The Exorcist; the film’s strikingly haunting visual images from cinematographer Gus Sacks is complemented by over 50 minutes of original music by award winning composer Fritz Myers of Platitude Music (IFC’s “White Reindeer”, “Sushi Girl”, Best Soundtrack, 2012’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival).


Most FC readers know I don’t watch horror films, but here are some excerpts of reviews of In The Dark:

“Right from the opening scene that will chill you to your core, ‘…In the Dark’ is a deft use of suspense and darkness… it successfully dissolves any comparisons to The Exorcist and becomes something original… compelling performances and a story that really hooks!” – Ain’t It Cool News

“Nightmarish and filled with an atmosphere of dread… a movie that boasts a good story and strong cast.” – TwitchFilm

“…the all-female lead cast is phenomenal, and it’s great to see ladies in a horror movie not used as sex bait or the tired Final Girl trope.” – Horror Film Central

“***…stands tall above other indie horrors of its ilk, largely due to Spaltro’s background in dramatic storytelling…rare to see cinematography of this standard in a low-budget horror… A chilling movie.” – Flickering Myth

Check out the trailer:


I had met writer/director David Spaltro three years ago when he had his Midwest premier of his drama Things I Don’t Understand at TCFF. So it’s nice to see him return to Minnesota and premiere his new film, this time a psychological horror In the Dark. I love that David’s films are always filled with intriguing female characters, and this new one actually has a mostly female ensemble! So check out my Q&A with David about making the film, the casting process and some of the horror/thriller filmmakers who’ve inspired him.


Q: This is your first foray into writing and directing a horror feature, what makes you decide to tackle this genre?

A: It was sort of just fortuitous timing, really. I had been in development on a third feature film Wake Up in New York, and slated to go into production in Spring 2014, but that Winter hit a financing snag that sort of put the breaks on it at the time. I was a little burned out after all that work, and not sure if I should take a break and go back to trying to get that back up again, or look at a different project, when I was contacted to meet with an investor who wanted to make their own feature, a horror film, and needed a script. I took the meeting, thinking it was just to write a film, and ended up being offered the reigns to direct it as well, after pitching a few story ideas and what was possible.

It was a mad dash to complete the script, but literally 14 months after that meeting, I was able to hand the investor a completely finished horror feature. I had no real intentions of delving into the genre, at least at that point, but I was starving creatively to try something different, and saw it as a good chance to grow and learn as a storyteller, and add something different to the character drama/comedies I was known for, while hopefully still retaining my particular voice. It was a unique, very rare instance where someone says they have a particular budget, offering a writer-director the freedom to play with that canvas, as long as it’s within the confines clearly of a horror genre film and something they can use commercially.


Q: What’s the inspiration behind the story of possession? Is ‘In The Dark’ more of a slasher or body horror flick or more of a psychological thriller?

I wasn’t sure what I was going to tackle with the genre, and what i found after researching a lot of my favorite horror in literature and films, was the ones that really, REALLY worked had at the center a core story or dramatic artic with fleshed out characters you cared for, and then the genre tropes were used to heighten that story and tell it better. I came across a really strange medical paper written by a psychologist that was very bland and technical in it’s structure and the way it described the maladies, the way you would read in a medical encylopedia or about any rare disease… this one just happened to be about demnonic possession. I found that odd mix of real science and things beyond science to be really interesting and kind of used that as the seed moving forward, and of course wanting to tell a story with strong female leads.


David directing Lynn Justinger & Fiona Horrigan

Q: The film deals with the issue of mental illness, how did the research process go before you start writing the script?

I used my own personal experiences with people through my life, and definitely read some articles and books. I feel like whether it’s mental illness or (if you believe) in true demonic possession, there’s something really terrifying to us about being alive and being out of control of ourselves, body and soul. I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with that, and also be the people in the world of someone dealing with that. More than any ghost, monster, or slasher the loss of self and shattering is something pretty terrifying to me.


Q: What made you decide to have a female ensemble cast for your first horror feature? Would you elaborate about the casting process? 

I had pretty much written for the role for all four leads in the film. Grace Folsom, of course, is just phenomenal. She’s my favorite actress i’ve worked with in how she just gets my material and the way she powerfully elevates everything and everyone in a scene with her. She’s a gift. Lynn Justinger I met and worked with briefly on “Things I Don’t Understand” and have been dying to collaborate with–we’re still developing a few projects together, and this seemed like a great chance to work with her and also do something so completely different then she was used to, and she just crushed it. We recently screened in her hometown in Buffalo and picked up the audience award.


Grace Folsom + Lynn Justinger

Fiona Horrigan and Catherine Cobb Ryan I met in two separate workshops, and was bowled over by their work and also their desire to work with me, so it gave me a great chance to work with four strong ladies of different ages and backgrounds. That’s osmething that I think will always be important to me—not that every project and every character will have to be female moving forward, but making sure whatever the story and arc, the female characters are well rounded and fleshed out and serve the story. No eye candy or explotiation allowed.


Q: Lastly, what’s been some horror filmmakers and horror/thriller films that’s inspired you?

I was a really big fan of “It Follows” by David Robert Mitchell and “Babadook” by Jennifer Kent that kind of gave me the confidence to go in the slow burn true horror style.I sort of rekindled my love for the horror genre, and definitely dove into a lot of old favourites, as well as viewing a lot of films from different periods and international locations. The ones that always stuck out for me, and that I most drew from were the early films of George Romero, Wes Craven, and of course John Carpenter who’s really sort of the spiritual Godfather of this film. A personal favourite of mine that I think is most an inspiration from his catalog was Prince of Darkness which is really about science confronting faith and superstition with just a lot of dread and character work. It’s really surreal, too. Also, the works of Stephen King and how a lot of his stories don’t even become horrific until about 1/3 of the way in, he very slowly draws you into a very enjoyable story with rich characters that you care about, and then when he starts unleashing Hell and darkness on them and the reader, you’re just terrified and disturbed because you totally forgot what you were getting into.


I wanted that same kind of mood, atmosphere, and dread in the film. Also early seasons of the X-Files, their camerawork and mood, was something I wanted to reference. In a lot of ways, Lynn is my Scully and this is my attempt at an X-Files episode. Of course, everything lives in the shadow of The Exorcist, so I tried to steer away from too much in that realm, as anything that comes after is just some form of knockoff. It’s untouchable in its ability to not just generate fear, but emotion from an audience. You’re exhausted and moved after watching it, even today.

Glad seeing you again David, and nice meeting you
Kayla & Fiona!


What are your thoughts of In The Dark? 

TCFF 2015 Indies Reviews: Touched With Fire + All the Time in the World + Band of Robbers

With just one day left in Twin Cities Film Fest, and I’m still playing catch up on reviewing the films I’ve seen so far! There’s still a few reviews I haven’t got around to, believe it or not. But I think I’ve done double the amount of posts I had last year, and definitely the most in my six years covering TCFF!


Touched With Fire


This film seems to be made as a love letter to the artists and creative people with bipolar disorder. The opening scenes introduced us to Carla and Marco in their manic state and how they ended up in the psychiatric hospital. Though they didn’t get off on the right foot initially, the two ended up bonding over a series of sleepless nights, and it’s inevitable they fall in love.

Touched With Fire is based on a book by clinical psychologist Kay Redfield JamisonTouched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which is her exploration of how bipolar disorder can run in artistic or high-achieving families. Jamison herself suffered from bipolar and was put into lithium medication. She had a cameo in the film sharing about her illness to the characters.

The film follow the journey of the two protagonists in the hospital, being separated by force and transitioning into living in the outside world. Naturally, their families have objections about the two starting a relationship, let alone living together. They think they’re a bad influence to each other, especially since one of them refuse to take their medication. I think it’s a moving portrait of a love story between two people suffering from manic depressive illness. The film is beautifully-shot and peppered with humor throughout. Kudos to writer/director Paul Dalio that depite the subject matter, the film never descend into sullen or depressing territory. Ultimately the two have to choose between sanity and love, and the bittersweet finale that tugs my heartstrings.


I have to admit I didn’t think of Katie Holmes when I saw the role of Carla, but to her credit she did a terrific job in the role. I was equally impressed with Luke Kirby as I don’t remember seeing him in anything before. The two didn’t have the strongest chemistry together, but the direction somehow made it work to sell that they share such extreme passion. I also think the actors portray their characters’ bipolar condition with such sensitivity and credibility.

There are some slow moments and perhaps the film could’ve been tightly edited, but overall it’s wonderfully-acted and the script is quite engaging. This is another compelling directorial debut from Paul Dalio. Fans of many artists that the film is dedicated to, especially Vincent Van Gogh, will especially appreciate this film. I was surprised how many famous artists are listed before the end credits.


All the Time in the World


All the Time in the World,” having its world premiere at the Twin Cities Film Fest, is a locally-produced film. One of the goals of this film festival is to give local artists a voice. In that vein, this film succeeds. Unfortunately, as a movie it does not. Produced at Crown College in St. Bonifacius, it was written and directed by Nickolaus Swedlund and stars Drew Zoromski as Drew and Katie Thies as Katie. Perhaps the lack of creativity with the character’s names should have been my first clue.
The movie focuses on Drew, a college senior lost after a serious knee injury ends his football career followed closely by his girlfriend breaking up with him. (“Well, that’s cold,” I remember thinking about the girlfriend.) It starts slowly with endless scenes of Drew and Katie studying in the library and walking through fields having inane conversations. (“I don’t even like good macaroni and cheese…” is one of the most, or should I say, least memorable lines.)
And then it gets even slower, showing Drew and his buddies hanging out and driving around. “I hear you talking but it’s just…noise,” Drew says at one point to his friends. Well said, Drew. I think most people can remember being in college and having that giant question hanging over them. (“Do something with your life,” one of Drew’s professors implores.)
I get that college is often more abstract in the academic world, and in that way this movie works. But for the most part, people’s everyday lives just aren’t that interesting.  Zoromski does an admirable job with what he has to work with in this film and he definitely gets a lot of experience giving the camera long, pensive looks. In the director’s notes Swedlund writes that “film is also about the process not the product.” Gosh I hope so.


Band of Robbers


Band of Robbers promises to give moviegoers a chance to hang out with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as adults. Will it be a show like “Wicked,” which adds a surprising layer of depth to an already well-known story and provides a fresh take on a classic tale, or will it ruin some of Mark Twain’s most iconic literary characters? I’m happy to say the film that recently had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival is definitely the former.

This absurdly funny crime caper stars Kyle Gallner as Huck Finn and Adam Nee as Tom Sawyer and was written and directed by brothers Aaron and Adam Nee. We pick up the story with the characters on opposite sides of the law: Huck Finn has recently been released from prison, while Tom Sawyer is on the police force…but now that Huck is free, Tom hatches a new plan for mayhem and mischief involving a hidden treasure.

The story is well-written, with numerous plot twists to keep the audience guessing, and the pacing of the film is superb – during the 95-minute film I never felt as though the plot was dragging. Fans of the books will also appreciate some of the subtle references – for example, in one scene Huck is laying on the grass smoking what looks like a corn cob pipe.


But what really makes this movie shine is the deadpan delivery of the film’s shenanigans – Adam Nee is so mischievously endearing as Tom Sawyer you can’t help but root for him – and it makes me wonder if the Nee brothers watched a lot of the “Naked Gun” movies growing up. One thing to note about “Band of Robbers” though is that it is not a movie for kids as there is a fair amount of violence and foul language. As Tom Sawyer says in the middle of the movie, “This is typical classic pirate bull****.”


Here’s what’s coming up on the final day of TCFF! 

What do you think about either one of these films?


TCFF 2015: Review of ‘The Adderall Diaries’ + interview with writer/director Pamela Romanowsky


It’s safe to assume that James Franco loves literary adaptations. The Adderall Diaries is based on a memoir of the same name by Stephen Elliot. Franco played Stephen, a writer who seems to be at the height of his career. His agent constantly calls him about various book deals and options. There’s even a new romance in the air, as he met a pretty reporter from the Times (Amber Heard) during a high-profile murder trial. Yet he’s still haunted by the ghost of his traumatic past, especially his *monster* dad who through a series of flashbacks seems like a beligerent and abusive father Neil who made his childhood a living hell. During a reading of his memoir, Neil suddenly turned up and confronted his son just as Stephen was reading from his memoir that he was deceased.


Needless to say, Stephen’s life went on a downward spiral as the book deals quickly dried up. He descended into self-destructive behavior with substance abuse (with Adderall tablets being his drug of choice) and BDSM sessions with prostitutes, all the while his daddy-issues overwhelmed him to the point that he alieniated everyone close to him. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction in a blur of drug-induced haze Stephen constantly puts himself under. Therein lies the crux of the story: what is really fact and what is a product of his imagination? The film asks the question of what it means to tell the truth, and how we often choose to see things our own way. In the case of Stephen, all his life he incessantly sees himself as the *victim.*


There are a lot going on in this film, but the father/son relationship is central to the story. There’s a facet of crime drama in the murder trial subplot, but it’s always seen through Stephen’s eyes and how those events bring out elements from his own past. I don’t always get what is going on in a particular scene, but the film’s pace and script remains engaging and some of the cryptic moments intrigue instead of frustrate me. Perhaps the fact that writer/diretor Pamela Romanowsky studied behavioral psychology at Macalester College in MN made her the right person to adapt this book.

The performances are ace all around. James Franco delivered a convincing performance as someone who’s totally lost and full of anger. Stephen isn’t exactly a likable character, yet there’s a layered vulnerability and real angst that made me sympathize with him. The always reliable Ed Harris is phenomenal here as Stephen’s estranged dad, the scenes between the two of them are the most intense and emotional parts of the film. The rest of the supporting cast, Amber Heard, Cynthia Nixon, Jim Parrack and Christian Slater are solid as well.


This is a confident directorial debut from Romanowsky. There are quite a few flashback scenes in the film and at times they serve as scenes from the character’s memories. So it’s crucial that the transition isn’t jarring or become too hard to follow. I never felt lost watching the story and that’s a testament to a deft direction. Not only did the story translate well cinematically, she also brought out excellent performances from her actors.

I’m thrilled that Pamela’s next project will be writing and directing Chuck Palahniuk‘s novel Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey. Based on this article, the novel is set in a dystopian future and involves people competing in a secret game of demolition derby, all while the world becomes an even worse place as time passes. James Franco is set to play the title role once again, it definitely sounds intriguing and I can’t wait to see what Pamela will do with that project.

TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/29/2015  (7:10 PM)
10/31/2015  (3:00 PM)

I had the privilege of chatting with director Pamela Romanowsky about making the film, working with James Franco & Ed Harris, and the challenges being a female filmmaker in Hollywood.


Q: How did you come on board this project?

I read The Adderall Diaries for the first time as a casual reader. It was in the window at my neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn (which is where James signs books in the opening scene of the film), and I finished it in a couple days. It really stuck with me, in particular his insights and admissions about how we edit our memories to fit a personal narrative. Some months later in Detroit, James and I were working together on The Color of Time, a multi-director adaptation of CK Williams’ brilliant poetry collection TAR. My vignette is an adaptation of the poem “Tar” and it’s also about how memory affects our experience of the present. James asked me if I would be interested in adapting a book he’d optioned called The Adderall Diaries. Of course I jumped at the opportunity.

Q: What was the challenges of adapting a novel/memoir into a screenplay?

AdderallDiaries_novelIt’s a different set of challenges for each project. In this case, it was figuring out how to translate the book’s foundational themes and ideas into cinematic language. The form and style of the book is very different from a movie- It’s about moments and impressions more than it is a traditional story with a plot and character arcs. The quote that opens the movie is one I had pinned up on my writing board, which I think is the beating heart and central idea of the book.

Stephen says, “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories. Re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” I’m deeply moved by that thought, both the truthfulness of it and his willingness to expose it in himself. We all know memory is an emotionally charged and unreliable thing, and that’s easy to point out as a concept, even easier to point out in another person who has a different version of our story, but few of us have the balls to point to it in ourselves.

The central conflict in the movie is that Stephen and his father Neil have organized the facts of what happened between them into very different stories. Each man has cast himself as the victim, and so he needs the other to admit some culpability so he can be right. In the movie, it takes all these other satellite characters orbiting Stephen (his girlfriend, his best friend, his muse and his editor) to get into conflict with him at the same time, before it finally clicks that if everyone edits their memory to validate an emotional position, he’s doing it, too.

It took me two years to get from first draft to the first day on set, and I was re-writing the whole way. The biggest leaps and best insights came out of the work I did with the Sundance Institute, where I was a fellow at the screenwriting, directing and sound/music labs. My experiences there changed not only how I approached this project, but how I approach my job and my voice as a writer and director in general. Michelle Satter, founding director of the feature film program, and Robert Redford, who needs no introduction, were two of my most helpful and primary advocates throughout, reading scripts, watching cuts, and opening doors.

Q: Which do you enjoy most, writing or directing?

Directing. I didn’t know what the job meant until I was in it, and I feel really lucky to have stumbled upon my dream job. It’s the intersection of all of my interests, joys and skills, and it’s never ever the same thing twice. It keeps me constantly on my toes and learning, working with brilliant people. It’s about adjusting, trying to zero in on the thing you want from different approaches (I always think of a GPS saying “re-calculating” over and over again). I love the great leap of faith into intimacy everyone has to take, especially between actors and directors. You expose a lot of yourself working scenes out, whether you talk about it overtly or not. How do you lie? How do you flirt or chase respect? How do you experience regret or sex or losing your temper or ignoring the elephant in the room? It’s all in there, and you get to know and respect each other in really deep ways.

There’s deep beauty and satisfaction in writing, too, but for me it’s much less pleasurable than directing.


Q: You had worked with James Franco before when you did ‘The Color of Time’ while at NYU. How did the rest of the cast come on board this project?

I met James in grad school at NYU where we both did the MFA film program. He’s always felt like a kindred spirit and we became friends right away, but we hadn’t worked together until The Color of Time. We got to bond in a deeper way as collaborators on that film and even more so on Adderall, and he’s become one of my closest and most treasured friends. He’s magnetic and inspiring, and works harder and more passionately than anyone.

Ed Harris was my mentor at the Sundance Director’s lab, which felt like some kind of crazy hand-of-god fate, because I’d written the part for him without ever knowing I’d get the chance to meet him or tell him so. He was advising me the day I shot the workshop version of Stephen and Neil’s climactic scene (with the fantastic actors Luke Kirby and Dennis Boutsikaris), and at one point Ed asked if he could jump in to offer a suggestion. He hugged Luke and then tossed him over the hood of a car, and I just stood there breathlessly, seeing the character I’d imagined for so long come vividly to life. Ed is electric and that’s so exciting to be around.

Jim Parrack (Roger) is one of James’ oldest friends in real life. Their rapport, in all its competitive, loving, intense glory, is very real. My favorite scene to shoot with them was the boxing scene, because they’re trained boxers and they both learned with the great Macka Foley, who was on set, too. That day was all-in and so intense.

Amber Heard (Lana), Christian Slater (Hans), Cynthia Nixon (Jen) and Timothee Chalamet (Teenage Stephen) all came through my friend Danie Streisand, a phenomenal talent agent who I call the secret casting director of this movie. She cared about and got the project like nobody else, and with each of those actors, it was the most obvious match in the world from the moment I got to meet with them. Each actor brings something different to set, and it’s fascinating to watch how those energies intersect and change each other.


Q: Tell me what it’s like working with Franco and Ed Harris, both of whom are committed and versatile actors working today.

Joan Darling, my acting teacher at the Sundance labs, says that a great actor is like a high speed train- even the smallest adjustment at the beginning of a scene will take you in a very different direction by the end. James and Ed are certainly high-speed trains, and it was an absolute honor and joy to work with them. They’re game to experiment, they commit entirely, they’re emotionally rigorous and they’re fiercely allergic to bullshit. Watching how they communicated and reacted to each other within the scenes was stunning. It’s worth noting that Ed and James are both directors as well- They’re smart and generous people by nature, but I think they were particularly attuned to and patient with what I needed technically and camera-wise because they’re clocking my coverage and know to advocate for that last setup we don’t really have time for but will need in the editing room. And they’re both veterans. What they’ve seen on set and in the industry, as actors and directors, is precious insight for a young director to have.

Q: Given that the gender disparity in Hollywood is such a hot topic these days, would you comment a bit about your own experience as a female filmmaker working on your feature debut?

I’m glad that gender disparity in Hollywood is a hot topic. It should be. Four percent of the top one hundred box office films are directed by women. FOUR. Many years, that number has been lower, and the numbers are similar for people of color and other minorities. How can an industry that represents and creates culture not be affected and made toxic by that obvious, shameful degree of discrimination?

The thing is, the difference between my experience as a first time indie filmmaker and a women embarking on a career in Hollywood will be very different. I’m here talking to you, so obviously I’m one of the women who made a debut feature. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but not because I’m a woman. I had the support and respect of everyone I worked with.

After this, my experience will likely change. Women who make good indie first features don’t get asked to make big studio movies like Spiderman or Jurassic Park. But men do get to take that massive leap. The same number of women and men attend prestigious film schools and write good, vetted screenplays. The first hurdle comes with financing and thus making that first feature. Only 25% of American directors at Sundance are women, skewed heavily toward documentaries. But 25% is a hell of a lot more than 4%. The real obstacle for female directors isn’t making the first indie feature, it’s the opportunity to launch from there into Hollywood. And that’s a very old and carefully guarded obstacle to move. I’m still gonna do my damndest to get there, obviously.

I’m one of the Sundance Institute’s Female Filmmaker Initiative fellows this year, and I’m eager to point to Sundance’s rigorous research and their initiatives for change, because it provides a much clearer and more detailed picture than I can. 

Thanks again Pamela for chatting w/ me last night
prior to the screening. Totally made my day!


What are your thoughts of The Adderall Diaries? 

TCFF 2015 Short Film Reviews Part I – ‘Land Of 10,000 Stories’ Shorts Block + Documentary Short ‘Even The Walls’


Great things do come in small packages! Every year Twin Cities Film Fest screens a plethora of great short films, grouped together in a themed shorts block. Today, we have some of the film reviews from the Land of 10,000 Stories shorts block, and one documentary short Even the Walls that is part of this year’s social cause of homelessness. Thanks Sarah J. for these reviews!


These are all part of the
Land Of 10,000 Stories Shorts Block

Between Friends 


After watching The Detectives of Noir Town and remarking how some things are just funny when puppets are involved, I decided I was sensing a theme for this year’s Twin Cities Film Fest. Between Friends, the short film created by members of the St. Cloud State University community and written and directed by John Scott, the executive director of the St. Cloud Film Fest, was shot entirely in Minnesota. As if to prove their connection to the north star state, the film’s stars are Linda Gustafson (Ida), Gunther Gullickson (Edwin) and Darlene Johnson (Rose). I am not making this up.

Gustafson and Johnson star as two elderly tenants of a run down apartment building constantly harassed by their landlord. “He is such a bully!” one of them exclaims early in the 11 minute movie. Will they take matter into their own hands? Watching two old ladies hatching a plot to kill will bring a smile to your face, whether you live in Minnesota or not. “Oh, think of the mess…” says one of them when they consider getting a gun. “Hmm, and I’ve seen enough ‘Matlock’ to know they can trace poison…” Like The Detectives of Noir Town, there is just something humorous and endearing when it comes out of the mouths of women with ‘Fargo’ accents that could be your grandmother.

The Whitefish Yacht Club


Yes, it’s silly. But it should play well in Minnesota – what would you do if you found a severed foot on your boat? “The Whitefish Yacht Club,” a new short film directed by John Gigrich, stars Alyssa Rae (Kelly Whitefish) and Carley Johnson (Britney Whitefish) as the Whitefish sisters, Bryan Porter (the aptly named Derik Plem – you’ll find out why during the show) as the hapless dock boy and Sondra Glynn (Ella Beauguns) as the friend with a plan.

Although the script can be overly dramatic (at one point, a wide eyed Britney turns to Kelly and remarks that “If any of our enemies find out about this they will surely destroy us all!”) it’s clear the actors had fun making this six-minute ode to one of Minnesota’s favorite pastimes. I did chuckle at a couple of the references – about half way through Derik shouts, “You go get us some Guggenheim scissors!” What the heck are Guggenheim scissors? But maybe a more important question is, does it matter? If the actors and creator set out to take the audience on a quick trip through a zany story they succeeded.

Snail Mail


Who gets a personal letter from someone overseas? Yeah, me neither. “Snail Mail,” the delightful, albeit, very short film from Director/Writer Josh Mruz, highlights one guy’s wait for a letter from a girl he met on a train.

The few scenes are well done – in one, Jordan (Nathan Tymoshuk), fills up his garbage can with paper trying to find the perfect words to respond to a letter from England. In another, junk mail flies as he searches for that one piece of real mail. Twin Cities audiences will also appreciate the panoramas of the metro area as he waits for a reply.



First things first – Ostara is the Wiccan spring equinox celebration. It’s a fitting title for the new short film by Director/Writer Katherine Gorringe, a St. Paul native and recent graduate of Stanford University’s documentary film MFA program. In “Ostara,” we meet Jan, who is having a rebirth of sorts as she is released from prison after 20 years and strives to reconnect with her adult daughter. She also struggles with carrying on her spiritual traditions after being separated from fellow Wiccans – “The first thing we did coming together was asking for positive energy and grabbed hands. It gave me strength,” she shares.

This 11-minute film works because it provides us with just a glimpse into her life at a moment in time, while being sprinkled with facts to help you understand her background. (Jan was in prison after killing her abusive partner and states that 98% of the women in jail with her were molested, raped or in domestic violence situations.) It ends with you wanting to check in with her in a year or so and find out how it is going, which is always a good sign for a moviegoer.

Even The Walls

What makes a neighborhood? Even the Walls, a short documentary written and directed by Sarah Kuck and Saman Maydani, features residents of Yesler Terrace, a public housing neighborhood in Seattle, as its residents grapple with the oncoming forces of gentrification. With a bevy of financial resources flowing into this Pacific Northwest city, the area is in the eye of the bulldozer to become a mixed income development with 5,000 residences, a million square feet of technical and medical space and 16 acres of open space.

The filmmakers do a good job in taking a global issue and making it local – throughout the film you meet residents who have lived at Yesler Terrace for more than 50 years. They explore the idea of recognizing what a community creates even if it has no market value. At 27 minutes, it’s somewhat longer than other short films at the Twin Cities Film Fest, but shorter than a feature film. There were points where residents were shown doing mundane tasks that caused the story to drag. (In one scene, filmmakers show someone brushing their hair for what felt like an eternity. Yes, people brush their hair at their house…I get it.)


Before the world premiere in Seattle earlier this year, Kuck said, “Many people feel gentrification is for the best, and have a difficult time connecting emotionally with why being financially forced to move would be difficult. We see this film as a tool for building empathy.” In that, they have succeeded.


Here’s what’s coming up next on TCFF! 

What do you think about either one of these short films?


Spotlight on indie drama A Year & Change + interview with director Stephen Suettinger


I always love stories of redemption and I think a smaller film can often tell such stories in a more sincere, heartfelt way. A Year and Change is a slice-of-life film of a divorcee named Owen who after a failed marriage is a bit lost and drifting aimlessly through life. After falling off the roof at a New Year’s Eve house party, Owen decides that it’s time to make some wholesale changes in his life. In the course of one year, he tries to regain control of his life and in the process he finds new love again. Romance is a big part of the film but it’s not everything this film is about, it’s more about a man’s journey of overcoming the hurdles in his life that keeps him from making the most of his life.

I’ve never seen any film of Bryan Greenberg before and suddenly I saw two of his films where he played the lead. He’s definitely got the gentle charisma as a leading man, but I love the authentic way he portrays the role of Owen. A lot of actors might have the charisma, but not necessarily the sincere vulnerability that make a certain character sympathetic and relatable. The bittersweet romantic drama is a solid directorial debut from Stephen Suettinger. I like how he tells Owen’s story in an understated way and nary of grating over-sentimentality.  The film also deals with dark subjects but without resorting to being overly gloom and doom.


The film has a terrific supporting cast: Claire Van Der Boom, T.R. Knight, Jamie Chung, Jamie Hector and Marshall Allman. Interesting that he’s shared some scenes with Jamie again whom he co-starred in It’s Another Tomorrow in Hong Kong. The script is engaging and the pacing is just right, plus it’s got a pretty cool soundtrack that fits the tone and mood of the story.

I’m glad to hear that the public will be able to see this soon! Vision Films will release the film across North America on DVD and VOD this Thanksgiving November 24th 2015.

Check out the trailer:


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/27/2015 (8:15 PM)

I had the privilege of chatting with director Stephen Suettinger about making the film, so thanks so much Steve for the wonderful and entertaining insights!


Q. How did you come to collaborate with Emily Ting? Did you work together before this project?

A couple of years ago, Emily produced one of Jim Beggarly’s scripts called ‘The Kitchen’ which also happened to star Bryan Greenberg. So when Bryan attached to AYAC, I went straight to Emily to see if she’d be interested in coming on board to produce. Thankfully she joined the project or else we may never have gotten the movie made!

Q. I’m always interested in films about second chances in life or starting over, how did you and/or Jim Beggarly come up with the story? I think this is the first time I come across a film with a vending machine owner as the protagonist.

Jim sent me the original script back in 2006. Yes, it took 9 years (!) to finally get it to the screen. To put that in perspective, I’ve had 4 kids since I first read the original draft of Jim’s script which used to be called ‘Dear Jen.’ After reading it back then, I fell in love with the characters. They reminded me of people I knew growing up in Maryland (Jim also grew up here). I was a big fan of Owen being a vending machine owner because there’s this natural paradox of him being in a position to help people (even if just to satisfy their hunger) and yet it’s this very solitary kind of job. He’s often alone, even within a crowd of people.


Bryan with T.R. Knight

I knew I loved the characters, but I didn’t find my way ‘in’ to the story until after my Mom passed away in 2011. They say that when a parent dies, you take one step into the grave with them. Luckily I have a supportive family that made sure that I didn’t spiral into depression. AYAC’s lead character Owen, I realized, didn’t have that kind of support system. So after the many tragedies that he’s lived through (the loss of his parents, the dissolution of his marriage), he’s just kind of ‘stuck’. It became clear to me that AYAC should be a story about Owen surrounding himself with a surrogate family. So that’s the direction that we ultimately took with the story.

Q. You’ve worked as an AD as well as in Special Effects (for Avatar, wow!!), how did you get into the film industry?

My first job in the industry was as an Editor’s PA on the movie ‘Contact.’ I helped set up the editing bays and a screening room in Washington DC when the crew came here to shoot on location. One of the perks of the job was that I got to watch dailies with the director (Robert Zemeckis), the actors, the DP, the editors, and the Producers. It was my first time ‘seeing behind the curtain’ of a movie, and I was instantly hooked. From there I worked as a PA on a bunch of movies that came through the DC/Baltimore area before working as a Production Coordinator for the Discovery Channel.

I directed my first short called ‘Writing Wrongs’ and it was a great experience – but I learned quickly that I didn’t know some of the basic fundamentals of filmmaking. So I went back to grad school at USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts and tried to learn a bit about every discipline involved in the craft of filmmaking. Upon graduating, I reached out to my friends from ‘Contact’ and got a job on Robert Zemeckis’s new motion capture movie ‘Beowulf.’ My job was basically to take Bob Z’s notes and to help out the script supervisor. From there, I moved onto ‘Avatar’ where I was taking James Cameron’s notes and was also on the 3D implementation team for a couple of years. But my dream was always to direct this little script that a playwright from NYC had sent me in 2006 – and after 3 weeks of shooting in December 2013, we finally got it in the can. And now here we are.


Q. How did you come to cast Bryan Greenberg? Would you share about the casting process?

At the premiere of ‘The Kitchen,’ my understanding is that Bryan asked Jim what else he was working on. Jim called me and asked if he could give the script to Bryan. I’ve long been a fan of Bryan’s work so of course I said “please do!” Bryan read it on the plane back to LA, and loved it. I flew out to meet with him shortly after that and we hit it off. He happened to be friends with some of the people I had in mind for the other roles, so it worked out perfectly. Bryan is such a wonderful guy that people really wanted to work with him, so once he came on board, casting moved forward quickly.

Q. You shot your film on location in Montgomery County, MD, which was your hometown. I saw that you shot it during Autumn, my favorite season. What’s been the best moments as well as challenges of making your first feature?

It’s hard to shoot a movie that takes place over an entire year on a very limited budget and a three week production schedule. In order to make Maryland look like any season (but pre-dominantly Fall/Winter since the bulk of the movie takes place in these months), we knew that we’d either have to shoot in December or March. To be honest, we got incredibly lucky with the weather. There’s a saying in Maryland that if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. There were days when it snowed 6+ inches, which was perfect for the winter scenes, and there were days where it was 60 degrees outside which was perfect for the Spring/Summer scenes. Incredibly, the weather cooperated with us for the most part. Of course there were several occasions where I had to re-write a scene to take place indoors when it was supposed to be an exterior scene, on the night before shooting it – but that happens all the time with low budget independent film-making.


We went to great lengths to shoot during the hiatuses of the big shows that film in Maryland (House of Cards and Veep) so that we could hire some of their crewmembers. We’re very fortunate to have experienced industry professionals as well as vendors (rental houses, post facilities, sound facilities, etc) in the area who are always willing to lend a hand to local filmmakers.

Since I knew we’d be shooting in Maryland, I tailored the script to take place in some of the locations that I knew and loved. But that can be both a blessing and a curse. One of the biggest lessons I learned along the way is that I should try very hard not to shoot in my own house (displacing my family of 5 – including 3 young kids at the time), my in-law’s house, my father’s house, my sister’s house, etc… They were very supportive and we wouldn’t have been able to make the movie without their generosity, but filming in your loved one’s houses brings a whole other set of worries to the table.

Autumn is my favorite season too! It was one of the things I missed most about the East coast while living in LA.

Thanks again Emily and Stephen for chatting w/ me yesterday!


What are your thoughts of A Year and Change? 

TCFF 2015 Day 6 Recap + Reviews: Anomalisa and Too Late


We’ve passed the halfway point of TCFF already, with just four more days to go in the 11-day cinematic festivities. There are still a whole bunch of great films coming in the next few days!

The highlights of the past few days are definitely meeting the talents and filmmakers attending the film fest!


Director Dennis Hauck, John Hawkes & Jatin Setia

It’s especially gratifying to see Alexandria, MN native John Hawkes being honored with a North Star Award for Excellence after the screening of his film Too Late (review below). TCFF will screen other Hawkes films, including Winter’s Bone and Me and You and Everyone We Know“It’s our version of the lifetime achievement award,” TCFF executive director Jatin Setia said of the North Star Award for Excellence. “It’s a brilliant, brilliant body of work thus far in his career.” Amen to that. I had hoped he’d be nominated for his performance in The Sessions, which also screened at TCFF in 2012.



This is one of the most anticipated screenings at TCFF and the theater is packed. The film has received unanimously positive reviews out of other major film festivals, and Charlie Kaufman is a beloved writer/director. I’m not terribly well-versed in his work however, having just seen Adaptation, but I’m definitely familiar with his work. I think it’s safe to say he is one of those writers with a distinct style that it’s more of an acquired taste. Anomalisa is his first stop-motion film and it’s definitely not an animated feature for kids. It deals with a rather heavy subject matter about a man crippled by the mundanity of his life.

As the film opens with the protagonist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) on a plane, I was immediately amazed by how good the stop-motion quality. Though the lines of the puppets’ faces are left in, the expressions are quite realistic and even the skin textures and hair are meticulously done. The eyes are especially interesting to look at, as they truly convey human emotion. Kudos to Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson for crafting something that, despite not actually having real people in it, has a very human story about existensial crisis.


This is the only still image I can find of this film

Michael seems to be one of those people who have it all (as is the case in many Kaufman’s stories), he’s a successful customer service expert with a best-selling book ‘How Can I Help You Help Them?’ He’s in town in Cincinnati for a conference, and it’s apparent he’s very disillusioned with his soul-sucking corporate job. The film takes place mostly in a single night in an upscale but impersonal hotel that only aggravates Michael’s feeling of isolation. To illustrate the humdrum life seen through Michael’s eyes, everyone else he comes across (both men & women) have the same voice, voiced by Tom Noonan. That is until later on in the film when he meets a fretful customer service rep staying on his floor named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She struggles with self esteem, always thinking that she’s not at all special, but Michael assures her she is unlike any other he’s ever met… anomalous Lisa, hence the film’s title.

To say that the film is bizarre is putting it mildly. But it’s to be expected from Kaufman, and there’s definitely surreal elements in the way the story unfold. It’s also hilarious in parts, most notably when Lisa sang a Cindy Lauper song for Michael. The sexual themes are prevalent right from the start, with Michael witnessing a guy in the next building masturbating and later we see a fully-realized sex scene. The scene is eerily realistic and not at all comedic, which is a technical feat considering it’s puppetry. I have to say it creeps me out a bit and I bet I’m not the only one squirming in my seat watching that.

I also find that though I can relate with the theme of isolation and loneliness, it was hard for me to get into the character who is downright unlikable and frankly, unrelatable. I remember a line from the documentary A New High that plays on TCFF’s opening night where a character said ‘Though life doesn’t always go my way, I choose joy’ and throughout the film I felt that life is about what we make of it and Michael chooses to dwell on the banality of his life.

Ultimately, Anomalisa is a film I appreciate and even admire, but not love. It just doesn’t connect with me emotionally, and I find the petulant manner of its hero aggravating. But on a technical level, the animation quality is top notch, given its relatively small budget (crowd-funded via Kickstarter), that is no small feat. It lives up to its title in that there is nothing else like it, a uniquely-told and crafted existensial drama that no doubt will get people talking for years to come. How profound this film really is however, is up to the viewer, but I think Kaufman’s fans will be pleased with this one.


Too Late


Good things come in small packages. Last night, Twin Cities Film Fest attendees were treated not only to a new indie film noir starring Minnesota native John Hawkes but also a post-show Q&A with the actor and writer/director Dennis Hauck. It’s always interesting to see actors in person after you see them on screen, and my usual reaction is how much smaller they are in person. But I digress.


Too Late, Hauck’s debut feature film, stars the Alexandria-born (and Oscar nominated) Hawkes as Mel Sampson, an L.A. private detective haunted by his past. In a recent Star Tribune article, the author said Hawkes has a history of playing bleak characters (“Winter’s Bone,” “The Sessions”) and this one is no different…but he plays them so well. The film begins and ends in a very “Pulp Fiction” type fashion (and then, as if to prove the connection, Robert Forster, star of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, came on screen while I was thinking this) with a mix of the romanticism of Once thrown in the middle.


If you’re confused it’s okay because that’s not really the point. Not to say this movie doesn’t have a coherent plot (it’s one of those you want to watch again once you reach the end to get everything straight) but I found myself wondering what would happen next. Part of this is because the movie was shot with only five, single shot, uninterrupted scenes. (The film is about 100 minutes long so each “section” of the movie is about 20 minutes.) In the post-show Q&A Hauck talked about how the camera equipment was often too heavy for one person to handle for 20 minutes so there are slight jiggles in each scene where the camera was shifted from one camera person to another. Yes, in addition to the story, this movie is a treasure trove of unique filmmaking.


Taking the classic tapestry of old Hollywood from the beginning scene overlooking the city to the middle scene in a projection room at an old drive through, the cinematography of shooting this movie on 35mm film adds to its appeal. I also found it to be expertly cast – Hawkes injects his world weary character with a sweet, unassuming charm (in the post-show Q&A Haucks mentioned that he wrote the script with Hawkes in mind) and Crystal Reed (Dorothy) and Dichen Lachman (Jill) both avoid the “stripper with a heart of gold” mentality to give their characters a relatable depth.

The movie was very well received with the sold-out crowd spontaneously applauding as the credits rolled and I hope it gets wider release as it’s a worthy addition to any moviegoers list.


Here’s what’s coming up next on TCFF! 

What do you think about either one of these films?