TCFF Reviews – ‘Legends of the Road’ doc + various short films in Comedy, Thriller, Global Perspective & Documentary short blocks

We have passed the halfway mark! What a hectic, whirlwind week it has been. I spoke to TCFF Managing Director Bill Cooper the other day and he said something about all the staff having ‘festival brain’ and that’s definitely how I feel. I’ve watched so many films it’s kind of a blur!

Thankfully I have awesome guest bloggers to help me out… such as Sarah Johnson who’s helped me with reviews of the short films, as well as the Legends of the Road documentary. Being a huge baseball fan, that’s the one Sarah couldn’t wait to see!

So here are her reviews:

Full disclosure: I am a big baseball fan and love the game’s history so am not the most unbiased person to review “Legends of the Road” and therefore I will not be giving it a rating. However, as soon as I saw this movie on the schedule I knew I wanted to see it. As a reviewer often has to see and objectively review movies that may not be appealing to them personally, I felt the opposite could also be true.

The film itself is well done, directed and edited by award-winning documentarian Gary Thomsen, who also happens to be a former Seattle teacher. It tells the extraordinary story of Thomsen’s students from Chief Sealth High School in Washington and their classroom project: to uncover the history of barnstorming, a baseball phenomenon from the early 20th century where all black teams traveled throughout the country playing in money tournaments against local white town teams for a cut of the gate. The project then culminated in a summer long re-creation of this era with a 5,100 mile, 71 day trip done on bicycle while playing 33 games along the way.

These ballplayers (some may have heard of the most famous ones including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson because they also played in the more well known Negro Leagues) helped dispel the notion of white supremacy, not just on the field, but in society, leading Martin Luther King to say that “they laid down the first plank in the civil rights movement.” This is where the film really shines – the story is about much more than baseball. Former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, who came to national prominence with his vivid descriptions of black baseball in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary “Baseball,” is also one of the stars of this film. “This is about the history of our country,” O’Neil says at one point.

One of the other large aspects to the film is another thing that is not new: adults underestimating what kids can accomplish and bureaucrats not in classrooms dictating how students should be taught. “This is not part of the curriculum, nor is it part of anything I’ve seen in vocational education. I don’t understand why you want to do this,” June Rimmer, the chief academic officer for Seattle Public Schools, said. I’d like to check back with the students involved in this project in 20 years and hear their memories on their breadth of work that was “not part of the curriculum.”

For this project, students conducted all of the research, honed public speaking skills to make presentations to companies in the hopes of securing sponsors for the trip, managed logistics of food, lodging and game preparation…as well as shot footage to be used in the documentary. There were two distinct groups of students involved with the trip – those on the logistics and production side and the baseball players who rode bicycles from town to town (often covering more than 100 miles per day) and then played in games throughout the trip. “It was incredibly challenging logistically,” Thomsen says at one point. Gee, you think? At one point I began to wonder if young people could have been the only ones to pull this off – the movie doesn’t mention anything about how (if at all) the bike riders went about training for this adventure. Perhaps that’s something you don’t need to worry about when you’re in high school – oh, to be young again.

The film is very comprehensive in covering all aspects of the project, from the origination of the idea to the celebration at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City at the end of the trip. Just because I’m a fan of baseball history, the one thing that left me wanting more was the end product of all of the research – where did all of that information end up? I’m assuming it was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame but even a mention of this at the end of the film would have helped. Baseball fans will certainly appreciate “Legends of the Road” but other audiences should also enjoy this addition to our nation’s ongoing conversation on race and education.

Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, being interviewed by TCFF host Amanda Day

SHORT FILMS reviews

Humbug

“Humbug,” the short film highlighting those with no holiday spirit, will appeal to those who greet that time of the year with dread. As I am one of those people, I appreciated the premise of this seven minute piece. When Scarlet (Jessee Foudray) crushes a gingerbread cookie offered by her peppy neighbor Betty (Milly Sanders, also the writer), Betty decides to embark on a series of steps worthy of a horror film to change her mind. “We’ll have to do this the hard way,” Betty calmly tells Scarlet.

The scenario is well played by both actresses and the mix of over-the-top Christmas imagery and ghastly bodily functions will satisfy those who have had enough December cheer to last a lifetime. The ending was a little too convenient for me but overall this short film is an entertaining one.

Girl Meets Roach

I have reviewed full length and short films for the Twin Cities Film Fest for several years and sometimes I come across a piece of work that I’m not sure if it was meant to be reviewed. Such is the case with “Girl Meets Roach,” the 17 minute short film by brother and sister team Alison Zatta (Writer and Lead Actress) and Christopher Zatta (Director). In his bio, Christopher writes that he formed King Fish Productions as a platform to write and direct independent material.

I can only hope that they are using “Girl Meets Roach” as practice to hone their skills. The premise and execution of this story are entirely cliché – girl gets dumped by her boyfriend, we cut to obligatory scenes of her listening to old messages while moping around her house, the best friend comes over, the jilted girlfriend plans revenge…it just goes on. I appreciate the role of film festivals to support new work by independent artists and hope “Girl Meets Roach” was merely a practice turn to get experience in this field.

Afterword

Describing “Afterword,” Director and Co-Writer Boris Seewald explains it as “A film about loneliness, self-discovery and one person’s pursuit of glory. It examines not only the wider journey of appreciation, but also the need to be heard by those who love and loved you, and the need to be heard by yourself.” Lofty goals for a ten minute short film.

What follows is a woman (Marama Corlett) bringing you into her world of philosophical ramblings on…well, pretty much anything. (One line in this film is “if you are a bird, watch where you poop.” I am not making this up.) The only highlight is the performance by Corlett – with her pageboy haircut, red beret and piercing stare she admirably draws you into her stream of consciousness. The rest of it still has me baffled.

Tagati

“Tagati” Director Bill Haley is upfront about his short film being a sort of trailer for a feature film based on the concept presented at the Twin Cities Film Fest. “The Sopranos” in a roadside diner is how I thought of the opening scene, as Aja (LaTonya Grant) meets with a hitman named only as Badass (Mark Simms) to do away with her husband.

It’s a peek into a stylish film noir thriller complete with pulsating music and expert direction. Trailers are supposed to get audiences interested and excited to see the full length movie – this piece certainly succeeded.

Marieke

“It’s not just a piece of cheese.” While there have been negative consequences about the advent of the internet and social media, one of the fun things has been the ability for people skilled in a particular niche to connect with others who share their passion. Such is the case in “Marieke,” the seven minute short film by Director/Editor Thomas Johnson, who profiles acclaimed Dutch gouda cheesemaker Marieke Penterman from Thorp, Wisconsin.

I am not a cheese connoisseur but I can relate to one’s appreciation for the finer aspects of a certain hobby or profession. (I am a big baseball fan and could spend all day talking about it.) Penterman cheerfully takes you into her cheese adventures, explaining how her cows have personality and the process that goes into hand painting a skin around the yellowish rounds to preserve it but still let it breathe. “Marieke” was a refreshing look into her world.

Science Olympiad

High school was a long time ago for me so watching films like “Science Olympiad” give me hope for the next generation. It not only features teenage students, it was also made by a teenage student, 17 year old Elise Tsai from the Twin Cities. She focuses on an extra curricular activity in which teams of 15 students compete in 23 events involving science, technology and engineering. The film focuses on Mounds View High School (a suburb of Minneapolis) and their incredibly successful team – winner of 11 state championships and five consecutive top ten finishes in the nation.

“You have to spend a lot of time looking up parts, trying them out and if it doesn’t work you have to try it again,” one student says. Seems like the work you need to put into anything in life to succeed. (Indeed, at the end of the film it notes that one of the participants is going to be studying Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.) Although their creations are fascinating, the kids are really the stars of the show and their positive energy and enthusiasm is infectious. As one student says, “at its core, it’s just fun.”

Double talk

What a delight this film was on a familiar but rarely highlighted craft! In “Double Talk,” director Jessica Bernstein-Wax features the work of Spanish actor Joan Pera, who has worked as an onscreen dubber for famous actors, most notably Woody Allen. Often denigrated as the ugly stepchild in the film industry, it’s clear Pera takes pride in his craft, especially in the scenes with his son who also works in the same line of work.

He and his son enjoy a friendly rivalry when the father is called in to dub some of his son’s work. “There’s always room for improvement,” the son says, critiquing the job his father did. “In my case it’s hard,” the father replies. I don’t speak Spanish (or Catalan, the regional dialect also featured) but, having seen many Woody Allen films, it’s amazing how Pera replicates Allen’s voice intonation and mannerisms. Bernstein-Wax’s first film has been well received, garnering the Jury Award for Best Short Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival earlier this year. I can see why.

The Courtesy of Angels

Created by a French filmmaker, Valerie Theodore, “The Courtesy of Angels” has taken a universal story around the world. It tells the story of Louise (Delphine Theodore), a young caretaking assistant, and her interactions with an amnesic old man, Mr. Vadim (Andre Oumansky). This short film is in French with English subtitles.

The theme of interconnectedness among generations is global and I found myself drawn to one of the movie’s main lines – “well being is the courtesy of angels.” Theodore ably highlights the fragility of life and good health, something that translates in any language.

Tourvall II: Into the darkness

I’ve said before in doing reviews on short films that sometimes I’m amazed how filmmakers are able to create a fully developed plot in under ten minutes. At only seven minutes, at first I felt that Writer/Director Sean Skinner’s “Tourvall II: Into the Darkness” was taking too long to get to the point. After watching the entire piece, I came to the conclusion that there isn’t a point. But to the film’s credit, that didn’t make it any less entertaining.

We see Sven Skarnestad (Mick Karch) visiting former pro wrestler Tourvall “The Terrible” Johannsen (Joe Berglove) on his deathbed and reliving some of his past glory. The film aptly spoofs the crazy world of professional wrestling and the interjection of Jorge Gundersen (Edward Linder), an eager convalescent home employee, was an unexpected and amusing touch. (As Sven is sitting bedside, Jorge hands him a brochure and says, “Please take a moment to fill out the survey. We would love to your Yelp review. We’re also on the Twitter: #notjustaplacetodie.”) Silliness for sure, but what’s wrong with that?


Hearts Want’s premiere

Hearts Want‘s main TCFF premiere is today, Thursday 10/26 at 5pm (with red carpet interview at 4:30). There are a few tickets left for tonight, but act fast before they’re gone. Click on the banner below to get tickets.


Coming up tomorrow…

Two Minnesota-connected films are playing back-to-back tomorrow night… Twin Cities is actually produced by the director of Hearts Want, Jason P. Schumacher!

Stay tuned for interviews with writer/director of Twin Cities David Ash and one of the main actors of Ruin Me, Alex Galick.


The daily TCFF coverage continues… 


TCFF 2017 Day 4 – Two great film panels + Reviews of ‘Beauty Mark’ and MN-made drama ‘Cold November’

Saturday was a jam-packed day for me. I’m bummed that I missed the early Filmmaker Brunch as I wasn’t feeling well so I overslept (hey bloggers are humans too!), but my morning started with two great film panels, part of TCFF’s free Educational Programs!

The first panel was on Making, Distributing, Marketing & Watching: What’s the Impact of Digital? at 11:00am

Like many industries, the business of TV and Film distribution is certainly changing due to digital – whether you’re watching on your phone or tablet, dropping the cable package, making a web series or seeing a film online at the same time it’s in theaters…the landscape is shifting quickly.

I learned quite a few things from this very insightful panel… these are just small sampling:

  • Don’t create films in a vacuum
  • Make a beautiful film you believe in and passionate about, but also marketable
  • Marketing/PR is critical for film distribution even if your film is already on iTunes or some other platform, simply because most people don’t even know it’s there


The second panel is one I’ve been looking forward to as I’ve become a filmmaker myself this year…

Film Fatales in the Twin Cities

Members from the newest chapter of this global collective of female feature film directors discuss the power of collaboration in the fight for gender equality within the film industry. 

It’s so inspiring to learn from Lisa Blackstone, Melissa Butts, Norah Shapiro,Missy Whiteman, and moderator Melody Gilbert. Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences making films, and for inspiring aspiring filmmakers like me to keep on keeping on and not to give up on my dream of making my feature film one day!


Here’s my quick thoughts on the two films I saw on Day 4…

This is the kind of heart-wrenching films that’s hard to watch at times, but you’re glad you did. Inspired by true events, it’s a story of a poverty-stricken young mother forced to move out of her condemned house. Anchored by a harrowing, bravura performance by Auden Thornton, the film transports you into her painful reality of a life and forces you to wake up from your comfortable confines of your own.

The protagonist single mother Angie can’t seem to catch a break… taking care of her toddler son and alcoholic, overbearing mother with only sixty five dollars to her name. Slowly it’s revealed she has been abused as a child. As if that wasn’t tough enough, she realized he’s the only person with money she felt she could turn to.

Writer/director Harris Doran made you truly empathize with Angie despite some of her questionable decisions. It’s a truly gritty, upsetting and even haunting film that made you want to scream for the injustices the character suffers.

Spoiler alert (highlight to read) One thing I wish I didn’t see was the topless scene towards the end, given the topic against abuse and sexual objectification of women. Yes perhaps it’s a deliberate choice of the filmmaker, but I feel that there are SO many ways to show what the character does/show without actually showing it to the audience. It’d still be just as impactful IMHO because the character (and likely the actress playing her) has gone through so much in the film. That’s just my honest personal opinion anyways, others might feel differently about this.

In any case, it’s a well-made, phenomenally-acted piece that should be seen. I sure hope to see Aiden in more films as she’s definitely one of the best actresses I’ve seen in my years of covering TCFF.


It’s October, so Winter is definitely coming soon. No, I’m not looking forward to snow at all, especially during my commute. But watching this film makes me appreciate just how beautiful is the Minnesota Wintry landscape. The film centers on a midwestern matriarchy guiding 12-year-old Florence through the rite-of-passage of her first deer hunt.

Bijou Abas plays the young protagonist and this is her feature film debut. I learned that she was in an episode of In An Instant with Hearts Want’s lead actor Peter Hansen back in 2016. I thought she did a wonderful job giving a reserved but assured performance, where most of the time she has to communicate only with her facial expression.

I have to say being that I’m not into hunting at all (can’t even hurt a squirrel!), all I had to avert my eyes during all the deer skinning scenes. The scene of Florence all alone in the woods after she killed her first deer is also tough to watch for me. The rite-of-passage story is nicely-told, as well as the multi-generation familial connections. The story is supposedly told from Florence’s point of view, but I find the film’s lacking a sharp focus. Apart from her aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner), the supporting characters didn’t seem fully fleshed out. At 104 minutes, I also think the editing could’ve been much tighter.

Overall it’s a gorgeous film with a quiet grace. Filmed in Hibbing, Northern Minnesota, at times the film is so beautiful it could double as a Wintry skiing resort commercial. Kudos to writer/director Karl Jacobs (who also played uncle Craig) for creating a compelling MN family drama with a strong young woman that many girls can aspire to. At the Q&A afterwards, Bijou seemed really delighted to play the lead role and sounds like she, as well as everyone in the cast/crew, enjoyed making this, too!


What’s in store for Day 6

Boy, Monday is jam-packed with a ton of amazing films!! Four strong documentaries – ABU, Legends of the Road, Purple Dreams and She Started It. There’s also three feature films, Blue Balloons, Butterfly Caught and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

I’ll post my interview for the indie drama Butterfly Caught later this week!

So, stay tuned to more daily TCFF coverage!


TCFF 2017 Day 3 – ‘Hearts Want’ first screening in the ‘Ties That Bind Us’ short block and ‘A Gray State’ documentary

Day 3 of the Twin Cities Film Fest is actually quite a momentous one for me… If you know me well or have been following my blog and/or Facebook you might’ve guessed why.

I took the day off Friday because I knew it’s be quite an emotional day for me, showing my artistic baby, my passion project I’ve been working on the past year to the public for the first time. We had a private screening to the cast/crew and our close friends, but to actually seen it on the big screen in an actual theater is another thing entirely.

The moment the first scene came on screen, accompanied by the score… I went a bit verklempt, naturally. There weren’t many people in the theatre, which is typical for an early afternoon screening, but I’m so grateful to my friends, coworkers and even fellow bloggers who did come out and saw it… you know who you are, your support means a lot to me guys!

Hearts Want’s leading man Peter Christian Hansen attended the Friday screening

The Ties That Bind Us short block itself is chock full of wonderful relationship-themed films. Kudos to our short programmer Josh Dahlman and Angela Andrist for the awesome film selections! Of course I’m biased as to which is my favorite (hey you’re always going to think your baby is the cutest, right?) but I was truly impressed with all the films within this block: All That Was Broken, Head Above Water, Hearts Want, Heath Takes a Trip, Deadbeat, Resolutions, and Sundogs.

I really love Heath Takes a Trip, which is about a famous writer who suffers a breakdown and goes on a road trip with a stranger. It grabbed me right from the get go (which is quite a feat since it played right after my own film). It was emotional, funny, beautifully-shot, with a dreamy-like quality that has its own twist. It reminds me a bit of M Night Shyamalan’s Signs at times perhaps because of the corn fields, but also because it made you think one thing but it turns out to be another. I love Arch Harmon in the lead, as well as Ted James (who’s also the writer/director) as the rather whimsical stranger.

Resolutions is an intriguing, brutally-honest slice-of-life story of two couples that takes place over one New Year’s eve. It starts out like a low key celebration but as the evening progresses, something is revealed that turns things upside down for one of the four characters. It’s a simple setup that packs an emotional punch with the right amount of smolder and tension. The acting is brilliant, especially Nadine Malouf as Frankie. It’s got a female director, Tamara Fisch, who I hope will continue to make more films in the future!


Honestly, I don’t think I could really properly review a film such as A Gray State. I didn’t know much about the events surrounding the death of David Crowley, an Iraq vet who’s a charismatic aspiring filmmaker. I was going to read this New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson before we see this documentary, but I decided I’ll read it after. A few people sitting near me know the subject of the film so naturally it’s so emotional watching the film as I could hear sniffles all around. Since the filmmaker was based in Minnesota, I’ve seen some of the actors who appeared in the trailer of the feature film he wanted to make, called Gray State. In fact I took a photo with the main actor in that trailer, Danny August Mason, when his short film Windage played at TCFF a few years back.

I went into the film pretty much blind, and the way filmmaker Erik Nelson set up the film, he played up the conspiracy theory aspect. I think it’s best that you find that out for yourself why that is, which is rather obvious given the subject matter of making a film called Gray State. The film is set in a dystopian near-future where civil liberties are trampled by an unrestrained federal government.

Erik Nelson is no stranger to doing a film about a grim subject matter, as he directed Grizzly Man. The film’s executive produced by Werner Herzog whom he frequently collaborated with. At the Q&A, Erik revealed that he combed through Crowley’s archive of 13,000 photographs, hundreds of hours of home video, and exhaustive behind-the-scenes footage of David’s work in progress. It’s a heart-wrenching look at what looks like an ordinary family tackling an extraordinary project… but something along the way, something went horribly wrong. What actually happened and what people want to believe is at the core of the film and the lines between them are inherently blurry. It’s pretty riveting, unsettling and emotional film, one that will linger for a long time after you saw it.

Q&A with Erik Nelson – conducted by TCFF managing director Bill Cooper

Fun at Industry Night!

It was a warm Autumn night with temps in the 70s. Great to catch up with friends and some visiting filmmakers during TCFF’s Industry Night.

Stay tuned for my recap of a jam-packed Day 4 starting with two insightful film panels and two features, Beauty Mark and Cold November, back to back.


What’s in store for Day 5


So, stay tuned to more daily TCFF coverage!


TCFF 2017 Day 2 – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and silent MN-made b&w film ‘If Memory Serves’

WOW, Day 2 of the 11-day film fest has come and gone! I had to leave a bit early Thursday night for a prior commitment, but I did manage to see two films and also caught up w/ a friend & fellow film blogger Emmylou, who’s moved out to L.A. earlier this year.

Here’s my quick thoughts on the two films I saw on Day 2…


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most popular stage work. In fact I just saw it recently at the Guthrie. I’m not a purist so I always enjoy seeing fresh interpretations of classic works, and setting it in modern-day Hollywood adds a layer of whimsy. Now, whether it works or not, I’d leave to Shakespeare enthusiasts, but I think this quirky adaptation is enjoyable even if it at times borders on the absurd.

Minnesota native Rachael Leigh Cook (who’ll be coming to TCFF at the second screening on closing night) plays Hermia who’s in love with Lysander (Hamish Linklater) and Lily Rabe plays Helena, who’s in love with Demetrius (Finn Wittrock). Interesting that before yesterday I didn’t know who Avan Jogia was, but I saw him two days in a row as he’s playing Puck here and he was in The Year of Spectacular Men. They retained most of the Shakespearean language, and as the film premise says… bold declarations, idiotic miscommunications and wandering amorous eyes feel right at home in the Hollywood setting where the studio honchos are practically royalty.

The film is more amusing than laugh-at-loud funny, though the literal interpretation of the character bottom (hard to get that actual butt head out of your mind!!). People who love Shakespeare AND Star Wars might get a kick out of this film. For me, it was a pretty enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, though it made me want to rewatch the dreamier 1999 version with Michelle Pfeiffer as a truly fetching fairy queen.


Now, THIS is the kind of movie I love to discover at film festivals! I don’t see very many silent b&w films, so seeing one that’s set in the Twin Cities by a MN-based filmmaker and crew is quite rare. I really love this one. I was quite swept away by its style, production design and the actors’ expressive faces. I even remember as I was watching, I looked around and wish more people had gone and seen this film.

Written and directed by MN filmmaker Andrew DeVary, If Memory Serves is a sweet, funny and sentimental tribute to the bygone era. A self-admitted Charlie Chaplin fan, he truly captured the simplicity and sweetness of the 1940s and there’s a poignant love story at the heart of it. The Cadet (Matthew Englund) and Mary (Morgan LeClaire) are two lovers who suffered a near-miss (I wouldn’t spoil how) and throughout the course of the film, we’re left wondering if and when their paths will ever cross again. DeVary created characters who are such delightful characters that it’s easy to root for them and want them to be together.

Photo courtesy of Andrew DeVary via Facebook

Most of the film is silent with only a couple of ‘talkie’ moments and during the Q&A, DeVary revealed the reason for that he likes the idea that ‘love allows communication to happen.’ I like the direction and pacing, which at an already swift 67 minutes never overstays your welcome. I also learned during Q&A that the film’s shot digitally in HD so it’s really to the editors’ credit that the film looked appropriately grainy and old school throughout, which adds to its inherent charm. Kudos to Simone LeClaire who’s the producer and production designer of the film. At a shoestring budget ($2300 bucks!) I thought the film looked believably set in the WWII period. I also adore the music by Twin Cities composer silent film composer Andy McCormick whose band Dreamland Faces often play live music for silent films.

I highly recommend this to classic film enthusiast, or even those looking for something off-the-beaten path. Given the subject matter dealing with love and memory, this is one film I’ll remember for a while and I hope it gets some kind of distribution so more people can see it! Check out the trailer below:


What’s in store for Day 3

Friday 10/20 is a very special day for me as at 12:30pm, my short film HEARTS WANT will be shown to the public for the first time… as part of the ‘Ties That Bind Us’ short block.

But there are also a ton of great films playing Friday…

Two great documentaries ABU and A Gray State (that I’ve blogged about here), and feature films 20 Weeks, Tater Tot & Patton, The Midnighter and Wilderness. See all of the films playing Friday here.

So, stay tuned to more daily TCFF coverage!