Got OFF? (Omaha Reader)
In three years the Omaha Film Festival established a benchmark for quality programming.
Jeremy Decker, Jason Levering and Marc Longbrake, all filmmakers, presented strong cinema selections and panel presentations.
Based on sneak previews, the 2009 film selections rival previous years. Panels include film industry pros.
The Great Escape Stadium 16 Theatres, on 72nd St. between Crown Point and Sorenson Parkway, is the fest’s new home. The OFF debuted at Joslyn Art Museum and other downtown venues in ’06, then unreeled for two years at Westwood Plaza.
The Feb. 21-22 conference panel headliners: Omaha filmakers Nik Fackler and Dana Altman, the writer-director and the producer, respectively, of Lovely, Still, the Toronto Film Festival premiered pic starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn; director Andrew Robinson and cast members from another Omaha-made feature, April Showers; noted Hollywood cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Training Day, The Island); visual effects artist Neil Krepela (an Oscar nominee for 2010 and Cliffhanger); actor Daryl Sabara (Spy Kids); and Yoda-like script guru Lew Hunter, author of the 434 Screenwriting bible.
The conference includes a 7:30 p.m. screening of Robinson’s Shimmer 2 at the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., Feb. 21. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the show. The conference concludes on the 22nd with a 3:15-4:45 p.m. panel at Creighton, featuring Fackler and Altman discussing the script-to-screen journey of Lovely, Still.
The Feb. 23-Mar. 1 festival at the Great Escape will screen 10 narrative features, three OFF the Edge narrative features, six documentary features and 36 live action or animated short films. They were chosen from more than 450 entries from 28 countries.
Special screenings include upcoming theatrical releases like The Great Buck Howard (Colin and Tom Hanks, John Malkovich) and Sunshine Cleaning (Alan Arkin, Amy Adams, Steve Zahn) to obscure no-budget indies unlikely to land in a movie theater again.
Get schedule info and purchase tickets/passes at omahafilmfestival.org.
The OFF compares favorably with the mid-majors in breadth and depth, though it may not pack the vibe or buzz of, say, a Telluride, what it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in pluck.
It joins the Omaha Lit Fest and other emerging homegrown arts events in enhancing the city’s culture. The OFF, along with Film Streams, also helps put Omaha on the cinema map by connecting filmmakers and their work to area audiences. This exposure to new ideas and images promotes discussion and, who knows, may inspire new film projects and collaborations. Such exchanges only grow the cinema culture here, so support this fest by plopping down some bucks and putting your butt in a seat.
Select Narrative Features
Remarkable Power! ***
This comedy skewers ultra-desperation beneath Southern California’s facade-is-everything, excess-is-good, success-at-any-cost culture. First-time feature writer-director Brandon Beckner’s approach is smart and funny, smoothly joining plot lines.
Part Boogie Nights, part Get Shorty, part Soapdish, it balances satire and farce.
Kevin Nealon, Tom Arnold, Kip Pardue, Evan Peters, Dule Hill, Nora Zehetner, Jack Plotnick, Whitney Able and Christopher Titus head an excellent cast.
A Line in the Sand ***1/2
If this hyper drama boasted an above-the-title star or director, we might be talking Best Picture Oscar material. The cast and director Jeffrey Chernov do good work. It’s a police drama, a la Dog Day Afternoon or The Man Inside.
Actor-writer Mark Nassar adapted the script from his play, The Mayor’s Limo. A disturbed homeless man winds up in a New York City jail. When his identity is revealed, it elicits sympathy from veteran detectives and a street whore. Banzai’s fall from grace makes what happens next riveting and disturbing.
Jon Bernthal, Bruce McGill, John Getz, Charles Malik Whitfield, Mark Nassar, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Chris Williams lead the ensemble cast.
The Thacker Case **1/2
Reflecting incidents in central Iowa in the early 1980s, this is largely the vision of Stuart Martin Pepper, whose real-life experience inspired the movie. As a young lawyer he brought a notorious civil case against the Marshalltown, Iowa police department for culpability in fatal injuries suffered by a young man, Kevin Thacker, in its custody.
Pepper (Gabriel Mann) is author, co-script writer and executive producer. Apart from that, and Mann’s inability to carry the film, it’s a well-made time piece.
Director Brian Jun fashioned a tight, intelligent drama. Michael Welch as Kevin, John Savage as his father and Lee Garlington as Officer Dodge highlight the solid cast.
This nuanced work rivals works like American Beauty and The Savages. The upper middle class Berstein family is dysfunctional. Neurotic secrets and lies brought them to a therapist, Dr. Livingston. A powerful hook links family and therapist.
Jane Adams and Josh Pais as beleaguered parents are superb. Robbie Sublett, Dreama Walker and Jacob Kogan shine as the kids. Joe Morton nearly steals the show as the heal-thyself therapist.
Clear Lake, WI ** 1/2
(An OFF the Edge selection)
The prologue for this horror pic draws you in with eerie flashbacks of a crazed, self-appointed healer who set about eradicating a small-town eco-hazard he interpreted as an evil-induced plague. High schoolers bring the unclean to him for slaughter. Authorities stop it. Old wounds and rivalries reopen when surviving students are brought together by a filmmaker 15 years later.
Despite effective dialogue and pyscho-drama, director Brian Ide created a typical slasher-preying-on-young-people climax. Michael Madsen appears briefly but memorably as the deranged Reverend.
Other Narrative Features Worth Noting
The following films weren’t available for review, but feature actors with strong track records for selecting quality projects:
A Deal is a Deal w/Colm Meaney
Lightbulb w/Jeremy Renner
Phantom Punch w/Ving Rhames, Stacey Dash; dir. by Robert Townsend
Say It in Russian w/Faye Dunaway
Touching Home w/Ed Harris, Brad Dourif, Robert Forster
Select Feature Documentaries
A Friend Indeed ** 1/2
Disliking this film or its subject, the late Bill Sackter, is impossible. The mentally disabled man went from friendless obscurity to rich-in-friends notoriety. But director Lane Wyrick’s overworking of sentimental material plays more promotional video than documentary.
After Bill’s 44 years in a Minnesota asylum, audio-visual pro Barry Morrow became his legal guardian in the early ’70s. Morrow and family moved him to Iowa City. Bill made uncounted new friends as proprietor of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop. His life inspired acclaimed made-for-TV biopic, Bill, starring Mickey Rooney.
Along with footage Morrow shot of Bill over the years, Morrow and family share priceless anecdotes. But it overdoes weepy narration/music, creating a martyr-like sheen.
Food Fight ***
Obsessions and passions make the best stories, and make this documentary about culinary snobbery work. It presents pioneers in a revolution advocating fresh, pure, natural, whole ingredients derived from small, local-regional farms, versus mass-produced foods. It works best showing the genesis of this movement.
Filmmaker Chris Taylor sympathizes with interesting food militants. As America struggles with competing problems of obesity, hunger, cheap junk/fast food, pricey gourmet goods in this depressed economy, creating sustainable, community-based healthful food chains within everyone’s reach seems unrealistic but worth trying.
School Play ***
Described by the filmmakers as “a labor of love,” School Play burrows deep into its subjects. New York-based Rick Velleu and Eddie Rosenstein tell of an unusually ambitious public elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz. The play became the vehicle for what Rosenstein called something “deeper, more resonant and more personal.”
They selected a cross-section of kids cast in the play at a Mamaroneck, N.Y. chool. Isabel is a diva-in-the-making, the popular girl cast as Dorothy. There’s class clown and wiseass Joey; expressive Nick with his penchant for playing dress up and his struggle with a speech impediment; Jeffrey, the proverbial fat kid, always picked last and sweet, serene Elizabeth.
The experience helps all of them grow up.
Upstream Battle ***1/2
A cut above other OFF docs I screened. Writer- photographer-director Ben Kempas’ work is on par with the best PBS docs. It charts a water rights fight pitting Native American tribes and other stakeholders along the Kalamuth River in far northern California and southern Oregon against PacifiCorp, licensee for four disputed Kalamuth hydro-dams. The film’s heart is with the tribes, who want the dams removed to restore free passage of wild salmon and pure river habitat. As Kempas shows, the salmon and river are inextricably linked to tribal culture, tradition, history and survival.
The classic David versus Goliath standoff takes an Omaha twist, when PacifiCorp is bought by David Sokol’s Mid-American Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Tribal reps protest, to no avail, at BH’s 2007 shareholders meeting. Kempas makes the passion of the tribal reps and the toll this fight takes on them moving, but never makes it all about them.
The Providence Effect ***
This feel-good portrait of college prep private school Providence-St. Mel on Chicago’s west side explores its culture of academic excellence in a tough inner-city district. School founder/president Paul Adams emphasizes high expectations, strict accountability, firm discipline and a consistent focus on preparing graduates for college. The message of Rollin Binzer’s film is that, in education, you reap what you sow.
Insights come from administrators, teachers, graduates, students and parents, but it is too narrowly focused inside the school.
Nebraska Live Action Shorts
This emotionally high-pitched drama overcomes some marginal acting and awkward moments. A man owes his life to a couple’s departed son, visits them and leaves an unexpected gift honoring the son’s legacy. Directed by David Steen Martin, written by Martin and Kevin Pope.
Minds of Men ***
Darcy Lucking’s student film is a wry comedy about college tomboy Nic. She’s platonic best buds with Adam. Dismayed by attention he gives other girls, she experiments to become attractive to men, ultimately realizing Adam was right: “You shouldn’t have to change who you are just to please someone else.” Katie Streeter rocks as Nic.
Life Stories: The Lost Boys of Sudan **
There’s nothing wrong with Jared Martin’s film that subtitles and re-shoots couldn’t improve. It centers on Sudanese Lost Boys living in Lincoln, Neb. rehashing refugee hardships. Their experiences are gripping. But it left me wanting more intimate portraits of the men and their lives. It over-relies on UNICEF footage from refugee camps. Also, accents make the men hard to understand.
Test Taking in the Free World **1/2
This amusing trifle is a turn on test anxieties. A high school student is revved up for his SAT, but foiled in his attempts to concentrate by every noise and movement around him until he’s blown it. Jun Merchen directed. If only the film were as edgy as the original title track by Greg Place in the credit sequence.
Richard Dooling’s Bush Pigs *1/2
This film doesn’t do justice to the Rick Dooling-authored semi-autobiographical story that inspired it. The first half captures the surreal culture shock of a sick Peace Corps worker thrust from the African bush back to his hometown of Omaha. He starts tripping, hallucinations follow and it becomes schlock. Written-directed by Topler Ahrens and Christian Champoux.
A Time Remembered **
Self-taught filmmaker Victoria White’s short is part of a larger project she’s making on the history of Omaha’s African American community. Her A Time Remembered is a riff on dialogue still sparked by the 1966 race documentary A Time for Burning (ATFB). She integrates footage from that doc and archival press footage with video she shot at ATFB screenings/discussions. Her work tends to be static but shows promise.
Amerigo the Brave ****
Of the 20 films I screened, the single best work of art is this short by Omahan Jonathan Trvdik. He’s a serious filmmaker to be watched. Shot in expressive black and white by Bill Sitzmann, it is reminiscent of the best original “Twilight Zone” offerings. There are hints of Arthur Penn’s Mickey One and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” It ultimately stands as something all its own. It plops us into some backstage netherworld on the vaudeville circuit for a few telling moments in the lives of three people on the edge of existential abyss.
A sense of impending doom drives the story. Jon Purcell, Bill Hutson and Nora Vetter distinguish themselves among the small cast. Kudos to Michael Arch for lighting design and Justin Thompson for set design. I can’t wait to see another film by Tvrdik, his producing partner Purcell and his DP, Sitzmann, who reportedly have new projects in the can and on the drawing board. Add Tvrdik’s name to Nik Fackler’s, Dana Altman’s, Alexander Payne’s, Vince Alston’s, John Beasley’s and Omowale Akintunde’s as Omaha’s best hopes for a homegrown feature film industry.
A Sampler of More Live Action Shorts
True to its USC film school roots, Coons boasts high production values. And a writer-director Chris Cloyd uses an unusual storytelling device, conveying potent themes of racism and personal responsibility. A young man gets caught up in a back-roads Kansas lynching, circa 1962. Faced with participating or preventing it, his choice has dire consequences either way. Cloyd’s visuals unfold over a delayed soundtrack, lending gravity to awful events.
Awkward Silence ***
Billed as a contemporary silent film, Omaha native Ryan Copple’s Awkward Silence wittily explores a boy-meets-girl story in an elevator, minus dialogue. Lead players Shane Kolmansberger and April Green convey an impressive range of emotions. Speaking louder than words are clothes, body language, facial expressions, attitudes, context, music and sound/visual effects. In a single ride, Average Joe falls for The Girl Next Door, only Meat Head and Bombshell complicate things. It looks great and plays great.
The Owl Lovers ***1/2
A charming, satisfying love story. A young couple in bed at night are disturbed by an owl hooting outside the open window. Banter turns serious when the girl breaks major news. He freaks. She’s hurt. They talk it out. When the hooting resumes all is right as they make mad owl love. Director Daniel Iske and writer Shawn Watson capture a microcosm of a relationship. Mark Booker and Chelsea Long click as lovers.
19 Feb 2009
by Leo Adam Biga