Film Review: Lomax

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: June 15, 2014; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Jesse Kreitzer; With: James Y. Jones, Georg Koszulinski

Lomax is the tale of Alan Lomax, a folklorist who traveled to the Mississippi Delta in 1941, at the behest of the Library of Congress, to record an oral history of the blues. He took 500 pounds of recording equipment with him which he powered with his car battery. This account of one little snippet of his travels has him meeting and recording Bill Henley, a man whose spirit and voice are given real depth by James “Tail Dragger” Jones, a protégé of none other than Howlin’ Wolf.

The story is simple: Alan finds Bill, he coaxes him from his home, asks him to sing, and he records it. Prior to the recording, they talk. Bill is clear that he isn’t visited much and that that’s all right by him, perhaps even preferable. The viewer gets the impression that Alan finds it helpful and possibly even necessary to talk to his subjects before recording them, to know them just a little before collecting their voices. He takes careful notes during his conversation with Bill.

The dialogue is stark, the music bonding the two men, as opposed to their conversation, in sort of a warmer expression of a mutual goal. It might also be that something larger than language is supposed to be the focal point. Or it might be that what we see in this film is the course of a conversation between a black man and a white man in Mississippi in 1941. Regardless, it’s moving; there are obviously just larger elements afoot than words. And it doesn’t mean that sound isn’t important here. There is the haunting use of music by way of both the musical choices, themselves, and the minimal background sound when someone sings. A voice, the oddities of its owner’s mouth movement, and a symphony of cicadas are all we’re left with.

The Southern landscape has a similar effect, the richness of a gothic, bittersweet history serving as the backdrop for a blunt skyline with a clipped line of trees. This movie is, at its core, a love letter to the region and to the history of a beautiful and disquieted place. It might be the most nuanced film I’ve reviewed thus far, which is saying something.

Because Alan Lomax is a man as important as his mission, this film doesn’t shy away from admiring, doting, on his equipment, his microphone, his automobile, and a shiny new record, both before and after it has been grooved by Bill’s voice. And because Bill is a man as important as his song, which happens to be about his mule, the film also allows for some really fantastic attention on the animal in flashback. There’s a truly uncomfortable and, still, lovely shot of the side of the mule’s head while it walks, its eye black, the effect a little chilling. The film is shot in super 16 mm, a really appropriate medium, both because of the visual produced, and because it’s a really lovely way to showcase the era.

Jones and Koszulinski are perfect, engaged yet awkward, and allowing the satisfaction in the music to surface. Jones is genuine and a little curious. Koszulinski is thoughtful, and a little withdrawn.

This movie is presented by the Association for Cultural Equity, the organization responsible for founding Lomax, and it is billed as a reimagining of the meeting between the two men. I urge you to do yourself the favor of checking this one out. It is an absolutely stunning movie, the kind of film that only really gets made because someone cares so deeply for its subject matter.

– Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: The Chaperone

August 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: September 11, 2013; Animation Short; Written & Directed by: Fraser Munden & Neil Rathbone; With: Ralph Whims, Stefan Czernatowicz, Fraser Munden, Chris McMahon

The Chaperone lays out the previously untold true tale of Ralph Whims, a teacher who defends a group of middle school kids at a dance against a biker gang in 1973. The movie bills itself as “a hand drawn story,” but it’s an absolute work of art, a collage of drawn animation, perfect small-scale set pieces, puppets, and live-action martial arts sequences.

Ralph and Stefan, the DJ at the dance-in-question, narrate the story. One of the most endearing and truly riveting elements of their storytelling is Ralph’s propensity to expand on a given situation or setting, whether it be in terms of the way children view teachers or what it really means to be a chaperone. Ralph’s not telling a story, he’s telling his story, and Munden and Rathbone fall in line, capturing every quirk and tick and turning them into something truly lovely. One of my favorite representations of this is when Ralph mentions how the biker gang entered the dance and saw that he and Stefan were “dressed in the very modern style of the late-60s, early-70s.” The visual accompanying this observation is a hand drawn magazine opening to feature a dual-page display of precisely what those styles are. But, it doesn’t stop there. The magazine is then lowered and the viewer sees that it’s presumably being held by a woman in a beauty parlor. What’s really lovely about this sort of “train-of-thought” approach is that it’s exactly the way we tell stories. We don’t ever just give facts, we give our experiences, and those experiences might lead us to talk about other things or to wax philosophical a little bit. That’s the nature of a story, and it’s such a pleasure to watch it play out onscreen here.

While the nature of the story Ralph tells isn’t comical, there are liberties taken with the visuals because it’s a tale told in retrospect and it’s a tale told with a very specific point of view. When Ralph explains how he began fighting the motorcycle gang, first looking for the leader by posing a question to the group (the man they all look to before answering is the guy in charge), then throwing punches, the sequence that follows is full of piñata gang members whose heads pop off with each punch, exploding into shreds of crepe paper. The whole arrangement is run under a grindhouse blaxploitation film score.

While this is a cautionary tale, it’s not for those minding their own business and enjoying the middle school dance. It’s for those cowardly enough to relegate themselves to gang activity. Ralph’s lessons aren’t necessarily of the unconditionally love-thy-neighbor variety, but they are practical and full of self-respect.

From the sunny beginning to the relief-filled end, this film is beautiful, hilarious, and bittersweet. Please be sure to make time for this total treasure of a movie.

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: State of Bacon

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: May 15, 2014; Comedy; Written & Directed by: Jason Cook; With: J.C. Collier, Caroline Fink, The Iowa Bacon Board, Chuck Grassley, Terry Branstad, Kim Pfannebecker

State of Bacon, a reimagining of the 2013 Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, is an idiosyncratic whirlwind of bacon-flavored fun. Most of its chief characters appear as themselves in a mockumentary delivery that really suits the story.

Firstly, let’s get the basics out of the way. A) The Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival is a real thing. In 2013, it sold out in 3 minutes and some odd seconds, and it continues to be one of the highlights of the winter season in Des Moines. B) There is such a thing as a Bacon Queen. She is crowned by the Iowa Bacon Board (also real) at the Festival each year. While I wasn’t there, it appears Kim Pfannebecker won her crown by wearing a skirt made of raw bacon and rapping her own bacon-centric lyrics to Run DMC’s It’s Tricky. It’s all there in the movie. And it’s boss. C) In 2013, 11,000 pounds of bacon were served at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, and 9,500 ticket holders attended. The idea behind SOB is that several groups of eccentric, wily, fascinating folks each spend the film preparing for the BRBF in their own bizarro ways and, eventually, cross paths in front of those ticket-holders while the ends of their tales unfold for the viewer. It’s chaotic as all get-out, and it’s supremely amusing.

Brooks Reynolds, the Chairman and President of Bacon for the Iowa Bacon Board narrates the film to a group of attractive, young women in a bar. He’s got his own brand of charm and I suspect (although I’m certainly not sure) the times when he’s the most charming are those when he’s got very few scripted requirements. The rest of the Bacon Board didn’t become the governing entity behind a bacon festival for nothing. They all also have their own charming moments. I’m partial to Seth Hall, but I’m sure you’ll identify your favorite after seeing the movie. Their mission might be suited by making trading cards with their photos and stats on them – just a thought…

The film intertwines the tale of the Bacon Board’s plan for the 2013 Festival with the intentions of a group of Icelandic gentlemen, who insist upon attending so that they might prove their bacon’s superiority. Additionally (and the real gem of a storyline here), Logan and Grace, two grade-schoolers with a hidden agenda (they have to get into the BRBF, just to prove they can; the age requirement is a whopping 21 years), create their own investigative food-and-restaurant-based news program to obtain press passes. Logan also really wants Grace to go out with him and he may have promised her entry to the Festival and a shot at television exposure in exchange for a date. They are positively adorable and full of charisma and camera-comfort.

Technically, the movie runs like a doc. It’s a combination of what I assume is actual footage from the 2013 bacon fest and the “mock” footage Cook shot (namely the Icelandic folks and the children, as well as an obnoxious food critic, and two dudes who passed out in a tent “camping out” for early entry to the Festival). It’s not necessarily supposed to be “clean,” but the last eight minutes of the film are edited really cleverly, with each scene bleeding into the next via some great audio manipulation. It’s cut quickly and cleanly and watching it pan out is worth the cost of admission in-and-of-itself. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned, the movie includes several other fantastic elements, so the ticket price is a steal. Plus, from what I’ve heard, it includes some complimentary bacon.

It would be thoughtless of me if I didn’t also mention that, while the PETA folks do show up at the BRBF (and I’m not sure if they’re genuine or not, as is the burden borne by the mockumentary film), their presence is handled with cool even-handedness and they eventually enjoy a Coors Lights, the beer of all bacon-eating champions.

– Leah Gehlsen

Film review: My Date with Adam

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: November 2013; Written & Directed by: Dennis Schebetta; With: Tressa Glover, Brian Morvant, Julianne Avolio, Dennis Schebetta

My Date With Adam is the darling story of Sarah (Tressa Glover), a wedding planner whose camel’s back depends on the success of her upcoming date with Adam (Brian Morvant), a computer science PhD candidate she met online. In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I will say that Adam is so much more than a man. Unfortunately for Sarah, a good ol’ man is all she really wants. Her bestie Julie (Julianne Avolio) provides the requisite (and charming) snarky commentary while Sarah navigates a sticky wicket of a situation.

MDWA is, at its heart, an homage to ‘80s rom-coms, full of romantic gestures, a female protagonist who is always a bridesmaid…, a little bit of suspension of disbelief, and a super-catchy soundtrack. It references Say Anything on three separate occasions, and features a sidekick who is thisclose to having a few too many and crooning her own version of Joe Lies, such is her put-on disdain for the rougher gender.

Glover is low-key and lovely as Sarah, but she’s clearly got a handy and spot-on knack for comic timing. Her explosions and expletive-tossing are well-measured and hilarious. Avolio is the perfect associate, cleanly responding to Glover’s cues and developing an honest character in the process. Morvant is adorable as Adam / Philip (See the film to witness the reveal of the dual role!). His physicality is perfect here, stiff and uncomfortable as is appropriate and relaxed and earnest later as he woos Sarah.

This movie is, visually, laid out just like a good, solid, happy romantic comedy. The brights are bright, the floofs are floofy, and, due to Sarah’s and Julie’s jobs in the wedding business, most scenes are festooned with white fluff and tiaras, cakes, garland, and champagne flutes. It’s a seamless counterpoint to Sarah’s intense desire to find Prince Charming by her self-set deadline, and a perfect way to set this little gem.

All the elements are in the right places in this film. It’s truly just good fun.

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Deliver Us From Evil

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Robert McDermott; With: Bill Dablow, Craig Roath, Scott Awalt, Christopher Johnson

Deliver Us From Evil is a tense, nervy, little movie with a straightforward narrative set against a sparse backdrop of dull air and paltry bits of melting snow. Sam (Christopher Johnson) and Jimmy (Scott Awalt) pick up jumpy stranger (Craig Roath) on the side of a Midwestern two-lane. They take him to their Uncle Frank’s (Bill Dablow) home just down the road to pick up some tools in order to fix his broken down van. They realize quickly that he’s not what he seems. Let the games begin.

Interestingly enough, DUFE is also, honestly, a little bit of a love story. The bits and pieces of Midwestern life, a Midwestern winter, are everywhere. Uncle Frank lives in a farmhouse, full of wood trim, with ample square footage, and small rooms. He listens to a police scanner and serves up Spam casserole, corn, and white bread for lunch. He’s firm in his polite behavior, requiring a meal before vehicle repair and insisting that Jeff, the stranger, say “grace” before their meal. When Sam mentions a handicap identification tag on Jeff’s van, asking if he’s “biopolar or something,” Uncle Frank shakes his head and gives Sam an admonishing look. It’s perfect, and not a clever cliché. It’s absolute Midwestern reality, and it, along with the landscape, dry and lonely in the winter months (with the understanding that it will thrive soon enough) are a lovely testament to the setting.

Technically, the movie is long on creativity. Films frequently parallel their plot’s moments with technical elements that draw attention and to allow for a more layered narrative, sort of like highlighter. This film’s highlighter is in its camera work. DUFE’s narrative tension allows for almost manic, sickening camera movements. Upon achieving goals, finding keys, feeling satisfaction, the camera relaxes and the movements are fluid and paced. It’s a really nice approach and it doesn’t beat the viewer over the head. It certainly occasionally elicits a bit of anxiety, though, which is perfect here.

The music in the movie is a frantic hum, a combination of strings and keys that build to a sort of tense, fevered place before revealing and releasing the pressure with an alarming thud of sound. It’s a well-used element that, along with the camera’s unease make for a really restless delivery.

There’s not a poor performance here, but it’s Dablow who makes the most of the time allotted. His Frank is developed, a capable man with a moral code and ballsy behavior which serve him well. He’s also carrying on with a pack of cigarettes in a way that’s totally lacking in speculation.

Not only did I enjoy this movie, but I appreciated it, and I think you will too. Enjoy!

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Makeover

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Narrative Short; Written & Directed by: Don Percy; With: Tom Travers, Charlie Ranger, Kristen Condon, Rita Crispin

Horrie Bedwell is alone. His dog Buster and beloved wife Maggie are gone. And his lady-scoring car keys are collecting cobwebs on a shelf. Enter Elsie, a personal ad-placer with a dog named Bacon, who Horrie suspects will revitalize him. As long as she doesn’t ever find out how old and rusty he really is.

Makeover details the charming and adorable tale of Horrie’s preparation for, and enjoyment of, their first date.

Makeover took second place at the 2013 Tropfest, the twenty one-year-old largest short film festival in the world, and rightly so. This film is darling, a little disgusting, and, ultimately, extraordinarily entertaining.

Technically, it’s a perfect counterpoint to its narrative, a visual parallel to the goings-on. During the first minutes, Horrie sits in his dusty, grimy home, talking to his dead wife and thumbing through the magazine which contains the personal ads. His home is a wreck and the film is filtered through his home’s grit, while miniscule rays of sunshine sift their way through (one can only imagine) cracks around his windows and holes in the framework. The grubbiness is maintained while Horrie files, rips, pins, paints, and vacuums himself into oblivion to prepare for his date. Once he’s out the door, though, be-wigged and bedazzled, oh, how the club music does play. Horrie’s world looks like it’s just discovered Technicolor. The pink of Elsie’s cardigan and the orange of their shared sundae cup nearly shine. They run on the beach and the sky is perfection, a clever and adorable visual representation of their newfound love.

But Elsie has a secret too, and Charlie Ranger and Kristen Condon, as the made-up Horrie and Elsie, are a delight as they reveal it. This is a lovely, little film and it made me smile through every cutesy (and occasionally revolting) second.

-Leah Gehlsen

Film Review: Beautiful Jim

August 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Documentary; Written & Directed by: Rex Jones; With: Jimbeau Hinson, Brenda Fielder

Beautiful Jim is the product of the Southern Documentary Project, a partner institute of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Rex Jones, a permanent staff member of the Project has chosen singer / songwriter Jimbeau Hinson as the subject of an almost-hour-long documentary representative of a story of “the most storied place.” While that is absolutely accurate, as Jimbeau is a true Southern treasure (and he has a helluva story to tell), I’d argue that his story is representative of so many things, not the least of which is a subject that receives far too little attention these days and the pure, unadulterated fearlessness it takes someone to emotionally and physically battle a terminal illness.

Jimbeau is a product of Newton, Mississippi, and is, as the doc description states, “the first openly bisexual singer/songwriter in country music.” He has been HIV-positive for over 30 years and has almost succumbed to AIDS twice. He has been married to his wife for 33 years, and has written some of the more recognizable songs in country music, as well as having worked exclusively for the Oak Ridge Boys at the height of their career.

The film is a snippet, a slice-of-life. More specifically, it’s Jimbeau’s life and, while he’s able to give a pretty concise backstory in the 53 minutes allotted, the film also features his town, his comfy home, his beautiful, stalwart wife, and, most importantly, his music.

The film opens and closes on Jimbeau, himself, singing his heart out, eyes bright, smile wide, and voice clear. Jimbeau’s music is a character in this film. We see it all the time in the cleverest of rocked-out celluloid, in the most developed of biopics, but it’s so personal here. Jimbeau is allowed to speak candidly about how music was his true gift, the one thing he felt he had to offer the world, and while AIDS threatened his life, it also threatened the future of his gift, which may have been just as important.

Jones’ camerawork here is clean and this movie is technically very tidy. While Jimbeau discusses his high school and the typical teenage years there, full of angst and resentment, the camera neatly pans its way across his high school auditorium. While Jimbeau speaks solemnly about the rise of AIDS and his time with the Oak Ridge Boys, the sequence of photos and news articles is positively ship-shape. I read online that Jones shot a majority of the film himself using a GoPro (a small mount-anywhere camera) which explains a fantastic shot of Jimbeau’s pill box lid opening revealing the varied bottles within. I never once thought about the filmmaking or the camera work while watching this film which is exactly as it should be. Jimbeau is the real focus of the film, not the technicality. That said, there’s an art to an uncluttered experience, to understanding how to show it all beautifully without showing it all off beautifully and Jones nails it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Jimbeau’s energy and charisma. This film could have been poorly executed and it would likely still shine under the tutelage of Jimbeau’s glittering personality. Toward the end of the film, Jimbeau mentions a friend of his who once said, “In order to be a great songwriter, you need to be a great person” because, as Jimbeau had previously mentioned, songs must be a mirror to the audience. It is clear that Jimbeau’s songwriting chops are based squarely on this principle. This movie is fascinating and wholly entertaining. It would be a shame to miss it.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan