Home from the War: How the Real World Crept into KC FilmFest
by Dan Lybarger
While films often offer a relief from the troubles outside the theater’s doors, many of this year’s offerings at last week’s KC FilmFest were entertaining because they looked unflinchingly at real world issues.
Of the nearly 100 offerings at this year’s downtown festival, at least four of the major features involved the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Happy New Year, Cost of a Soul and Homecoming), one involved the revolt in Kyrgyzstan (The Interim Country) and another (The Rescuers) recounted diplomats who save tens of thousands of Jews from extermination during the Third Reich. Even the classic comedy that was featured on the closing day, KC native Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H unflinchingly recalled the cost of the Korean War from the operating table.
With literally hundreds of films to sample from April 6-10, I could only catch a tiny fraction of what was playing that weekend, but here are a few of the offerings that deserve to be seen outside the confines of the festival
A few days before this last festival started, I received an email from 27-year-old writer/director Sean Hackett, a former Prairie Village resident, politely asking me to see his film.
I’m glad I did. Not only was the film a solid debut effort but also it ended up winning the jury prize for Best Narrative Film.
If I had ignored his request, I would have missed a moving, thoughtful look at three 20-somethings whose lives have stalled since high school. Actually, one of the three, Estelle (Brea Grant), has an excellent reason for letting her medical studies slide. She’s an Army medic who takes pride in saving lives on the battlefield even if her old classmates think she isn’t living up to her potential. Her pals (Hackett and Tom Fox Davies) have different, if less exciting reasons for staying where they are.
Hackett may be working with a microscopic budget, but he makes good use of his Orlando, FL locations. If you’ve never set foot in the city, Walt Disney World is not the only distinctive spot there. He also handles his performers, including veteran actress Colleen Camp (Election, Apocalypse Now) as Estelle’s mother, with remarkable ease. The three leads seem like old pals, even when they start feuding.
The war may be in the background of The Homecoming, but it’s still there. Estelle comes back for 18-day breaks from her duty but wavers about whether to continue her service. Her more aimless buds think nothing of asking her to go AWOL, even when her job gives her a purpose that they lack.
POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Documentarian Morgan Spurlock’s best moments seem to come when flirts with suicide. In Super Size Me, he almost died from spending an entire month eating nothing but McDonald’s cuisine. His latest bit of self-sabotage is even funnier and far more disturbing.
In POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock examines the annoyingly omnipresent phenomenon of product placement in movies and television. Instead of merely poking fun at times when a film’s hero might need to find info from an Apple computer or make a call on a Sprint phone, Spurlock turns himself into a walking billboard. He spends most of the film wheeling and dealing with corporate sponsors to obtain financing for the film he’s shooting in front of them and gets himself into some amusing legal binds. Wherever he goes, he has to stay at a Hiatt hotel, and he has to get from place to place on JetBlue.
In the process, Spurlock gets himself brain scanned to see how advertising affects even our dreams. He also stages some hilarious adverts (some of which look eerily real) that are more persuasive than the ones the flacks create. He also visits Sao Paolo, Brazil where billboards have been banned. It might seem a horrible blow to free speech, but one merchant who continues to thrive admits that he depends on consumer goodwill, not hype, to sell his products. Gee, imagine that.
Some of the stronger material at festival came from the shorts. I can’t offer a disinterested view of Todd Norris’ latest, Candy Apple Red, because I had a tiny role in Killing Michael Bay, another short he co-directed. That said, Norris, whose previous shorts have been solid comedy or horror entries, has created a fascinating drama about a romantically frustrated photographer (Sharon Wright) who finds herself becoming attracted to a massage therapist (Lisa Marie Evans). I’m not the only who’s taken with this film. It won awards at Aphrodite Cinefest and earned the Best LGBT film at SENEfest, in Providence, RI.
Morgan Dameron’s It Was Like That earned the AMC Theaters Young Filmmaker Award. Originally from the KC metroplex, Dameron tells a quiet, but engaging story about a 20-something woman trying to recover from a devastating breakup. Her life takes an odd turn when an outgoing lesbian introduces herself starts flirting with her. It was odd seeing this entry immediately after Candy Apple Red, but it has an appeal of its own.
Andy Anderson, a frequent KC Film Fest and KC Jubilee participant, received the Indy Pioneer award for a career that includes the thriller Positive I.D. and the dark comedy Learning Curve (a k a Detention). One of his early shorts, Point of View was made in the mid-‘70s but is an eerie precursor to movies like Man Bites Dog, Paranormal Activity and other meta-films where the line between documenting a crime and participating in it become blurred. A team of masked home invades film themselves terrorizing a suburban couple. It’s difficult to watch, and that’s certainly the intent.
The special screening for M*A*S*H was a fundraiser for the new Robert Altman Emerging Filmmakers Fund, which is designed to help local filmmakers get their starts. The Kansas City-based Calvin Company was where Altman cut his teeth making instructional films until his low-budget exploitation flick The Delinquents opened doors for him in Hollywood. Sadly, while there are some small, thriving production houses, there isn’t any place like the Calvin Company in Kansas City today, so the Fund is intended to give his successors an edge.
Because the television series that followed it was so popular and lasted longer than the war that inspired it, the film version of M*A*S*H inadvertently gets ignored even though it was one of the most popular movies of the early 1970s and established Altman, then a journeyman television director, as a major talent.
Despite having the same setup, location and characters, the 1970 film differs from its TV counterpart in tone, attitude and content. The movie is much darker, featuring grisly sequences where Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper (Elliott Gould) attempt to keep wounded soldiers alive despite power outages and supply shortages. After spending hours of witnessing the results recent battles, the doctors resort to clowning that makes the frat boy antics in Animal House seem well mannered and dignified. Altman gets away with presenting these mean-spirited shenanigans because they’re about the only way the doctors can keep their sanity.
Although set in 1950s Korea, Altman cleverly kept the setting vague, which allowed the film to comment on Vietnam (and the conflicts to come). Notice how the “Koreans” in the film dress more like people from Southeast Asia. He also did something the TV series could never hope to do. Unlike an episode of the show, you can’t watch it once and grasp all it has to say.
As with most Altman films, the characters talk over each other, and there are tiny sight gags throughout the film that can’t possibly be spotted in a single viewing. The benefit screening featured a Q&A with Kathryn Altman, the director’s widow, Mike Altman (the director’s son and the co-author of the theme song “Suicide Is Painless”) and actor Michael Murphy.
After the screening, Mrs. Altman told me that even though she’s seen the film dozens of times since it was made, she had missed a musical gag involving cheerleaders at the end of the film until now. Basically, if you’ve never seen the film in its entirety or know it only by reputation, make an effort to catch it for the first time or watch it again. You’ll see a much different movie than you might expect.
More to Come
The Philadelphia-made Cost of a Soul is coming back to KC in May and will be opening in 500 theaters nationwide because it won the AMC Independent/Rogue Big Break Movie Contest. Viewers might also want to keep an eye out for The Victim, an entertainingly sleazy grind house-inspired thriller written and directed by Michael Biehn, who has appeared in everything from The Terminator to Tombstone. It’s always a treat to catch films like these before the rest of the world gets a chance to sample them. Perhaps Rogers and Hammerstein weren’t too far off when they declared that “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.”
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.