Friday, April 18, 2008

Featured Filmmaker -- Ben Slamka, director of Tympanic

Ben Slamka is the epitome of resourcefulness. When I met him at a local coffee house, he was writing his latest script on an old borrowed laptop, a long-since-outmoded Sony still running on Windows 95 that he refers to as a “dinosaur.” In a day when wannabe screenwriters spend hundreds of dollars on scriptwriting software, Slamka is writing brilliant work on a computer that doesn’t even have enough juice to run those programs. As a senior at the University of Arizona, he managed to make his senior thesis film Tympanic for $5000, most of which was funded by grants, donations, and outside investors. That’s a paltry sum that he estimates could very easily have been three times as much. But he relied on “student perks and discounts,” such as donated 16mm film stock from Kodak. He didn’t let a lack of resources stand in the way of his vision. “You find ways,” he said.

The Cincinnati native and 2007 U of A graduate always wanted to be a filmmaker, but was initially too “afraid of being poor” to take film classes. He started off majoring in health sciences, then physiology, before finally making the leap to film. “I always liked film,” he said. But Slamka has more than just an interest in watching movies – he has an abundance of talent at making them.

Slamka is a writer and director of several shorts, and he has plans to dabble in documentaries soon. The film he’s most proud of, though, is Typmanic, which he first described as “simple, cold and painful” before correcting himself – “simple, cold, and ironic.” Ironic indeed, but it’s certainly a painful film to watch (and hear). Tympanic is about a man imprisoned in a dank and empty prison cell. Fitted with a device on his head that amplifies sounds to an ear-piercing degree, he’s driven to the brink of insanity by a common housefly.

There’s no information given about the prisoner, or when or where the film takes place. “It has three acts,” he said, “but we don’t give you too much.” He feels that some short films suffer from trying to pack in too much story or detail into a small timeframe. “Here, we just have this moment,” he said, but without giving any answers, Slamka’s film raises all sorts of questions.

Slamka and his producer/cinematographer Troy Kurtz shot the film in 6 days at the Tucson Ice hockey rink. They built the set in Slamka’s backyard, a time-consuming process which required thousands of rivets to be individually hand-glued to the walls. He’s quick to credit Kurtz and others who helped out, who accepted payment in the form of beer and pizza. “I couldn’t have done it by myself by any means,” he said, appreciative of the “great effort from people who were excited to work on the film.”

It should come as no surprise that his major stylistic influences include atmospheric geniuses like Fincher, Lynch, and Cronenberg (who he refers to as “the three Daves”). But the theme of Tympanic comes from Slamka’s personal experiences --he was in and out of hospitals for 6 months recovering from a brain hemorrhage, where he remembers “being alone, cold, and in pain.” During this time, he thought a lot about a different kind of imprisonment – being stuck in the hospital or physical therapy, not being able to move forward.

Fully recovered from his illness, Slamka is moving forward very quickly these days. In the Fall of ’08, he will begin working on his M.F.A. at the University of Texas-Austin. His dedication to academics (he graduated suma cum laude with a 3.95 GPA) secured him a spot in the program, but he believes Tympanic is what landed him a very prestigious fellowship.

This is an impressive and stylized film that sucks you in. “You can create a world, that’s the neat thing about film,” he said, before quickly adding “if you do it right.”

With Tympanic, Slamka did it right.

Ben’s picks to see at the festival: The Electric Sleep

Tympanic is part of the Arizona Shorts program, which plays Wednesday April 23rd at 8:00 p.m. at The Screening Room.

The Flyboys

Action and adventure are served up in surprising doses in this family drama and coming-of-age story that finds two young boys inadvertently caught in the middle of a mob family feud.

Kyle Barrett (Reiley McClendon) is the new kid in junior high, and he finds himself in a heap of trouble on the first day when he brashly stands up to the school bully. This is where director Rocco DeVilliers The Flyboys instantly announces itself as something completely different, something original and daring – rather than find Kyle on the wrong end of a fist, he actually fights and beats up not one, not two, but three bullies. When he’s tracked down by the bullies’ older, tougher brothers, Kyle still doesn’t back down. This kid kicks ass and takes names – so he can hunt you down and kick your ass again.

Kyle wasn’t getting in fights just for the fun of it (though he does seem to have a sly smile on his face after he keys a bully’s car) – he’s fighting to protect the sheepish Jason McIntyre (Jesse James), a quiet kid who is no stranger to bullies. The two boys develop an instant bond when they discover that they have a shared passion for airplanes. Kyle’s uncle gives the two a daring flight in an old two-seat plane.

Soon Kyle and James are hanging out at the local airport, checking out the planes and dreaming of being in the sky. One day they take their curiosity one step too far when they board a plane and are forced to hide in the cargo hold after the plane’s owner shows up. Unfortunately for them, the owner is taking the plane into the air. This is the boys’ biggest problem – until they find a bomb on the plane. Things go from bad to worse to much, much worse when they find that the pilot and passengers have abandoned the plane, leaving them on a collision course with a mountain.

The story takes an unexpected twist when we find that the pilot and passengers are mobsters up to no good. If Jason and Kyle are able to land the plane, they may have the clues to solve a multi-million dollar heist. But landing the plane’s only the first threat to their survival. Once they’re out of the air, they’ll have a host of mobsters looking for them.

Reiley McClendon and Jesse James are two rising stars in the industry. Since filming The Flyboys, Reiley has had roles on CSI and CSI: Miami, as well as Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Jesse has been on television since he was 8 years old, and won the Hollywood Reporter Young Star Award for his role in the Oscar-winning film As Good As It Gets.

In addition to the great performances by these two rising young stars, The Flyboys also features a few established Hollywood talents. Golden Globe-nominee Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Heat) plays mobster Angelo Esposito. Angelo is a tricky character to handle – gruff and hard on the exterior, but ultimately a caring and tender guy who may actually have the boys’ best interests in mind – but Sizemore embodies him perfectly.

Stephen Baldwin (Celebrity Mole: Yucatan, Celebrity Mole: Hawaii, Celebrity Bull Riding Challenge, Celebrity Apprentice, and Celebrity Fear Factor) does a great job as Silvio, Angelo’s troubled but well-meaning brother. This is the best performance I have ever seen from a man who was once placed in a plexiglass coffin with 3000 hissing Madagascar cockroaches.

The Flyboys refuses to conform to the standards of its genre. This is no Agent Cody Banks or Spy Kids. The action is more intense, the suspense more nerve-wracking, the dangers more pervasive, the stakes much higher. There’s murder, robbery, and foul-mouthed mobsters. The Flyboys’ rejection of the family film guidelines is what sets it apart – above and beyond – other films of its kind. This is a film that is going to find a wider and more fervent fan base than the normal coming-of-age family movie.

The Flyboys is one of the most suspenseful and exciting movies you’ll find at the festival this year. Filled with car chases, aerial maneuvers, and great photography, this is a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen. It’s playing twice, and you may find yourself at both screenings.

Special note to parents: The Flyboys may not be appropriate for the whole family. It is a coming-of-age story of two young boys, and it does rely on strong morals and family values, but the language is a bit coarse and the violence a little rough. The Flyboys was submitted to the MPAA and rated PG-13 for violence and language.

The Flyboys will be playing on Sunday, April 20th at 3:00 p.m. and Friday, April 25th at 7:30 p.m. at Crossroads.

Visit the official site --

Featured Filmmaker -- Jackie Torrens, director of Pickled Punk

Jackie Torrens’ directorial debut Pickled Punk had a modest budget of $800, but the Halifax-based actor/poet/playwright/director was willing to pay any price to secure the perfect star for her film. She was able to find her lead for only $125 – a good portion of the budget, but a steal considering the short wouldn’t have worked without him. This was the kind of star who would make headlines and turn heads. After all, he's a fetus.

Pickled Punk is the story of a 20-week old fetus preserved in formaldehyde that lands in the hands of a pair of Canadian yuppies. Pickled Punk (a prop Torrens found by Googling “fetus rentals”) lives in their home, acting as voyeur and conversation piece. She describes the 10 minute short as “a fantastical, realistic, cautionary tale,” but notes that the film makes no political statements. “The film has nothing to do with abortion. I knew that because the main character is a fetus there might be some people who would see it that way,” she said “but Pickled is a metaphor for aborted potential - or whatever anybody else might want it to be about.”

Torrens knows a little something about telling a layered, multi-faceted story. Originally an English major, Torrens has worked up quite an impressive resume from her work in theatre – her critically-acclaimed plays including Fables and Georama have been professionally produced and have premiered at high-profile venues such as the National Arts Center in Ottawa. But Torrens, who first and foremost considers herself a writer, wanted to try directing because it was something new, something that would hopefully push her out of a self-described “period of creative stagnation.”

But there’s no sign of any creative stagnation in Pickled Punk, which is not only one of the most unique shorts at the AIFF, but has also toured the festival circuit and been touted for its originality. Perhaps taking a step back from the stage and picking up a Sony PD-150 relit her creative flame. “Working with the camera brought my mojo back,” she said. “I wanted to direct, I wanted to experiment, I wanted to see what I could accomplish in spite of obstacles.”

The obstacles were clear on Pickled – a limited budget, a very short shooting schedule, and no prior experience behind the camera. But Torrens had a unique approach to filmmaking. “Proceeding with the mindset that obstacles are not really obstacles was very helpful,” she said.

After overcoming the foreseen, and unforeseen, obstacles with Pickled, Torrens is ready to go behind the camera again in the very near future. New technology is changing production and distribution, and the emerging independent culture appeals to Torrens. “The new technology is quite ‘democratic,’ meaning you can get away with a lot now that you couldn't before.” Similar to her experience with poetry, theatre, and radio, Torrens is drawn to the artistic liberty of independent filmmaking. “They're almost these under-the-radar genres - you certainly can't get rich in them. But what they do have is creative freedom,” she said. “It's like your artistic development can happen a bit more quietly.”

But Pickled Punk refuses to be quiet – it will continue to tour international festivals before airing on CTV in Canada later this year. As for Pickled Punk himself? “I imagine he's in California, the land of his birth. Of course he never writes or calls,” Torrens said. “Prick.”

Jackie’s picks to see at the festival: Bush vs. Bin Laden, If a Body Meet a Body, Away from Her.

Pickled Punk is part of the Edgy Shorts Program, which plays Friday, April 18th at 10:30 p.m. at The Screening Room. Note to parents: this program starts at 10:30 and is called “edgy” for a reason.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Donovan Slacks

Director Kivmars Bowling experiments with form and narrative while paying homage to silent film, early talkies, and contemporary cinema in this story of a fragile-boned rabble-rouser who leads a group of fishermen in a revolution against an oppressive government.

Donovan Slacks lives his life in fear. And for good reason, too – he’s been conditioned to believe that something, or everything, is wrong with him. His doctor tells him that he’s depressed. His therapist tells him that his life is out of order and that he’ll soon fall apart. And Donovan’s mother convinced him that he has a soft head due to a bone condition. So he wears an old pilot’s cap everywhere he goes, checks himself into a Sea Bathing Hospital, and asks for the doctors to cure him. All he gets, unfortunately, is more discouraging diagnoses from the staff.

Donovan’s terrified of life, but he can’t help but want more from it. He’s intrigued when he stumbles across a fisherman’s union that is embroiled in a bitter taxing dispute with the government. Somehow Donovan inadvertently is chosen to be their official spokesperson – his bowtie and collared shirt gives him an authoritative look, and he impresses the fishermen by using words like “desist.” He’s afraid of standing up to the government, but this fear, unlike his others, is not irrational. The government relies on a constant threat of force, hinting that violence awaits around every corner. Donovan hatches a plan to appease both sides, but his idea may end up causing more harm than good.

Donovan Slacks is not just an engaging narrative, but it’s also a celebration and concoction of cinematic forms. The first half of the film is shot like a silent film, complete with an accompanying piano score. However, it’s shot in color looks like old film stock from the 50s that would have been used for home movies.. The “silent film” portion uses a few contemporary filmmaking techniques that weren’t so prevalent in the 1920s – more close-ups, a diversity of angles, and quicker cuts to name a few. This is a mix of just about everything.

About halfway through the movie, Donovan makes the transition from silent film to “talkie” (which is fitting – Slacks takes place in 1928, just as the silent film era was giving way to the sound era). The transition is certainly not arbitrary. Donovan suddenly learns to talk, in a matter of speaking, after a great revolution – he’s been lied to all of his life, and now he can finally hear the truth.

The analysis of language, both as a tool and a weapon, is what makes this movie so rich and layered. Strangely enough, Donovan Slacks feels like the antithesis of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic, language is incapable of expressing anything. The characters are inarticulate, and what they say is trite and vapid. But Donovan Slacks is about finding your voice – literally. It’s about learning to speak up for yourself, and speak out about injustices – once again, quite literally. It’s about the power of language to communicate truth. Where Kubrick didn’t see language as capable of keeping up with technology and progress, Bowling sees language as its own form of progress. Once Donovan learns to speak, he’s become fully human.

But, ultimately, language fails and betrays Donovan and his friends. Once the characters in Slacks gain their voice, the oppression from the dominant ideology becomes even more stifling. The government officials can speak, too, and they’re going to make sure that theirs is the last word heard. Ironically, the government was all “talk” during the silent portion. It wasn’t until they had the option of using a voice, of creating a dialogue between opposing parties, that they escalated their violence to a new level.

Kivmars Bowling’s had a difficult time securing financing for his eccentric debut film, but Slacks has proven to be a hit on the festival circuit. The AIFF is one of nearly a dozen international film festivals that have chosen Donovan Slacks as an official selection.

Bowling has crafted a hefty, thought-provoking film that’s going to be open to a multitude of different interpretations. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale about overmedication, or a critique of psychoanalysis. It’s a coming-of-age story, and an inspiring fairy tale about the need for political dissent. It’s a love story, a social problem film, and a morality tale. But I think ultimately this is a celebration of the communal power of the cinema. It’s a dissection of filmmaking as a process and film as a medium. Slacks is a hodgepodge of styles and movements and aesthetics, but somehow Bowling blends everything together in a way that feels entirely natural – it’s wholly original yet somehow perfectly authentic. Its elements are so well-conceived that they integrate seamlessly yet stand out on their own. Donovan Slacks is a really great film for true film lovers.

Donovan Slacks is playing on Sunday, April 20th at 6:00 p.m. and Thursday, April 24th at 10:00 p.m. at The Screening Room.

Visit the official site –

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Broken Fences

A lifetime of bad luck threatens a father and son’s reunion, as old wounds resurface and new ones are opened in Broken Fences, Troy McGatlin’s fusion of family drama and contemporary western.

Joe Simmons (Jan Van Sickle) is a quiet and simple man who prefers to spend his days alone working on his ranch. He gets up at 5:00 a.m. and makes sure that the horses, cattle, and chickens are fed before he sits down to eat. Joe lives this life of solitude by choice, but we get a hint early on that Joe has cut himself off from the world a little too much. When he goes to the town’s only store, he’s surprised to find his friend no longer owns the place – and hasn’t for quite some time. Joe might be a little bit lonely, but he’s found his routine and he likes it just fine.

But Joe’s life of peace is unexpectedly disrupted when he gets a phone call from his estranged son Dylan, who informs him that he was recently paroled from jail and is looking for a place to stay. Though it’s only hinted at, it’s clear that Joe and Dylan have a long tumultuous history, and Joe is originally unwilling to take him in, even temporarily. But Joe won’t let his boy live on the streets, and he soon finds himself outside the jail, collecting his son.

Dylan promises his father that he’s a changed man, and it’s easy to believe him. He speaks softly, works hard, and the only time he gets a fiery look in his eye is when he fervently tells his father that he’ll never go back to prison again. Dylan has a host of skeletons in his closet, but maybe undeservedly so. He’s a simple-minded boy who seems to be followed by a host of bad luck. A traumatizing incident in Dylan’s teenage years left him emotionally scarred and in the company of a few bad seeds. Dylan was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it ended up costing him 6 years of his life behind bars.

Even though Dylan promises he’s turned a new leaf, things are uneasy between the two from the very beginning. They eat in silence, work in silence, and spend time on opposite ends of the ranch. But Joe senses a change in Dylan that he can’t deny – maybe his son really has turned his life around. In their first candid moment, Dylan convinces Joe to ask a local shopkeeper out on a date. Things between the two men seem to be getting better, until Dylan’s streak of bad luck and bad behavior catches up to him. From there, the story unfolds in unexpected directions until the shocking third act that you won’t see coming.

There’s a subplot in Broken Fences about a cougar that terrorizes Joe’s livestock. Dylan is a lot like the cougar – unwanted, he stumbles onto Joe’s ranch, makes a mess of things, and leaves it all for his father to clean up. And like the cougar, Dylan doesn’t really mean any harm to Joe. Causing trouble may just be his lot in life. But getting rid of a cougar is easier than getting rid of a child.

Director Troy McGatlin, who graduated from University of Colorado film school, saved up $75,000 to finance Broken Fences by working as an assistant accountant on Batman & Robin, Saving Private Ryan, and Memoirs of a Geisha. But Fences isn’t his first feature – McGatlin directed Head Hunter, an award-winning slasher film, which was picked up by Spectrum Entertainment and released worldwide on DVD. McGatlin proves he’s a versatile filmmaker, effortlessly transitioning from horror to a quiet, touching family story. McGatlin’s talent is not going unnoticed – his work on Broken Fences just earned him the Grand Jury Award for Best Director at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival.

Broken Fences carefully explores this relationship between father and son without resorting to clich├ęs. It never asks the audience an obvious question, only to respond with an even more obvious answer. McGatlin has crafted a fine little film that will engage you and challenge you until the end. And what an end it is.
Broken Fences is playing on Sunday, April 20th at 5:00 p.m. at Crossroads.

Visit the official site --

Monday, April 14, 2008

Wednesday Again

When struggling Hollywood tabloid journalist Edward “Wag” Tamic (Richmond Arquette) gets a once-in-a-lifetime lead about an A-list actor’s sordid personal life, he thinks he’s found the story that will turn his career around. But in a city this corrupt, and when even the newspapers are on the movie studios’ payroll, will Wag’s scoop ever see the light of day?

Wag works for Privy, a Variety-esque tabloid staffed by not-so-honorable journalists who make a living writing about even less honorable Hollywood stars. Privy is slashing the budget, and Wag quickly goes from full-time staff writer to freeloading freelancer almost overnight. Unemployed, he spends most of his time with his friends, who are always trying to justify their chosen careers to themselves and each other. They’re paparazzi, gossip writers, and celebrity locators. Their relationships are all somewhat incestuous, as they buy and sell information from each other in order to keep their tenuous careers afloat.

One such piece of information comes to Wag from a longtime tipster, but it won’t be cheap. The asking price for this tidbit is $5000, but this is a story that definitely will be worth it. A reliable source has it that A-List Hollywood actor Dan Marr makes frequent trips to Venezuela in order to enjoy the company of the underage local girls. Wag doesn’t believe it at first, but his mind is quickly changed when he hears an audio recording of Marr’s arrest and interrogation in a Venezuelan police station. Yes, Marr has been arrested for this before, but his agent and the movie studio paid off the police and buried the story. But now Wag has a tape – irrefutable proof that he should be able to sell to the highest bidder in the States. Unfortunately, Wag finds that L.A. is a changing town where anyone, provided they have a good enough agent, can roam the streets.

While Wednesday Again primarily focuses on Wag’s attempt to break this story, you’ll want to pay special attention to the unfolding subplot involving his friend, a young paparazzi named Todd who spends his days digging up the dirt on celebrities, though he may have more skeletons in his closet than they do. Todd’s story may seem out of place at first – his budding romance with a young actress doesn’t seem to make sense when punctuating the larger plot’s narrative. But as the story progresses, we realize that Wednesday Again is every bit as much Todd’s story as it is Wag’s. Todd and Wag have to make some serious changes in their lives. But when they find a new direction, are they moving on, or just running from their problems?

Director John Lavachielli is an actor and writer (you may have seen him on The Practice or watched an episode he wrote of Beverly Hills, 90210), but this is first time directing a feature film. His direction is confident and assured, and he works well with a young cast of talented actors. Richmond Arquette is every bit as talented as his Arquette family name implies, and Brad Heller, who plays Todd, does a fine job of stealing scenes without even letting you know he’s stolen them. He silently helps the movie flow, masquerading as mere comic relief until his character becomes a major player in the story.

While Arquette, Lavachielli, and Heller are all very talented artists with bright futures on the horizon, perhaps the biggest find in Wednesday Again is the amazing music from singer/songwriter Sarabeth Tucek, who provides what is easily the best original soundtrack you’ll find at the festival this year. A mix of Nico, Natalie Merchant, and Mazzy Star, Tucek has a rich voice and a unique intonation that is sure to catch your ear. Already on her way to success (she recently opened for Bob Dylan, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Ray Lamontagne), Wednesday Again is a great introduction to this wonderful emerging artist.

This is an engaging story that unfolds into something quite unexpected. Wednesday Again is a nice companion piece to Chinatown (playing April 24th at the Fox Theatre), as they’re both nostalgic for the old Hollywood. A city, as Roger Ebert writes in his review of Chinatown, that “you can glimpse in the backgrounds of old movies, where the sun beats down on streets that are too wide, and buildings seem more defiant than proud.” And this nostalgia for the dying Hollywood (or maybe the lost Hollywood) works so well in Wednesday because, while Hollywood is essentially the main character, it’s never shown in any real way. There are no glamorized shots of Rodeo Drive, or cheery shots of the “Hollywood” sign. It’s always mentioned but never visualized. It’s a noticeable absence from the film, and in the minds of these characters, the city itself, the real city, is just as absent.

Wednesday Again offers a smart script, solid acting, and a wonderful soundtrack. This is a great little film that is a welcome addition to the lineup of solid features at this year’s festival.

Wednesday Again is playing on Saturday, April 19th at 9:30 p.m. at The Screening Room.

Visit Sarabeth Tucek's MySpace page --

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Union: The Business Behind Getting High

British Columbia’s marijuana business is a $7 billion a year industry, despite the fact that the sale of the plant is illegal, eh. Director Brett Harvey’s fascinating documentary asks how this is possible, why marijuana is outlawed, and just whose interests are being protected by banning the plant.

The Union, hosted by Executive Producer Adam Scorgie, begins with an exploration of the famed “BC Bud” – the popular marijuana grown in British Columbia. While the general consensus is that most of American pot comes from Canadian soil, Scorgie argues that this isn’t necessarily the case. Though 75% of BC Bud ends up in America, this particular product only accounts for 5% of the marijuana used in the United States.

But The Union just uses BC Bud as a springboard to discuss the larger issues surrounding the plant, namely legislation. Scorgie asks why marijuana is illegal, yet tobacco and alcohol, two much more dangerous drugs, are not. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that alcohol-related deaths are the third leading cause of mortality in the US, while tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death. However, there have been no cases of someone dying directly from marijuana use. It just makes playing Halo a little bit more fun.

More than half of the Canadian population has smoked pot at some point in their lives (compared to the US government’s estimate that 25% of Americans have tried marijuana at least once). Does this mean that the Canadian population is more open to the idea of marijuana, or are there just a lot of Canadians using the plant to cure their “migraines?” To answer this question, The Union explores the propaganda that has surrounded the drug for decades. Some of the best moments in the film come from 50s and 60s educational filmstrips that demonize pot. However, Scorgie and Harvey follow reefer madness all the way up to the present day, citing multiple US presidents who have either ignored or suppressed scientific studies that fail to link marijuana to serious health problems.

Harvey’s film argues that the biggest loser in the marijuana debacle may be the hemp plant. Like marijuana, hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, but hemp cannot be used to get high. Unfortunately, its close association with marijuana has resulted in many governments outlawing hemp cultivation. However, hemp has long since been put to good use both in the States and abroad. Did you know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp – and that Jefferson wrote two drafts of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper? Most interesting is that the first law regarding hemp was actually a mandate requiring American colonies to grow the crop.

Scorgie is the perfect host for this documentary. He’s not condescending or abrasive or unlikable. He’s always one step ahead of the audience, ready to answer “why?” before we even have time to formulate the question. The logic here is clear, focused, and laboriously researched, and supported by interviews from leaders in health care, science, the justice system, and Joe Rogan. Yes, the former host of Fear Factor, who used to laugh perversely as he goaded contestants into drinking blended tarantulas on camera, is considered an expert source alongside journalists, biochemists, and a former Harvard Medical School professor. I don’t know who decided that the Joe Rogan is an expert on anything, but he seems to know a lot about smoking pot.

Will marijuana or the hemp plant ever be legalized in the States or Canada? The Union seems hopeful, but cautiously optimistic. Make no mistake, though. Harvey’s film is not just a rallying cry from potheads around the globe who dream of being able to get high in public. Rather, the only thing that he truly advocates and endorses is logic.

The Union is one of many incredible feature-length documentaries at this year’s festival. It has been accepted to 29 International Film Festivals, and is the winner of numerous awards. It’s funny, informative, and fair, and it may make you like Joe Rogan. And that’s the highest praise I can give any movie.
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High is playing on Tuesday, April 22nd at 8:00 p.m. at The Screening Room.

Visit the official site --

Monday, April 7, 2008

Quality Time

Stewart Savage (Corin Nemic) lives in a dystopic future where the ice caps are melting and the military controls all aspects of everyday life. Also, Stewart is a serial killer.

Chris LaMont’s experimental / sci-fi / family drama / dark comedy is a genre-bending film that’s in equal turns funny and thought-provoking, bleak and idyllic, and perverse and extremely perverse. The film begins with a nostalgic recreation of 1950s America, complete with a diner, milkshakes, and a jukebox. It’s eerily perfect, but something’s just not quite right about its deeply-saturated and vibrant colors. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this vision of the tranquil 50s is a little too ideal to be real. Soon it’s revealed to be nothing more than Stewart’s sick fantasy that obscures his even sicker reality. Cutting to the real world in present day (now gloomy, dank, and gray), we see what Stewart’s really up to: choking the last bit of life out of his co-worker Susan.

After this, things start to get a bit disturbing. Stewart, who we find out is the notorious North City Stalker, brings Susan’s lifeless body home to meet his parents. Stewart is fully unaware of the disconnect between fantasy and reality, and he doesn’t really understand that Susan is his latest murder victim and not his soon-to-be wife. His parents have become complacent with his slip into psychosis, but his cohabitating neighbors are a little less sympathetic. When they show up to the apartment, Stewart pulls a gun and forces the whole group to speak candidly to one another.

It’s not easy being Stewart. He holds a meaningless that job he hates, still lives with his parents, and is having a rough time with dating (maybe because he keeps strangling his girlfriends). To top it off, Quality Time takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, but the melting of the polar ice caps is almost a MacGuffin – a kick in the ribs for Stewart, a dose of salt in the wound of his already screwed up life. As if his tenuous grasp on reality wasn’t enough, he’s also got to deal with the impending death of entire population. It isn’t all bad, though – Newark has been completely wiped off the map.

What’s most interesting about Stewart’s two worlds is how seamlessly they can blend into one another. Though he fancies himself one of the Osmonds or a member of the Cleaver clan, his disturbed mind can’t keep his disturbed thoughts out of his fantasy world. He can put on a fake smile and sweater, but he can’t quit avoid killing people – even in his fantasies.

If you think you see more than just a few familiar faces in Quality Time, you’re absolutely right. Stewart is played by Corin Nemec, a regular on Stargate SG-1 and the star of the SciFi original movie Mansquito. Stewart’s father is played by Bruce Weitz, who is currently on General Hospital and is an Emmy-winner for his role on Hill Street Blues. John de Lancie, Stewart’s housemate, was a regular on Days of Our Lives for six years. Nancy Allen, star of Dressed to Kill, plays Stewart’s mother.

But the real star of Quality Time is the uniquely stylized aesthetic. Cinematographer Icardo Tourner's beautiful photography provided the framework for LaMont and Visual Effects Supervisor Rene de la Fuente, who spent over a year manipulating each frame to achieve the look of the film. The color-soaked 50s sequences are perfectly realized, while the reality everyone else lives in is as dirty, dark, and cramped. The film has a scratched, faded, and fuzzy look to it – like this is a beaten up print of a forgotten 80s sci-fi film. This stylish look is given an ironic spin due to Stewart’s deep hatred for television and film. “Show me the perfect family and I’ll tell you to change the channel,” says Stewart. Unfortunately for him, he can’t control the content of his own mind any better than he can control the content of the television. LaMont and de la Fuente also insert brief flashes of television static as Stewart’s reception of reality is more and more distorted. This is a great looking film.

Quality Time is a product of Emmy Award winner Chris LaMont, an ASU graduate (where he currently teaches film production). LaMont’s first feature The Best Movie Ever Made was a previous selection at the Arizona International Film Festival.

It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, this movie has definitely got it, and it’s all courtesy of a local talent. Filled with strong performances, an extremely stylish aesthetic, and a very smart script, Quality Time is a strangely funny but weighty film that really deserves to be seen.

Quality Time is playing on Saturday, April 26th at 9:30 p.m. at The Screening Room.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


On April 24th, a 35mm print of Roman Polanski’s gorgeous neo-noir classic Chinatown will be projected at the historic Fox Theatre. What more could a Tucson film fan want?

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a cop-turned-private eye who makes a living doing “matrimonial work,” trailing philandering husbands and catching them in the act. When Gittes is hired by Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to follow her husband, he uncovers more than just a routine case of infidelity. After producing a photograph of the cheating Mr. Mulwray, Gittes gets a visit from the real Evelyn, who claims an imposter hired him in the first place. Before Gittes has a chance to sort out who’s who, Mr. Mulwray is found dead, and Gittes is sucked into the web of deceit and double-crossers that you’ll only find in the best and grittiest noir stories.

Along with other classics like Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Chinatown helped to reinvent the film noir style in the New Hollywood era. But, unlike these other films, Chinatown is not just an homage (or even borderline-parody) of the dormant noir movement that had disappeared for nearly 20 years. Chinatown takes the conventions of great film noir – such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon –and updates them for the contemporary political and social anxieties of the time. Not only did the New Hollywood directors revive the film noir, they improved upon it. No small task, for sure.

In a genre known for its bleak outlook on life, Chinatown colors the movement two shades darker with graphic violence and an even gloomier atmosphere. This is partly due to newly-relaxed rules governing film content. In the 30s, 40s and 50s, Hollywood films were required to adhere to a “code” that dictated what could and could not appear in a film. At that time, there had to be a moral end to the story. Heroism must overcome villainy, leaving the crooked punished or dead. This was no longer the case in 1974, leaving the doors wide open for Gittes to succeed or fail – or fail miserably.

Gittes isn’t your typical noir hero – he’s not the cocky, keen, hardboiled detective that you may see in a Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler novel. In fact, his investigation leads to more murders than it ever solves. Gittes may not be Sam Spade, but Chinatown is unmistakably noir. Dark, dirty, and more than just a little bit sleazy, this is a film that won’t send you home with a warm fuzzy feeling (so after Chinatown, head over to La Placita for the 7:30 screening of the wonderfully cheery Wiener Takes All: A Dogumentary).

Polanski’s classic is one of the American Film Institute’s favorite films. It was honored with the 19th spot on the “AFI 100 Films…100 Years” list, #9 on “25 Best Film Scores,” #74 on 100 Best Quotes (“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”), #16 on 50 Greatest Villains (Noah Cross), and #16 on 100 Most Heart-Pounding Movies. Chinatown won 17 major awards, including an Oscar for Robert Towne’s screenplay, a BAFTA for Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski, and the Golden Globe for Best Motion picture. Ebert named Chinatown one of the “100 Great Movies,” and Entertainment Weekly called it the 4th best movie ever made. In short, Chinatown is pretty good.

Seeing this great movie on a 35mm print is a real treat, but seeing it downtown at The Fox makes this is an event that can’t be missed – especially for out-of-towners visiting Tucson for the festival. The Fox Tucson Theatre opened on April 11, 1930 to a very-sold-out crowd of 3000 people. The opening was such an event that Congress Street was closed to accommodate the throngs of filmgoers as well as four live bands, dancers, and a live radio broadcast. For the next 44 years, The Fox was the heart of Tucson’s film community until it closed in 1974 due to competition from other theatres, drive-ins, and a drought in downtown housing. But The Fox managed to escape demolition, and now, with a newly-renovated interior and exterior, it’s a growing member of the Tucson film community. Playing documentaries, independent movies, and film festivals in addition to orchestra concerts, operas, and stage plays, The Fox Tucson Theatre may well be on its way to being Tucson’s entertainment hub – and events like this one are sure to help.

Even if you’ve seen this great film before, you’ve never seen it like this. So if you’re thinking about passing on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…forget it. It’s Chinatown.

(And The Fox Tucson Theatre).

Chinatown is playing on Thursday, April 24th at 4:00 p.m. at the Fox Tucson Theatre.

Visit The Fox Tucson Theatre's official site --

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Marta's Sex Tape

Pop-art and pornography collide in Marta’s Sex Tape, a highly-stylized and highly-sexualized piece of performance art from writer/director Antonio Rivero.

Marta (Bread & Roses’ Pilar Padilla) needed a fast loan for art school so she borrowed $10,000 from her deadbeat half-brother Arturo. Now Arturo is back to collect on the loan and Marta’s flat broke (it turns out there’s no money in art). After stumbling across the adult video The Seductress of Monte Cristo VI, Marta decides to put her artistic skills to use by making a sex tape (NOTE: I feel that making a pun about this being the “titular” sex tape is too obvious, so I’ll refrain). Doesn’t Dustin Diamond have a sex tape out now?

Marta and her friend Bruhm try to get a loan from a porn mogul to make the movie, but when that falls through they rally the troops and go it alone. Along the way they meet a handful of strange wannabe porn stars, which is oft to happen when you run an ad in the paper seeking amateur porn stars. Marta puts her heart and soul into the work, but will her vision be too artistic for Mr. John Q. Porngoer?

Rivero’s “pop-art comedy” is a visually stunning film that uses a restrictive color palette, similar to work of pop-artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Wayne Thiebaud. Rivero and cinematographer Federico Teran use broad strokes of blue, purple, pink, black, white, and gold not only to give Marta its pop-art aesthetic, but also to reflect the change in Marta’s character as she grows throughout the film. The first act is primarily comprised of cold blues and black & white footage to mirror Marta’s insecurities – unemployed, unconfident, and unappreciated. After Marta takes the first step to control her destiny, the colors change to energetic pinks and purples, and soon give way to warm golden tones of self-assurance, which stand in stark contrast to the icy imagery laid out in the beginning.

Rivero spent four years assembling Marta, which was filmed in Mexico City, Los Angeles and Albuquerque. With the notable exception of Padilla (who was nominated for an ALMA award in 2002), most of the parts were filled by nonactors who were friends or acquaintances of the director. The part of Marta’s mother was played by Emilia Carbajal, a hotel housekeeper who Rivero met while traveling. Marta’s Sex Tape has already found a following on the internet (the MST MySpace page has nearly 2200 friends) as well as a fair share of critical accolades (the film just recently won the “Best Foreign Film” category at the Miami Underground Film Festival).

Marta’s Sex Tape asks, “Can a sex tape be art?” I supposed that depends on who’s in it. But Marta does what every good piece of art should – it takes risks, challenges the viewer, and poses questions that you’ll spend days discussing.

Even if you’re the kind of person who thinks Debbie Does Dallas could benefit from more nudity, Marta’s Sex Tape may still have you blushing. In case you haven’t guessed, this isn’t a film for the little ones. But if you’ve ever wanted to see what an Andy Warhol-directed adult film might look like, you can’t afford to miss Marta’s Sex Tape.

Marta's Sex Tape is playing on Friday, April 25th at 10:00 p.m. at The Screening Room.

Visit the official site --

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Ostrich Testimonies

Just north of Tucson, there’s a struggling ostrich farm that was once the largest in the country. Director Jonathan VanBallenberghe’s heartbreaking documentary shows how this once-thriving business, and the dreams of its owner, came crashing down in a matter of minutes.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the American ostrich industry seemed like a surefire investment for entrepreneurs. The high demand for ostrich meat is understandable – it has the taste of beef, but it’s lower in fat and cholesterol than turkey, chicken, or fish. Ostriches are more economical to raise than cattle, and they breed earlier, more regularly, and in greater numbers. Ostrich feathers and leather can bring in huge profits, meaning no part of this lucrative bird goes to waste. Attracting investors of all sorts, the ostrich – still an untapped industry in the States – was set to be the next big thing

The boom of ostrich farming prompted the formation of the American Ostrich Association in 1988. This documentary focuses on one of its founding members – the charismatic self-starter D.C. “Rooster” Cogburn who was determined to turn these strange birds into big bucks. Cogburn decided to leave his home in Oklahoma and start his ostrich farm in the middle of the Arizona desert. Over the course of the next 15 years, Cogburn turned his fledgling ostrich farm into a multi-million dollar business.

Cogburn has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Before getting into ostriches, he owned his own amusement park, rode rodeo bulls professionally, and trained animal acts for circuses and rodeos. But after buying his first ostriches for $1000 a piece in the mid 80s, Cogburn had a new dream: to make Arizona the ostrich capital of the world. For years, Cogburn’s dedication to the ostrich helped bring his dream within reach. On February 3, 2002, the business was left in ruins. The culprit?

A hot-air balloon.

On that February morning, which happened to be his 65th birthday, Cogburn’s farm was disrupted by the biggest ostrich stampede he had ever seen. Cogburn would later discover that two hot-air balloonists had illegally launched and flown over his farm – even though the balloonists knew they were flying in forbidden airspace. It is well known throughout the ostrich community that the sight and sound of hot-air balloons cause massive ostrich-panic. Witnesses estimate that the balloons came within half a mile of Cogburn’s farm, which was more than enough to send the birds flying.

Ostriches ran amok for the better part of the day, and 26 ostriches died in the stampede. As a result of injuries caused that day, nearly 800 of his 1600 birds died within the following months. Ostriches stopped laying eggs. Thousands of feet of fencing were destroyed. Cogburn’s insurance company turned their back on his claims. And the balloonists refused to take responsibility.
VanBallenberghe first visited Cogburn’s ostrich farm after moving to Tucson in 1999, but it wasn’t until hearing a 2005 NPR broadcast on his situation that he decided to turn the story into a documentary. By that point, it was three years after the stampede, and Cogburn, trying to keep his farm and family afloat, was embroiled in a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the balloonists. Most of VanBallenberghe’s film consists of interviews with Cogburn and others involved in the court case (though the balloonists declined to take part in the film). The twists and turns of the trial are shocking, and the court’s treatment of Cogburn is enraging.

And now that once-thriving ostrich farm just north of Tucson is more roadside oddity than ostrich farm – a tourist attraction that won’t bring in enough to make ends meet. It’s been more than 20 years since Cogburn bought his first bird, but his dream of turning the ostrich into the turkey of the 21st century is still too far off in the distance to see. The bulk of ostrich farmers ditched the business in the late 90s, and the limited number of birds has driven the price of meat too high to make the ostrich a viable industry.

But Cogburn hasn’t abandoned the bird, and he’s still appealing the court’s decision to dismiss his lawsuit. VanBallenberghe’s documentary is ultimately an inspiring tale – a story about a man who does his “share plus 10% more,” but gets no recognition, no respect, and no justice from the courts. But Cogburn, like all inspiring leaders, will never give up.

This is a must-see documentary that will stay with you for days. The AIFF is extremely excited to announce that Cogburn will be in attendance at each of the screenings, so be sure to come out and meet this enigmatic ostrich entrepreneur.

The Ostrich Testimonies is playing on Saturday, April 19th at Crossroads and Wednesday, April 23rd at The Screening Room.

Visit the official site --

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wiener Takes All: A Dogumentary

When there's nothing good on TV, people start to organize dachshund races.

But as seen in director Shane MacDougall’s Wiener Takes All: A Dogumentary, the world of competitive dachshund racing is a surprisingly heated subculture that probably takes itself more seriously than it should. MacDougall follows the dachshund racing circuit while uncovering an array of controversies, allegations of fixed races, and even dachshund steroid abuse. “Dachshund” and “steroids” may have been used in the same sentence before, but the context was probably something along the lines of “Steroids made Jose Canseco’s biceps swell up to the size of a dachshund.” When people start doping up their dachshunds to win races that pay virtually no money, it’s probably time to turn the TV back on.

Whether or not they indulge in Creatine shakes or take HGH injections, the dachshund is a pint-sized breed that’s capable of more athleticism than their curiously-shaped bodies may let on. Though their stubby legs only hoist them a mere three inches off the ground, dachshunds are one of the fastest small breeds around: at full sprint, these little dogs can move at an astonishing 30 feet per second. Unfortunately their golf ball-sized brains may prevent some dachshunds from grasping the concept of racing, as a few wieners in each race prefer to run in circles or take a quick nap.

Though some dachshunds aren’t so serious about their racing careers, MacDougall (not a dachshund racer himself) introduces us to a few owners who might be a little too serious. He avoids presenting the owners in a condescending manner, but he does leave us to wonder about some of their quirks. Before this movie, I had no idea that you could drape yourself from head to toe in dachshund print clothing, and I never thought I’d hear the word “lawsuit” used with regards to wiener dog racing.

There’s a Tucson connection to the dachshund circuit, too, as this is one of 11 cities that play host to semifinal races. MacDougall takes us to the 2006 Tucson Semifinals where we meet a miniature dachshund named Vinny Barbarino. Vinny and his owner have dreams of representing Tucson in the national competition, but does he have the speed, agility, and ability to concentrate for more than 6 seconds? Before the race, Vinny’s owner explains the surprising amount of time it takes to train a dachshund to run in a straight line for 40 feet. Next time you’re at Reid Park or the 6th Avenue Dog Park, you may see Vinny preparing to be the fastest wiener dog in the country. Make us proud, Vinny.

Though watching Vinny and other little dachshunds perform for thousands of screaming fans may be adorable, does this sport do more harm than good? With interviews from vets, AKC directors, and animal activists, MacDougall is sure to present the dark side of the dachshund races. Will dachshund racing lead to massive overbreeding, as is the case with greyhounds? Does training for the races put an unnecessary physical strain on the dogs? It seems that at every turn a dachshund has to pull out of a race due to an injury. There are no easy answers when it comes to competitive dachshund racing.

I’ve got two dachshunds of my own, and I’ve never looked at one of them and thought, “I bet my dachshund is faster than your dachshund.” I’m just happy when they don’t pull used Kleenex out of the trash can. There’s a reason why the dachshund is the fifth most popular breed of dog in the country, and it’s not because they’re the fastest runners or the most skilled badger-hunters (though they almost certainly are). It’s because they’re loyal, loving little companions who want for nothing more than to please their owners. In this case, that includes traveling the country to put on silly costumes and run in dachshund races. MacDougall’s film never loses sight of why people with dachshunds are the luckiest dog owners around – because these dogs will do anything it takes to put a smile on our faces. Wiener Takes All is a great little film that does the same thing.

This is one of many can’t-miss documentaries at the 2008 festival.

Wiener Takes All: A Dogumentary is playing on Thursday, April 24th at 7:30 p.m. at La Placita.

Visit the Official Site --

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Welcome to the AZ Film Festival Blog!

Welcome to the Arizona International Film Festival blog! I am a Saguaro cactus, and I am very excited about this year's festival.