15 April 2018

Adventures at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Festival

This is weird, but even as an avid nine-year casual Internet movie blogger I've never had the opportunity to check out a film festival. When I heard that my new city of Cleveland, OH hosted a massive Film Festival at the Tower City Cinema, I was really excited. I ended up seeing three movies in three days (two last night), although the festival actually went on for like two weeks. I found out about it way too late.

I also rarely do this, but I thought I'd wrap up the three movies I saw in three micro-impressions here, since they're not well-seen (yet, hopefully), and for once I'll actually avoid spoilers in my discussion here.

Really not enough bits about alcoholism here
Scotch - A Golden Dream
Dir: Andrew Peat, Taiwan

Peat was there at the screening answering questions, but seemed aloof as to why he was currently living in China making movies about Scotch. He did say he was originally from Cleveland, which really just further confounded things.

Anyway, A Golden Dream was a solid documentary on the scotch industry, particularly focusing on Islay, Scotland. There is some great insight into the both the history and culture of the industry along with background on some specific distilleries. It ends up narrowing in on Jim McEwan, a distiller at Bowmore for years before revitalizing Bruichladdich and leading them into prominence. Well, quasi-prominence. That brand is critically lauded but I'd never heard of them - and I... drink a lot of scotch. I think it's just out of my price range.

While the film has all these really interesting moments it struggled in focus at times. It seemed like it didn't know what it actually wanted to say. McEwan is a good focus, but then it will leave and spend a lot of time with underappreciated roles of women in the industry or glass-making or the proper way to sniff a glass. And again, this is all interesting factoid stuff, and in the case of female scotch makers, fairly important in breaking stereotypes. But instead of using all the female interviews to fuel material for women in industry, why not just hear what they have to say about the creation of scotch? That's still left up to the men, and ultimately all the women are allowed to discuss is their own role both currently and historically.

I was really torn with this. Scotch comes off sometimes as a feature-length advertisement for Islay scotch, Bruichladdich in particular, virtually ignoring Lowland, Speyside, and Highland producers. It still has a lot of insight into the creation process, the level of skill master distillers display on a given day, and how much it means to the Scottish people. On some level it feels like the level of insight you'd get on any distillery tour, but considering I don't plan on flying to Scotland anytime soon, it's nice to have here.

Lord Bullington was also the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut
Filmworker
Dir: Tony Zierra

This documentary was about Leon Vitali, who if you don't know, was an English actor who appeared in just about every movie and television show possible before starring as Lord Bullington in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). I can tell you're still not with me. After his experience on that film, Vitali became enamored in Kubrick's personality, directorial style, and perfectionist regimen. He ended up foregoing a budding acting career and became sort of Kubrick's personal and professional assistant, dedicating his entire life to behind-the-scenes work and since his death, continuous restoration and media format transition work.

It's a fascinating piece of work, especially as a big Kubrick fan who didn't know anything about this guy. He did everything from casting to coaching actors to editing, color correction, and archiving. What's most striking its Vitali's worth ethic and loyalty to Kubrick, who we all know is kind of nuts, but this film makes clear is totally bonkers. You know, in a good way.

What's most evident, though, is that Vitali was instrumental to much of Kubrick's success and has gone totally unnoticed for the better part of the past forty years. He's still alive and kicking it and has some great stories that fill this film. It'd be a hard documentary to get through if you're not real familiar with Kubrick, or at least his last three films that Vitali helped out with behind the scenes - The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

To some extent I was left wondering why the hell Vitali was required to work so hard, sometimes day and night (he says his longest streak was two 36-hours sessions), when there was only three fucking movies to make in twenty years. Of course, he ended up handling just about all of the VHS and later, DVD releases of Kubrick's earlier work as well, and the insight of working with a maniacal, demanding, eccentric boss is relatable to anyone. I think it's worth some discussion whether or not his effort was ultimately worth it - solely handling almost all production and marketing duties that normally entire studio departments would take on, because he was supposedly the only one who truly understood Kubrick's vision. I don't doubt that that's all true, but c'mon Stan, we'd still buy A Clockwork Orange (1971) on VHS no matter what was on the cover.

Film-wise it's a solid effort, and despite there being some questions left on the table (it's Kubrick, of course there will be), and it not really reaching an intellectual high point like a Kubrick film, this was fun. I wonder if Leon Vitali handles Netflix previews of Kubrick films.

Blood Fest
And the fat kid from Spider-Man!

Dir: Owen Edgerton

Blood Fest is a horror comedy about a young horror fan who attends this horror convention in the woods called Blood Fest, that, to his horror, becomes all too real when the events vendors make the horror come alive. The group of plucky fans must escape through re-created tropes of Romero, Raimi, a Jason-inspired slasher, torture-porn, and uhh...clowns.

There is some good commentary here on tropes and how to navigate a horror film, and it strikes a good balance of comedy and horror, but as I was sitting there all I could think about is films that played with tropes better like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) or horror comedies that were both scarier and funnier like Zombieland (2009). Even something like Scream (1996) nailed the meta-tone while creating its own iconography in way that this film seems to want to do. You get a pathetic feeling as this flick continually name-drops major horror icons like Freddy and Jason while having to settle for knock-offs to actually fight like the fictional Arborist. I can't really sum it up better than this headline.

Alright, having said all that, this is definitely a film that's trying to have fun with itself, and that's something. The most compelling character may be the completely insane and ammoral guy in charge of Blood Fest, who ironically, is played by director, Owen Edgerton. He brings a totally unhinged joy to his performance. Seychelle Gabriel does some good, underrated work as someone who in most other films would be an uninteresting love interest. A love un-interest, if you will, ho ho. She's great here. There's a certain glee to all the mayhem and the crowd definitely loved it. In the moment I was loving it too, but I wanted to see it build to something more significant.

In fact, as I was watching this, I began questioning if horror movies could even be successful as straight horror anymore. Sure, we just had A Quiet Place (2018), and Get Out (2017) make big bucks, but I'd be hesitant to call either of those straight horror with high body counts. Instead I think of The Babysitter (2017), Happy Death Day (2017), The Final Girls (2015), or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) as movies that I've all loved, but were only really elevated by pointing out tropes. Even WolfCop (2014). Man I've seen a lot of bad horror movies lately. Anyway, maybe we're beyond that point where we can have a straight slasher or monster movie that's actually scary. Or to be honest, at all.

There is more to talk about here. Purge. The Conjuring Cinematic Universe somehow. Anthology films like XX (2017), Holidays (2016), Tales of Halloween (2015), The ABCs of Death (2012), V/H/S (2012). A little movie called IT (2017). The Ritual (2017). There are a lot of good horror flicks out there. Blood Fest tries to be one of them, but ultimately can't find the balance.

I had fun at this festival. Sure all three of these films had problems, but it's really cool to see these before they ever get distribution, if they even do. And although there were issues here, each film was definitely interesting and memorable, which is important. I'd be into supporting any of these on their path to mainstream distribution.

For the record, other films I was interested in seeing but unable to:

The Carter Effect, Sean Menard
Five Fingers for Marseilles, Michael Matthews
Humor Me, Sam Hoffman
Mary Goes Round, Molly McGlynn
RBG, Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Revenge, Coralie Fargeat
Won't You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville

So, go watch these. And any other films you see at festivals nearby. It's fun stuff!

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