Oct. 29 2014 12:00 AM

Mid-Michigan gets its close-up in 17th Annual East Lansing Film Festival


Now that Batman and Superman have returned to their respective secret hideouts, East Lansing residents who’d gotten starry-eyed about being part of a blockbuster cinematic universe are suffering a hype hangover. But a phalanx of filmmakers at the 17th Annual East Lansing Film Festival have trained their lenses on the capital area, keeping that Hollywood sparkle alive.

“(The Lansing area) is in the spotlight in this year’s festival more than in any other year,” said festival director Susan Woods. “It’s really quite extraordinary. It wasn’t planned this way, it just came together.”

The documentary “Second Shift: From Crisis to Collaboration,” produced by MessageMakers in Old Town, depicts the work of former Lansing Mayor David Hollister and a team of public and private entities who convinced General Motors to stay in Lansing when the automaker considered pulling up the stakes in the late ‘90s. Another doc, “Elderly Instruments: All Things Strings,” goes behind the scenes of the Old Town music store to reveal an institution that’s world renowned for the breadth and quality of its stringed instruments. The religious-themed feature “Ashes of Eden” was shot in nearby Portland and the short “Unplugged” follows some Michigan State University students who’ve challenged themselves to live off the electronic grid.

“The interesting thing is how different all these films are,” Woods said. “It really shows how diverse this area is for filmmakers, actors and (filming) locations.”

There will also be a handful of films from Detroit, Ann Arbor and Northern Michigan, including “Anatomy of Anatomy,” a short doc about the making of the Jimmy Stewart film “Anatomy of a Murder” in the Upper Peninsula. All of this Michigancentric talent will pool together at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for the Filmmakers Panel Discussion, where they will talk about the challenges of funding an independent film and getting it distributed.

Also on Sunday, the winners of the 5 Days/5 Minutes Film Contest will be announced. Contestants had 140 hours to craft a film that is 5-minutes or less adhering to a shared set of elements. Past winning entries will also be shown. Don’t be surprised if you spot some familiar locations in any of them — they were all shot in and around mid-Michigan.

“It’s always a popular contest,” Woods said. “It’s a good motivator for someone who’s always wanted to make a movie but need a push.”

This year’s opening night film “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which focuses on 93-year-old jazz icon Clark Terry who mentored Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. The film follows Terry’s work with his newest protégé, a blind, 23-year-old piano prodigy.

“It’s heartbreakingly beautiful,” Woods said. “I fought hard to get that here. I think a lot of people are going to love that one.”

But Woods said that despite the area’s recent brush with fame, the local movie scene has always been strong and will continue to be so.

“There’s an insatiable hunger for independent movies that may be seen as experimental or challenging,” Woods said. “Every year people tell us how happy they are that we’ve made these kinds of films are available to them.”

East Lansing Film Festival

Thursday, Oct. 30-Thursday, Nov. 6 Wells Hall: $5/$3 students and seniors; Studio C!: $10/$8 seniors/$7 students ($8 upcharge for premium seating); $15 opening night feature; $180 VIP Festival Pass Venues: Wells Hall: 619 Red Cedar Road, MSU campus, East Lansing Studio C! Meridian Mall: 1999 Central Park Drive, Okemos (517) 980-5802, elff.com


ELFF Reviews

Reviewers: David Barker, Shawn Parker, Stefanie L. Pohl and Paul Wozniak. Reviews are followed by the reviewer´s initials

"The Forgiving Earth: Voices from Detroit´s Urban Farmers"

(30 min., dir. by H. James Gilmore)

This under-edited, overly sympathetic film about urban farmers in Detroit suffers most from presumptuousness and lack of objectivity. Gilmore’s camera jumps from person to person, self-described “urban farmers” ranging from interesting and eloquent to paranoid conspiracy theorists. They’re all working to rebuild the city into a “green and pleasant land” while unsparingly criticizing city officials. Savvy Michigan audiences will certainly appreciate this unfiltered point of view, but the film’s lack of counter voices or a contextual frame for its argument ultimately devalues the film from its “documentary” aspirations to “comment board” that just preaches to its choir. — PW

"Letters to Ashleigh"

(23 min., dir. by Kyle Olson)

In 2009, there were 13,000 murders in the United States. One of those victims was 19-year-old Ashleigh Love, the subject of this poignant and brief glimpse into the life of a beloved Milwaukee-area teen and the aftermath in her still-unsolved murder.

An array of news clips show coverage of Ashleigh’s murder case with less and less frequency, and the fear that Ashleigh’s life will be forgotten nearly outweighs the fear of her murderer(s) going uncaught.

Part of the grieving process for Ashleigh’s friends and family was to write her letters, which are opened by her family years later on camera. Emotional narration of the letters alternates between her parents and their various authors, from Ashleigh’s devastated grandparents to her boss from her first job at Arby’s. It’s a device that delivers a layered, beautiful eulogy, interspersed with photos and family video showing all of the life in Ashleigh’s life.

Nearly 300 people have written letters to Ashleigh, many of whom never knew her; with her untimely and unexplained death, many have been inspired to act in her memory. But the film seems to demand of us: Now that we know her story, what will we do? — SLP

"Butterfly Fluttering"

(24 minutes, directed by Roman Kayumov)

Elegant and voyeuristic, “Butterfly Fluttering” follows its young female narrator through years of relationships and sowing her wild oats, all seen through intimate moments of kissing in stark black and white. It’s akin to the viral video “FIRST KISS” — with each pairing showing a different level of passion, timidity or curiosity — even though our narrator remains constant.

The “Wizard of Oz”-ian play on color and black and white, with the film’s opening and closing shots a stained-glass kaleidoscope, makes more sense as time passes. What feels like a litany of experimentation and self-discovery for much of the film gets grounded in the unearthing of true love and loss.

That feeling of rapid-fire flutters of butterfly wings, we discover, is not only left to the teenage romances and affairs of the past. We must know of the juicy, diary details in her catalog of loves before getting to the next big chapter. — SLP

"Love in the Kitchen"

(3 min., dir. by Theresa Hayer)

Little more than a single scene, “Kitchen” wants to be a darkly comic snapshot of an utterly devoted but heavyhanded beau. But his nauseating (literally and figuratively) actions read more like vaguely misogynistic belittlement that approaches emotional abuse. She would be better off taking the milk from the refrigerator door and heading for the hills. — SP

"Stories Forlorn"

(85 min., dir. by Uri Schwarz and Jason A. Sankey)

“Stories Forlorn” gives a fresh treatment to the classic coming-of-age film. All the pieces are in place: The impressionable young narrator learning to cope, the bad influence best bud, the seemingly effortless but imperfect first love. However, this glimpse at a summer of teenage debauchery and discovery isn’t about jumping fences. Instead, we see young, malleable minds led towards the underworld of drugs. Oh, and the sweet love interest is a hooker.

Set in 1997 Hong Kong, with transfer of sovereignty from British rule to Chinese rule looming, the film gives us a look at life from the perspective of a population seldom seen in Western cinema: Non-Chinese native Hong Kongers. The film’s directors draw from their own experiences of being part of that subset in their youth, and it feels authentic even without personally being familiar with this world.

Elegant cinematography juxtaposes scenes of gritty, back alley drug dealing with colorful streetlights and the pulse of city life. Both the narrator and Hong Kong are at a crossroads at a key moment in history. But the “stories forlorn” aren’t what we see on screen. Rather, they’re the abandoned memories of the summer yet unwritten by the aspiring writer protagonist. — SLP

"Last Call"

(8 min., dir. by David Zorn)

It’s closing time at the Hideaway Saloon and love, betrayal, and revenge have all stopped by for one final round. There is some meat to this neo noir-tinged tale, but too long is spent (which is saying something with an 8-minute runtime) ratcheting tension that never manifests. “Last Call” mistakes sketches of characters and lack of narrative propulsion for mystery. Double its length to breathe a little, and “Last Call” could have been a taut, grimly humorous potable. — SP

"Pie Lady of Pie Town"

(33 min., dir. by Jane Rosemont)

In a documentary that gives us Southwest New Mexico’s answer to Linda Hundt of Sweetie-licious Bakery Cafe, Kathy Knapp’s Pie-O-Neer Café in Pie Town becomes the newest entry on the foodie road trip checklist. Is Pie Town for real? You bet. As one resident says, if you want to go shopping and get your hair done, you won’t do well in Pie Town. But if you want “the best pie on Earth,” it’s worth the trip down U.S. “Pieway” 60.

In 1995, Knapp’s family bought the defunct trading shop that once sold pies when the town was established in the 1920s, and her mother’s creations drew in local residents and travelers from all over. When Kathy took over the business, Pie-gasm apron and all, it became her mission to make her pie mentor mother and grandmother proud.

Pie is the currency of love in her small town, and this little slice of heaven proves to be quite the goldmine. — SLP

"The Frontier"

(90 min., dir. by Matt Rabinowitz)

Managing to squeeze fresh life out of the term “ponderous,” this would-be character study of an estranged father and son attempting to reconcile is more of a sedative than the whiskey of which they’re both so fond.

Sean Sr., retired professor and expert pontificator, sends a pleading missive to Sean Jr., who goes by his middle name Tennessee, though Walt or Jameson or Stoic Meaningless Gazing would be more appropriate. He implores his son to ditch his ranch hand gig and return home to make up. Make up for lost time. Make up for being a mostly absentee father. The usual.

In the meantime, he’s working on his memoirs, which seem to be little more than Whitman quotes and What Does It All Mean 101 musings. Nina, Sean’s physical therapist and four-decades-younger object of his fairly inappropriate affections, moves in to help transcribe the proceedings. And, once Tennessee arrives, to be a handy facilitator for the Great Reconciliation.

Convinced it’s a slow-burn character study, “Frontier” struggles to reach a simmer. Seemingly 80 percent close-ups, the film feels claustrophobic without any real tension to warrant it. The acting is competent, though ripe with melodrama, and the pedestrian emotional journey it endeavors to take you on melts like ice at the bottom of a tumbler, forgotten the moment it’s gone. — SP

"Espresso Manifesto"

(7 min., dir. by Shaun Pitz)

Filled with arresting visuals, the animated “Espresso” looks to brew a surreal, sci-fi take on the origins of java. That narrative is a bit hard to follow, though, and it’s best to let the compelling animations (a rolling sea of grass is particularly memorable) and kinetic robotic inhabitants locked in a seemingly eternal struggle carry the show. — SP

"Perseverance: The Story of Dr. Billy Taylor"

(52 min., dir. by Daniel Chace, Bob Hercules)

A textbook feel-good tale, “Perseverance” relates the familiar (at least to sports fan from that “other” school) saga of former University of Michigan running back Billy Taylor. It follows him from his extraordinary seasons as a Wolverine to his fall into substance abuse and ultimate rehabilitation and triumphs.

Under Coach Bo Schembechler, Taylor was a record-breaking running back and Ann Arbor celebrity. After a series of personal tragedies, depression and alcohol dependency consumed him and he lost his passion for the game. In 1997, homeless and an alcoholic, Taylor heard what he believed was the voice of God, turning his back on the bottle and entering rehab.

Today Taylor has a doctorate in education and works in Southeast Michigan, counseling and mentoring at-risk youth and current and former addicts.

It is impossible not to be moved by Taylor’s achievements and indomitable will, and the film confidently avoids heavy-handedness in his tale of redemption. Full of archival football footage and modern interviews with Taylor’s friends and family, “Perseverance” has plenty to offer sports fans and anyone that wants to see how one can truly accomplish almost anything. — SP

"80 TO 90 FT"

(7 min., dir. by Jason Kohl)

This intimate portrait of a Native American fishing couple hides a loud environmental message in its soft-spoken subjects. The epitome of working-class heroes, the couple never complains that warming lake temperatures force whitefish to live in deeper, cooler depths, which make them harder to catch. These details are just facts of life. There are no clever camera angles or artistic editing; just direct storytelling that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. — PW


 East Lansing Film Festival Schedule

Studio C! Meridian Mall

Thursday, Oct. 30
7:10 p.m.: “Keep On Keepin’ On” (84 min.)

Friday, Oct. 31 1
1:30 a.m.: “A Cat in Paris” (70 min.) 2 p.m.: “Ernest & Celestine” (80 min.) 4 p.m.: “The Jewish Cardinal” (96 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “A Summer’s Tale” (113 min.) 9 p.m.: “Only Lovers Left Alive” (123 min.) Saturday,

Nov. 1
11:30 a.m.: A Cat in Paris” (70 min.) 2 p.m.: “Ernest & Celestine” (80 min.) 4 p.m.: “Stories to Tell” Shorts Program (120 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “A Summer’s Tale” (113 min.) 9 p.m.: “Pechorin” (97 min.)

Sunday, Nov. 2
11:30 a.m.: A Cat in Paris” (70 min.) 2 p.m.: “Ernest & Celestine” (80 min.) 4 p.m.: “American Revolutionary: Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” (82 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “Meet the Patels” (88 min.) 9 p.m.: “Closed Circuit” (120 min.)

Monday, Nov. 3
4 p.m.: “Stories Forlorn” (85 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “Second Shift” (94 min.) 9 p.m.: “Barbara” (105 min.) Tuesday, Nov. 4 4 p.m.: “Stories to Tell” Shorts Program (120 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “Pie Lady of Pie Town” (29 min.)/ “Busker” (49 min.) 9 p.m.: “Stories Forlorn” (85 min.)

Wednesday, Nov. 5
4 p.m.: “The Overnighters” (90 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “Zero Motivation” (100 min.) 9 p.m.: “Pechorin” (97 min.)

Thursday, Nov. 6
4 p.m.: “The Frontier” (90 min.) 6:30 p.m.: “The Evolution of Bert” (88 min.)
9 p.m.: “Only Lovers Left Alive” (123 min.)

Wells Hall

Friday, Oct. 31
7 p.m. & 9:15 p.m.: “Imagination Abounds” Shorts Program (120 min.) — Theater A; “Oculus” (114 min.) — Theater B; “Let Me In” (116 min) — Theater C

Saturday, Nov. 1
2:30 p.m. Filmmakers Panel Discussion (FREE) — Theater B 4 p.m.: “The Jewish Cardinal” (96 min.) — Theater A; “American Revolutionary: Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” (82 min.) — Theater B; “Elderly Instruments: All Things Strings” (57 min.) — Theater C; “Project: Ice” (119 min.)/ “80 TO 90 FT” (8 min.) — Theater D 6:30 p.m.: “Barbara” (105 min.) — Theater A; “The Frontier” (90 min.) — Theater B; “Pie Lady of Pie Town” (29 min.)/ “Busker” (49 min.) — Theater C; “Meet the Patels” (88 min.) — Theater D 9 p.m.: “The Overnighters” (90 min.) — Theater A; “Closed Circuit” (120 min.) — Theater B; “Imagination Abounds” Shorts Program (120 min.) — Theater C; 9 p.m.: “Zero Motivation” (100 min.) — Theater D

Sunday, Nov. 2
Noon: “Perseverance” (52 min.)/ “Open Tryout: Chasing the Dream” (11 min.)/ “Go Far” (21 min.) — Theater A; “Mutt” (93 min.) — Theater C; Student Shorts (87 min.) — Theater D 2 p.m.: “Essential Arrival” (60 min.)/ “Migrations of Islam” (56 min.) — Theater A; “Twenty Years Later” (104 min.) — Theater B; “Pattern of Practice” (70 min.)/ “Johnny’s Speakeasy” (11 min.)/ “Anatomy of Anatomy” (45 min.) — Theater C; “Letters to Ashleigh” (23 min.)/ “These Hopeless Savages” (88 min.) — Theater D 4:30 p.m.: “Party Time Party Time” — Theater A; “Detroit Living In Between” (33 min.)/ “The Forgiving Earth” (30 min.)/ “R. Stern” (15 min.) — Theater B; “Connected by Coffee” (70 min.)/ “Espresso Manifesto” (7 min.) — Theater C; “Ashes of Eden” (106 min.) — Theater D

Schedule is subject to change.