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Magnificent seven

Capital City Film Festival offers more movies, music than ever

From a cardboard Minotaur and a winged whale to an exiled musician and a gorilla-suited Internet star, the Capital City Film Festival is once again packed with creative characters and diverse stories.

The film festival formally kicks off its seventh year Thursday night with a Red Carpet Premiere Party at Lansing Brewing Co., but the festival actually started earlier this week with a Tuesday night screening of “1984.” And the festivities continue tonight with a free screening of Disney’s “Around the World,” featuring clips from popular Disney movies accompanied live by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.

There are plenty of films, of course, but the packed schedule — over 35 events over six days at eight different venues — also features live concerts and other film-inspired activities.

Saturday morning, the festival teams up with Impression 5 to offer a family-friendly Science of Cinema program. That afternoon, Lansing’s own Heartland Klezmorim performs the live score to short films by Georges Méliès. Then Saturday night, Comedy Coven joins the festival for a not-so-family-friendly skewering of “The Craft.”

But the films are the star here. We’ve selected four interesting movies to review (and it was hard to pick just four) to help you navigate this year’s options.

Selected Film Reviews

Dave Made a Maze (80 minutes, narrative feature) 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6 Potter’s Mill 701 E. South St., Lansing

In the hierarchy of critique-able art forms, indie film is just above absurdist theater and several steps below conventional cinematic drama as a respected forum for expression. So is “Dave Made a Maze” a movie about itself, a zigzagging, darkly comedic trip that ultimately ends up exactly where it started? Or is it a commentary on the trials of filmmaking that’s too clever for its own good? You have to enter the maze to find out.

Over an opening montage, we meet Dave (Nick Thune), a 30-something dude struggling to make … something. Over the course of a long weekend, he tries origami and woodwork, ultimately settling on cardboard as his medium. It’s not until his girlfriend comes home Sunday night that we find out what it is Dave has made out of a bunch of old refrigerator boxes: a labyrinth that fits into his living room yet is unimaginably large on the inside. And he’s lost in the middle of it.

A team of rescuers is assembled, including Dave’s girlfriend (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), his nebbish best friend (Adam Busch) and a stereotypical pretentious indie film director (James Urbaniak), who provides the biggest clue as to what it is we’re watching — a masturbatory exercise in creative release. Subtle this film is not, but it sure is fun.

The low-grade practical effects give the film a gleefully irreverent “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”-type vibe. While characters meet any manner of gruesome ends, the deaths carry the emotional weight of cartoon coyote evisceration. Instead of buckets of blood spurting from decapitated heads and bisected torsos, we’re treated to streams of red yarn.

The film’s driving theme — that finishing something is more important that starting something — is a sentiment that wannabe artists and artisans alike can find meaning in, and “Dave Made a Maze” is whimsical enough to taper the seriousness of that message, making it well worth the journey.

— Allan I. Ross

Olancho (70 minutes, documentary) 5 p.m. Saturday, April 8 UrbanBeat Event Center 1213 Turner St., Lansing

Documenting the story of the band Los Plebes de Olancho, “Olancho” makes the most of its timely, unsettling and unexpectedly political story.

Olancho, the region of Honduras from which the band hails, is the most murderous area in the world, outside of war zones. Making a living, let alone making music, is difficult, especially when you’re forced to write songs about the criminals and gang members who hold all the power in the area. This difficulty and danger comes to a head when Los Plebes de Olancho’s leader/ songwriter, Manuel, runs afoul of cartel leaders and is forced to flee his home and start a new life in America. But life in the U.S. is not any easier, where he faces discrimination, unfulfilling work and an inability to pursue his passion and make music. The irony is tragic and infuriating.

What starts as a seemingly conventional, if compelling, human-interest documentary becomes a searing critique of U.S. immigration policy and cultural prejudice and a moving tribute to the artist’s struggle.

Few artists face the certainty of violence the way Manuel and Los Plebes do. The film is bold enough to honestly depict that violence but tactful enough not to cheapen or glorify it. It’s shocking, but it isn’t exploitative — graphic but not gratuitous. And it’s entirely necessary to establish the world Los Plebes live in and what Manuel is running away from.

I only wish more attention had been paid to Manuel’s experiences here in the U.S. The time spent in America is like a footnote at the end of the film, a tacked-on epilogue that feels like a last-minute attempt at topicality. It doesn’t confuse or nullify the film’s message, but it does dull it some.

— Eric Bayley

“Ed’s Whale” (75 minutes, documentary) 5:30 p.m. Friday, April 7 Lansing Public Media Center 2500 S. Washington Ave., Lansing

It’s hard to tell exactly what to make of “Ed’s Whale,” a documentary focused on the late Lansing-based aspiring artist Edward Lahti. It nobly attempts to be a testament to the manifold redeeming powers of art, including its ability to create a lasting personal legacy for an ambitious artist. But the film’s sentimentality keeps it from revealing anything truly meaningful about redemption, art or even ambition. Yet it’s so doggone earnest, it all feels like a wash.

Lahti, the movie tells us, didn’t create any lasting art in his 35 years. No books, no albums, no nothing. His creative output amounted to hours of unedited video recordings and numerous unpublished poems and works of prose. Several of these works are turned into spoken word performances within the movie by his friends, giving life to work that otherwise may have stayed in a drawer somewhere. But while “Ed’s Whale” works as an effective memorial, it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling cinema.

We’re given no background about Lahti — where he was born, what he did before he got his first video camera in 1997 when he was 20 or what motivated him. We do get to see him go through about 15 years of hairstyles and multiple iterations of facial hair, but that only keeps us from getting closer to Lahti as a character. He’s all but unrecognizable in some scenes, and the film’s non-chronological editing only makes it harder to feel any real kinship with him.

Director Quincy Gow splices Lahti’s footage together with new video shot in the months leading up to and immediately following Lahti’s death in early 2013 after a yearlong battle with cancer. In that last year, Lahti attempted to finish a children’s book about Walter, a cartoon sperm whale with wings that he had dreamed up several years before. Gow loosely follows some of that publication process, but fails to instill any urgency in this, the final —only — finished work of a lifelong struggling artist.

But that doesn’t really take away from Lahti, who comes off as an amiable, sweet guy. He really seems to have wanted to create something, and failing to do so seems to have haunted him. “Ed’s Whale” is, essentially, a well-produced funeral memorial video, capturing most of the stages of grief experienced by Lahti in the final months of his life, as well as that of the friends and family as they come to grips with his death.

If you knew Lahti, this is must-see material. If not, at least you’ll know the meaning of the mural behind the Green Door and all those winged whale T-shirts and tattoos around town.

— Allan I. Ross

Contemporary Color (97 minutes) 7 p.m. Sunday, April 9 Lansing Public Media Center 2500 S. Washington Ave., Lansing

“Contemporary Color” captures the making of a concert of the same name, an event put together by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne where the sport of color guard — the flag-waving, rifle-spinning performers that often accompany marching bands — is paired with original music performed live by contemporary musicians like Byrne, Nelly Furtado and St. Vincent. But this is no mere concert film.

Most concert films are information vehicles with backstage footage that serves as exposition, often going into quite intimate detail about the performers’ personal lives. And while we get small snippets of personal information about some of the young members of the various color guard teams, most of the backstage footage is put in service to a far more interesting cinematic idea: capturing the excitement of performance from the performer’s perspective. Most films of this genre are presented from the audience’s point of view, a way to simulate a concert-going experience. “Contemporary Color” doesn’t do that, and thus becomes a refreshing exploration of the artistic experience and the thrill of performance.

Make no mistake — despite being labeled a sport and sometimes compared to cheerleading, there is an art to color guard. The film demonstrates this through its own impressive artistry. Masterful editing and superimpositions turn the camera into a kind of prism, rendering the young dancers and their routines into impressionistic waves of color and movement. It’s a film that takes immense pleasure in arresting images, and the results are stunning. The performances are often punctuated by rehearsal footage of the routines in unusual settings, like a city street or school gym, that allow us appreciate the discipline and talent needed to pull off these routines. It’s one of the most cinematic and imaginative documentaries I’ve recently seen.

— Eric Bayley


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