Interview: Middlebury New Filmmakers Film Festival

Posted on July 28, 2018 at 9:05 pm

Copyright 2018 MNFF
The Middlebury New Filmmakers Film Festival, which takes place every August in the picturesque college town of Middlebury, Vermont, is unique in its focus on the first and second movies of novice filmmakers. From August 23–26, this year’s festival features a tribute to “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James and a slate of “films as journalism.”

Jay Craven, MNFF, Artistic Producer, Lloyd Komesar, MNFF Producer, and Phoebe Lewis, MNFF Associate Producer answered my questions about the festival.

How did this festival get started?

Lloyd Komesar attended a screening of Jay Craven’s 2013 film, Northern Borders (with Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold) at the Brandon, Vermont town hall — and spoke to Jay afterwards. They kept in contact and Lloyd proposed that they start a film festival. Lloyd had this idea to focus on new filmmakers and Jay refined this by suggesting a showcase for outstanding first and second time filmmakers — Lloyd agreed — and they started planning the inaugural Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival in July 2014. Thirteen months later, the first MNFF launched.

Why the focus on new filmmakers?

New filmmakers often receive too little support at larger film festivals. By dedicating all our efforts to encouraging and promoting emerging new talent MNFF has carved out a valuable niche and offers many beginning filmmakers a legit chance to have their film screened.

How are the films selected?

Filmmakers apply through Withoutabox and Film Freeway and can submit shorts or features — documentary, narrative, animation, experimental. We have programmers who do the initial screening. Artistic Director Jay Craven then screens films rated in the top 20% and selects the films that will play at the Festival. He also curates approximately 10–12 films that were not submitted. Jay consults with Lloyd fairly broadly — and, together, they discuss and decide special events, guests, honorees — who have included documentary filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, and Bill and Turner Ross, writers Russell Banks, Jay Parini and Dick Lehr, actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Murphy and many others.

What are some of the highlights of this year’s festival?

Our Opening Night film, “Personal Statement,” by first-time director Juliane Dressner, is exceptional. It recently opened AFI Docs to great acclaim. We will be honoring the distinguished documentary filmmaker Steve James and screening his latest film, the Oscar-nominated “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail.” First time director Tom Herman is bringing his marvelous film, “Dateline-Saigon,” to Middlebury for a Vermont premiere. The film brilliantly tells the story of the first American journalists to cover the Vietnam War in early 60s Saigon. Academy Award winner Peter Davis will join us for a tribute screening of his first film, the seminal “Hearts & Minds,” released in 1974 and often cited as the greatest documentary ever done about the Vietnam War. We must mention the greatly anticipated appearance of David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, Oscar-winning Production Designers for “La La Land,” who we will honor for their sustained excellence in this crucial aspect of movie making. Mohammed Naqvi, the intrepid and fearless Pakistani filmmaker, will be receiving our Courage in Filmmaking Award. And we will close out the Festival this year with the very moving documentary, “The Sentence,” directed by first timer Rudy Valdez.

When do films become journalism?

Most documentaries are forms of journalism, as reporting, feature journalism, or investigative journalism. The work explores any number of situations with some outcomes that are sort of predictable and others that are not. We’re paying special attention this year to documentary filmmaking that functions as investigative journalism — where the filmmakers are trying to discover the currently unknown and take us to substantially new understandings of their subject matter.

Why the focus on production designers?

Production designers are as important as any creative player on the filmmaking team. What we see on screen is the result of the world they create, visually — the colors, textures, props, ambient qualities, period specificity. They command the largest department on the project, usually — and intersect directly with what camera and lighting contribute. They are essential players — and the Wascos, our special honorees at MNFF, are among the very best.

What films have been the audience favorites at your previous festivals?

We’d start with “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” from Alexandra Dean, which wowed the audience last year. “Among the Believers,” from Hemal Trevedi and Mo Naqvi, riveted its audience in 2016. “The Guys Next Door,” from Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk, was a genuine audience favorite that year, as well. Our Opening Night film from 2016, “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” from Jesse Nesser, lingered in people’s minds for months, as did last year’s opener, the hilarious and poignant “Take My Nose, Please,” from Joan Kron. Other favorites: “Captain Fantastic,” “Peter and the Farm,” “God Knows Where I Am,” “Dina,” “The Peacemaker,” “Abundant Acreage Available,” “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George,” “Landfill Harmonic” and “The Wolfpack.”

What do you hope for this festival in the future?

We hope for continued dynamism of the festival experience, with all of the anticipation and investment we see from audiences and filmmakers. We want the audience to continue to grow and to develop further appeal to young people, which is why we have created a Kids & Family Day at MNFF this year, which will feature the Sundance favorite, Science Fair. We’re also working to develop our audience among college and high school students. And we want to keep expanding our “family” of emerging filmmakers. We love producing our special events — and like to keep mixing up the scope and variety of who we bring to our audiences. With four years under our belts, there is much to build on and many new roads to go down, but at its core, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival will always be about providing a welcoming home for first and second timers.

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Festivals Interview

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Posted on July 26, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Action/comic book-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 27, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 29, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Bros. Pictures

Not another superhero movie, you say? And how far down the list of comic book characters do we have to go? The Teen Titans are way ahead of you. Silly, surreal, super-snarky, self-aware to a fault and smashing the fourth wall into smithereens, the “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” movie is a superhero movie about a third-tier superhero who only wants to fight the bad guy because that’s how he’ll get to be in a superhero movie. Got it?

It’s got plenty of inside humor for the fanboys who will know why it’s especially apt to have Nicolas Cage providing the voice for Superman, why it’s funny to have a Stan Lee cameo in a DC movie, who the Challengers of the Unknown are, and why the arch-villain Slade (producer Will Arnett) keeps being mistaken for Deadpool. And it has action, heartwarming friendships, and plenty of potty jokes for those who have no idea who the Teen Titans are, and, believe me, will not know much more about them when the movie is over.

The Teen Titans as they are currently portrayed are Robin (Batman’s sidekick, voiced by Scott Menville), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who can turn himself into any animal, alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch), who signifies her other-worldliness by inserting “the” randomly in front of other words, the gothy Ravan (Tyra Strong), who can create portals from anywhere to anywhere, and Cyborg (Khary Payton), who can adapt his metal shell to create any machine. Insulted that they are not even invited to the premiere of the new Batman movie, Robin is even more horrified to see that upcoming sequels include movies about Batman’s butler, Alfred, and even one about his utility belt, but nothing about Robin. He appeals to the director, Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), but she says she cannot make a movie about him unless he has an arch-nemesis.

Enter Slade, “an archenemy whose name is fun to say in a dramatic way.”

There are songs. There are action scenes. There are many, many jokes about the world of comics, from the ultra-obscure (stay all the way to the end) to the widely accessible (yes, there are a lot of superhero movies and Green Lantern is still embarrassed about his). It makes fun of itself and then it makes fun of itself for making fun of itself, and then it makes fun of us for watching so many superhero movies. It is unpretentious, the look harking back to low-budget Saturday morning cartoon shows. And that makes it refreshing and delightful.

NOTE: The movie is preceded by a very cute DC superhero girls short called “The Late Batsby,” with Batgirl racing to catch up with her super-friends to fight Mr. Freeze.

Parents should know that this film includes extended cartoon-style action/superhero peril and violence, explosions, chases, fire, some characters briefly injured, potty humor, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: If you made a movie about one of your friends, what would you include? Why did Robin want a movie so badly?

If you like this, try: the Teen Titans television series, “Incredibles 2″ and “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”

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Puzzle

Posted on July 26, 2018 at 5:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 27, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 12, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony PIctures Classics
Sometimes in life and often in movies, one object, one moment, one connection can make all the difference and take a character on a journey of purpose and self-discovery. In “Puzzle,” a woman who lives in a very small world discovers that she likes doing jigsaw puzzles because she is very, very good at it. As lovely a metaphor as puzzles are, it is not fitting the pieces together that changes her life. It is learning that she is good at something that has nothing to do with her family. Doing the puzzles and seeing the patterns makes her curious to learn more about the world and it makes her brave enough to find out.

Kelly McDonald is exquisite as Agnes, a Catholic woman who lives with her husband and their two sons in the house she grew up in. We first see her preparing for a party, and then we learn it is her own birthday party. She may be the guest of honor, but she is still doing all of the cooking, decorating, and serving. Her husband and sons love her without paying much attention to her.

One of her birthday gifts is a crossword puzzle. She completes it, and somehow, it completes her. And then it shows her how incomplete her life has been. She has spent decades in the same small, Catholic community. The puzzle inspires her to do something daring — take the train into Manhattan to buy another. And when she sees a notice that someone is looking for a “puzzle partner,” she does something even more daring. She lies to her family so she can find out more.

Screenwriter Oren Moverman (“Love and Mercy,” “The Dinner”) adapted the screenplay from Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff’s “Rompecabezas.” Director Marc Turtletaub gives the film a timeless quality. From the look of her home and her clothes, Agnes seems to be living a generation ago. It is a shock when one of her other birthday presents is an iPhone. She looks at it as though it was delivered by a messenger from the future. “I have a radio and a window,” she tells her son. “I know when it is going to rain.” She calls the iPhone an “alien robot.”

We see that this is a choice Agnes has made, to live in a cocoon of the past, to avoid questioning her choices because she does not want to think about the answers. Why is it puzzles, as her husband says, something for children, that inspire her to think for the first time that maybe she should look outside her home? Or make her speak up for herself and for her son? It could have been cooking difficult recipes like “Julie & Julia” or learning to drive as in “Driving Lessons” or gardening as in “Greenfingers.” It does not matter what it is that pulls characters out of themselves to take risks and learn more; what matters is whether it does and whether the story about how it does inspires that in us.

And what matters here is McDonald. Much of the movie is just her face, luminous, open, a little bit fearful, a little bit joyful. The film is wise in its exploration of the things we do to quiet our minds, even when the result is to hide from ourselves, not peace but numbness. It understands that people and even movies themselves are puzzles that, if we put the pieces together thoughtfully, give us connection, meaning, and purpose.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, family tension, references to drug use, smoking, drinking, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Agnes suddenly want to learn about the news? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “Driving Lessons”

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