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Notes on the 2014 Tallgrass Film Festival

NOTES ON THE 2014 TALLGRASS FILM FESTIVAL
by Jason Bailey

You always keep a soft spot for your hometown film festival, and I've been lucky enough to participate in the Wichita, Kansas-based Tallgrass Film Festival since its inception in 2003: as a filmmaker, as a selection comittee member, as a participant, but most often as a critic. In that capacity, I've watched the festival explode into one of the foremost regional festivals in the country, showcasing exciting new movies and festival hits that otherwise probably wouldn't make their way to the heartland. It's a wonderful festival, and a reminder that New York and L.A. don't have the market cornered on vibrant film culture.

Of course, you encounter certain recurring motifs at a Midwestern film festival that you might not elsewhere. This year, I was struck by how many of the Tallgrass films, purposefully or not, dealt with religion--specifically, with what exactly faith and forgiveness mean in this day and age. In addition to the tremendous The Overnighters (which I saw at Sundance), you've got Fight Church, in which directors Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel introduce us to the intersection of Christian ministry and MMA cage fighting--"extreme ministries" and "fight ministry," as it's called. Tracking a quartet of jean-and-T-shirt-clad preacher/fighters from around the country, it doesn't laugh at these guys, and in fact elicits some sympathy (primarily by its unstated theme, of men of God struggling with their own relevance). Yet the deeper it goes, the more we start to understand that the complexity of their motives, from the aging fighter who's dying to get back in the ring (but only for "God's glory," he insists, and not his own) to the gun nut whose philosophy seems awfully close to the Palahniuk novel the title alludes to ("western Christianity," we're told, has resulted in "feminized men," a "bunch of cowards" who've bypassed the "warrior ethos"). There's always something to be said for a documentary that peeks at a bizarre subculture you never knew existed, and the filmmakers show real restraint, leaving much implied but unsaid.

Along the same lines, director Theo Love's Little Hope Was Arson digs into the rash of church fires that stunned East Texas a few years back with a stylistic, fast-paced urgency that threatens to render the film too slick for the subject. But he (and his film) calm down considerably once the investigation settles on its suspects, whose troubled pasts are laid out with the detail and empathy of a familial drama. How do two seemingly devout young men turn away from their faith with such direct violence? Clues are provided by problematic parents, but the real story here is the guilt of those who knew them--and how their actions test the boundaries of Christian forgiveness. Thoughtfully constructed and beautifully photographed, once it gets down to business.

Other documentaries of note: Thomas G. Miller's Limited Partnership tells the forty-plus year story of Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams, the first couple to bring a gay marriage case before a federal court. They did it back in 1980, as an immigration issue--they wanted their marriage (one of a handful performed in Colorado in 1975) recognized as valid to get Tony a green card. That battle raged on for decades, and their legal maneuvering is exhaustively detailed. But this fascinating picture also uses their case as a window through which to view gay rights and immigration history in the modern era. Moving and emotionally hardcore, it's a tribute to groundbreakers, risk-takers, and humanitarians of all stripes.

We're getting to the point where it's odd to find a '70s rock icon who hasn't been the subject of a recent documentary profile, and as a result, there's a lot in Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty that we've seen before: the rise, the fame, the addiction, the brushes with death, the rehab, and the long road back to health and happiness. But if you can get past the tropes, there's a lot to like here, particularly in the way director Greg Olliver captures the vibe on his sleepy tour bus (he'd rather watch WKRP and All in the Family DVDs than party) and his backstage dressing rooms, and how he recaptures his subject discovering the blues--the feeling of finding this music, and connecting with it. The music is terrific and Winter's got some great stories, resulting in a well-crafted and affectionate if familiar tribute.

And nothing plays better at a film festival than a movie about movies, but even outside of that friendly framework, Wiktor Ericsson's charming A Life in Dirty Movies is fabulously entertaining and surprisingly sweet. Ericsson profiles sexploitation legend Joe Sarno, dubbed "the Ingmar Bergman of porn" by Annie Sprinkle, who used the draw of sexual content and mild nudity to make skin flicks that were Trojan horses for artsy relationship dramas. Ericsson pays tribute to the work, examining the filmmaker's recurring themes and progressive gender politics, while tracking his attempt to get back in the saddle. But more than anything, it's a love story, of the long relationship between Sarno and co-star-turned-wife Peggy, who explains, simply, "He's a filmmaker. It's in his blood." Catnip for exploitation aficionados and movie lovers in general, it was my favorite doc of the fest.

Narrative films at Tallgrass were equally compelling. About the only one that didn't work for me at all is the belabored and rather bland Pretty Rosebud, in which some tantalizing themes--particularly relating to female sexuality, and awareness of it--and cultural norms are explored too glancingly. The look, feel, and pushy score smack of Lifetime melodrama, while its resolutions veer dangerously close to Tyler Perry territory. That said, writer/star Chuti Tiu is an engaging presence; she's got real potential, if she can find a stronger vehicle.

Kasi Brown and Brandon Walker co-direct, co-write, and co-star in Gone Doggy Gone, as a power couple obsessed with their (admittedly adorable) dog. This broad, absurd farce is a wildly uneven picture, with a shotgun-blast sensibility that veers from witty parody of kidnapping thrillers to inexplicable gross-out gags, and some of the bits land with an audible thud. But Brown and Walker have a knack for character humor, and Shaina Vorspan--who plays their slightly-off dogsitter--is a real find. I can't exactly recommend it, but it's an impossible movie to dislike.

Also endlessly likable is Sun Belt Express, the story of a would-be idealist (Tate Donovan) supplementing his meager teaching income by working as a coyote-for-hire. It's a touch formulaic, but it ambles with laid-back charm, particularly once the exposition is out of the way and the relationships are allowed to take center stage. The terrific cast has plenty to work with and the photography is gorgeous, with both flourishing in the road-comedy second act. And you can see the ending coming a mile away, but it still plays, and director Evan Buxbaum thankfully doesn't allow the Serious Issues at its center to overwhelm the easygoing narrative.

Writer/director Jack Bryan's The Living is family drama with a noir edge, and many of the elements are familiar: an abused wife, a bad husband, a hired killer. But more interesting than the plot mechanisms is the subtext; the action is instigated by the abused woman's brother, who feels inert and helpless, as his interactions with the quietly menacing hitman continue, it becomes clear that this is a film with something to say about impotence and masculinity. Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil) turns in a performance of quiet strength, deep-diving into the abused wife's complex psychology, while Whedon mainstay Fran Kranz is surprisingly convincing as her sonofabitch husband, pleading his "let's just start over" case. The violence is fast and frightening, and the storytelling is confident and occasionally provocative. Plus, hats off for giving ubiquitous character actor Chris Mulkey a role to really chew on.

And speaking of character actors, a cast of our sturdiest (Mads Mikkelson, Eva Green, Jeffrey Den Morgan, Jonathan Pryce) squints across the dusty, windy landscape in The Salvation, a bleak, visceral post-Unforgiven Western. It's a revenge tale with the kind of modern evil that borders on nihilism ("Once you've all had your way with her, cut her throat") and a terrific, Morricone-esque score by Kasper Winding. Co-writer/director Kristian Levring constructs a cat-and-mouse oater that's moody as all-get-out, though its effectiveness is diminished somewhat by the dodgy CGI of its otherwise-gripping climax.

John Stuart Wildman's cannibal lesbian stripper opus The Ladies of the House is giddily disreputable and deliriously trashy, gingerly elevating its stock characters to archetypes and its clich├ęs into homage. He's got a good feel for creating atmosphere and dread, and while there's some oogy business here, the picture never takes itself too seriously (any movie that intercuts its hot girl-on-girl action with a man eating dog food off the floor is fucking with us, and knows it). A little of this stuff goes a long way, and Wildman occasionally overplays his hand, but for the most part, it's a twisted, perverse hoot of a movie.

When she discovers a muddy, well-worn VHS copy of Fargo in a cave, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, terrific) decides that she will go to Minnesota to discover the money buried by Steve Buscemi in that "true story." David and Nathan Zellner's deadpan Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter plays, on one level, as a tribute to the Coens' masterpiece, with parallel characters and a score that clever interpolates Carter Burwell's music from the earlier picture creating a kind of dialogue between the two movies. But it also speaks to the power of delusion (she watches and rewatches that old tape, hypnotized by it, analyzing it, treating it like her own Zapruder film) and the crippling power of solitude--which, as one character puts it, "is just fancy loneliness."

It was somewhere during the bowling alley dance scene that I realized I was absolutely in love with Before I Disappear, an involving and disarmingly unique picture from writer/director/star Shawn Christensen. He plays a total burn-out whose plans for suicide are unexpectedly waylaid by a plea from his estranged sister to look after his type-A, know-it-all niece (the dynamite Fatima Ptacek). Christensen's stylish direction has a dreamy, hypnotic quality, which is well-matched to the unpredictability of the subjective storytelling; he stumbles through this New York nightscape, and we piece this thing together as he does. Every character has their own unique voice, even those that can be easily drawn and played as cliches, and Christensen lands on a tone that I can't quite pin down, but it's perfect. Enthralling and engrossing, it's a true original, and exactly the kind of little gem you hope to discover at a festival like this one.

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