Emily's Film Fest 'Flick Picks'
"LUTEFISK WARS" is a comedy in which an unsuspecting amateur cook finds himself in the middle of a centuries-old feud between warring sides of the Norwegian mafia.
As the Index-Tribune's entertainment reporter, few things on Sonoma's annual event calendar evoke as much excitement for me as the annual Sonoma International Film Festival. While the long weekend of films officially began Thursday, April 7, the experience for me began more than a month ago.
For the past few weeks, I've spent nearly every moment I'm not at work hunkered on my couch watching screeners of films to be shown at the 14th annual Sonoma International Film Festival. While I have not seen all of the 80-plus films to be shown this weekend, I have seen a healthy selection of feature films and documentaries and will be sharing my thoughts here.
My pick for best comedy would easily be the whimsical and absurd "Lutefisk Wars," written and directed by David E. Hall and Christopher Panneck. Hot plates, Norwegian mafia feuds and fish combine in this silly cinematic experience that takes audiences deep into rural North Dakota (don'tcha know). An unsuspecting amateur cook finds himself in the middle of a centuries-old feud between warring sides of the Norwegian mafia. Like me, you may ask yourself: Norway has a mafia? As the film notes, "Like most Norwegians, they like to keep a low profile and avoid making eye contact."
The oddities begin when a strange man knocks on frozen food deliveryman Karl Larsen's (Stewart Skelton) door and promptly dies in his kitchen. Soon Larsen, his fiancée and the entire town of Newford, N.D., is entrenched in a heated mafia dispute over an ancient recipe for lutefisk, a popular Norwegian dish made from fish soaked in lye. Yummy.
"You have to soak (lutefisk) in lots and lots of butter just to wash the taste away," said Panneck, a North Dakota native who enjoyed diving into the vast oddities of the Norwegian culture while making the film. "We really tried to find things that were specific to the culture."
The film, made in a mockumentary style, invokes obvious comparisons to the hit Coen Brothers film "Fargo," another mystery set in North Dakota. While the film is not quite as clever, it does offer strong performances from a cast expertly portraying no-nonsense Midwesterners, some of whom were found in North Dakota.
"We tried to use as much of the local talent as we could," Panneck said, although the main characters were found in Los Angeles. "We looked for actors that were not really well known. It breaks the illusion if you recognize the actor."
Joel McCrary is particularly brilliant as Brother Cousin Louie, a Lutheran monk with an affinity for artfully decorated taxidermy.
The writing is solid, with giggle-inducing lines such as "That's when our trouble really began, as if a dead man in your hot dish isn't enough." While the cinematography can seem amateurish at times, especially in the historical reenactments, it fits the tongue-in-cheek style of the film.
The film screens Friday, April 8, at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday, April 10, at 9:45 a.m. in the Barrel Room at Sebastiani Winery. Panneck and Hail will offer a Q&A after the Sunday screening.
Moving over to dramas, my heart and mind were captured by "Falling Overnight," directed by Conrad Jackson and written by Parker Croft (who also stars), Aaron Golden and Jackson. The film follows Elliot Carson (Croft) on the night before a major surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor - a surgery there is no certainty he will survive. After being diagnosed with a serious illness at 22, Elliot has secluded himself from his friends and family, instead dealing with his fears internally.
"We did research and found how isolating having a terminal illness can be," said Jackson, adding that the film was influenced after a childhood friend got a brain tumor. "It's especially true with young people. You're just getting out of college, your friends are going off to Europe ... It's a hard thing for them to relate to."
By chance, Elliot meets the vivacious Chloe Webb, played brilliantly by the captivating Emilia Zoryan. Without him mentioning his disease, the couple ends up spending the entire night together, going to art shows and parties, giving Elliot a renewed taste for life as an average young person. The audience watches the a young love blooms, but the tension mounts as you know the uncertainty of Elliot's future.
The film is beautifully shot, done over "14 grueling days in L.A.," Jackson said. The cast, while all relative newcomers, do a solid job handling the often emotional scenes that come late in the film. It is obvious that as both writer and lead actor, Croft was able to embrace the totality of a complex character.
"The writing, those are just the bones," Jackson said. "The actors really put the meat on those bones."
"Falling Overnight" screens at 9:15 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at Vintage House and Sunday, April 10, at 6:30 p.m. in the Barrel Room at Sebastiani Winery. Numerous members of the cast and crew, including Jackson and Croft, will at the screenings.
What "Endless Summer" did for surfing, "Deeper" could do for free-ride snowboarding. The film follows a group of extreme snowboarders, led by pro Jeremy Jones, who travel the globe looking for the most remote slopes in tucked away corners of the world where no modern day man has ever set foot. Their goal? To find the gnarliest routes to ride, even when certain death is within arms length.
They snowboard the cliffs in Antarctica, where ninja-like balance is required to avoid plummeting into the freezing water below, between massive boulders where even the slightest lean could mean face planting into the rocks, through fresh powder on steep slopes where avalanches could be imminent. Their journey to these rides is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. I was captivated watching the men traverse mountains, using their boards to climb through waist deep snow, reaching the point of sheer exhaustion only to turn around for what must be the most exhilarating slide of their lives.
The most stellar thing about this documentary is the visual cornucopia it offers. You get to tag along to some of the most isolated, and most beautiful, places on earth, while also riding alongside as these athletes slice through the snow at speeds so fast the camera has trouble keeping up. If you're into extreme sports, this is the flick for you.
"Fort McCoy," directed by Kate Connor and Michael Worth, offers a new view on World War II, taking audiences inside the life of a POW camp in Wisconsin. While it provides an interesting concept, filled with strong performances, the film ultimately suffers from its slow pacing.
Frank Stirn, played excellently by Eric Stoltz (who also produced the film), is a barber in 1944 who cannot join the military due to a heart murmur. Desperately seeking a way to still serve his country, he moves his family to Fort McCoy, a POW camp that is home to thousands of Germans and Japanese soldiers. The character-driven film offers a snapshot of daily life on the base, tackling social issues of the time along the way. Frank's 18-year-old sister-in-law, for example, falls for a Jewish soldier, which at the time was probably a big deal, although in today's feels far less significant. Much more interesting was seeing how the Japanese, German and American soldiers had to work to occupy the same small area.
For the vintage clothing lover in me, I found the costumes and sets endlessly beautiful. The attention to detail is impressive, making it a rich visual experience.
This is not an "edge of your seat" type of movie, but if you enjoy historical dramas it's definitely worth a watch.
"Death By Medicine"
Easily the most terrifying film I watched this year was "Death By Medicine," directed by Gary Null and Valerie Van Cleve. The documentary shows an up-close and in-depth look at the modern medical system, and how often it can do more harm than good.
The film is in the same vain as Michael Moore's "Sicko," making you want to think twice about the advice your doctor gives you. Going deep inside the pharmaceutical industry, medical schools, medical journals and the sometimes questionable science on which government agencies base decisions, the film is a scary eye-opener.
But in this case, it's important to note the source of the film. Null is a prominent and sometimes controversial naturalist and homeopath, who has written books on many topics addressing modern medicine. While the film certainly reinforces his viewpoints, it does offer important commentary on the politicizing of medicine - how drug reps and doctors make backroom deals and the power pharmaceutical lobbyists hold in Washington.
Beatle-mania is alive and well across the globe. The documentary "Come Together," directed by John Scofield and Steve Ison, explores the unbridled passion that exists across the world for the Fab Four. The film highlights a few of the more than 8,000 Beatles tribute bands that still exist today.
John Lennon's sister, Julia Baird, serves as hostess for the thriving world of Beatles cover bands, intertwined with plenty of footage and history about the actual band. Much of the film was shot in Liverpool during International Beatle Week, where the biggest cover bands from around the globe come together to share their love of the music and culture that captured not only America, but most of the world from the 1960s onward. Particularly amusing are the Japanese cover bands who cannot speak a word of English but somehow sing all the hits with a near-perfect British accent.
For tickets, a complete film schedule or more details about the festival, head to www.sonomafilmfest.org. Also see Kathleen Hill's column for news on the food movies of the festival.