by Scott Hayes
Film fans and movie buffs are stoked about the advent of the new season of the Edmonton International Film Festival, starting tomorrow at the Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre in the downtown core. The 10-day fest features dozens of features and dozens of shorts, some of which are having their premieres while others are practically hot off the press, so to speak.
The 24/One challenge pits local filmmakers against each other in a race against the clock to make a brand new and original short film in only 24 hours. The competitors spent last Saturday racing to the silver screen with a theme and a budget of whatever they have in their pockets. Judges will determine the best of the best and those ones will hit the marquee at the end of the fest. The field of budding young Steven Soderberghs includes St. Albert’s Justin Kueber and Sam Reid.
Tomorrow, however, the curtains will be drawn on Beeba Boys, the opening night gala film by acclaimed director Deepa Mehta, who will be in attendance for the screening.
One of the great allures to the festival is the chance to catch some world premieres and mingle with the filmmakers themselves. Saturday will be a big day for that as the much ballyhooed made in Alberta 3-D romantic comedy 40 Below and Falling finally arrives in the theatres.
The story follows Kate (the endearing Jewel Staite), a small town teacher who is heading back to the big city to marry her fiancé Brad (the inimitable Mark Meer). A snowstorm thwarts her plans for a quick flight back so she decides to follow a burly yet non-personable outdoorsman named Redford (Shawn Roberts) on his journey.
It’s a three-day snowmobile trek through the woods and over the hills and there are many hiccups and obstacles, not the least of which is the personality clash.
Of course, they were made for each other. It’s a tricky job to step into a genre that has so many conventions to it that they are all cliché, each and every one. Far from avoiding them, screenwriter Aaron James Sorensen and director Dylan Pearce wholly embrace as many as possible while bringing in an entirely new dimension to the cinematography.
“I think any time you do something for the first time, you get a lot of eyebrows raised,” explained producer Andrew Scholotiuk.
“That’s when we knew we were on the right path … to take this story set in the mountains with all of the adventure behind it. We were able to place the audience a little bit closer to the action with 3-D. We really tried to stay away from the gimmicks of 3-D and just use it as a storytelling method like you would with good sound, good colour, or good framing.”
The 3-D element typically brings its own clichés with it (e.g. objects propelled straight into the camera, cheesy close-ups, and other ridiculous contrivances), most if not all of which are wholly avoided. In 40 Below, the unique cinematography serves only to immerse the viewer in the grand landscape, making things far more picturesque and spectacular, while playing out the tale of love and nature taking its course.
Filmed digitally, the total volume of data, he noted, topped a whopping 40 terabytes of footage.
“I can’t tell you the type of workload it takes for this type of project,” Scholotiuk said sounding much-relieved. “It’s pretty intense! We tried to pull every trick we could into making this happen. We’re pretty enthusiastic about it.”
Rom-coms often come across pretty stale and tired but this film has a wealth of fresh dialogue, some lovely portrayals by some accomplished actors, many wonderful scenes while still clocking in at a patience-friendly 90 minutes. Keep an eye out for scenes with such local luminaries as Cindy Busby, Shaun Johnston, Stephanie Wolfe, Chris Craddock, and Dana Andersen. Check the credits and you’ll see that Sam Reid pops up as a grip too.
Many of the filmmakers plus cast and crewmembers will be in attendance. The screening takes place at 4:30 p.m.
“It’s been quite a passion, a labour of love, this film.”
Re-‘Staite’-ment makes for wonderful double bill
This isn’t the only time that Staite makes an appearance. She’s also the lead actress in How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town. Despite the salacious title, it’s a rather quaint romantic comedy written and directed by Jeremy LaLonde. He previously trod similar territory with his 2013 feature Sex After Kids.
Here, however, there’s a tinge of human pathos as a teenaged Cassie (Staite) is driven out of a wholesome town – called Beaver’s Ridge of all things – by her stern yet celebrated author mother (played briefly by Lauren Holly) and a group of cohorts who berate her for her healthy sex life.
So she moves to the big city and becomes the author of a sex column, further deepening the rift between her and her home. When her mom dies, however, she is forced back for the funeral and to confront all of the unpleasantness of her past that is somehow still alive and well.
Planning an orgy turns out to be the best idea for her, her former boyfriend, his new wife, and a cadre of the locals who figure that there’s nothing wrong with following your desires in whatever form they take.
Inhibitions are shed and secrets are revealed, along with all the skin. It’s serious but silly, a sex romp with a heart of gold and a winning ending.
“For me, it’s about finding something honest, always,” LaLonde stated. “I don’t really write jokes so much as I create situations where honest human emotions come out. In this film, it’s about sexual insecurity (and insecurity in general), so it’s about getting to the truth of that, which can be pretty damn funny if you don’t try to hide from it.”
“And it’s about not hammering the message, really. If you do it right the message comes through without you having to state it.”
It’s an unofficial Jewel Staite double bill with Orgy screening at 7 p.m. on Saturday, right after 40 Below.
Up and coming talents
Akash Sherman might not yet be a household name. ‘Yet’ is the operative word. He’s only 20 after all but he’s already got an impressive resume, perhaps the most notable entry being his visual effects work on the stellar campy B-movie WolfCop.
Now, he’s taken the helm of his own feature called The Rocket List. It’s the end of the world as a colossal meteor is on a collision course with Earth. With only days left, a group of friends has decided to take a road trip and have some adventures, all of which will be recorded for the ultimate posterity: the video will be sent into space as the last document and testament to humanity.
It’s a good thing that Sherman has some top notch effects chops. “In high school, I was always messing around and doing VFX for short films,” he said. “Visual effects is my comfort zone.”
This feature has a threadbare budget – “microscopic,” he clarified – but the scenes of the meteor and the havoc it wreaks help immeasurably to make the film. The effects are used effectively without being excessive, and only to further the story. Michael Bay, are you listening?
“We just wanted it peppered throughout. We didn’t want to focus on it. It’s not a blockbuster. We just wanted to have it as a backdrop to set the amount of chaos that’s going on in the world and show how these guys are getting away from it.”
“We just loved the idea of friends, a bucket list, a road trip, and the apocalypse,” Sherman explained.
Continuing on with the low budget ethos, Sherman also wrote, directed and co-starred in the production. It follows the found footage genre but fits in nicely with Don McKellar’s Last Night, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and all of the other world annihilation dramas of the last 10 years.
We follow the fellows as they catch fireworks displays, avoid cultists, hang out and discuss nachos, climb mountains, hunt for dinosaur fossils in the Badlands, and try to figure out a way to send their footage into the black abyss of outer space. It’s weirdly upbeat and comes across as a long series of clips and snippets of random yet sequential scenes roughly hewn together with a whole lot of dialogue and not much action.
The characters explore mortality and morality in turn but mostly you’re watching this group of guys eat cereal and sing songs about the end of the world. It’s a new take on an existential crisis, that’s for certain.
Honestly, it seems to take forever for anything to happen. Perhaps that’s the best, most fitting tribute to the planet that there is. If that’s what these young filmmakers were aiming for, kudos for hitting the asteroid on the X.
It’s actually a nice little video diary that could use a bit of work to make it more compelling to a broad audience rather than just a personal pet project for a handful of friends. The amateurish shortcomings (the acting!) are more than made up for during the climactic shots. The visual effects, as I said, make the film. The Rocket List ends with a scene that brought a tear to this hardened critic’s eye.
And that’s a large part of what makes the Edmonton International Film Festival such a great thing. Where else can you see such wonder, and from 20-year-olds, no less.