Today’s journey through cinematic awesomeness took me from the vineyards of France (and China) to the horrors of theme park whales to a movie about a life-changing train ride. Let’s take a look.
I started off the day with “The Girl on the Train,” directed by TCFF regular Larry Brand and produced by Leland residents Rebecca Reynolds and Jim Carpenter.
I must stop here and explain that Rebecca is my “real friend.” We met for coffee recently and I couldn’t contain my excitement at meeting someone in person, face-to-face, talking like real people used to talk rather than online, which is where so much of my life is these days. So now whenever I see Rebecca, we’re all like, “Hey, it’s my real friend!”
I LOVE this movie, and I’m not just saying that because it was produced by my real friend. It’s a thriller, a drama, a comedy, a noir mystery, a movie within a movie, and it even has shades of horror here and there. You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s not. That’s the beauty of it.
The story follows documentary filmmaker Danny Hart (Henry Ian Cusick), who boards a train at Grand Central Station with no expectation of anything beyond a pleasant ride to upstate New York. Well, you know right away there’s more to that story. The title of this movie is a dead giveaway.
Danny meets a mysterious woman (Nicki Aycox) with whom he trades banter and suddenly, he’s swept into a world of danger, intrigue, and Stephen Lang grilling him in a bleak interrogation room about a murder! Will there be blood? Yes, there will be. Along with an eye shot clean out of a guy’s head, a girl on a deadly mission, a concentration camp story, and a box of chocolate. Honestly, this film keeps you guessing, which is why I love it.
Rebecca, Jim and Larry did a Q&A after the film. Here are some highlights:
On the challenges of producing an independent film: “We call it ‘the train, the pain and the rain,” Rebecca quipped. The film was shot in 17 days in New York City; it was supposed to be 14 days, but because of traffic issues, weather issues, and other logistical problems, it took longer than anticipated.
On improvising and “making do”: Much of the film was shot in the production office, including the scenes in Danny’s office and the interrogation room. “We’d just move the catering table to the other side of the room,” said Rebecca. Larry added, “Sometimes not having the right thing there actually saves you time, because you learn to improvise … You really have to make the shots count.”
On the challenges of filming in an old age home. “The other residents kept turning in the actor for being in the lobby in a robe and pajamas,” said Rebecca. “I said, ‘I’d better take a picture of you with my iPhone in case they whisk you off to a room.’”
On working with Stephen Lang: “You just let him do what he wants to do,” said Larry. “He’s Col. Quarich [from "Avatar"]. I’m not going to argue with him.”
On staying focused: “It must be noted that I did not see a single play while we were shooting in New York,” said Jim. “It killed me.”
On working with famed costume designer Pat Field: “She’s done ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ ‘Sex and the City…,’” said Rebecca. “But she always wanted to shop a show with New York thrift shops.”
On distribution deals: “The whole independent film world has changed drastically since we did “Christina” [their 2010 film],” said Jim. “We’re launching a big distribution deal that will include Video on Demand, DVDs, North American markets … it’s a lengthy process, and we’ve just begun.”
On [their 2012 documentary] “The Coexist Comedy Tour” being available on iTunes Aug. 13: “Every time you download, we get a dollar … or you could just give me the dollar on the way out and I’ll describe the movie to you,” joked Larry.
My second movie of the day was “Red Obsession,” written and directed by David Roach and Warwick Ross. I must admit that even though I live in the middle of northern Michigan wine country, I grew up on a cherry farm and my brothers only recently started planting grapes. So the whole wine thing is a mystery to me.
And wow, who knew it was such a huge investment industry?! People are spending thousands and thousands of dollars for one bottle of wine. Sometimes they don’t even see the wine. They buy it, leave it in storage somewhere, then sell it five years later for a profit.
The film delves into the fact that while Bordeaux may have a centuries-old mythical status in the world of fine wine, things are changing in the global economy. Traditional customers like the U.S. and U.K. are dropping out of the scene (because, hello? The wine is too darn expensive) and China is taking over. The demand for wine there is ridiculous, but product is limited, so it’s a conundrum for sellers.
“Blackfish,” directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is a fascinating look into the world of killer whales held in captivity and forced to do tricks in parks like SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
That trip we took to Seaworld when I was just a kid has new meaning, now that I know the sad story behind the whales.
First, the babies are separated from their moms out in the ocean, then kidnapped and taken to SeaWorld. The babies are taken because they’re easier to transport than fully grown whales. But whales have extremely developed brains and huge attachments to their families for their entire lives. It’s just sickening to think of them being ripped apart from each other.
Held in small areas in captivity, you can see why the whales might start to get a little testy over time, to the point where they attack and kill their trainers. “Blackfish” focuses on Tilikum, a killer whale responsible for the deaths of three people, including Dawn Brancheau, a top killer whale trainer. Look, whales are not meant to be cooped up, and I hope this film helps to change the barbaric culture of whales in captivity.
My last movie of the day, “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State,” screened at the beautiful new Bijou by the Bay. But are they “whistleblowers” or are they leaking delicate information? That’s one of the questions posed by this thoughtful documentary directed by Robert Greenwald and produced by Greenwald and Jim Miller.
It’s clear that we need people who will step forward when they see wrongdoing in the government, but these folks are often persecuted and treated like criminals and spies, their lives turned upside down. And do we still have “freedom of the press” in this country? As a journalist, I can see why writers might shy away from using information supplied by whistleblowers. It’s risky business.
During President Obama’s time in office – a time when people like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning have become household names – the Department of Justice has indicted more people for violating secrecy under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. This eye-opening film looks at four whistleblowers whose lives were forever changed after they exposed government misconduct. It’s straight out of a John Grisham novel, only real.
As with all the previous Traverse City Film Festivals, the volunteers and filmgoers I’ve encountered are polite, helpful and interesting. I even sat next to a guy who turned out to be my neighbor! That is, he lives a few miles down the road from me. You just never know who you might meet at the Traverse City Film Festival.