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ASHLAND INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL

A taste of indie

AIFF offers another strong collection of films this year
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Tim Zaal plays in “Facing Fear,” by producer and director Jason Cohen. Photo credit: http://www.facingfearmovie.com/
 Posted: 2:00 AM April 02, 2014

The Ashland Independent Film Festival opens Thursday, with 7,000 movie buffs and filmmakers swarming the Varsity Theatre, the Historic Ashland Armory and other venues for five days devoted to more than 80 new examples of the indie lovers' art. Tickets to films and other events can be ordered at www.ashlandfilm.org. We sampled films from different categories. Here are the reviews of those films.

Just how weird is it for single 20somethings in Los Angeles these days? In the offbeat "Forev," (feature, 88 minutes, written and co-directed by James Leffler and Molly Green), having a romance is as easy as eating a hot dog. And maybe just about as lasting.

When struggling actress Sophie thinks she's blown an audition for a hot dog commercial, she flops on neighbor Pete's carpeted floor and says she might just stay forever.

If you go

What: Ashland Independent Film Festival

When: Thursday through Monday, April 3-7

Schedule and tickets: www.ashlandfilm.org

"We should probably just get married then," Pete jokes.

"OK," Sophie says.

And then, nothing really goes wrong. Impulsive Sophie joins affable Pete on a car trip to Phoenix to pick up Pete's sister, Jess, from college. With Jess's entrance things become more complicated, as she raises the same objections we would to the absurd marriage idea that Pete and Sophie seem to be serious about.

When our breezy threesome faces the obligatory car break-down in the middle of the desert, there's an unplanned stay at the local motel and a fish-out-of-water drinking binge at the local redneck bar.

When a drunken Jess goes off with a tall, bearded stranger wearing a necklace of animal bones, we enter a world of flaky wanderers, each with an angle on relationships and notions of wandering and/or being lost. There are no hot dogs, but there is howling at the moon.

There are no villains in "Forev" to keep young lovers apart, nothing but their own impacted alienation from living in that isolating old L.A. There is no Burning Question that must be resolved, but there is a point, and "Forev" has enough easy charm to carry along a thin but quirky story. The impulse of comedy is inclusive, even if you're just finding out how far you can go without saying what you mean.

"Facing Fear" (short documentary, 23 minutes, directed by Jason Cohen) has a story line out of a Hollywood movie, but it's as real as the mean streets of Los Angeles. When 13-year-old Matthew Boger's mother threw him out of his home for being gay, he lived on the streets of Hollywood.

One night a group of neo-Nazi skinheads out for trouble beat Boger nearly to death. The last thing he saw was the young man who delivered the kick that knocked him unconscious.

Flash-forward 25 years. Working at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance, which examines hatred and prejudice around the world, Boger meets Tim Zaal, a former neo-Nazi skinhead scheduled to speak at the museum. The two quickly realize they met 25 years earlier in an alley, when Zaal kicked Boger nearly to death.

In a Hollywood picture, Boger would either have his revenge on Zaal or quickly forgive him. Real life is more complex. Boger didn't know whether he was ready to forgive, and the reformed Zaal had conflicting feelings about forgiving himself.

But the chance meeting sparked a journey through doubts and fear in this introspective directorial debut from Jason Cohen, which is told through the reflections of the principals. Zaal these days finds peace in meditation, and Boger has made an interesting decision about his mother.

"The Lion's Mouth Opens" (short documentary, 16 minutes, directed by Lucy Walker) begins at a dinner party Marianna Palka, a 32-year-old Scottish actress, is giving for her friends. It seems she is standing at the cusp of learning something important about her future.

Huntington's disease is transmitted through a gene. Marianna's father died of it, giving her a 50/50 chance of having it. Onset is usually in one's 30s or 40s. One of Marianna's friends describes it as being like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, both at once.

In what is essentially the film's second act, Marianna and friends, accompanied by the camera, visit the doctor the next day to get the news: She has the fatal gene. The camera doesn't flinch. Palka flashes a smile, tears up, says, "S—t." The film offers a poignant contrast between the sheer vitality of life at its beginning and the entry of the specter of an awful death at a way-too-young age. In the aftermath, a reflective Marianna says she feels "a sense of gratitude" for the life she's had and will have.

The film's title is from a poem the young Bob Dylan wrote about Woody Guthrie after a visit to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, where Guthrie was dying from Huntington's disease. The line goes like this: "And the lion's mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth. And his jaws start closin' with you underneath."

"Lomax" (short film, 12 minutes, direct by Jesse Kreitzer, presented by the Association for Cultural Equity) is a vignette based on the 1941 visit of folklorist Alan Lomax to the Mississippi Delta with 500 pounds of the day's recording gear to capture old folk songs before they were lost to history.

His timing was impeccable. This short film imagines Lomax's encounter with Bill Henley, a 73-year-old recluse living in a tiny shack near Lula, Miss. Lomax gets the shy Henley's permission to record after listening to the old man talk about an old mule he loved. He lugs the gear from his Plymouth and hooks it up to the car battery. Henley sings a blues song about an old mule dying, unaccompanied. Lomax plays it back for him.


"That sounds good," the old man says.

It's an understated but shimmering moment from the journey of a man without whom music would be different. An old shack, the rural Mississippi skyline, an old graveyard, are shown in widescreen aspect in luscious black and white.

It turns out that behind the popular Burt's Bees toiletries there's a real Burt (shades of Col. Sanders and Dr. Bronner!). "BURT'S BUZZ" (documentary, 88 minutes, directed by Jody Shapiro, in theaters and on VOD in June) is his unlikely story.

Burt Shavitz is a laid-back fellow who could have stepped off the set of "Duck Dynasty." With a studied indifference to the usual trappings of contemporary middle-class life, he's lived a hermit-like life off the grid in rural Maine since the 1970s. These days he seems to take his celebrity in stride, but with some reluctance, as if mystified by it.

The film opens with him arriving at the airport in Taiwan with screaming fans like something timewarped out of the days of Beatlemania. For a lip balm guy? How did this come to be?

"Things just took one day at a time," he says, "and everything worked out."

Shavitz was a photographer in New York City in the 1960s, shooting the likes of President Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg and Malcolm X, when he gave it up to move to Maine, keep bees and sell honey out of a truck. He met a waitress named Roxanne Quimby and the two became partners in both life and business, eventually launching Burt's Bees.

When the two split up back in the '90s, Quimby bought out Shavitz. She later sold her interest for $177 million. These days Shavitz gets paid for appearances and the commercial use of his face. He recently moved from the converted chicken coop he lived in for years to a larger house, but he still heats water on a woodstove.

The divide between symbolizing a zillion-dollar company and being a backwoods rustic is the central mystery of the film, which is frequently funny and also a bit baffling. If there are deeper secrets, the filmmakers never quite ferret them out. OK, he's an anachronism, maybe that's all there is.

In "Bluebird" (feature, 91 minutes, written and directed by Lance Edmands), a woman living in a little Maine logging town makes a tragic mistake whose effects spread like ripples, the tracing of which is the film's subject.

Lesley drives the town's school bus. Her husband, Richard, is a logger worried that the local mill is closing (it is). One winter's day on her route, Lesley is distracted by a bluebird that shouldn't be there and overlooks a sleeping little boy who fails to leave the bus. In the morning he's found with profound hypothermia and hospitalized with an uncertain fate.

Amy Morton (Barbara in "August: Osage County" in both the original Chicago production and on Broadway) gives a moving performance as the devastated Lesley. The center of the finely wrought film is her search for atonement.

But there are other currents, some of which ask how we divvy up responsibility. There's blame for the boy's mother, Marla, who didn't show up to pick him up at the bus stop as she was supposed to. Louisa Krause is just right in the meaty but ultimately not fully developed role of a damaged young woman who squandered a college scholarship to have a baby at 17 and now hangs out in the local bars.

The decline of the local logging economy is a theme that will resonate for Oregonians. Edmands' tale is sympathetic to small-town, blue-collar values of Richard and his comrades, but there's a sense that anybody with any sense should escape this little dead-end town while he can.

In one scene, Paula, who is Lesley and Richard's teen daughter, asks a boyfriend, "Do you ever worry that you're gonna turn into your parents?" Sometimes there's a nugget of hope in a tragedy. This isn't one of those times. As the film examines the lives of these closely observed characters, even as Jody Lee Lipes' atmospheric cinematography examines the frozen Maine landscape, you wait for something big to happen.

It never does. Lesley aches. Richard worries. Hopeless Marla hires a lawyer. Everybody kind of keeps on keeping on. The pace is extremely leisurely for a film that's only an hour-and-a-half long. Even the music is lugubrious. Marla's choice for a karaoke number in the local bar catches the flavor. It's the sad old Skeeter Davis's ballad "The End of the World."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.



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