Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Davis Film Festival, 2009

Organizer Judith Plank is very excited about the upcoming Davis Film Festival.  “Gosh, Opening Night at the Varsity is HUGE. A renowned UCD Professor will speak and filmmakers will attend,” she gushed.

The professor is Liz Applegate UC Davis Nutrition professor and expert on athletes and body image.  She will be speaking in conjunction with the film which will open this year’s festival, “Beauty Mark,” by Carla Precht, Diane Israel and Kathleen Man, which examines our culture's toxic emphasis on weight and looks through the eyes of Boulder-based psychotherapist and former world-class triathlete – Israel-- who tells her own story while interviewing other champion athletes, body builders, fashion models and inner-city teens about their experiences relating to self-image.

But “Beauty Mark” is only the first of twenty-two films which will be shown Thursday, at the Varsity Theater and Friday and Saturday at the Veterans Memorial Theater.

The festival is a labor of love for Plank, who volunteered at film festivals around California before she woke up one morning and realized that Davis needed its own film festival, and then set about making it happen.

“I did a test run and brought one human rights film to the Varsity. Will and Jane Lotter helped co-sponsor the film and we just about filled the theater..  I thought--Wow–if this can happen after one film, what can happen with a whole festival?”

So in April of 2004, the first official festival was held.  It included 19 films and a party at the Davis Art Center.  The whole thing was advertised by word of mouth and was highly successful.  “Now people expect it and I even have support from key players in the City of Davis, who realize the value of things.”

“Bob Bowen is like an army himself,” she joked, pointing out that Bowen’s breadth of experience and his numerous contacts have been a great help to the festival.

Bowen understands the importance of a film festival to a city like Davis.  "Not only do Davis moviegoers have a history of supporting the type of films that appear in festivals but having    one in town gives students and community members a chance to see these films without driving to another city" (Plank also points to the importance for city businesses, like motels and restaurants.)

The festival received city funding for the first year or two, but then Plank realized that with her own business skills and a successful beginning, she no longer needed city funding.  The festival has been self-sustaining ever since.

Since this is a Davis Film Festival, Plank makes special effort to involve local film makers and even bends the rules a bit for Yolo County people.

“The final deadline for submitting films is the end of February, but Yolo County film makers get an extra couple of weeks if they need it,” she admits. “I am also flexible on the entry fees for Yolo County entries.  I want to encourage local film makers.”

This year there are three talented local film makers who will be showing films.  The youngest of the group is Colin McDaniel, a 17 year old Davis High School student who started “messing around with the family video camera” with his friends in the third grade.  When he was in the fourth grade, his family got a digital camera and he began filming, writing and learning more about the camera and especially about editing programs.

He produced his first serious movie, “The Problem with James,” a psychological horror movie he started writing while on a road trip with his grandparents in 2004.

“I’ve made hundreds of short movies over the years, but most of those were mainly for experimentation.  I have currently finished five complete films.”

His 27 minute entry into this year’s festival, “Long Distance,” is described simply as “a visceral film about fear and paranoia.”

McDaniel is self taught in film and has learned what he knows from books and the Internet.  “I write, cast, film, direct, produce and edit my own films.  Sometimes I compose my own songs for the score.”

He definitely has the background for scoring his own films.  Colin plays drums on professional jazz gigs around the Davis, Sacramento, and Bay Area.  He also plays in the Davis High School Jazz Band, the Berkeley Jazz School Advanced High School Ensemble (a group that focuses on building jazz performance skills and contemporary original jazz composition), and various other music groups.

McDaniel was inspired by an interview with writer/director David Lynch, who spoke of gathering things that you truly love. 

“I tried to come up with ideas that were very personal to me without even starting to think about how they would fit into a movie, as I wasn't planning on compiling them into one longer movie. I wrote my ideas on scraps of paper.

“Another time, I was biking at night listening to the song that plays at the end of ‘Long Distance,’ and the final scene of my film came into my head. Again, I had no idea how it would fit into a movie, all I knew was I liked the idea.
“Also, I envisioned putting a green filter throughout my movie, as the color reminds me of nighttime.
“As more and more ideas came into my head based on my own experiences, thinking, and imagination, a movie formed and I wrote down the general outline. Then, I wrote out a summary of each scene. Next, I wrote the screenplay, which I edited multiple times. I didn't think of the title of the movie until after I started shooting.”

McDaniel cast his brother and his father in the film.  Brother Graham is a sophomore at Davis High and “has a natural intensity in his acting that worked well in the movie. He listens closely and he's easy to direct.”

The young filmmaker, who plans to attend the UCLA Advanced Digital Filmmaking Workshop this summer, says that he likes how movies can make people totally absorbed in another world.  “I make films to get across ideas that I have in my mind to a certain medium.”

Emma Coats had a unique idea in her mind.  The 23 year old former Davis Food Co-op employee now works for Pixar Studios and got her start in film making by creating claymation videos with her brother.  “I never went out with a video camera and made movies.  I’m very shy so I did animation.”  With that character trait, it’s no wonder she ended up at an award-winning CGI animation company.

After submitting six portfolios to Pixar, one every six months, she finally was called for an interview and has now been at the studio for the past two years, working with story boarding. “I’m constantly trying to improve my work and get them to notice me,” she says.

Her film, “Meat Love” grew out of her experience working in the meat department of the Davis Food Co-op.  She explained to me that when you bone a chicken and spread the two halves of the breast out, it looks like a Valentine heart (from which comes the unique logo for her film).    “In the down time at the store, you start making up stories about other people in the store.”  She began to wonder who would be the most grossed out by receiving a “chicken heart” Valentine.

Out of that came the idea for her movie.  Toby works at the meat counter of the Davis Food Co-Op. Lisa works at the deli counter. Toby thinks she's the most gorgeous girl he's ever seen, but he finds out that there's a minor problem - she's a vegan. "It's not like meat is my life," he assures her, but he's not so sure. Toby has to decide: MEAT . . . or LOVE?

Emma wanted to actually make the film in the Co-op and use some of her former co-workers in the cast.  (Membership Director) Doug Walter was the guy who made it all happen, the man who said “Yes you can shoot all night in the co op while it’s closed.”

Walter was happy to be a part of the project.  “She had the idea and she sent us a script treatment and said we’d love to be able to shoot this at the co-op.  Why wouldn’t we want to help her?” he said, though joked “How great a contribution to cinematic art this will be remains to be seen.”

He also admits that the story line is not that far off the mark.  “It’s not necessarily a true life story but it resonates with the staff.  People who hear the plot synopsis think ok–that could happen, couldn’t it?”

“Quite often does happen in real life,” agrees Jim Pavilchek, Co-op butcher, who also appears as the main character’s meat department co-worker in the film.  “Can a vegan and meat eater co-exist?  I definitely think so.  There’s an example in our own store, one employee, a dedicated vegan became one of my best customers.  That’s a switching in eating habits.  If the employee had stayed vegan, who knows?”

Pavilchek was particular tickled by the tag line of the film - “boy meats girl.”  “That made me laugh for a day and a half when I heard it,” he chuckles.

There was very little chuckling about 19 year old American River College student Jared Martin’s thirteen minute film, “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”  There is no humor about the subject of his film.

Like the other two Davis filmmakers, Martin started in film at a young age.  He was nine years old when he made a stop-action film using Star Wars action figures. When he was 12, his family got a computer – a Mac, which came with editing software and he began to get into more serious film making.

On a vacation, when he was 14, his family stopped to visit friends in Nebraska and he learned about “The Lost Boys,” a group of whom were living in town.  The family friend, knowing his love of movie making, thought he might enjoy meeting and interviewing them.  The project turned into 11 hours of film and the awakening of a real film career.

The Lost Boys of Sudan are more than 27,000 boys who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005)  Boys as young as 6-years-old walked a distance equivalent to that between Denver and Chicago in search of safety. They walked in large groups for three months before reaching the safety of Ethiopia, with many dying along the way due to starvation and disease or attacks by wild animals. After residing in Ethiopia for approximately four years, civil war broke out in that country as well, causing them to flee once again to their war-torn country of Sudan.

Many died on that journey as well when crossing the deadly Gilo River. Those unable to swim were swept away in the turbulent currents. Others were eaten by crocodiles, attacked by hippos, or killed by enemy gunfire. The survivors remained in the bush of Sudan, hiding for approximately one-and-a-half years before making their way to the safety of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. In all, these young men had walked some 1,000 miles by foot before reaching their destination.

After 14 years in refugee camps, their plight came to the attention of the U.S. State Department and beginning in 2001 about 3800 Lost Boys arrived in the United States, where they are now scattered in about 38 cities, averaging about 100 per city.

“They are amazing people,” said Martin.  “It’s just amazing to me that you can go through all that as a young child and still survive.   It just shows that the human spirit is resilient.”

The “boys” arrived in the United States as young men, who had to be taught the very basics of living in this country.  They had to be taught how to sleep in a bed under a blanket, how to use the bathroom, how to brush their teeth.  “Every little thing we take for granted they had to completely learn from scratch.”

There were also serious cultural differences (it is common for men in the Sudan to marry girls as young as 14, for example).  They now struggle to keep jobs and go to school, while trying to send money back to surviving family members (if any) in the Sudan.

Martin edited his 11 hour film down to 42 minutes, thinking he wanted to make a feature documentary, but then he set it aside for a couple of years.  A year ago, realizing the enormity of making a full length documentary as his very first project, he decided to rethink the project.  “I got some new editing software and edited it down from 42 minutes to the 13 min. short.”

The film has already received prestigious awards at other film festivals.  It won the Columbine award at the Moondance film festival for non-violent conflict resolution.  It also won the audience award at Moondance for best short film documentary.  He also won the audience award for student documentary film at the Sacramento film festival.

But what brought him the greatest pride was meeting Father Jerry Drino, a Catholic priest who works with Hope with Sudan, an organization based in San Jose, which coordinates the efforts around the US with those in the Sudan, other parts of Africa and the UK and offers scholarships to refugee youth in need.   “He actually takes my film around now and shows it before he speaks.  It kind of gives me chills sometimes to know that people are seeing it on a weekly basis.”

I asked Martin what he hopes that his film will accomplish. “I hope people see the film and get a better understanding of what these men went through because it’s really under-reported.  We’re hearing a little bit more about it with Darfur but no one knew about it and when the boys came some of them were discriminated against and a lot of them weren’t accepted.  People need to know what they went through to understand how they act and what they believe.  So I hope people realize that they are these amazing people and there is more to them than meets the eye.”

The diversity of just these three films shows that there will be something for everyone at the Davis Film Festival.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Avenue Q

I suspect that Wednesday's opening night performance of 'Avenue Q' probably shocked some members of the audience, who initially may not have believed at what they were seeing.

But the laughter and applause throughout the two hours - and at the end - suggests that everybody adjusted pretty quickly.

At intermission, I overheard a man saying that at the start he was thinking that his 9-year-old grandson would just love the show ... but then, as the show progressed, he began to think, 'Well, maybe not that part.'

If the idea of Muppet-like puppets (only upper torsos) simulating some rather human sexual activity bothers you, this isn't your show. If occasional 'adult language' bothers you, this isn't your show.

But if a hilariously irreverent, R-rated version of 'Sesame Street' sounds intriguing, don't hesitate. Rush right out and see this sparkling, three-time Tony Award-winner while you have the chance.

The production continues through Sunday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, ranging from $16.50 to $61.50 (depending on day and time), are available at (916) 264-5181 or (530) 766-2277. Call (916) 446-5880.

At its heart, 'Avenue Q' is about love, friendship and making the world a better place. What could possibly be objectionable about that?

The cast is mixed: half puppets, half humans. The puppets all have their human counterparts, as well.

Brian (Cullen R. Titmas), Christmas Eve (Sala Iwamatsu) and Gary Coleman (Danielle E. Thomas) are the humans; the other characters are puppets manipulated by extraordinarily clever actors.

Robert McClure is Princeton, newly graduated from college and possessing a business degree; he has come to New York to take a job. He has been wandering down from Avenue A, trying to find an apartment he can afford. As he takes a vacant apartment on Avenue Q, he learns that he has been downsized ... before his job ever started.

McClure is amazing: an exact shadow image for Princeton, his body filling in the parts of 'body' that Princeton doesn't possess. The two - actor and puppet - move in perfect precision; it's so easy to lose the actor (McClure) in the character of Princeton, that not until the end of the show did I realize that McClure also worked the character of Rod, the 'Ernie' half of an Ernie & Bert-like duo. (They occupy another apartment in the building.)

The amazing Anika Larsen is Kate Monster and Lucy. Kate Monster and Princeton are attracted to each other, but the latter's reluctance to commit to a serious relationship threatens both of them. Like McClure, Larsen shares a one-ness with her puppet, and her singing voice is powerful.

David Benoit provides the voice and half the body for Trekkie Monster, a combination of Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, who spends most of his time in his apartment, looking at Internet porn.

Brian is a struggling comedian who befriends Princeton, and tries to help him overcome the depression that follows his break-up with Kate Monster.

Christmas Eve (yes, that really is her name) is Brian's Japanese girlfriend. She has a heavy Asian accent and a degree in counseling, but the only job she can get is working in a Chinese restaurant. Iwamatsu is a delight with her over-the-top accent, and a voice that suddenly bursts out of nowhere and blows everybody away.

And I would have loved to be part of the writing session that decided to add a Gary Coleman character to the mix. The former child star - now reduced to selling his memorabilia on eBay - is the manager of the run-down building on Avenue Q: a role that is art imitating real life. Thomas has a lot of the actual Coleman's mannerisms down pat, and is wonderful in the part.

The show tackles many problems of the human condition and, with songs like 'Everybody's a little bit racist,' pokes gentle humor at many of our foibles.

In the end, a magnanimous gesture and assistance from the most unlikely of places proves that good can be found everywhere, if you look closely.

I've wanted to see this show for a very long time, and - happily - it did not disappoint.

I loved it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cap'n Mitch

By the time our family arrived in Davis in 1973, Mitch Agruss already was a local celebrity, having hosted Channel 13's afternoon children's television program as 'Captain Delta.'

He held that stint for five years, and then he became Channel 40's 'Cap'n Mitch.'

Our kids and all their friends were fans of Cap'n Mitch. My son Ned remembers winning a certificate to a roller rink in one of the show's contests.

Mara Tyler (then Mara Bernhard) recalls 'being happy when I would turn the TV on and see his face, because it meant that cartoons were on, and not news ... which was the bane of my existence as a kid.'

'I just remember loving him, and thinking what a cool job he had,' Paul Kagiwada said. 'I remember rushing home to watch 'Pow.' '

' 'Pow' basically was a version of Pong,' Ned explained, when I looked blank. 'You got on the phone with Cap'n Mitch, and he put this game on the TV where vertical lines about an inch or so long fell from the top of the screen to the bottom on one side ... then you yelled 'Pow!' into the phone, which would trigger a digital dot to fire across the screen from the other side, in an attempt to hit the line and blow it up.

'If you hit enough lines, you won a prize.'

A friend from Japan, added, 'Cap'n Mitch was a pioneer in developing interactive TV. His show paved the way for the interactive media-technologies we take for granted these days.

'I liked his captain's hat, too!'

But neither these kids nor their parents realized that before Agruss donned his signature captain's hat, he'd enjoyed a long professional acting career that took him from high school drama classes in St. Louis to Carnegie Tech Drama School in Pittsburgh ... and then to Broadway, where he performed with some of the biggest names of the day.

'I had a wonderful mentor in high school,' the 86-year-old actor said, during a recent chat.

This special teacher, watching Agruss perform in high school productions, suggested that he attend a summer course at the University of Iowa. The six weeks convinced young Mitch that he wanted to pursue acting as a career. He applied and was accepted to Carnegie Tech Drama (now Carnegie Melon), one of only two or three drama schools at the time.

'It was the best thing that ever happened to me,' Agruss admitted. 'It was four years of the most concentrated, professional theater in the university atmosphere: day and night theater.'

He worked on the tech crew, learned lights, worked with costumes.

'By the time you were a senior, you were getting good parts.'

But nothing affected him as much as the happenstance of a classmate offering him a summer job, working straw hat theater in Bucks County, Penn. It was 1941, just before the United States went to war.

'It was like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,' ' Agruss remembered. 'You're living in a black and white, Depression-era world, and suddenly you walk into full Technicolor, because the Bucks County Playhouse was one of the primary playgrounds for all the upper-crust theater and movie people.

'Here I am, 17 years old. I get off the train, and suddenly I'm surrounded by Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Louis Calhern, Hume Cronyn and just an extraordinary number of people. Everybody was there. Bucks County, which is Pennsylvania Dutch country, was the place where a lot of these New York theater, movie and radio people had summer homes.

'They used the playhouse, and you were just a part of it. Even if you were a crew kid, you still were invited to all the parties. It was just a knockout.

'But it was hard work. We did 15 shows in 15 weeks. You're playing a show, and you're rehearsing the next one. Visiting stars would come, as they did, traveling the circuit of summer theaters. So I was able to observe this, and I was a good boy ... so everybody liked me.'

Agruss worked with the summer theater for five years - with a two-year break to serve in the Army - and made lots of connections, which served him well when he moved to New York. Within three or four weeks of his arrival in the Big Apple, Agruss was performing on Broadway, thanks to director Ezra Stone, who had a home in Bucks County, and whose wife was a member of the Bucks County theater.

The play was a farce called 'At War with the Army,' and it starred Gary Merrill. Agruss was fresh out of the Army himself, and the right age for the part.

'It transferred me right into the mainstream,' Agruss grinned.

It was the golden age of theater on Broadway. Other shows running at the same time included 'Streetcar Named Desire,' with Marlon Brando; 'Where's Charley,' with Ray Bolger; and 'Anne of a Thousand Days,' with Rex Harrison. Not to mention a host of other first-run plays, which now have become legendary.

Across 45th Street from where Agruss was appearing, a theater featured 'Death of a Salesman,' with Lee J. Cobb and Arthur Kennedy. Kennedy and Agruss became good friends, and walked together after their performances each evening to Grand Central Station, to catch their respective trains home.

For several years, Agruss performed and toured with the American Shakespeare Festival out of Stratford, Conn. His costars included Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Drake, and he retains wonderful memories of those years.

One such memory included being stranded in the Washington, D.C., train station, when a snow storm delayed their train to Boston.

'My family was visiting, and my son was about 3 or 4 years old. To pass the time, he was at a little shooting gallery in one corner of the station: the old-fashioned kind, where ducks go by. He was having some difficulty.

'Katharine Hepburn came by and saw this. She had no tolerance for not being able to do the right thing, and she was annoyed that he couldn't shoot straight. She put him on her knee, and she said 'You will shoot only when I tell you to. Don't shoot until I say 'pull.'' ' There was this little kid perched there, shooting ... and he got them.

'That was exactly the way she was. She couldn't stand inefficiency.'

Circumstances change, and Agruss' contract with the festival wasn't renewed after five years. But an opportunity presented itself in California. It was 1961, and Channel 13 - based in Stockton - had decided to expand its children's market. Agruss moved his family to California and took the job of 'Captain Delta.'

Later, after moving to Channel 40 to become 'Cap'n Mitch,' he had a long run until the 1980s, when programming changed.

Agruss might have gone into retirement, but suddenly 'little theater jobs began popping up.' He returned to his first love, the stage, this time with a different attitude.

'I feel stronger in what I'm doing, because I'm not competing. I'm not a youngster trying to get into something, and hoping I'll make it big. Now it's just a matter of enjoying the craft. Returning to this work at an older age is more rewarding and more fulfilling, the less 'edgy' it is. The only point I'm trying to make is 'Can I still do it?' '

If anyone doubts that Agruss is having the time of his life these days, the answer can be found at Sacramento's California Stage, where he's performing in 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre.' Clearly, the acting chops he learned back at the Bucks County Playhouse still serve him well.

'Everything that I did at school prepared me for everything that I do in life,' he said. 'Theater discipline is something you'll find a use for, no matter what you end up doing.'

As we sat in his small apartment, surrounded by memorabilia from a lifetime in the theater - a loving cup engraved for him by Katharine Hepburn, an autographed photo of Moss Hart, posters and programs from shows in which Mitch appeared, and a large portrait of Cap'n Mitch - it was very clear that Agruss has followed his dreams and made the most of every opportunity that came his way.

The smile on his face says it all: This has been - continues to be - a great ride, and he's loving every minute of it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Sound of Music

The ladies rule, in the Davis Musical Theatre Company's production of 'The Sound of Music.' The women in the cast far outshine the men in this sparkling show, which is directed by Jan Isaacson.

A company with a small house can use the entire theater in many scenes, and Isaacson does this quite well, starting with the opening Gregorian chant by the nuns of Nonnberg Abby: They file in from the back of the theater, chanting on their way down the stairs and through the audience, and finally onto the stage.

The curtains then open, to reveal postulant Maria sitting on her beloved mountain. The scenery - designed by Steve Isaacson - is lovely, and perfectly conveys a sense of the mountains.

Kate Hight is outstanding as Maria. She has a lovely voice and a fresh earnestness to her character; just watching her makes us want to smile. She's particularly good during her scenes with the von Trapp children, for whom she takes a temporary job as governess.

Marguerite Morris is wonderful as the Mother Abbess, who sends Maria to the von Trapp home, hoping she'll discover whether she has a true vocation. Morris is at her best, of course, in the signature 'Climb Every Mountain,' for which she receives a well-deserved ovation.

The delightful '(How Do You Solve a Problem like) Maria' is sung with Sister Margaretta (Eimi Stokes), Sister Berthe (Mary Young) and Sister Sophia (Laura Sitts). Stokes is particular charming, and has an irrepressible personality.

The von Trapp children are essential to the popularity of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and Isaacson's experience as director of DMTC's young performers program really shows, both in her selection of seven outstanding young actors, and in her direction of the group. Individually and collectively, they're all quite good.

Liesl, who is '16 Going on 17,' is played by Moriah Haworth; she has a winning voice and beautifully expresses the joy of new love, and the heartbreak of its loss.

Kendyl Ito plays Brigitta, who seems never to have an unexpressed thought.

The others are Rami Rashmawi, as Friedrich; Jasmin Mould, as Louisa; William Chan, as Kurt; Ani Carrera, as Marta; and Rose Moylan as the adorable youngest, Gretl. The group sings well together, and down to the youngest they're all professional on stage.

Emily Cannon-Brown plays Elsa Schraeder, the woman who hopes to wed Capt. von Trapp (Giorgio Selvaggio) until she realizes that his feelings for Maria are more than that of an employer for an employee. Cannon-Brown also is a strong performer, and has a lovely voice.

Sadly, the men in the cast don't fare as well. Selvaggio has a big voice, but even the sprayed-on gray hair can't make him look old enough to have fathered seven children. He looks more like Liesl's brother than her parent. This might have been overlooked if Selvaggio appeared more comfortable on stage, but - alas - he doesn't.

Herb K. Schultz fares a little better as Max Detweiler, the opportunistic entrepreneur who is determined to befriend both Austrians and Germans as the war approaches, and to exploit whomever he can for his own good. Schultz is OK but not outstanding.

As Rolf, the young man who delivers telegrams and steals Liesl's heart, Matthew Kohrt is the best of the male actors; sadly, his role is small.

This is one of the better-looking DMTC shows, with each scene clearly demonstrating the work that went into it. This show's dedication to quality also is revealed by the size of the orchestra, with 18 musicians listed in the program. That's more than I remember seeing for any previous DMTC show.

Jeanne Henderson's costumes are wonderful, and the wedding dress for Maria is a knockout, with a train that covers half the length of the stairs, as she descends through the audience on her way to the stage. (This dress was a donation to DMTC many years ago.)

Despite a few shortcomings, this 'Sound of Music' is well worth the price of admission. Hight's performance as Maria is worth the price of admission; after including all the other good things about this production, it definitely won't disappoint DMTC's fans.