Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 13th annual Traverse City Film Festival. The festival was founded and is run by Michael Moore, who wasn’t in attendance this year due to his Broadway debut. The festival ran from Tuesday through Sunday, with celebrity guests, feature and short film screenings, panels, and participation from essentially the whole city around it. This year, the festival had a theme running throughout the week, focusing on the travel ban that was put into place a few months back. Michael Moore scheduled films from 19 filmmakers who were personally effected by the ban and gave them a platform to Skype in with their films for Q&A sessions. There were also select free screenings of films and free events for the purpose of making the festival as inclusive as possible.
The festival introduced me to many films that had missed my radar, and I couldn’t be more grateful. On the first day I attended, I saw Bob Byington’s amazingly original Infinity Baby. The darkly comedic loose sci-fi story about a near future where a rare disease rendered a group of babies unable to age past three months while only requiring to be fed and changed once a week which lead to a company “renting” the babies to people to experience having a child. The cast includes Kieran Culkin, Martin Starr, Kevin Corrigan, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Noel Wells. Byington held a Q&A after the film and discussed the process of directing Onur Tukel’s (Catfight, Summer of Blood) script in only eleven days. Byington tried to call Nick Offerman during the Q&A, but he didn’t answer.
On Day 2, I had become familiar with the process for screenings, and made it to two. At 9pm, the amazing State Theater screened Guillaume Canet’s semi-autobiographical absurd comedy Rock ’n’ Roll which was starred him and his wife Marion Cotillard as fictional versions of themselves going through the hardships of being aging screen stars. Canet and Cotillard give outstanding performances and the third act becomes all-out absurdity after a fairly sane buildup. The major tonal shift is a bit out there, but overall I think the film works very well as a satire on star culture.
The theater followed that screening with their midnight screening of Vampire Cleanup Department, a horror-comedy from Hong Kong about a family of vampire hunters who unknowingly unearth a rare form of vampire during one of their missions. I greatly enjoyed this film; its humor was abundant but not over the top, the premise was pretty zany, but it kept me interested and the performances were what you would expect from a horror-comedy. The CGI effects were definitely lacking what they were obviously trying to reach, but that was my only complaint.
Day 3 was probably overall my favorite day as far as screenings. The first one I saw was Landline, Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to 2014’s Obvious Child, teaming up again with Jenny Slate as the lead. The film is set in 1995, and plays on a lot of the cultural points of the time, following Slate’s character as she cheats on her fiancé and deals with her family falling apart. The nostalgic setting is interesting, but I think that the importance of it is to show that the hardships of life have and will be upon us no matter the era.
I followed that screening up with a panel at the Old Town Playhouse, which had recently been beautifully renovated. The panel was moderated by Doug Benson, and the panelists included Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks), stand-up comedian Sean Jordan, Infinity Baby director Bob Byington, and Jack Henry Robbins (director, Hot Winter: A Film by Dick Pierre). The panel didn’t really have a clear direction, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. The spontaneity of it played into the talents of the comedians and it was hilarious. Their chemistry worked very well, and the audience Q&A was interesting as well. Noel Wells was scheduled as a panelist, but unfortunate flight delays caused her to miss it.
After the panel, I went straight to a screening of Brigsby Bear, a fantastic film that is co-produced by Lonely Island, starring Kyle Mooney as James, a man who was kidnapped as a young boy by Ted and April, played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams, who raised him in a secret underground bunker and educated him through a fabricated TV show called Brigsby Bear Adventures that Hamill’s character creates and brings back the episdes weekly on a VHS tape. Upon his rescue and being returned to his parents, James is devastated to find out that Brigsby Bear is not real, and after experiencing the magic of cinema, sets out to conclude the series with a film about Brigsby. The premise is definitely strange, but the sincerity and the great performances create an intensely human story about love and imagination. The film got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics at Sundance, and I really hope they handle the marketing for the film well because it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
Day 4 was the my longest and final day of the festival, although not the final day of the festival. My first screening was Bill Nye: Science Guy, a very in-depth and emotional look at the titular mentor to many who had a widely popular kid’s show in the ‘90’s, and has recently resurged as a big advocate for scientific literacy by engaging in public debates with creationists and being a very outspoken advocate of climate change. One of the two directors of the film, Jason Sussberg, introduced the film and held an audience Q&A after the screening. The topic of climate change in the hands of humans and energy consumption was very prevalent in the film and the discussion, and both had a very educated and thoughtful approach to addressing the very real and important issue that our world has been facing for decades and how the United States has taken an absurd stand of actively denouncing the legitimacy of science and the scientific approach.
I stuck around for the following screening at the same venue, the newly renovated auditorium at Traverse City’s Central High School, of Noel Wells’ directorial debut, Mr. Roosevelt. Wells also wrote and starred in the film as Emily, a struggling comedian living in LA who must return to Austin, Texas after her ex-boyfriend informs her that their cat has fallen seriously ill. Upon return, she discovers her ex’s new live-in girlfriend has changed his life for what Emily sees as the worst. Many awkward encounters with people from her past and negative feelings for new acquaintances gives the story of loss and change plenty of humor as well as making it relatable to young people struggling with hardships. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Wells and co-star Doug Benson, moderated by Bob Byington. They revealed facts about the film such as it was shot on film rather than digital, and in a very impressive 22-day shooting schedule.
Following that screening, I headed back to the wonderful State Theater to catch a German/French/Belgium co-produced biopic The Young Karl Marx. The film did a great job eliciting the emotional turmoil of the European industrial revolution and how Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked to fight for the workers’ rights and acknowledged the class warfare that would lead to the creation of communism. The film did a great job of humanizing the men and their families and gave legitimacy to an ideology that has been feared in our country for decades, all while remaining tasteful enough in its addressing the matter to reach even those who don’t agree with it.
Staying in the State Theater, the midnight screening was Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies. The film takes place at a ski resort in Austria where an outbreak of flesh-eaters occurs after the owner tries to develop a chemical that would allow the resort to create snow in order to elongate the season to make up for struggling times due to impending warmer climates. The outbreak captures a group of snowboarders at the resort, and they use their talents to defeat the zombies and also team up with one of the bartenders to survive. It was a very fun zombie film, and it really emphasized the longevity of the horror subgenre, which stung at this particular time after only losing the creator of modern zombie lore, George Romero, about a week before.
Leading into the feature was Jack Henry Robbins’ Hot Winter: A Film by Dick Pierre, which is a very interesting concept that I think was executed wonderfully. The short is a shot-on-video 1980’s porno addressing climate change with the sex edited out. The conscious short emphasizes the horrible porn acting for comedy and it works great. Robbins held a mini Q&A after the screening and discussed its acceptance into and reception at Sundance earlier this year. The director also talked about his web series and other projects he has done for Funny or Die.
TCFF was a fantastic festival and it is definitely one I plan to return to time and time again. It was also a great preparation to my first attendance of the Toronto International Film Festival, which I will be heading to in a little over a month. Michael Moore has done a tremendous job of creating a lasting yearly celebration of all things film, and the festival’s efforts to be as inclusive as possible by holding the travel ban series and providing free events and screenings is definitely something to be highly commended. Thank you Mr. Moore for sharing your love of film and providing an amazing platform to embrace and expose the love of film in the Great Lakes State.
-By Kirk Yoshonis