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Dances with Films Festival 2014 encourages filmmakers to 'Love Your Journey'

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The Dances with Films (DWF) Festival kicked off its 17th run on Thursday, May 29, with a red carpet extravaganza and the opening night film, A Winter Rose, by DWF alum Riz Story.

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Since 1998, DWF remains L.A.’s largest discovery film festival of emerging talent and defiantly independent films. With “Love Your Journey” as this year’s theme, the 2014 DWF fest will premiere over 100 films in over 11 days.

Along with its usual features and shorts offerings, DWF continues to provide four lunchtime Powerhouse Panels with industry executives and leaders giving their take on the changes and new trends in the independent film world. The panels focus on what’s relevant, new, and happening now.

New in 2014 is the addition of “Dances With Kidz”, presenting the most creatively inspired, kid and family-focused films on the indie circuit. DWF co-creator Michael Trent promoted the new module as, “Films made for kids AND films made by kids. The independent film scene has had a dramatic impact on mainstream entertainment for nearly two decades and yet there are relatively few independent venues championing family-friendly films. DWF is ready to change all that as we bring on and introduce the next generation of media visionaries!”

The “Dances with Kidz” programming ran concurrently with the DWF Competitive Shorts offerings on May 31.

Another new aspect of the indie fest is the addition of “Musical Stories” Music videos by independent music artists. Friday May 30 was the launch date for this new feature, with 8 videos selected to represent the innovative and fierce spirit of the Fest.

As the evening progressed, the first three feature-length films made their premieres: Getting to the Nutcracker, Frank vs. God, and Hard Sun. For the late-night junkies, Midnight Shorts! Presented eight vignettes as foretaste for Saturday’s Competitive Shorts Competition.

By Saturday May 31, the Festival was in full swing, and the Competitive Shorts viewing began at 12:30 p.m. with 17 offerings from across the U.S., the United Kingdom (No Love Lost), Australia (A Man on the Edge), and Canada (The Dentist).

“Ambitious” would be the best word to describe this year’s Competition Shorts. While some surprised in their execution, others were less than stellar; but all strove to push beyond the envelope in creating innovative concepts and stories in under 23 minutes.

In the Shorts Competition 3 Block, Director and co-writer Shekhar Bassi led the offerings with No Love Lost. A Jewish boy and a Muslim girl nurture a burgeoning relationship, yet discover a hidden danger that stalks them. While daring to produce an entire short with no dialogue—as opposed to a feature, where you have more time to flesh out plot, story and subtext—the choice did cause the short to lose much of its impact. Beautiful cinematography, accompanied by a compelling score helped to keep the tension resident, and carry the piece to a determined, while ultimately unsatisfying, ending.

The most striking element of Ty Strickler’s Check Out is his cast, who pull you in immediately to this dark comedy that tackles the serious subject of suicide. Spike Leffke’s store clerk January weighs innocence and darkness, with airy subtlety. Nathan Granofsky’s Sam brings both likeability and sympathy to this suicidal musician, and you find yourself hoping that January’s questioning entreaties in her monologue will compel Sam to change his mind about checking out. Sam’s fate is left open, possibly promoting thoughtful discussion, or a full-length feature.

The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam is directed by Arlene Bogna, and attempts to marry the mystique and mystery of the Spaghetti Western with a Bollywood score. Sam is a desert traveler, inventor, and snake oil salesman who is driven by a desire for redemption. Pushed beyond exhaustion while attempting to invent a magical elixir, Sam receives a visit from ethereal spirits who gift him with divine inspiration to create his long-sought-after potion. Another film without dialogue, it ultimately fails from the less-than-compelling story, and characters that lack direction, fascination or interest.

Writer-director Trevor William’s The Jane, pays a bit of homage to GroundHog Day, but instead of the main character reliving the same day, he is confronted with four different consequences on four different decisions birthed from one moment in time. Nick leaves his girlfriend in bed while he picks up takeout food at The Jane, a lower Manhattan hotel kitchen. He encounters two beautiful and oddly familiar women who make him an unusual proposition; here is where the ride becomes frenetic. From the very first frame where you are launched into the couple’s intimate moment, to the whiplash of transitions of choices and consequences, this mini-comedy comes off fresh, and believable, while presenting entertaining object lessons.

Director and co-writer Emily Moss Wilson successfully resurrects the essence of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery in Drink. Alice and her two young sons, Clint and Billy, flee their home in the middle of the night. They arrive at an old desert motel, and it doesn't take long before Alice realizes she has a strange connection to this place. A tragedy of the past begins to reveal secret desires that could send Alice down a path of freedom or insanity—which will it be? Both the short film and the director will get fuller treatment in this column.

Before Blood Punch, the Saturday evening’s late night horror feature, two films inhabited the 9:30 p.m. slot: The Mourning, and Pink Zone.

In The Mourning, Director and co-writer Marc Clebanoff weaves a tale about a Desert Storm soldier thought to be missing in action, who returns home after 20 years under mysterious circumstances, and not having aged since his disappearance. Richly evocative, well-acted, and stunningly edited, the main character stirs up shadows of the past, while teasing the future and what it may bring on a razor’s edge of mystery, tension, and suspense.

While brilliant in terms of concept, director-writer Benjamin Walter’s Pink Zone is minimally plotted and poorly executed. In the year 2026, women are on the verge of extinction. A deadly kissing virus, carried by men and transmitted to women, has wiped out 80 percent of the female population. Only a few teenage girls have managed to survive, and as a “safety”, the U.S. government initiated a project to deport all the remaining girls into “pink zone” areas. One sees Walter’s influences in each frame: shades of Fincher’s Blue Velvet, meets PD James’ Children of Men, meets Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll; but he fails to bring any personal distinction to move the film from the level of parody to a credible piece. The director sorely lacks the understanding of a thematic through line, a plot that maintains its structure and logic, or a hero/heroine to root the plot and propel it forward.

The DWF Festival continues through Sunday, June 8 at the TCL Chinese Theatre at the Hollywood and Highland complex. Visit the Fest’s website for information on the films and to purchase tickets.

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