There's a lot worth seeing at Ashland film festival

It's heartening to see the overall quality of the work being done by independent filmmakers around the world. That quality will be on display in our little corner of the world, as the annual Ashland Independent Film Festival gets under way Thursday.

The big little indie fest this year again boasts some extraordinary films among its 81 entries. And almost everything is at least worth seeing. Contrast this with a typical week's crop of Hollywood commercial fare, which often leaves you scratching for a movie worth seeing.

Here are some thumbnail reflections:

Director/animator Kyle Bell's titular creature — a high-flying circus mouse we meet in performance — had a humble background. Most of the tale unfolds as a flashback that tells the story. We discover the MTS was an orphan adopted by a family of bluebirds.

Like all heroes, he had obstacles to overcome. His struggle quickly plunges a seemingly simple narrative into themes of loss, trust and hope.

These two little clay dudes are playin' checkers, see, and before you know it they're up on their chairs and all, and what they're throwin' at each other you won't believe. That mounted moose head can't believe it either. Directors Lee Wolochuk and Damon Wolf, of Klamath Falls, gave their actors lots of freedom, and the guys responded with a passel of highly visual hijinks.

A brief making-of feature documents the painstaking work involved in clay animation.

Passing on the usual templates for computer animation — the innocuous "family cartoon" and the special-effects blockbuster — director Chris Perry has crafted an quirky, eye-popping little narrative with a point.

Tower 37 is (a) a super-size water tower and (b) an example of hubris. It is monitored by a low-level functionary unaware of (and probably indifferent to) its disastrous environmental consequences. Then one day it's struck by (a) terrorists, (b) heroes, (c) inexorable fate.

This is a visually stunning little film that proves political stories can have some punch.

An atmosphere of menace pervades director Sohrab Noshirvani's neat little thriller about two brothers ripping off a scrap yard in Staten Island. Younger brother Eddie turns the tables on older brother Jay, but at a cost he cannot imagine.

The incident has the feeling of something that could be the seed of something bigger. We'd like more, and that's a good thing.

The subject here is one of those little everyday nothings raised to the level of a Very Big Deal by the tension of contemporary Israel. A young man puts his girlfriend on the bus, and an Arab woman gets on carrying a large bag. Is she a suicide bomber? No. Yes? He tries to get the girl out unobtrusively, but others notice, and there's panic.

A nice evocation of that raw edge between giving in to fear or deciding you're being paranoid.

Luis is trying, unsuccessfully, to come to grips with the murder of his son on a San Francisco street five years ago. During Day of the Dead holiday observances, when the wall between the life and death is thought to dissolve, Luis is crushed by grief and guilt. To him the whole family has been killed, but his daughter wants him back.

Shot in gritty black and white, this is an intimate immersion in a moment Luis may or may not work through. It is both moving and disturbing.

You know that plastic bag full of plastic bags you have in the closet or under the sink? If you start from there and work outward, you'll find much of our world is made of plastic.

Jeb, an ordinary guy, no tree hugger, decides to stop using plastic bags at the grocery store, not dreaming it will change his life. Plastic bags and plastic water bottles and soda bottles are designed to be used once and thrown away, but where is away?

They wind up, by the billions, in our environment. They're being banned around the world, but in the United States we use 500 billion a year.

Director Susan Beraza's film segues from plastic bags and bottles to marine creatures (albatrosses and endangered sea turtles poisoned by the ubiquitous plastic in the ocean) and the impacts of toxic plastic by-products such as phthalates and compounds known as BPAs on human health. What could have come off preachy is saved by Jeb's guy-next door personality and Beraza's light touch.

This is the kind of film that can change your life a bit.

I thought at first this was a very good bad film, like "Titanic." But that was wrong. Maybe it's a rather bad good film instead. It moves somewhat aimlessly through its first half, limited pretty much to just two characters who may or may not be falling in love.

It's not clear what's driving these guys. They talk a lot about the meaning of life in a world in which everything is ending. Eventually they embark on a quest that leads them to a wise man (based on futurologist James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia hypothesis) who believes the Earth is doomed.

In the last third of the film the pulse quickens, and in the end a certain lyric beauty is achieved. Is there anything we can hold on to, and if not, then what?

Baseball movies are almost always good. What is it about baseball? It's not like most football movies are good, or basketball movies.

Shot in Medford and Ashland, this little gem of a picture is the story of a boy next door who lives to make the baseball team at Bayford, a fictional junior college someplace in the American boondocks.

It was made by Broken Sky Films, the principles of which are former Rogue Valley residents Gary and Anne Lundgren.

Alex Frost (Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," "Drillbit Taylor") is perfectly cast as the likeable Calvin. Steve Zahn ("Riding in Cars With Boys," "That Thing You Do") is terrific as the team's coach, an ex-minor league player who never made The Show and is now an embittered alcoholic.

See how many local actors you can spot. Doug Rowe is funny and pathetic as Skeeter, an old barfly. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Terri McMahon is touching as the dying mom of Tori, Calvin's love interest. The OSF's Catherine Coulson is a hoot as a no-nonsense barmaid at the local redneck bar, played by the Whiskey River Cafe and Lounge near White City.

Anyway, Calvin gets involved with this beautiful volleyball player, clashes with the coach and has to make a decision. And there's baseball. What else could you want?

Producer Kristi Denton Cohen waited 20 years to make a beautiful film based on David James Duncan's iconic coming-of-age fishing novel set in Oregon, and the wait was worth it. Gus Orviston, 20, leaves his fishing, bickering parents' home to live in a cabin on the river and order his life so that he can fish 141/2 hours a day.

Gotta be bliss, right? Wrong. He's soon frustrated and lost. But the right guides turn up at just the right moments as Gus moves toward awareness.

This is lovely, understated filmmaking. Director Matthew Leutwyler wisely lets his camera and his actors, including the eye-popping Wilson River near Portland, (this is one of those stories in which the environment is a character) tell the story. When it looks this easy, you know it was hard work indeed.

Although the cinematography is stunning, the producer says it's still a work in progress, and she allowed it to be shown as a thank-you to Oregon. The final version will reportedly be yet more beautiful.

Hollywood is famously green in its sympathies. But how about the making of a movie? Green? Not so much. Film and TV together comprise the third-most polluting industry in California.

Miranda Bailey, whose production company filmed "The River Why," directed this amusing/alarming doc about that project's attempt to run an environment-friendly set. Producers decided it would be green, set up recycling and even hired a "green consultant." But obstacles arise in the form of financial pressures, egos and plain everyday realities.

There is major resistance to doing away with those ecologically disastrous disposable plastic bottles. People cannot seem to grasp the difference between "compost," "garbage" and "recycling." Duh! There is even an act of apparent sabotage, in which an evil-doer pollutes the compost bin with — oh, the fiendishness — polystyrene peanuts.

Unions further complicate things, budget constraints hang over everything, and even "River Why" director Matthew Leutwyler seems to see the whole green thing as a nuisance.

The noon, Saturday, showing of "Greenlit" will be followed by a panel discussion including "Greenlit" director Bailey and "River Why" green consultant Lauren Selman.

The ideal would be to see "River Why," then see "Greenlit," then stay for the discussion. Happy viewing.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at

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