The old Metcalf South Shopping Center seems like a ghost town most of the time. But every October, the Overland Park mall becomes a destination for hard-core movie lovers. Since 2001, the annual Kansas International Film Festival (formerly known as "Halfway to Hollywood") has made its annual lineups a smartly curated feast, with silent movies (played to live music), newly minted prints of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, works by avant-garde legends Stan Brakhage and Barbara Hammer and Guy Maddin, and even a tribute to stop-motion-animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen.
This year, KIFF (which runs from Friday, October 5, through the following Thursday) features festival-touring buzz generators such as The Sessions, with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt; and Smashed, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul and Octavia Spencer. (A festival pass runs $60; a la carte tickets vary by film and time.)
KIFF provided The Pitch an early glimpse of some of the dozens of titles lined up for the week, summed up below in two self-explanatory categories of recommendation.
The Must-See List
The Invisible War. Kirby Dick, who gave us This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Outrage, examines the gross underreporting of rape in the armed forces. He earned an Oscar nomination for his muckraking Twist of Faith, but The Invisible War is probably his most restrained effort. He simply lets the women and the men who have been raped tell their stories, in unflinching and often heartbreaking detail. The result is an activist film in the best sense of the word, a powerful work whose arguments are clear and well-organized.
The Red Machine. Sometimes a low budget is the best thing for a film. This claustrophobic, Depression-era thriller follows a naval intelligence officer (Lee Perkins) and a safecracker (Donal Thoms-Cappello) trying to steal a new Japanese coding machine — without actually taking it. Writer-directors Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm deliver surprising twists, and the working relationship between these two seemingly incompatible spies is fascinating.
Peace Out. Yes, it's a look at energy consumption and production, but this isn't as dry as that description suggests. For one thing, the Peace River Valley, in Alberta, is a huge stretch of land that is a photographer's dream, and every inch presented here is gorgeous. It's also the home of some previously untapped energy reserves that developers are eager to access. The potential problem is that the natural gas and shale oil mostly are difficult to get, and the potential damage caused by extracting them might outweigh the worth of the fuel. Peace Out asks some challenging questions about energy consumption; even simple Google searches, it reminds us, have a carbon footprint.
The Eyes of Thailand. Last year, KIFF presented A Perfect Soldier, which chronicled the effects that land mines still have on Southeast Asia. The Eyes of Thailand documents another previously hidden casualty of those weapons: the country's already threatened elephant population. The government of Myanmar is the only one that still actively plants mines, which that nation's insurgents also use. For a number of the elephants that cross the border from Thailand (where they're revered), injury or death is all but certain. The Eyes of Thailand follows Soraida Salwala as she attempts to treat two wounded elephants in a hospital she has founded. In doing so, she experiments with prosthetic legs that enable the animals to have more normal lives, and she tries to undo decades of damage. Ashley Judd narrates.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X. What if all the great, tacky drive-in genres of the late 1950s and early 1960s were combined into a single movie? The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, filmed in gorgeous black and white, serves up juvenile delinquency and science fiction and tells its story as a rock musical. If this delightfully odd little entry doesn't make sense, you can ask co-writer director Paul Bunnell. He and executive producer Mark Willoughby are scheduled to be at the Monday, October 8, screening (at 7:35 p.m.).
Unfit: Ward vs. Ward. The 1995 custody case recalled in this documentary should have been a no-brainer. The father wanted custody of his daughter but had routinely missed his child-support payments. Records showed him to be violent, racist and unable to meet her needs. And he had been convicted of murdering his previous wife during a similar custody battle. The judge decided in his favor, though, because he wanted the child to grow up in a "lesbian-free environment." This no-frills documentary is guaranteed to make your blood boil.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus. Brooklyn-born Jew Doc Pomus (born Jerome Felder) was a blues singer and a prolific tunesmith. Polio took the use of Pomus' legs, but that didn't stop him from writing or co-writing more than 1,000 songs, including such classics as the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" and Elvis Presley's "Little Sister." This film includes a wealth of home-movie footage; candid recollections from Pomus' relatives; and Lou Reed, who reads from Pomus' journals.
And If You Have Spare Time ...
Momo: The Sam Giancana Story. Chicago crime lord Sam Giancana could make politicians quake in their boots even as they sought his favor. The film features firsthand testimony from his daughters, but it's a little hard to determine how much here is accurate. (A quick search of snopes.com reminds you that Fidel Castro was never a serious prospect for the Washington Senators and thus wouldn't have played baseball instead of leading the revolution.) Giancana may not have been a nice guy, but even he deserves a better researched film than this flawed (but occasionally interesting) one.
Smuggled. This immigration drama is sensitive and well-acted. It's also annoyingly predictable. A boy and his mother try to cross the border in a hidden compartment on a passenger bus. The compartment looks more like a well-lighted, cheap set than it does a dangerously cramped secret space, a distraction that for some may prove too great.
Close Quarters. This Chicago-set ensemble comedy is set in a coffeehouse about to close. The title sequences and the use of split screens help keep the film from looking stiff or stagebound, but the uneven banter doesn't make a good case for the improvisational style that seems to have inspired it. T.J. Jagodowski, familiar from lots of Sonic commercials, gets a few funny moments as a husband who discovers that his wife is in the bathroom with a friend, but that's not a lot to take home with you.
Dead Man's Burden. This handsome, rugged-looking Western is suitably rough but not involving enough. Many of the revelations lack punch, though the look of the piece doesn't want for authenticity. (You can see dust on every flat surface.)
Petunia. Thora Birch made an indelible impression in 2001's Ghost World but has been pretty much MIA ever since. Co-producing this annoying, laugh-free ensemble comedy won't help. She, Christine Lahti, David Rasche, Brittany Snow and others portray what have to be some of the least appealing New Yorkers ever committed to film. Still, seeing Birch in action again remains a draw, and who knows when someone else might try to make that rare thing: an anti-valentine to NYC.