Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival returns with 90 films in-person at Opera House April 22-25
From a press release:
Channeling “the rebellious spirit of the Molly Maguires,” the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival challenges the boldest, most defiant filmmakers to present their work, shatter convention, and incite spirited debate. The festival credo is “eyes and minds wide open,” and they mean it.
After canceling last year due to COVID-19, the JTIFF returns to the Mauch Chunk Opera House (14 W. Broadway, Jim Thorpe) for its fourth edition with live, in-person screenings on Thursday, April 22 through Sunday, April 25. That’s right – no glitchy streaming on phones, tablets, or laptops, but real movies projected on a giant screen in the dark with booming sound, the way films were meant to be experienced.
This year, the festival will present 90 new short and full-length films, including dozens of U.S. and Pennsylvania premieres from all over the world that can’t be seen anywhere else. The program was curated from over 900 submissions of every length, genre, and description – from the gritty underground to high-budget Hollywood films to everything in between.
Opening night on Thursday, April 22 kicks off with a live musical performance by the Brooklyn-based dream rock band Ok Cowgirl from 7 p.m.-8 p.m. After that, they’ll kill the lights for the first feature, the stylish neo-noir thriller “Superior” that premiered in competition at Sundance in February. Directed and co-written by Erin Vassilopoulos, “Superior” is set in the 1980s and tells the tale of Marian, a failed rocker on the run who returns to her hometown in upstate New York to hide out with her estranged identical twin sister. Marian lies about why she returned, putting both of their lives in danger.
On Friday, April 23, there is a jam-packed slate of short films and features, including the groundbreaking “Scales,” a supernatural dystopian drama written and directed by female director Shahad Ameen. The film was selected as Saudi Arabia’s entry for the Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. “Scales” is the story of a young strong-willed girl, Hayat, who lives in a poor fishing village governed by a dark tradition in which every family must give one daughter to the sea creatures who inhabit the nearby waters. In turn, the sea creatures are hunted by the men of the village.
After “Scales” is the Pennsylvania premiere of “The Night of the Beast,” an urban road trip that follows two Bogota teenagers trying to get into the first Iron Maiden concert in Colombia, a historic event that had been awaited for three decades by fans of the metal band which eventually came to pass in 2008 in the Colombian capital. Metalheads of all ages pawned their instruments and saved for months just to get tickets. The film is directed by Mauricio Leiva-Cock, the showrunner behind Netflix’s “Green Frontier,” and features a soundtrack of songs from Iron Maiden such as “Aces High” and “The Trooper” alongside Colombian metal bands with names like Vein, Agony, Masacre, Darkness, and La Pestilencia.
After headbanging in Bogata, the JTIFF takes audiences on a “First Date” in this Tarantino-esque dark comedy that premiered at Sundance 2021. Mike, a high school kid with a crush, finally summons the courage to ask Kelsey out on a date. But with no car to drive her, Mike gets duped into buying a sketchy ’65 Chrysler. Although many a first date goes wrong, Mike’s swiftly descends into a surreal misadventure that finds him inexplicably targeted by a pair of cops, a criminal gang, and a vengeful cat lady, with all roads leading to a bloody showdown. “First Date” is a pure entertainment throwback, billed by first time directing duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp as a cross between “‘Superbad’ and ‘True Romance.'”
Friday night at 7 p.m., the riveting documentary “Philly DA” takes an unflinching look at Philadelphia’s controversial District Attorney Larry Krasner. During his 30 years as a civil rights attorney, Krasner called out policies that caused Philadelphia to become one of the major cities in America with the most incarcerations. More than 75 times, he sued police officers who perpetuated corruption and brutality. This made him an unlikely candidate for district attorney, but in 2017 he launched an election campaign that promised to reform the system. Passionate in his beliefs and buoyed by activists committed to ending mass incarceration, Krasner set out to revolutionize his city’s criminal justice system from the inside. The film will be introduced in person by co-director Ted Passon, who will follow up with Q&A after the screening, so expect fireworks.
“Night Drive” will be shown on Saturday afternoon, the first feature from Meghan Leon and Brad Baruh, the writer/director duo behind the Disney+ streaming series “Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian.” When Russell picks up an enigmatic young woman through a ride-share app, his mundane evening suddenly takes an interesting turn. Slipping him a handful of $100s, she convinces him to cancel his plans and be her personal driver for the evening. But all bets are off after they accidentally run over a guy, setting in motion a chain of events Russell could never have imagined. This charming Coen-esque comedy of errors takes viewers on a wild ride of twists and turns and always keeps them guessing.
Saturday at 7 p.m., the JTIFF rolls the raucous “Lake Michigan Monster.” On the shores of Lake Michigan, the eccentric Captain Seafield (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, who also writes and directs) enlists a colorful crew of misfits in a bid to slay the hellish sea monster that killed his father. Shot on a shoestring budget in gloriously retro black and white, with most of the cast also performing multiple roles behind the camera, “Lake Michigan Monster” is an inventive, irreverent, and riotously entertaining ode to the classic monster movies of yesteryear, an absurdist urban legend guaranteed to appeal to the big kid in all of us. Ryland Brickson Cole Tews will be flying to Jim Thorpe from Los Angeles to present the film, which won the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival’s Gold Audience Award for Best International Feature, in person.
Closer to home, the festival will host the first live, in-person screening of “Marionette Land” by Lancaster native Alexander Monelli, whose acclaimed first feature “At the Drive-In” about the rebirth of the Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton won Best Local Feature at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival. Showing Saturday night at 8:30 p.m., “Marionette Land” is an intimate portrait of the wonderful world of Robert Brock, a man who lives above his own magical marionette theater with his mother, Mary Lou. Brock creates and performs classic one-man shows for kids and families, as well as grown-up shows after dark where he straps on heels to become famous Hollywood starlets of yesteryear. Director Alexander Monelli will be on hand along with his subject, Robert Brock, to introduce his film in person and do a Q&A after the screening.
Saturday night at midnight, the JTIFF welcomes back its favorite grindhouse auteur, Jeffery Garcia, who returns to Jim Thorpe from San Marcos, Texas to present his first gloriously offensive full-length feature film in person, “Henrietta and Her Dismal Display of Affection.” After a lusty sexual affair leaves a family divided and a father devastated, Henrietta (Alice McAllister) must do what she can to hold on to what little dignity her family has left. Along the way, the family encounters a diverse and colorful cast of burnouts, hippies, deviants, and rejects, thrown mercilessly into the mysterious and maddening misfortunes of Reedville, Texas. No one under 18 will be admitted to the late-night Grindhouse Block of films.
Screening Sunday afternoon is one of the most unusual and fascinating features, “Strawberry Mansion,” a surrealistic sci-fi adventure/romantic comedy directed and written by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. In a dystopian future where dreams can be taxed and invaded by advertisers, government agent James Preble travels to the eccentric home of aging artist Arabella Isadora to audit her dreams and finds himself falling in love as he explores her subconscious, stored on a vast library of VHS tapes. The film had its world premiere at Sundance in January.
Despite its international flavor, the JTIFF always strives to encourage the community of local creators to become a part of the annual festival. Organizers are praising the films in the 2021 Pennsylvania Student Filmmaker Block (Saturday at 11 a.m.) and the Local Heroes Block (Sunday at 11 a.m.) as the best they’ve seen since the birth of the festival in 2017. These include excellent new work by Local Hero alumni Anthony Cundro, Tedd Hazard, and Michael Sheridan and well-known artist Victor Stabin, along with prolific student filmmaker Graham Burrell.
The festival wraps up on Sunday, April 25 with the intense “Anne at 13,000 Ft.” that stars Deragh Cambell in an acting tour de force as Anne, a troubled, socially awkward daycare worker whose life radically changes after she skydives for the first time at a friend’s bachelorette party. The film premiered in competition at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And no film festival worth its salted popcorn would be complete without a big, glitzy party, so this year’s Filmmakers’ Gala will be held at the magnificent, newly-expanded Victor Stabin Museum (268 W. Broadway, Jim Thorpe) on Friday, April 23 right after “Philly DA.” There will be a cash bar, music, dancing, hor d’oeuvres, and a free limo-bus that will transport festivalgoers from the Mauch Chunk Opera House to the Stabin Museum. (Otherwise, it’s a 10-minute walk up Broadway). The cavernous venue now boasts over 7,000 square feet of COVID-safe space, including the gorgeous outdoor patio.
The JTIFF will be following CDC guidelines for COVID-19 prevention and will maintain established protocols to keep all attendees safe, including mandatory masks, social distancing, and reduced seating capacity at the Opera House. It’s finally time for movie lovers to ditch their old sweat pants, dig out their fanciest pre-COVID night-on-the-town garb, and join the stars on the red carpet.
This post was compiled by the staff of NEPA Scene.