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Mar 28th
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Screen Gems

film_fest_PhotoroptorIn which we take stock of a few ambitious outings in the Santa Cruz Film Festival
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“It’s hard to understand why someone does this,” admits Axel Naglich, the Austrian ski mountaineer featured in Gerald Salmina’s Mount St. Elias. Talk about an understatement. What Naglich is referring to is the compulsion of a select group of adventurers to climb the world’s most hazardous mountains, then ski down the other side. And this is no typical day on the slopes. Salmina’s often breathtaking film documents the attempts of Naglich, American Jon Johnston, and their hardy crew of guides and cameramen to climb Alaska’s Mount St. Elias, “the longest non-polar ice field in the world,” then ski down the 18,000 vertical feet from the summit to the beach at Icy Bay. “If all goes well, you’re a hero,” Naglich observes. “If all goes wrong, you’re dead.” As Naglich and Johnston plan their strategy in May, 2007, over ice hundreds and thousands of feet thick, Salmina edits in sobering footage of a previous attempt in 2002 in which two climbers lost their lives. (One horrifying fall is captured on film, as is the word “DEAD” stamped in the snow by the survivors as a signal to potential rescue planes.) Nevertheless, Naglich and Johnston are irresistibly lured to “one of the last big adventures left in a world that is over-civilized,” and dream of conquering a mountain untouched by any other skiers. The odds against them are daunting. Besides the threat of avalanches and the daily process of dealing with their own fears, the weather can shift from calm and clear to blindingly stormy in just minutes. Then there are the logistics. Landed by prop plane on Haydon Shoulder, 9,800 feet up, they have to climb to 12,000 feet to establish a first High Camp, climb to 15,000 feet to make High Camp 2, and finally climb to the summit—all while dragging their skis behind them. Salmina’s up-close-and-personal approach puts the viewer right on the mountain with these guys, dodging storms and avalanches, taking refuge in a frigid ice cave. (Make sure to dress warmly for this film.) Aerial shots of the climb—and the skiing—are spectacular. Sure, we may think these guys are nuts, but Naglich narrows down all the variables to one simple piece of advice: “Breathe hard, open your eyes, survive.” (Not rated) 100 minutes.  —Lisa Jensen. Mount St. Elias screens Sat., May 15, 5:45 p.m., at the Del Mar.

When the percolating cultural detritus of the post-beatnik/Kennedy era suddenly exploded into the counterculture of the ’60s, Denny Doherty was right in the middle of it. As one quarter of The Mamas and the Papas, Doherty’s lilting tenor voice was showcased on such seminal hits as “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday,” many of which he also co-wrote. Two years after Doherty’s unexpected death in 2007, his longtime friend and collaborator Paul Ledoux assembled this often joyous, occasionally wistful, and always entertaining film that pays tribute to the gifted singer-songwriter-actor in every phase of his long performing career, before, during, and after The Mamas And The Papas. Growing up in a large Irish family in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Denny segued from folk clubs in Toronto and Montreal to singing for “baskets” (passing the hat) in Greenwich Village with a folk trio called The Halifax Three. Another folkie, Cass Elliot, encouraged them to join a “Hootenanny Tour,” which also included The Journeymen, a group featuring John Phillips and his new 17-year-old bride, Michelle. As the four began to sing together, their trend away from the East Coast to the West, and from folk to pop rock (Denny is credited with introducing John to the music of The Beatles) is documented with a rich variety of performance footage and home movies. The band’s incredible outpouring of original music belies its brief three-year duration, but Ledoux follows Denny’s solo recording career, his stint as a TV variety host, his participation in the Mamas And Papas Revival band in the mid 1980s, and his later career as a stage actor. Much of the film is structured around footage from the popular off-Broadway one-man-show Denny performed in 2001, “Dream A Little Dream,” in which he tells his own story in his own words and music. Viewers interested in dirt will find that too, as Denny and others talk about his lifelong drinking problem, LSD, his disruptive affair with Michelle, and Cass’ unrequited love for him. Interviewees (and performers) include Michelle, Scott McKenzie, Barry McGuire, and Paul Schaffer, along with Denny’s children, Emberley and John, from his 20-year marriage to beloved wife Jeannette Chastenay. Through it all, Denny’s music, familiar and otherwise, plays on, like the haunting “Gone To Sea Again,” about a father too long on the road. (Not rated) 73 minutes | LJ. Here I Am screens Thurs., May 13, 4:15 p.m., at the Riverfront

And you thought man’s best friend was a dog. Not so in Etienne!, a movie whose title is charmingly deceptive. You might, on first instinct, think that it’s a French love film, or something along those lines, but this is nothing of that sort. As the closing film at the Santa Cruz Film Festival, Etienne! is actually a story about friendship—of the most unique variety. In this film, shot primarily in the Bay Area, we meet Richard, a socially awkward man whose best friend is his hamster named Etienne. While Richard lives a rather unfulfilled and flat life, he does find inspiration and joy in his pet. But things go awry when Richard notices that Etienne seems ill, so he takes the hamster to the veterinarian, only to find out Etienne has been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. The veterinarian recommends euthanasia. In a fit of sorrow, Richard decides to take his beloved hamster on a road trip of sorts, in order to “see the world” during his remaining days of life. They hop on Richard’s bike and travel along the coast of Highway 1, making stops in the woods, and at other familiar places like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Along his journey, Richard meets a number of quirky characters and his path crosses with a young woman who’s going through her own angst. Of course, conflict happens when Richard gets an alarming call from the veterinarian, which changes things entirely. The film, directed by Jeff Mizushima, runs 88 minutes, and is a wacky portrait of an obscure friendship between a pet and its owner. While the plot is decidedly off-beat, we are reminded that in many cases, an animal can be a person’s best companion—being there for them, and offering unconditional love, when they’ve been abandoned by everyone and everything else. For locals, you’ll also note numerous familiar locations including a short scene in Caffe Pergolesi in Downtown Santa Cruz. In fact, the filmmakers will be at Caffe Pergolesi for a reception from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on closing night before the movie starts.  | Christa Martin.  Etienne! plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 15 at the Del Mar.

In this tragic story, based on real-life events, director Henrique Goldman has recreated the events of a shooting that happened in London on July 7, 2005 when an innocent Brazilian man was killed. That man was Jean Charles, a mover and shaker immigrant, who was working hard to make his way up the ladder in a new country. The movie begins with the audience being introduced to Jean Charles and his cousin, Vivian, as he swindles his way through immigration so she can join him and his fellow cousins as they try to create a new life for themselves. While Jean Charles is certainly charming, he’s also not above making some unscrupulous business choices from time to time in order to make a few extra bucks. As he and his Brazilian cousins build their new lives in London, a gross error happens when he is mistaken for being a terrorist and then killed by police officers. We watch with the utmost horror as his family is informed of this news, and we see the emotional fallout from such a tragedy happening. The film is poignant and beautifully crafted. It’s a story of immigration, war, terror, family and the struggles of relocating to a new country. By far, this movie is not to be missed.      | CM Jean Charles plays at 8:45 p.m. on Fri., May 14 at the Del Mar.

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