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Drew's Reviews: 36th Annual Cleveland International Film Festival

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - What would prompt a Pittsburgher to drive to Cleveland when it's not football season? The 36th Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) is worth the trip. It is a film festival that truly is international in scope, showcasing over 150 feature films and 130 short subject films from 60 countries.

I have been attending this festival religiously for over 20 years for a number of reasons. Among them:

  • The quality of the films that are often screened at other festivals like Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival
  • The selection of films including everything from feature films, to foreign films, to documentaries, to short subjects. In other words, a chance to see movies that you might not see anywhere else in the area
  • The proximity to Pittsburgh; only about two hours away by car
  • The convenience of seeing a number of movies within the same multiplex, which is adjacent to a food court, restaurants (including a Morton's and Hard Rock Café) and two adjoining hotels (The Renaissance and Ritz Carlton)
  • The availability of underground parking at Tower City Center, where all of the above are located
  • The opportunity to attend Q&A sessions with filmmakers immediately following some of the screenings.

Among the movies I'd recommend from this year's festival:

"Nesting" by John Chuldenko, which had its world premiere at CIFF. A funny contemporary comedy about a twenty-something couple trying to salvage their marriage by buying a used Volvo and revisiting happier times and places from their past.

Lawrence Kasdan's "Darling Companion" starring Diane Keaton a middle-aged wife and mother who rescues an injured dog on the side of a freeway. It's not long before "Freeway" (the dog) is rescuing the members of this disconnected family in this delightful ensemble comedy from the director of "The Big Chill," and "The Accidental Tourist."

"Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel" is a spellbinding look at the life and times of one of the titans of the fashion world throughout the 20th Century. Diana Vreeland was an unstoppable force who became the fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, the editor of American Vogue, and consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The movie is an eye-popping look at her influence on the worlds of high fashion and timeless fashion photography that is both entertaining and enlightening.

One of the big discoveries for me at this year's festival was filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, a multi-talented young filmmaker with an impressive resume of work. His films include "Drive-In Movie Memories" made in 2001—an entertaining look at the drive-in movie phenomenon in America that covers the design of the outdoor screens and concession stands, the food, the snacks, the gimmicks, and of course, those clunky, scratchy-sounding speakers that patrons had to be reminded to remove from their car windows before exiting the parking lot.

Four of Kuenne's short subject, black-and-white comedies preceded "Drive-In Movie Memories," showcasing his talents as a clever comedy writer who also shoots, edits and even scores his projects. What ties the four films together are the interconnections between the recurring characters that jump from minor supporting roles in one film to become the stars and centerpieces of other films in the series. His ability to interweave characters and story elements is masterful.

What is impressive about Kuenne's body of work is the diversity of his projects. Pittsburghers in particular will be interested in his more serious and sobering documentary called "Dear Zachary: A letter to a Son About His Father" (2008). It is an in-depth look at the infamous Andrew Bagby murder case that began near Latrobe back on Nov. 5, 2001, when a young doctor was found shot to death in Keystone State Park. Kuenne, a childhood friend of Bagby's, started out making a tribute film that was intended to be shown one day to the son that Dr. Bagby had fathered with the woman suspected of being his killer. The case suddenly took a bizarre and tragic turn that will leave you questioning the Canadian court system. "Dear Zachary" is a tale that is both fascinating and infuriating -- one that is tough to stop thinking or talking about.

To round out Kuenne's talents, the festival included his latest movie "Shuffle" (2011) about a 26-year-old man who jumps back and forth in time each time he falls asleep and wakes up. In what amounts to "The Twilight Zone" meets "Groundhog Day," Kuenne creates a complex journey of a man on a mysterious mission to save someone, as soon as he figures out how to save them and who, exactly, he is trying to save. "Shuffle" is a complex puzzle of a movie reminiscent of "Memento," another movie I discovered years ago at the Cleveland International Film Festival. "Shuffle" is a black-and-white independent film oozing with creativity and craft and it leaves you wondering what's next in the deck of Kurt Kuenne's upcoming projects.

The 36th Cleveland International Film Festival runs through April 1, 2012, at Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland.

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