Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Cucalorus headlines with ‘Blue Velvet’ star Isabella Rossellini, spotlights independent film

Isabella Rossellini performs in one-woman show, “Darwin’s Smile,” to be the headlining performance of Cucalorus 28. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — It’s like a blue fever dream come true for Cucalorus Film Festival’s executive director, Dan Brawley, as he prepares to welcome iconic actor, model and activist Isabella Rossellini to the Port City next month. She will perform her new one-woman show during the festival’s five-day run.

“It would be no stretch to say we’ve been dreaming about this for more than 20 years,” Brawley said.

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Twenty-eight years ago, a handful of locals started “An Evening Celluloid Art: A Film Festival for Open Minds” — what would become known as the Cucalorus Film Festival. That first independent celebration of cinema began at a small eatery along the riverfront of downtown Wilmington. It welcomed 300 people to gather and immerse into the art of filmmaking.

Almost three decades later, the irreverent, quirky and often edge-pushing cinematic event remains strong, welcoming anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people during its run. This year’s festival, Nov. 16-20, will feature almost 150 films, community-engaging conversations surrounding social issues or the industry, and captivating live performances. 

Among them will be only the second curtain call for “Darwin’s Smile” — Rossellini’s show that explores life of humans and animals, particularly at the intersections of science and art. It made its official debut in Bellport, N.Y., in August.

Regarded worldwide as an actress in over 100 films and television shows, Rossellini has also created short films of her own, including “Green Porno” — which tackles the mating habits of bees. Yet, her celebrity goes a little deeper in the eastern part of North Carolina. 

Her legendary role as jazz singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet” is arguably the most revered film ever made in Wilmington. Lynch’s story follows Vallens and her involvement with psychopathic criminals, such as bad boy Frank (Dennis Hopper), in the small town of Lumberton. Two youngsters — played by Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan — attempt to crack the mystery of a suspicious severed ear located in an abandoned field, and end up learning about the rebel rousers and their seedy underground world in the process.

Annually, Cucalorus celebrates Lynch’s cult classic, a tradition featured as part of its “Bus to Lumberton” program. In the past, it has highlighted art installations, 5Ks, tours, and interactive performances in homage.

“[Cucalorus board member] Steve Fox somehow found the German intern who made the singularly beguiling experimental doc ‘No Frank in Lumberton,’ and we screened that at Cucalorus in 2011,” Brawley said of its many odes to the film noir.  

But this year, he added, will be the “ultimate Bus to Lumberton.” 

Brawley attributed the idea to pursuing Rossellini’s show after following the 70-year-old actress on Instagram, where she uploads videos and pictures of her daily life on a farm. Brawley said he became transfixed with her playing with sheep and collecting eggs from chickens. 

“It’s just enchanting,” he said. 

Farm life, along with having extra time during the pandemic, became the central inspiration for “Darwin’s Smile.”

“During the Covid lockdown, I had ample time to reflect about my passions for theater and science,” Rossellini said in a press release. 

Rossellini graduated from Hunter College in New York with a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation. 

“It seemed that these two interests of mine were both distinct and separate: one satisfied my heart, while the other satisfied my brain,” she continued. “When I understood that they could be integrated, my heart and my brain finally became reconciled and harmonious.“

Her show taps into empathy, as both the basis for acting and of ethology, ideas derived from Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of Emotions on Man and Animals,” according to Rossellini. The end result wraps in humor with curiosity, to frame theories on acting and on science and nature.

“I think this show is just so vital for us right now,” Brawley said. “To see the world this way.”

It will be a separately ticketed event ($48) for 2022’s Cucalorus, not included in the Pegasaurus all-access pass ($250). Passes allow festival goers into all screenings and performances; individual tickets for most events are $15.

Cucalorus has accepted 136 films — shorts, features, dramas, documentaries, comedies, horror and music videos — to be screened at Thalian Hall, Jengo’s Playhouse and Hi-Wire Brewing this year. 

The festival also has brought back the 10×10 Challenge, pairing 10 filmmakers with 10 entrepreneurs to devise a 4-minute promotional video in only five days. The results will be screened Thursday, Nov. 17, in Thalian’s ballroom. 

The blending of film and dance in Dance-a-lorus also takes place Thursday on the main stage of Thalian Hall. It will feature regional and local artists, including Mirla Criste and Kate Muhlstein, along with new additions from Miami and Boone.

The music video gold mine of Visual/Sound/Walls will return with 12 videos, most created for several local bands who also will perform on Nov. 17 at Hi-Wire. 

And, really, that’s the special punch of Cucalorus: Independent, local filmmaking and artistry shines. Many films featured annually at the five-day festival are locally created from the ground up. Kicking off opening night will be two of the first filmmakers to participate in Cucalorus 1: Jonathan Landau and Chip Hackler.

“We thought it would be a good way to brand this new era, by showcasing two of the people who were there when the indie scene in Wilmington was first born,” Brawley said.

Landau recalled back in 1994 the film that screened was actually a promotional video he made to get one of his first movies, “My Friends and Me,” off the ground.  

“Matt Malloy [Cucalorus emcee and founder] was in charge of programming with Kristy Byrd, and they decided they wanted to make it the closing film because it represented to them things to come,” Landau said.

Though “My Friends and Me” never came to fruition Landau — currently working locations for “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat,” filming in town through November — has produced, written and directed over a dozen projects of his own.

In 2016, Cucalorus debuted his short “The Vamprentice” — a parody on “The Apprentice” made ahead of Donald Trump’s winning bid for president. 

A production still from “The Devil’s Stomping Ground,” written and directed by Jonathan Landau, will open Cucalorus 2022. (Courtesy photo)

This year the festival will debut the world premiere of Landau’s horror feature, “The Devil’s Stomping Ground,” (opening will be Chip Hackler’s short film “1st Memory”) at Thalian Hall at 7 p.m. on Nov. 16.

“Devil” was filmed last year at the Devil’s Tramping Ground, in Bear Creek, North Carolina. There is even a state road sign bearing its name.

Landau’s movie is based on the folklore of stories from area townsfolk addressing the phenomenon happening on the Devil’s Tramping Ground: that a circle in the woods remains barren and nothing will grow in or near it because of its supernatural existence. For instance, put an object in it and walk away, and upon returning, the object will have moved, some say.

Landau’s movie follows 15 collegiate film students who travel to the grounds to shoot a senior project in the area where phantasmic shifts happen deep in the woods. Along for the ride is a group of junior documentary crew, also filming what unfolds as the seniors are rolling cameras on their own project. 

“It’s basically a movie inside a movie inside a movie,” Landau described of its meta take. “The movie that the students make ends up foreboding and foreshadowing what actually happens to them.”

Landau and his production team — including his wife, Marty, as well as Betsy Jordan, Martyn and Phyllis Woleben, Craig Thieman, Alan Boell and Ryan Risley — utilized found footage to tell the story. It is a chronological documentation of the night before the young adults ventured into the stomping grounds and the day of filming. 

Very much in line with “The Blair Witch Project” vein of filmmaking, Landau said the folklore is rich with awe; he began his research and conceptualizing the piece in December 2020 after learning about the stomping ground from a friend’s father, Bobby McGee, who executive produced “The Vamprentice.”

“I was really intrigued by the fact that it had been there for hundreds of years,” Landau said. 

In the story, audiences will see young filmmakers fixated on the notion that anyone who falls asleep inside of the circle will be forever changed — psychotic or destructive behaviors endure thereafter. The spirituous phenomenon glitches the cinematography work the students captured, leaving the audience questioning what’s happening. 

“These kid filmmakers, they’re sort of oblivious to it because they’re so tied up in their movie and the excitement and other things that go along with that, they forget what they’re actually doing,” Landau said. “And it sneaks up on them — that’s when it turns into horror.”

Landau considered releasing his second feature at festivals nationwide but he didn’t finish editing “The Devil’s Stomping Ground” until earlier in the year. He said it’s apropos it makes its debut on home turf. 

“It’s a North Carolina movie, right?” Landau said. “The lore is here; it was created here, by people who live here. Really, there is no better place for it to premiere than Cucalorus.”

Cucalorus Film Festival takes place Nov. 16-20; tickets and passes to all programming are available now. Port City Daily will cover more from the festival in coming weeks.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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