Opening night at Woodstock Film Fest
This year’s kickoff film at the Woodstock Film Festival was Fanny: The Right to Rock, a documentary directed by Bobbi Jo Hart about the pioneering 1970s “womyn’s music” band Fanny. The accompanying concert at the Bearsville Theater on Wednesday, September 29 included two original Fanny members, guitarist (and longtime Woodstocker) June Millington and drummer Brie Darling, with Gail Anne Dorsey filling in for Jean Millington and a guest spot from John Sebastian.
Fanny was an American rock band, active in the early-to-mid-1970s. They were one of the first all-female rock groups to achieve critical and commercial success, including two Billboard Hot 100 Top 40 singles.
The group was founded by guitarist June Millington and her sister, bassist Jean, who had been playing music together since they moved from the Philippines to California in the early 1960s. After playing through several variations of the band, they attracted the interest of producer Richard Perry, who signed them to Reprise Records in 1969 as Fanny. The band recorded four albums together before June Millington quit the group, leading to the original lineup splitting. Following a final album, Fanny disbanded in 1975. The Millington sisters have continued to play music together since the split, and with a former drummer, Brie Howard Darling, formed the spinoff group Fanny Walked the Earth in 2018.
The group has continued to attract critical acclaim for rejecting typical girl-group styles and expectations of women in the rock industry generally, and emphasizing their musical skills. Later groups such as the Go-Gos, the Bangles and the Runaways cited Fanny as a key influence.
Riveting drama about aftermath of school shooting wins WFF Best Narrative Feature award
A talented young actor caught this reviewer’s eye in two very different roles in two very different movies that came out of the Joss Whedon weirdness factory in 2012. He excelled in playing both the callow suitor Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing and Marty, a smarter-than-he-looked pothead with a predilection for conspiracy theories, in The Cabin in the Woods. That same year, he played Bernard to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman in Mike Nichols’ Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman.
The promising young actor’s name was Fran Kranz. Nine years later, more settled and serious as the father of two daughters, he has made his screenwriting and directing debut with a low-budget independent film called Mass, which just walked off with the jury award for Best Narrative Feature at last weekend’s 22nd Woodstock Film Festival. As a way of making his mark as a neophyte director, it’s an absolute stunner. His hand is sure, his rapport with his actors evident. Kranz’s time has come.
But what a roster of thespians he had to work with! Oscar talk is already beginning to bubble up around the four core performances in Mass, which opens in select big-city theaters on October 8 and more broadly in the weeks to follow. The most famous of them is Jason Isaacs, known mainly for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. Reed Birney won a Tony in 2016 for The Humans. Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd are both Emmy-winners, for The Good Wife and The Handmaid’s Tale respectively. And Mass is a script that gives these fine actors an incredible platform to shine.
Set for most of its length in a stark, nondescript meeting room of an Episcopal church, Mass depicts a painful encounter that pits Jay (Isaacs) and Gail (Plimpton), the parents of a boy killed in a high school shooting, against Richard (Birney) and Linda (Dowd), the parents of the perpetrator, who also died in the massacre. Six years have passed; the legal wrangling over the incident has long subsided. Richard and Linda’s marriage has dissolved. Jay and Gail have both been in extended psychotherapy aimed at helping them transcend their hunger for retribution. The two mothers have exchanged letters for some time. But there is so much unfinished business here, and this unfacilitated private meeting is supposed to provide some sense of closure.
Spoiler: It sort of does; but the process of getting there is a powerful, heartwrenching ride. For two hours, in real time, we sit riveted as these four deeply wounded humans tentatively approach and indignantly retreat from one another, hold things in and let things out. The issue of whether the easy availability of guns or the inadequacy of mental health treatment is more to blame for mass killings is gingerly raised and abruptly dropped. Sometimes no one is speaking, sometimes they are breaking off sentences or talking over each other, as would happen in real life. Sometimes the dramatic tension, the emotional nuance, is borne by an averted gaze or intense eye contact, a curious or puzzled expression, a slumped or rigid posture. Four actors, masters of their art, give their all in this claustrophobic environment, illuminating these characters’ rage, anguish and bewilderment with profound grace.
Kranz allows plenty of space for these relationships to breathe and stretch. Each character comes out of the meeting slightly different from the person they were when they went in. Empathy, especially for the parents who failed to acknowledge the warning signs that their beloved, maladjusted child might do harm to others, is a hard-won gift. If there’s a message in this film, it’s less about America’s culture of violence than it is about the need for radical forgiveness among the human species.
Mass isn’t an easy watch, and it’s not for audiences whose top priority is entertainment. But it will move you and make you think. In its no-frills structure, it’s also the purest showcase for acting as an artform to come down the pike in a long time. As such, it amply demonstrates the value of indie filmmaking, for which WFF is such an important advocate.
It will be most interesting to see what Fran Kranz does next time out, when he presumably will have a bigger production budget to play with. Meanwhile, keep an eye out for this brilliant debut when it makes its way to a theater near you.
Film Festival award winners
After remarks by Congressman Antonio Delgado and state senator Michelle Hinchey, the Woodstock Film Festival announced the film, Mass directed by Fran Kranz as its Best Narrative Feature and Storm Lake, directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison as its Best Documentary Feature at its annual Jury award winners at a ceremony at the Woodstock Playhouse, Saturday, October 2.
About Storm Lake, jurors said “Free speech and the ability to critique the powerful are the foundation of democracy. Local news is where community lives and breathes. In a world where we see our voices and honesty being chipped away, the journalists from Storm Lake, Iowa illuminate in all their genuine glory what we all have to lose. We would like to give the grand jury prize to the film Storm Lake. All hail the truth.”
Recipients of the special honorary awards include:
The Honorary Maverick Award was given to Roger Ross Williams, director of the Oscar-winning short film Music By Prudence, as well as God Loves Uganda, The Apollo, the docuseries High On The Hog and the upcoming Cassandro.
The Honorary Trailblazer Award was given to Tom Quinn, CEO and Founder of NEON (Parasite, Shirley, Palm Springs, Spencer) and was presented to Quinn by longtime indie film marketing and publicity exec Ryan Werner and Magnolia Pictures EVP Dori Begley.
The Honorary Fiercely Independent Award was given to Eliza Hittman, director of Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Beach Rats, and was presented by producer and director Lydia Dean Pilcher (Radium Girls, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake).
Other awards included:
Special Mention for Best Emerging Filmmaker: Daughter Of A Lost Bird, directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney
Best Short Narrative: Are You Still There?, directed by Sam A Davis and Rayka Zehtabchi
Best Short Documentary: The Box, directed by Shal Ngo and James Burns
Best Student Short: Generation 328, directed by Nika Nikanava
Ultra Indie Award: Foxhole, directed by Jack Fessenden
Animation Award: Conversations With A Whale, directed by Anna Samo
Films For Change Award: Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America, directed by Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler
Nywift Award For Best Female Director, Documentary: Daughter Of A Lost Bird, directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney
Nywift Award For Best Female Director, Narrative: The Space Between, directed by Rachel Winter