Woodstock Film Fest is back!
From Wednesday, September 28 to Sunday, October 2, the Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) is back. You’ll have your choice of some 48 feature films — including eight world premieres, seven US premieres, four East Coast premieres and 15 New York premieres — and more than twice as many shorts.
Most of the 2022 screenings will take place in Woodstock — at the Woodstock Playhouse, Bearsville Theater and Tinker Street Cinema, with a single show plus live performance at the Levon Helm Studios, short films at the Woodstock Community Center and panels at White Feather Farm, just outside of town on the Saugerties side of the line. Saturday night’s Maverick Awards ceremony will take place at UPAC in Kingston.
For complete ticket and program information, see www.woodstockfilmfestival.org.
Mending the Line
Directed by Joshua Caldwell
Thursday, September 29, 5:30 p.m., Woodstock Playhouse
Friday, September 30, 1 p.m., Rosendale Theatre
While the Woodstock Film Festival has a tradition of featuring movies about musicians, drawing on the popular association in the public mind of the town with the three-day Aquarian Exposition that happened miles 56 away in 1969, the surrounding Catskills region is iconic for other things as well. One of those is being the birthplace of fly-fishing in America. As early as the 1820s, boardinghouses and guide services were being established around Phoenicia to serve anglers, drawn by tales of brook trout so abundant that they could be scooped up by the basketful. The Schoharie, Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Delaware and, closest to Woodstock, the Esopus Creek — all became legendary trout streams. Hudson River School artists visited the area not only to paint, but also to fish.
By the 1880s, toxic effluents from the tanning industry, as well as erosion caused by die-offs of streamside stands of hemlock trees stripped of their bark, had nearly wiped out the native brookies. Efforts to restock the streams with brown and rainbow trout were successful; however, the introduced brown trout in particular proved more elusive. In 1890, sportswriter Theodore Gordon sought advice from an English counterpart, who sent back some samples of flies that worked well in Kent. Gordon tinkered with the design to mimic local insect hatches and created the prototype “Catskill style” dry fly, the Quill Gordon. Thus a whole new local industry was born, and “Catskill Ties” are now used around the world.
The Catskills fishery survived the incursion of the railroads, and the massively disruptive construction of the Ashokan Reservoir actually ended up enhancing trout habitat, especially for rainbows, with its periodic cold-water releases in summer. The region remains a Mecca for fly-fishers, but if you aren’t one yourself, you probably don’t give that aspect of our local culture and history much thought.
One contemporary hobbyist who haunts our mountain streams is Joshua Caldwell, director of Infamous, Be Somebody, Negative and the Hulu series South Beach. Born in Seattle and married to a Rockland County native, Caldwell now lives in Warwick. “Fly-fishing’s a passion of mine,” he says. “I fish on the Esopus all the time.” So, it makes perfect sense that he wanted the Woodstock Film Festival as the launch site for his new dramatic feature about war veterans with PTSD finding healing through fly-fishing. Mending the Line gets its world premiere at the Woodstock Playhouse Thursday evening, and will be screened again on Friday afternoon at the Rosendale Theatre.
When Stephen Camelio’s screenplay for Mending the Line landed in his lap, Caldwell had been casting around (pun intended) for some time for a story about characters with PTSD to bring to the screen. A couple of other projects involving battlefront journalists “didn’t get off the ground,” he says. And then, Kelly McKendry pitched Camelio’s script to Caldwell’s manager, who, knowing that he was an avid fly-fisherman, responded, “I’ve got your director.”
Mending the Line is a story about finding something to make living worthwhile, following a traumatic experience. The protagonist is a Marine named John Colter who finds himself in Livingston, Montana while recuperating from numerous wounds suffered in an ambush in Afghanistan. Several of his close comrades died, and he blames himself. All Colter wants is to recover enough to return to combat, the only life he really knows. But his rage and panic are easily triggered by loud noises.
Group therapy isn’t doing him any good, so his Veterans’ Administration caseworker hooks Colter up with Ike, an elderly Vietnam vet with his own psychological baggage who needs a fly-fishing buddy. There’s a potential romantic interest as well in Lucy, a librarian who visits the VA hospital occasionally to bring books and read aloud to the recovering vets. Still getting over the death of her fiancé in a motorcycle accident, Lucy has her own path to work out, while connecting with Colter.
As a narrative, Mending the Line is fairly straightforward, with no big twists. Its strongest suit is its outstanding cast — notably Emmy-winning stage and screen veteran Brian Cox (currently starring as Logan Roy, family patriarch in HBO’s Succession), who brings his deep experience at playing grouchy old codgers to the role of the reluctant mentor Ike. Perry Mattfeld (Shameless, In the Dark) also does splendid work as the conflicted Lucy. And then there’s Livingston itself, with its working-class vibe and its glorious backdrop of the Wind River range; according to the director, “The setting is as much a character as anything else.”
But the major discovery here is Sinqua Walls, the 30-something actor who portrays Colter. Walls has had recurring roles in such TV series as Teen Wolf, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Once Upon a Time, Power and as the lead in American Soul, but a big-screen starring role worthy of his talents has eluded him until now. While, in Caldwell’s words, the actor “feels like a Marine,” he also brings a capacity for vulnerability that the viewer discovers gradually, as Colter’s reconnection with nature and other humans begins to peel away the layers of his psychic armor. It’s a fine, nuanced performance that should propel him onto the acting A-list in the years to come.
Also deserving of shout-outs in Mending the Line are Eve M. Cohen’s cinematography, especially her nighttime shots, and the appropriately uplifting score by Bill Brown. With any luck, this movie will find a favorable distribution package soon after premiering and make its way to a theater near you in 2023. In the meantime, I recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to catch it this week at WFF — especially if you or a loved one is working through the aftereffects of some trauma.
Directed by Marvin Samel
Sunday, October 2, 9 p.m., Tinker Street Cinema
iMordecai, the debut feature of indie director Marvin Samel, was a late-breaking addition to the roster of the 23rd annual Woodstock Film Festival. You won’t even find it in the program booklet, although an online description and link to purchase tickets are accessible at https://woodstock2022.eventive.org/films/i-mordecai-631f4f2a39535900c92091ab. What you might find, if you attend Sunday’s New York premiere of the movie, is an inkling of how this unlikely project ever came to be.
The real-life human who inspired the onscreen tale, Mordecai Samel, will be in attendance at the Festival himself, along with his director son and the megastar who plays the title role, Judd Hirsch. There will be a question-and-answer session with Hirsch and Marvin Samel following the screening, and no one who has previewed this new movie will be all that surprised if Mordecai finds a way to chime in. By all accounts, he’s a force of nature.
How did it come about that a professional cigarmaker with zero filmmaking training became the director of a feature film with big-name stars? The real Mordecai and his wife Fela, Holocaust refugees from Poland turned retirees in Miami, were the inspirations for a true passion project. In 2014, as Marvin was trying to sell the cigar company he built, Drew Estate, and with month-old twin daughters at home, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “I was running around on zero sleep,” he recalls, and stressed out to the breaking point.
His father, a former plumber and housepainter who refused to buy anything new that he thought he could fix himself, could only be reached in an emergency on an unreliable ancient flip-phone held together with duct tape. And family emergencies were becoming more frequent, with higher stakes. So, Marvin — portrayed by Sean Astin in the movie version — marched a protesting Mordecai into a mall shop, bought him an iPhone and hired a tech to give him lessons on how to use it.
So begins our convoluted, hilarious tale of a family with a traumatic history and a lot of present-day communication problems to work out. If you are now or have ever been a member of an Ashkenazi Jewish family that immigrated to America not too many generations ago, you will immediately recognize the mutually-exasperated-but-ultimately-affectionate squabbles that prevail among the Samels, with everyone kvetching at once. What makes these scenes priceless is the fortuitous casting of Hirsch as Mordecai and his former Taxi co-star Carol Kane as Fela. There’s no one who can play a female character who’s simultaneously dotty and luminous like Kane, and the two have clearly not forgotten how to riff together. According to the director, much of their dialogue is improvised.
Marvin Samel admits that he was “the least experienced person on set,” but he had the good fortune to be able to surround himself with consummate professionals who helped make the filmmaking process work. He got help with his screenplay from a couple of experienced script doctors, Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman. Hirsch, who Samel says “grew up around people like my Dad,” was recruited at a meeting at a Manhattan pizzeria arranged by a casting director, and in turn brought Kane on board. Astin, seeing that Samel was spending the first days of shooting talking about character development when he should have been concentrating on blocking, took him aside and gave him some pointers.
It shouldn’t have worked — especially considering that the real Mordecai was on set on a daily basis, unable to restrain himself from kibitzing constantly. But it did, thanks to an abundance of goodwill from all involved. The resulting product is an irresistibly charming, “fiercely independent” story of how learning to use a high-tech device gave a stubborn old survivor a new lease on life and brought his frazzled family together in the process. That it mostly happened in real life just makes it more appealing, and serves to smooth over some of the quibbles a viewer might have with the less-slick aspects of the film’s execution.
Marvin Samel has gotten out of the cigar biz and owns a film production company now, FeMor Productions. He says he has more stories to tell onscreen, though they won’t be about his immediate family. iMordecai has already picked up a limited distribution deal and will be in theaters in February; but if you catch it at WFF, you can ask a question of Judd Hirsch, and you might get a chance to chat with the vivid character he’s channeling.