Pushing 70 but more prolific than ever, Rob Nilsson figured in no fewer than three features at Mill Valley Fest this year. "Opening" is a one-off collaboration with the Kansas City, Mo. Filmmakers' Jubilee. While this exercise sounds like a formalist experiment, it emerges as a very entertaining Altman-esque ensemble piece.

Pushing 70 but more prolific than ever, Amerindie veteran Rob Nilsson figured in no fewer than three features at Mill Valley Fest this year. He’s an interviewee in ’70s-film-collective docu “Cine Manifest.” As director, he premiered “Pan,” latest in the “9 @ Night” series of interrelated San Francisco narratives. Then there’s “Opening,” a one-off collaboration with the Kansas City, Mo. Filmmakers’ Jubilee. While this exercise sounds like a formalist experiment — conceived, cast-improvised and shot in three marathon days — it emerges as a very entertaining Altman-esque ensemble piece that should attract further fest play and possible DVD exposure.

Drawn in brisk but mostly not-too-broad strokes, the 24 or so characters here (many supposedly close to their thesps’ real-life personas, and not all flatteringly so) are attendees at an art gallery’s monthly opening/cocktail party in K.C.’s rapidly gentrifying downtown. Rivalries, secrets, backbiting and hidden agendas run thick as thieves. Facing possible eviction, gallery owner Martha (Elisabeth Kirsch) is infuriated by the gate-crashing of ultra-smooth-talking developer Denny (Denny Dey), and in no mood to deal simultaneously with her own whiny daughter’s aggressive promotion of a fledgling “artist”-slash-boyfriend.

The two female artists being showcased this month, Sally (Sally Bremenkamp) and Rossana (Rossana Jeran), are resentfully competitive. Rossana is also carrying on a secret affair with a patron whose husband now susses out the truth. A snarly young couple (Kevin Pruitt, Kit Shea) seem to have shown up just to antagonize everyone else.

These and numerous other figures mingle testily until the news that a tornado is en route sends everyone scuttling into the claustrophobic basement. There, tensions threaten to boil over into soap-opera contrivance. But once the storm breaks, the pic manages a sustained closing grace note that restores its witty, grounded balance.

Pic deftly balances humor, intrigue, realism and social satire in a refreshing mix that acknowledges there’s high culture — and the usual high-culture snobbery — in the supposedly bland Heartland.

As per Nilsson’s “Direct Action Cinema” guidelines, the mostly non-pro cast invented its own characters and dialogue in an intensive collective process, also helping as crew where needed. Pic was shot at a Kansas City art gallery (the Dolphin) facing exactly the gentrification issues raised.

Fleet editing and hand-held camera achieve an ideal fly-on-wall effect, though emphasis on sotto-voce talk — as it would be at an actual gallery event — means some dialogue is hard to catch. Closing credits run over a mini making-of that delightfully encapsulates the pic’s seemingly impossible, hectic development process.

Opening

Production

A Citizen Cinema and Kansas City Filmmakers' Jubilee production. Produced by Fred G. Andrews, G. Thomas Poe. Executive producers, Fred Andrews, Douglas Drake, Carl Helmstetter, Lauren Helmstetter, Elisabeth Kirsch. Directed by Rob Nilsson. Screenplay, Nilsson, cast.

Crew

Camera (color, mini-DV-to-DVcam), Chikara Motomura; editor, Motomura; music, Doug Talley Quartet; sound, Al Nelson, Chris Brechnitz; second unit camera, Kevin Mullin, Loren Harms. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 6, 2006. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Rossana Jeran, Luc Alvarez, Mary Gay Rogers, Vickie Lynn, Larry Peterson, Elisabeth Kirsch, Douglas Drake, Carl Helmstetter, Lauren Helmstetter, Tarre Beach, Robert W. Butler, Marcia Trayford, Jane Loutzenhiser, Sally Bremenkamp, Jennifer Nichol, Lindsay Ferguson, Cathy Runyan-Svacina, R.J. Barnes, Travis Dow, William F. Swegle, Kevin Prewitt, Kit Shea, Zach Christman, Loren Harms, Denny Dey, Gary Lezak.
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