The Maui Film Festival would seem one of those events that's so cool it couldn't get any better. Last year it was picture-perfect. This year, the five-day fest that ran June 11 - 15 managed to up its own film paradise ante. Barry Rivers, founder and director, is not one of those guys who sits still, even on an island in the middle of the Pacific. So it makes sense his festival pushes its own boundaries -- appropriate for a program curated around the potential for film to transform lives and expand awareness.
And I don't mean in a drug-induced kind of way. If you imagine Maui the place to get high and watch "Harold and Kumar", you'd be missing the depth of the Maui experience. (Though they did screen Michael Blieden's stoner comedy "Super High Me"). Maui is a festival that hangs with any, and Rivers, the island's movie maven, offers an experience that satisfies way beyond buzz.
The fest uncorked with Randal Miller's ode to Napa Valley, "Bottle Shock," a perfect compliment to the tasty opening night feast at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui, one of several delectable food-focused fetes during the week. Shock was one of a slew of Sundance premieres that played here, and which the local community might never have a chance to see if not for the festival, or the weekly screening series that birthed the fest nine years ago. "I saw a need for a world worth living in," says Rivers, who left the East Coast for Maui 30 years ago, "and a lot of films out here didn't speak to that need." His mission was clear long before "spiritual cinema" became a niche buzzword: great filmmaking is like pure alchemy, life-affirming stories can change lives, movies have the power to entertain and enlighten.
And since this is Hawaii, it makes sense water would seep into the program. This year, the surf was up -- way up on a 50 foot screen -- in Steven Lawrence's "Down the Barrel," a tour-de-surf adventure that helped close the fest on a totally upbeat note. "Sliding Liberia," a stunning and perfectly executed surf film with a social conscience directed by Britton Caillouette and Nicolai Lidow (made when both were students at Stanford) that previously nabbed several festival awards was a huge hit, while surf legend Laird Hamilton was on hand for Don King, Sonny Miller and Jeff Hornbaker's "Water Man."
Water wasn't just for catching a wave; a couple docs played with an eco/global take on the molecule of life. With a score by the Russian National Orchestra, Sanjeev Chatterjee and Ali Habashi's "One Water" is penetrating. And about creatures living in the deep blue, Ross Isaacs' "Humpbacks From Fire to Ice" is a "March of the Penguins" for the sea mammal crowd.
Overall, Maui's doc slate was super strong and fiction offerings skewed more star-driven (example: W. H. Macy in "The Deal") than old school indie. An exception was the indie charmer "Summerhood," a fun coming-of-age summer camp romp by filmmaker Jacob Medjuck, perfect for grown-up boys of all ages. Medjuck wrote, directed, produced, and acted (really well) in "Summerhood," and managed to land a great soundtrack on a shoestring budget. "We called the bands at their homes and got very special permission. My dad talking to The Cure was the funniest." Watch for more from "Summerhood"'s terrific lead, 12-year-old newcomer Lucien Maisel.
Does yoga actually have the power to change lives? Kate Churchill flew in from Boston to help answer that question with the world premiere of "Enlighten Up!," her debut feature doc which follows an average Joe (here: an attractive and intelligent "Nick") as he embraces yoga for a year. "The movie's inspiration started on the Big Island of Hawaii with Norman Allen who is featured in the film," says Churchill, "So it feels very fitting to come to Maui for our world premiere." Other films fitting the spiritual awareness bill included "Spiritual Revolution," Alan Swyer's interviews of eastern spirituality leaders living in the West, and Charles Kinnane's "The Human Experience," a doc with so much heart in the right place, though I'd recommend a trim for this worthwhile pic.
It's not every day a doc is shot in 35mm, even in part. Jeremiah Zagar's revelatory "In A Dream," about his father, iconic Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, mixes the personal and filial to stir artistic and psychological depths and deliver a winner. Sundance Audience fave "Fields of Fuel" by Josh Tickell was a fest standout, its revelations about society's dependence on petroleum resonates on Maui where gas nears 5.00/gallon. Don't miss Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss' "Full Battle Rattle," an outstanding doc many would wish were fiction, about a surreal "virtual Iraq" in the Mojave Desert operated by the U.S. Government. (Really, it's that unbelievable.) Making love not war was Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori's thorough and attentive "Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm," everything you wanted to know about the history (and politics) of the vibrator -- and the female orgasm.
Peak experiences abound at the Celestial Cinema, MFF's nighttime open-air wonderland on Wailea's golf course. A massive screen (the aforementioned 50 footer) with pitch-perfect Dolby sound set under shimmering stars delivered multiple, yes, satisfying experiences -- really it's the best venue ever. Werner Herzog's colorful-character-filled take on life in Antarctica, "Encounters at the End of World," was a seamless fit. In the fiction department, Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard" starring Tom Hanks, son Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, and Emily Blunt drew huge crowds, as did Santosh Sivan's "Before the Rains" and Tarsam's "The Fall."
Meanwhile, Daniel Barnz' imaginative "Phoebe in Wonderland," starring Felicity Huffman, enchanted audiences at the nearby Maui Skydome, one of four "Solar Cinemas" venues fully powered by the sun this year. Huffman was on hand to receive Maui's Nova Award, honoring an "artist whose stunningly original and seamless performances consistently infuse each character they play with unique insight and wisdom." She cites Maui's commitment to positive, compassionate stories as a big draw: "I'm proud to take part in this festival in this day and age when we need life-affirming stories."
Other A-listers on hand to receive awards and give balance to Maui's vibe of "Hollywood meets Indie meets Eco-Green-Spiritual and Surf-Cool" were Dennis Quaid (Galaxy Award), Pierce Bronson (Maverick Award), and Virginia Madsen (Navigator Award), who starred in Terry Kinney's "Diminished Capacity," also screening at the festival.
As if you needed a reason to visit Hawaii, this festival makes a perfect one, and the best write-off in the business. But if you can't make it this far west, find Barry Rivers on the mainland during Sundance, where he chills out at his "Coconut Cafe", and get a taste of the laid-back class that is the Maui Film Festival. Aloha.