When Frank Manchel refers to "my boys," he's not just talking about his biological sons with wife Sheila. For the University of Vermont professor emeritus, that category includes three prominent filmmakers who were students decades ago in his cinema-studies classes: producer Jon Kilik (Alexander), cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator) and screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator).
Manchel, a St. George resident, has remained a mentor to these guys on their path to success. They regularly call and email him, often seeking his advice. So it's little wonder that he's bursting with pride about Kilik's latest project - Babel, by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which was recently nominated for seven Golden Globe awards.
"I told Jon that I think the movie is a flawed masterpiece," Manchel says. "Of all the boys, he probably has the most impeccable resume."
The other two are hardly slouches, though. All have been to the Academy Awards, as nominees and/or recipients.
Kilik, class of '78, has collaborated with the likes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Julian Schnabel. Richardson, who dropped out of UVM after his sophomore year in the mid-'70s, is most closely associated with Oliver Stone, but he won his 2004 Oscar as director of photography for Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Franzoni, class of '71, picked up a statuette for his Gladiator screenplay in 2000.
Richardson shotThe Good Shepherd, a new release directed by Robert De Niro, and that's another cause for celebration this holiday season. Manchel had a sneak peek at drafts of the script, sent to him by his protégé. He says the CIA thriller, which opened nationwide on December 22, is about "superpatriots during the Cold War who go outside the law with the best intentions and lose their souls."
Franzoni, meanwhile, has been planning his directorial debut: an English-language remake of Chan-wook Park's Joint Security Area, set in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. In a more mainstream mode, the Rutland native is also writing Hannibal the Conqueror, which will feature action star Vin Diesel in the title role.
Manchel's boys are clearly on the move.
Babel, by the way, was not a big draw during its December run at the Savoy Theater. Ditto for certain previous selections at the Montpelier art house, such as Heading South, The War Tapes, Tsotsi and The U.S. vs. John Lennon. What do they have in common? Heavy-duty subject matter.
"Our core audience was once very adventurous," explains Rick Winston, who owns the venue with his wife Andrea Serota. "Many now want to go to the movies for entertainment."
This shift seems to be part of a pattern evolving across the country. Winston says "disturbing" pictures have become less and less popular, except perhaps at the Green Mountain Film Festival "when people are up for the challenge."
Even dynamite reviews no longer persuade folks with compassion fatigue to spend two hours getting bummed out about dire world issues. "We have anecdotal evidence," Winston notes. "Even though An Inconvenient Truth was a hit, some people who came said their friends wouldn't accompany them to see anything depressing."
Thought-provoking fare is de rigueur at the MountainTop Film Festival, whose fourth annual edition takes place January 10-14 at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield. About 15 topical documentaries and features are on tap. Post-apartheid South Africa, civil disobedience in the Vietnam War era, Somali Bantu immigrants in the U.S., the child sex trade, the 1930s struggle for independence in India, and Israeli-Palestinian tensions are just a few of the global concerns that will be considered during the thematic five-day event.
Ralph Nader has been invited to attend in support of An Unreasonable Man, a nonfiction look at his career as a national gadfly. Eugene Jarecki of Why We Fight fame, who is fest director Claudia Becker's husband, will lead a master class on political media. Alex Gibney, Oscar-nominated last year for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, is offering excerpts from Taxi to the Dark Side, his work-in-progress about the parties responsible for torture at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. And James Longley will be on hand for a Q&A after his Sundance prize-winning Iraq in Fragments.
Always timed to coincide with the observation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, MountainTop is a rallying cry for peace, justice and human rights. For information, go to www. mountaintop filmfestival.com or call 496-8994. More on this lineup in the new year, which, hopefully, will be a happy one.
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