The Houston Comedy Film Festival Is Here -- Yuk it Up

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Houston has its share of film festivals, including last month's mega-successful Cinema Arts Festival Houston. But this week's 1st Annual Houston Comedy Film Festival is adding another flavor to the scene with a collection of funny flicks from around the world. (Of the more than 400 submissions that came in, fewer than 50 made the cut for the festival -- just nine features and 36 shorts.)

One of the international entries is Israeli Intelligence, by director Alon Gur Arye from Tel Aviv. (A last-minute entry, Intelligence is the festival darling with a total of four nominations: Best Director, Best Score, Best Editing and Best Special Effects.) Done in the style of Naked Gun (a first for Israeli cinema), Intelligence is the story of Rami (played by Ron Shahar), a Mossad agent sent to rescue the abducted US ambassador held in the fictional country of Sugarya. This is a high-pressure mission. Not only are US/Israeli relations at stake, more importantly, if Rami fails, his annual vacation will be cancelled.

With a personal mission to "Make the world funnier. One laugh at a time," Arye was convinced that a parody of this type would do well in Israel, but since it hadn't been done before there was little interest and no funding. Over a period of four years, Arye and some 200 volunteer actors, stuntmen, animators, and musicians ("a symphonic orchestra of fifty musicians who were thrilled by the idea of producing a Hollywood soundtrack in Tel Aviv") finally got the film made. "The film was made with love of people who believed it could be done and wanted to show another face of Israeli filmmaking...It took four years," adding, "I heard Lord of the Rings took only three years."

As Arye predicted, Intelligence found a ready audience in Israel, Time Out Tel-Aviv called it "the next cult film," a prediction that quickly came true. "The film began to screen at the Tel-Aviv cinematheque regularly every Friday night, and nowadays, two years later, the film is still screening. The screening has become a cult event: people come in costumes and with accessories from the film. Before every screening, I ask the audience 'Who is watching the film for the first time, for the second time, for the third...' and so on. The record at the moment is a girl who came to see the film at the cinema 33 times!

"The film was made for non-commercial purposes. All we wanted to say was that you can do this kind of comedy and that there is a crowd in Israel waiting for this kind of genre. No one thought this film would become a product itself with thousands of fans and the happenings that have developed around it."

Those happenings include a strike in the streets of Tel-Aviv. "About a year ago, rumors started spreading that the cinematheque was considering an end the regular screenings. The fans organized a demonstration for the state of Sugarya, the imaginary country mentioned in the film ... at the center of Tel-Aviv City."

Although The Houston Comedy Film Festival is the U.S. premiere of Israeli Intelligence, Arye won't be able to attend but he isn't too disappointed. "The US premiere is a great honor for us. We are thrilled we were selected, it's all very exciting."

One filmmaker who will be in attendance is Houstonian Josh Bass, the director of Joey and Jerome's Artistic Meaningful Film, will. He's already seen it with an audience at other festivals but says he's looking forward to seeing it again. "It's always gratifying. Even though I'm always sitting there thinking, 'Are they going to laugh at this joke? Are they going to miss it?' So I almost don't watch the film as much as I just sit there as a sensitive artist hoping that people will like his stuff...When I say sensitive, I mean thin-skinned, kinda weak, and a weenie."

Bass says he got the idea for his indie film by watching another indie film. "It started back when I saw Garden State and realized that a lot of the indie films have a lot of clichés, like the music and the quirky characters. I saw that there's a formula to indie films. There are these characters who are weird just for the sake of being weird. And they always do weird things, like they hang out in abandoned ships and abandoned mines and [have] deep conversations about God and life.Once I had the idea, I had a bug to do it."

As you might guess, Joey and Jerome are enthusiastic slackers, sort of Bevis and Butt Head-ish, but with filmmaking equipment and no acne. In a film-within-a-film storyline, they stumble through shooting their own indie film in just a couple of hours with no budget (and sometimes no clue). Originally 33 minutes long, Bass has cut Meaningful Film to half that and it's that shorter version that will be shown at this weekend's festival.

Bass realizes there isn't much of a market for shorts as mainstream theater releases, but he hopes Meaningful Film has a life after the festival circuit. "There a couple of television networks, like IFC, that show short films. I'd like it to get shown there. If money comes along, that's great, but really, I'd just rather have it seen."

The University of St. Thomas graduate is currently working on his next project, an animated short. "It's about these crime fighting Jewish ninjas. I briefly entertained doing it live action, but it would be ridiculous -- I'd have to make costumes and find people who could do martial arts and makeup and stuff. Doing it with no budget, it just seemed that doing it as a cartoon was the way to go."

Visit Hair Balls on Monday when we'll post the festival's winners.

Update: And here they are --

Best Picture (Feature Film): Why am I Doing This? directed by Tom Huang (Los Angeles, CA)
Best Picture (Short Film): Funky Pickles directed by Will Moore (Austin, TX)
Best Director: Alon Gur Arye, Israeli Intelligence (Tel-Aviv, Israel)
Best Actor: Sean Patton,  Crooks
Best Actress: Caroline White, The Dropout
Best Supporting Actor: Chris Kattan, Scout's Honor: Badge to the Bone
Best Music and Score: The Dropout directed by Clayton Chaney (Bentonville, AK) 
Best Special Effects: Israeli Intelligence directed by Alon Gur Arye (Tel-Aviv, Israel)
Best Cinematography:  Frat Party cinematography by William Garcia (Miami, FL) 
Best Editing: Blood from a Stone directed by Bill Palmer (Glendale, CA)
Best Animated Film: The Mouse that Soared directed by Kyle Bell (Portland, OR)
Funniest Music Video: The Krum Bums - S.O.S. directed by Steven Katz (Houston, TX)
Funniest Stand-up Comedy Video Performance: Donny Johnson (Houston, TX)
Best Screenplay for a Feature Film: Wedding Knight by Stephen Hoover (Baton Rouge, LA)
Best Screenplay for a Short Film: Motivational Speaking by Lauren Tunnel (Houston, TX)

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