Movie News & Reviews

Local films resonate in 15th annual Kansas International Film Festival

Emily Goss in “The House on Pine Street.”
Emily Goss in “The House on Pine Street.”

The closing of the Metcalf South Shopping Center did nothing to hinder the 15-year streak enjoyed by the Kansas International Film Festival.

Now at 95th Street and Mission Road, the Glenwood Arts Theatre and the fest continue to showcase the type of impassioned cinema not always found at sprawling multiplexes.

“KIFF embraces independent arthouse films, the kind that absorb, engage and affect audiences,” says Steph Scupham, the newly christened film and media manager at Visit KC, known by the rest of the country as the Kansas City film commissioner.

Scupham describes this year’s lineup as embracing “interesting stories that deserve to be told and ones that elevate our humanity.”

A total of 80 films are slated for the weeklong festival. Here are a trio of KC-area filmmakers who turned personal encounters into cinematic odysseys.

“The House on Pine Street”

Natalie Jones learned the true meaning of horror when making her debut feature: The filmmakers and crew lived in the same room of their “haunted house” while working 19 days straight.

“The main actress had the master bedroom and the rest of us had the one room of the house we weren’t filming in to be a ridiculous, cuddle-puddle room,” says Jones, co-writer and producer of “The House on Pine Street.” “Working that many days in a row then slumber partying every night added a whole new level of crazy to the experience.”

Shot in Independence and the filmmakers’ native Leavenworth, the story concerns a pregnant woman (Emily Goss) coping with a recent mental breakdown by moving from Chicago to her insular Kansas hometown. She notices strange happenings at a quaint rental house, but her workaholic husband (Taylor Bottles) and cloying mother (Cathy Barnett) assume the phenomena is all in her head.

Jones and director siblings Aaron and Austin Keeling sought to craft a “suspense throwback.” She calls the film “a perfect combination of homage to classic horror but with our own unique twist on it.”

The specific twist in this indie effort may involve what it lacks. No jump scares, graphic violence or garish gore.

“Most of those in our generation who have seen the film don’t have the attention span for our movie. But any of the generations above ours can respect it because they have an attention span longer than three seconds.”

Having grown up together in Leavenworth, Jones and the Keelings headed different directions after high school. She earned a degree in business finance from KU in 2012. Meanwhile, the Keeling brothers went to film school at USC. Dabbling in shorts and music videos, the trio determined their first feature should be a haunted house flick.

“But we hit a stopping point while writing because we don’t know what the location looks like. So if you write a scene with an upstairs master bathroom, but the house you end up shooting in doesn’t have that, you don’t have the money to build a set. So we decided to find a house and then write in it,” she says.

Their ad seeking a location for the flick yielded a furnished and unoccupied home with a lot of character. They rented it for a month and moved the 10-person crew inside.

Jones says the filmmakers turned to a few horror classics for inspiration — but these were books, not movies. Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” proved especially influential.

Not surprisingly, the subject matter coupled with the living accommodations and grueling hours made Jones question if her own shoot might have been touched by the supernatural.

“I’m sure it was all in our head, but we were doing a basement scene with a candle séance. Our sound guy looked at me and said, ‘Could you ask them to stop talking upstairs because I’m picking it up on the mic?’ I went upstairs, and only one person was in the house, and he was reading a book.”

“The Gnomist”

In 2013, a walking trail in Overland Park appears to be taken over by someone — or something — magical.

Tiny houses designed to fit the hollows of trees sprout up along the lush, wooded trail. Within them, miniature furnishings are revealed. As their reputation grows, the surrounding residents bring their own gifts to add to these petite households. They also leave notes for the unseen makers.

Soon, handwritten messages are left in reply:

“You belong here.”

“Kindness begins with me.”

“Create your own magic.”

As one of the neighborhood admirers describes in the documentary “The Gnomist,” “These people don’t only build the houses, they change the décor to show that time has passed and show that these creatures are living in these homes.”

Kansas City viewers aren’t the only ones charmed by director Sharon Liese’s poignant endeavor. Her film earned best documentary at the L.A. Shorts Fest and was nominated for best short documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“The audiences respond a little differently depending on what part of the country they’re from. People cry at the same places but they laugh at different places,” says Liese, a native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who’s lived for decades in Overland Park.

At April’s influential Tribeca — where “The Gnomist” officially premiered — Liese was greeted by reps from CNN Films. This resulted in the movie earning the distinction of being the only short doc to land a distribution deal at the fest. (It’s still being determined how CNN will release/broadcast the picture.)

Liese owned a marketing and communications firm that produced corporate videos before exploring more personal subjects. In 2008, her debut documentary series “High School Confidential” focused on a dozen female students from Blue Valley Northwest High School — including her own daughter.

“The name of my company is Herizon, so a lot of my work is female-centric. But I’ve branched out to other genders. The overriding theme is about transformation,” says Liese, who is currently working on a feature about transgender youth.

The concept of transformation is apparent in “The Gnomist,” in which the viewer learns the surprising identity of the party responsible for creating the fairy-tale houses.

“I didn’t know if I would reveal the identity while I was filming because this person wasn’t sure about revealing it at all. We said we would decide together,” she says. “A lot of people (in that Overland Park neighborhood) still don’t know who it was. Most only know if they’ve seen the movie.”

But “The Gnomist” reveals much more than the woodworker’s identity.

“I think the film is about the power of kindness. It’s about believing, whether it’s magic, hope or faith. It really celebrates childlike wonder,” she says.

Does Liese still possess childlike wonder herself?

“I sure hope so.”

“Be It Ever So Humble …”

In his youth, Anthony Ladesich remembers his dad calling him down to the basement to tell him a story about a close friend and their ongoing correspondence via mail.

“I was 12, so I didn’t care. I just wanted to ride my skateboard. Then after my dad passed, I found this box of tapes,” Ladesich says.

Among those was an audio recording embedded in a letter. It began:

“Ladies and gentlemen, for all the Freudian existentialists, for all the Zen Buddhists, for all the subterraneans of the Beat generation, who as Lord Buckley so beautifully put it, ‘don’t know where they are going, but they know where they are.’ 

Ladesich recalls, “My brain was completely blown. I’d never heard anything that cool in my entire life, let alone something that was related to my dad.”

Those recordings and the subsequent photos and artwork he uncovered would compel the adult Ladesich to craft several films focusing on his father, Vincent Ladesich, who died in 1992.

A KIFF retrospective of these works is at the core of “Cosmic Collaborations,” which pairs Ladesich’s short works “Be It Ever So Humble, There’s No Place …” and “Studio A” with a conversation between the filmmaker and jazz historian Chuck Haddix.

The core of this material involves Vincent Ladesich and his Navy buddies Charles Embree and Ken West — a trio that earned the collective nickname the Mop, the Brush and the Good Doctor. During the day, the men worked together in a graphics lab. At night, they turned that into a recording studio, cranking out their own versions of jazz standards and faux radio broadcasts.

For Ladesich’s debut film, he expanded on a piece of short fiction that Embree wrote for Esquire Magazine in the early 1950s (under the memorable pen name Riff Charles) concerning the decline of KC jazz. The lines became a soundtrack to a dreamlike meditation on the topic — a “cosmic collaboration between Embree’s words and my filmmaking,” he says.

The short won a regional Emmy Award in 2001.

“Studio A” (released in 2005) takes a more standard documentary approach to this material. The title comes from a striking painting of these musician friends by Embree, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute under Thomas Hart Benton. Photo montages of the multitalented Beat Generation hipsters collide with the sounds of their collaborations.

“I see the term ‘hipster’ as almost a pejorative term now,” Ladesich says. “Whereas the hipsters in post-World War II were people adjacent to square culture. Now the hipster thing is an affectation. Then the term was a battle cry.”

Ladesich didn’t get to share his work with his father, but he did with Embree. Now age 96 and living in Seattle, Embree “couldn’t fathom that anyone cared about something that long ago,” the filmmaker says.

“But his approval and praise of what I was doing were tantamount to having the praise and approval of my father.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

Beginning Friday

The 15th Annual Kansas International Film Festival is Friday-Nov. 12 at the Glenwood Arts Theatre, 95th Street and Mission Road in Overland Park. Festival passes are $40 for Film League Members; $60 for nonmembers. Individual ticket prices range from $6.50 to $8.50, with a discount for seniors. Complete schedule and more info at