Now Playing: Echo Lake

Posted: Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Normally, on the week before Christmas, this space would be filled with a review for one of the big new Hollywood releases. Lemony Snicket, The Aviator, Spanglish or the like. However, this week we have something far more important to discuss. How often do we on the Peninsula have the chance to go and see our community; ourselves, immortalized on the big screen? Not often, but that's exactly the opportunity you have between now and January 2. Echo Lake, filmed entirely in and about Alaska, is playing at the Kenai High Auditorium for two weeks and if you miss it, you'll have missed something truly special. What's that, you ask? Why the chance to see me, if ever so briefly, devoured by a sea monster.

Nikiski grad Mario Bird, writer, director, producer, star, and all around slave to the film, conceived of Echo Lake during his tenure as a film student at the prestigious Notre Dame, and produced it with the help of an $11,000 grant from the same. But he, and this is the important part, created the film here. This is exceedingly rare - even major Hollywood productions with millions to spend usually film what is purported to be Alaska in Canada or Washington. Perhaps, however, it is our good luck that budget constraints demanded that Mario create his vision here with heavy dependence upon the kindness of friends and neighbors. As a result, there is this fully realized piece of art, of cinema, out there that we can all, to some extent or another, take ownership in, have pride in. Make no mistake, however, the vision is Bird's, and what he has created is extraordinary.

Alden Ford, fellow Nikiski grad and powerful presence on the peninsula theater scene, is Seth, our hero and a sort of everyman. When Seth decides to accompany his college buddy Johnny Angel home to the small town of Echo Lake for the summer, he has little clue as to what he is getting into. Instead of three months of cannery work wrapped around time spent assisting Johnny with a film project, Seth's world is turned upside down when a local boy is found dead in the woods, an apparent victim of a wild animal attack. But what kind of animal? This is but one of the questions that plagues our hero as he comes into contact with a strange and secretive cast of characters from a superstitious priest, to a beautiful but distant young woman, to the angry and elusive caretaker. And surrounding them all is the king sphinx himself, Luc, a man who seems to hold sway over everyone and everything in the quiet little Alaskan community. As Seth strives to find the answers, it becomes increasingly unclear as to who is asking the questions and whether those answers, once found, will shed light on the mystery of Echo Lake, or on the mysteries locked within Seth himself.

Such lofty themes are the purveyance of independent filmmaking and of student films in particular. And granted, this is a student film. Is Echo Lake a Scorsese, Spielberg, or Coppola? No, of course not. But could we be seeing something akin to the world created by George Lucas in his student attempt, THX-1150? Very possibly, if in potential if not tone. Mario Bird shows real skill in not only the technical aspects of filmmaking - the setting of a shot, framing, design and look of a scene, but in the storytelling as well. If his tale is somewhat convoluted, he can be forgiven his exuberance and his desire to actually tell a unique story, something his "accomplished" colleagues often seem to forget.

Bird, were he reading this ahead of time, would demand that the praise for this accomplishment be spread around, from his excellent cast and crew, including Ford who also acted as assistant director, Corey Carrol who co-produced and delivers excellent underwater cinematography, and actors Eli Eagle, Emily Hicks, Mike Druce, as well as a whole host of other local talent. Part of the fun of the show is simply in seeing how many of your friends and neighbors you recognize. By making the project a community effort, Bird has done something far more substantial than simply put out his hand. He has given us the opportunity to be a part of something exciting and new; to watch the flickering images up on the big screen and think, "Wow, I helped make that a reality," and while certainly appreciation should be handed out all around, the community owes Mario Bird a big vote of thanks, for bringing the gift of experience to us all. Grade: A (What else? I'm in it, remember?)

Echo Lake is not rated but contains brief mild language and mature themes. The film is playing every night through January 2 - 7:00 P.M. at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at KCHS, with the exception of December 24, 25, 26, 31, and January 1. Sunday showings will be matinees. See ads, posters, or box office for more information.

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