A generally negative New York Times review suggested that The Mudge Boy suffers from "one of the least commercial titles in film history." But writer-director Michael Burke's debut feature, which was released in a few major cities earlier this month, is every inch an indie. Legendary critic Rex Reed praised the way it "intelligently explores the unhappy world of a teenager too different from the rural claustrophobia of the Vermont farm community where he lives to ever fit in with the other kids his age."
The 38-year-old Burke, now a Manhattan resident, apparently doesn't feel too claustrophobic while visiting his Green Mountain State friends and family. "I love coming home," he explains. "I look for any excuse."
The Mudge Boy gave him one in August and September 2002, when Burke spent 20 days shooting in places like Wallingford, Mount Holly and Rutland Town.
Actor Stanley Tucci is executive producer. After a theatrical run, the production will eventually be broadcast by Showtime, the premium cable channel that funded the budget of less than a million dollars.
Burke began attending the University of Vermont in 1983, but dropped out when he was stricken with rheumatic fever a year later. "That derailed my college experience for a while," he recalls.
During much of the next decade, Burke worked at the Wallingford treatment facility his mother started for people with traumatic brain injuries. After earning a degree in special education at Castleton, he headed to New York University's graduate film school in 1994. His senior thesis, a 22-minute short called Fish Belly White, won the school's top prize and went on to capture a special jury award at the 1999 Sundance festival in Utah.
Burke subsequently developed the Mudge script at the prestigious Sun-dance Institute, where he got advice from the likes of Tucci, festival founder Robert Redford and actress Sally Field.
With blessings from the former Flying Nun, Burke began the process of crafting a movie that includes some characters and situations similar to those in Fish Belly White. He cast Emile Hirsch as Duncan Mudge, a tormented adolescent seeking comfort in the company of a pet chicken.
"He's a misfit reacting to the recent death of his mother," Burke explains, adding that Duncan and his stoic father (Richard Jenkins of "Six Feet Under" fame) "grieve very differently."
When the completed picture screened in competition at Sundance '03, Burke was thrilled by the crowd's response. "The film is a bit of an emotional roller coaster," he notes, "but I could really feel the audience take that ride."
Burke, who now teaches film courses at NYU, says his next project will be "a ghost story that deals with domestic violence. I'm writing it with Vermont in mind and I'd love to shoot it there."
Two nonfiction cinema events this weekend, both at 7 p.m. on June 1, highlight the Bush administration's mangled approach to the war on terrorism.
Control Room, which will screen at the Eclipse Theater in Waitsfield, just opened in New York. That makes the Mountain Top Film Festival's Vermont premiere quite a coup. Moreover, the director -- an Egyptian-American woman named Jehane Noujaim -- and two producers will be on hand to answer questions.
The documentary focuses on television coverage, always a fascinating juxtaposition of truth, bias and propaganda, to chronicle the invasion of Iraq. It's a balanced, behind-the-scences look at the contrasting perspectives of the Al Jazeera satellite channel, various Western media outlets and the U.S. military's Central Command.
Persons of Interest, which the Vermont International Film Festival is presenting at Burlington's Firehouse Center, examines the American government's post-9/11 detention of some 5000 Arab and Muslim immigrants. The Hollywood Reporter deemed it "a chilling look at national policy gone awry."
Momentum is generated through the harrowing testimonies of people who came here from Algeria, Palestine, Somalia or Pakistan in search of refuge. Instead, their lives have been decimated by interrogation, confinement and deportation. By contrast, Attorney General John Ashcroft appears arrogant announcing the government's get-tough-on-foreigners campaign.
Directed by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse, the film was produced by former Queen City resident Lawrence Konner. He sold homemade sandwiches door-to-door at UVM dorms in the 1970s before moving to California for a highly profitable career penning mainstream fare such as Superman IV and Mona Lisa Smile. Looks like Konner's also got a social conscience. m
For more information about Control Room, call 496-8994. For details about Persons of Interest, call 660-2600.