From Demolition Drivers To Real-Life Mermaids, Gen Art Balances Films and Fetes
by Caroline Wells
This year’s Gen Art film festival, which ran April 2 – 8, presented a wide range of films and some lively after-parties, whose sponsored alcoholic beverages warmed the cockles of our hearts just when spring had almost deserted us. Plenty of the “young, cool, and hip” Gen-Art crowd kept up with the pace of seven days and nights of films and free booze, and also managed to keep their mascara fresh.
Gen Art’s whole-hearted embrace of the sexy, fashionable, glittery side of the industry may cause some cineastes to frown on all the “frou-frou” generated around the festival. No one can deny, however, that the trendy premieres and parties are beneficial to the careers of these emerging new filmmakers, who must hustle (sometimes for years) for recognition of their work and who are thankful for the support and public relations that the Gen Art platform offers. This year’s nightly soirees had just as much buzz as many of the films, thanks to some innovative selections for party venues plus loads of free SKYY Vodka and Heineken beer to get those networking conversations flowing. If Gen Art festgoers weren’t always buzzing with glee about some of the films, they found plenty of topics at the parties: waitresses in revealing nurses outfits, real-life mermaids in a tank, belly dancers, Anna Nicole Smith impersonators, a party crasher offering tips to cure SARS with fabric softener, and of course plenty of sightings of real celebs like Cyndi Lauper, Thora Birch, Laura Elena Herring, Marc Consuelos, Ben Chaplin, Deborah Gibson, Paul Schneider (my personal fave), Joseph Gordon Levitt, Adrian Grenier, and Heather Mattarazzo. A very fitting cap-off to the festival was the closing night party at the former Times Square porn palace Le Club Show World, more exciting than a movie theater lobby anyday.
On to the films: the opening-night selection was Vanessa Parise’s “Kiss the Bride,” rumored to be a kind of “My Big Fat Italian Wedding.” It reminded me more of “Melrose Place,” however. Amanda Detmer, about as blond and Anglo-Saxon as they come, stars as Danni, an Italian-American girl from Rhode Island who just wants to get married to her hunky fiancé (Johnathon Schaech) and have a normal family wedding. Unfortunately, her sisters are shallow and selfish and always trying to upstage her by showing off their new sports cars and taking off their shirts. Sister Niki (Brooke Langton) is a B grade television actress from L.A., Chrissy (Vanessa Parise) is an obnoxious businesswoman from New York. Toni (Monet Mazur) plays the punky rebel sister who is so bad-ass that she is dabbling in lesbianism with girlfriend Amy (played by Alyssa Milano) more-or-less just to shock her family. Sean Patrick Flanery, Talia Shire, and Burt Young (both “Rocky” alumni) and the older Italian-American family members seem like they could be from an entirely separate, tenable movie. If you decide to take “Kiss the Bride” seriously, you’ll be disappointed. But if you accept that this is a shallow film about shallow people, to some extent, it’s a brilliant satire of superficiality.
Thursday’s screening was Brett Wagner’s first feature “Five Years,” a gripping thriller that illustrates how family deception from the past can never truly be covered up. In a small town in Ohio, a young man is released from juvenile prison, where he served time for murder. That man, Colson, comes to live with his brother, Eric, and Eric’s wife, Renee, who begins to exhume the family secrets buried five years ago. “Five Years” was absorbing and was one of my favorite films in the fest. Kris Carr, who plays Renee, was especially compelling to watch. Exceptional performances were delivered by the whole cast, including Timothy Altmeyer, Todd Swenson, Cathy Doe, and Michael Buscemi.
Friday’s film was François Velle’s “The New Suit,” about a young development assistant who pitches a script that doesn’t exist to Hollywood and what happens when the executives buy it. This film looked remarkably stylish for an indie, and it boasted several well-known actors like TV and film veteran Dan Hedaya and Heather Donahue (“The Blair Witch Project”). Jordan Bridges played the young assistant and Marisa Coughlin played his feisty, go-getter girlfriend who works as an underling to an agent. The supporting cast did a good job of working with some of the stereotypes written in the script, but still, I was longing to see a more scathing satire on the Hollywood development process.
Jesse Moss’ “Speedo” was the Saturday night screener. An entertaining and engrossing documentary, “Speedo” introduces us to Ed “Speedo” Jager, one of the country’s top demolition derby drivers. Speedo is a real character. One minute, he is jacked-up on pure testosterone, energy and nerves, and reckless desire to crash. The next, he is the big-hearted dad, taking the time to attend one of his teenage son’s punk shows in Long Island and clearly spending as much time with his sons as possible. Although Speedo wins a lot of derbies, his marriage is a failure and his frustrations at home are channeled in to success on the speedway. Finally, Speedo finds true love with Liz, a car-wreckin’ enthusiast. “Speedo” is a slick, cool, well-tuned (music by Jack Livesay) and well-edited doc (editing by Aaron Lubarksy) that is a delicious little slice of American pie. (I’m just sad I missed my chance to meet him at the after-party.)
Sunday’s screening was “West Bank Brooklyn,” Ghazi Albuliwi’s first feature. Ali Sahid (Charles Daniel Sandoval) and his brother Mustafa (Bronson Picket) are Palestinian Muslims in Borough Park where Jews and Muslims warily coexist. Both are experiencing identity crises with their faith and culture, especially when their dad starts talking about arranged marriages. Ali’s other friends are either moving closer to the faith or abandoning it altogether. Director Albuliwi plays Saddam, a very funny Palestinian homeboy who tries in vain to pose as a Puerto Rican because being Latino is “cooler” than being Palestinian. When Ali takes a job in home care for an older Jewish man, tensions in his life come to a head. Albuliwi admits that with this movie, he may have bit off more than he can chew, but “West Bank Brooklyn” is a refreshing and earnest look at very timely issues for many Palestinians living in America post-9/11.
Monday was Slamdance night with a short and feature that both won 2003 Slamdance awards. Elliot Greenebaum’s “Assisted Living” captured a lot of hearts and in the process, ended up nabbing the $15,000 Gen Art feature film audience award, plus the jury prize as well. It’s the story of the unusual friendship between Todd, a pot-smoking nursing-home janitor, and Mrs. Pearlman, a woman with Alzheimer’s who mistakes Todd to be her son. The film explores issues of old age and memory loss sensitively and is also quite funny in moments. Greenebaum shot it in a real nursing home in Kentucky, where real-life residents agreed to be filmed. The residents never perform for the camera but instead, intermingle with the actors in a naturalistic way, to Greenebaum’s credit. The shots of the old people’s faces and hands and gestures became quite mesmerizing. Michael Bonsignore absolutely inhabits the soul of this janitor. Greenebaum is an alchemist, combining real moments and real people, documentary style, with an exceptional story and what ensues is a magical film.
The East Coast premiere of Austin Chick’s “XX/XY” closed the festival. This was supposedly the perfect example of “young, sexy, trendy film” that the Gen Art twentysomething and thirtysomething audience should be able to relate to. The first half of the film takes place at Sarah Lawrence College, where three friends dive in to bed with each other. This first part of the film seemed almost too slick and sexy without enough heart or character development. Fast forward to 10 years later, when the three characters meet up again and the lust and passion flood back between Mark Ruffalo, who plays Coles, and Maya Stange, who plays Sam. The second half of the movie is a little bit more compelling as this former couple must decide whether they just throw caution to the wind and screw like lemmings or do the responsible thing. I didn’t care enough about the characters to be concerned either way. Although the end of the film gives you something to think about and the actors worked hard at filling out their characters, there wasn’t enough material in the script to make “XX/XY” more than mediocre.
Among the shorts, “Bun-Bun” by Katie Fleischer, a funny, quirky look at a little girl who is obsessed with a one-of-a-kind stuffed bunny that turns her parents’ world into a nightmare, walked away with the $5,000 short film audience award. I was also impressed with Gerrard Naranjo’s “The Last Attack of the Beast,” an imaginative short about an old man who pulls in to a town that he assumes is deserted; and Patrick Downs’ “Broken,” which was a well-directed tale of a policeman who handles a series of domestic disputes and becomes entangled in one himself. “Broken’s” dark style reminds me of early Lynne Ramsey shorts. Another short that demanded attention, and provided a perfect companion to “Speedo,” was Wes Justice and Mamie McCall’s doc “Six Mile Pond,” which examined the Southern sport of “mudbogging,” wherein swampy, muddy areas become truck playgrounds for four wheelin’ and drinkin’ beer. The New York audience found this to be pretty culturally fascinating, perhaps because on a primitive level, minus the mud, redneck socializing and the drunken frenzy in a former Times Square porn palace can have much in common.