FESTIVALS: IFFM Narrative Hotspots, Gordon Parks and IFC2000 Winners
by Anthony Kaufman
For as many narrative works that have fallen short of expectations so far at this year's Independent Feature Film Market, there are enough surprises to keep one's spirits high. Most uplifting are two debut features, Clay Eide's "Dead Dogs" and Tuesday's premiere of James Ryan's "The Young Girl and the Monsoon," based on the writer-director's Off Broadway play and a strong contender for Sundance 2000. "Dogs," which first screened over the weekend and repeated on Tuesday was the American Independent Award winner at this year's Seattle Film Festival and has already been well-reviewed by the L.A. Weekly and Variety.
A black and white, low-rent, neo-noir, "Dead Dogs" is tightly-scripted with a satisfying cast, particularly the genuine performance of Joe Reynolds, making his film debut as Tom, a lonely security guard who gets mixed up with a robbery after his criminal brother (Jay Underwood) returns to town accompanied by Tom's ex-girlfriend (Margot Demeter). There's no flashy cuts or scrappy pop-inflected dialogue, just a good, old-fashioned pulp movie plot, the perfect story for an upcoming writer-director without much cash, to cut his teeth on. "Dead Dogs" screens next at the Vancouver Film Festival.
On the other side of the indie spectrum comes "The Young Girl and the Monsoon," an intimate, genuinely moving comedic drama about a photojournalist ("Oz"'s Terry Kinney) and his relationship with his 13-year-old daughter (Ellen Muth). Benefiting from NYU playwriting professor Ryan's writing experience (TV's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd") and a script that was developed extensively for the stage by Playwright's Horizons, the film creates a likeable cast, whose psychological complexities are the emotional stuff of everyday life. Fox Searchlight's Matthew Tynan was spotted inside the screening and LAIFF programmer Thomas Ethan Harris was seen chatting up the director post-screening with accolades and advice.
Going into the market, however, there were some entries that demanded industry attention, but ended up missing the mark. Features like Michael Swanhaus' "Pigeonholed," which has a cameo by Rosanna Arquette; Irene Turner's "The Girl's Room," which has an admittedly sexy Soleil Moon Frye all grown up from her "Punky Brewster" days, and "Wild Style" director Charlie Ahearn's "Fear of Fiction," with Melissa Leo and Penn Jillette. These films may have talent, but they aren't well-made movies.
This certainly isn't too much of a surprise for frequent market attendees, because a perfect, completed film is not what you'll find at the IFFM. What you will find instead is a large talent pool -- essentially, a collection of calling cards on display. John Krawlzik's "Storm," for example, has had some buzz, because of it's sci-fi premise: a special investigator travels to a remote base on Saturn's largest moon to look into the apparent suicide of one of its researchers. But the resulting film is a mystery that moves at a snail's pace, more a techno-fetishist's dream than a moving story. Still, Krawlzik should be applauded for his credible outer limits, created on what was surely a limited budget.
The same goes for Les Bernstien's "Night Train," an incredible sample reel, like none you've ever seen. Chicago Sun-Times critic Bill Stamets highlighted the film as one of his favorites from the Chicago Underground Film Festival, calling it an "artsy trashy homage to 'The Third Man' and 'Touch of Evil.'" Though the film is somewhat inconsistent, going from underground grotesquerie to experimental montage to bad ADR, it's a terrific example of Bernstien's abilities as a visual stylist.
Other features that should serve their makers well are Michael Sergio's Hollywood-intentioned tough-guy melodrama "Under Hellgate Bridge," which shows signs of a solid movie-of-the-week helmer and Canadian showcase entry, "Four Days," from Curtis Wehrfritz, with Colm Meaney and Lolita Davidovich. My vote for the funniest performance in a mediocre movie goes to veteran thesp Austin Pendleton (TV's "Homicide," Broadway's "Fiddler on the Roof") as a hilarious francophile movie director in Jeffrey M. Bair's "Skirty Winner."
Along those lines, Bernadette "Annie Get Your Gun" Peters made an appearance at the market Tuesday, tracked by cameras and crowds into Adam and Kipp Marcus' romantic comedy "Snow Days." The most packed film I have attended thus far at the market and with the most receptive audience, "Snow Days" will surely have a life after IFFM '99. Another pleasant surprise came in Dan Bootzin's debut "Life/Drawing," which premiered at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival, offering some solid laughs provided by actor Mark Ruffalo as a jilted lover.
Though this year's market is noticeably more subdued than previous years with its 50% drop in screening features (and everyone is saying it's a change for the better and saner), it's still difficult to discover the latest Michael Moore or Chris Cherot (and remember, "Blair Witch" never went to market). Playing merry-go-round from screening to screening in the Angelika Film Center is still a tiring effort. It's no wonder that most of the buyers spend their time playing hot potato with videotapes in the video library.
One way to catch a rising talent without sifting through tapes is by paying attention to award winners. The Gordon Parks Independent Film Awards were presented on the first weekend of the market, along with cash prizes of $10,000, to black filmmakers at the IFFM. This year's screenwriting award went to Tanya Hamilton for her script, "Stringbean and Marcus," while the directing award went to Zeinabu Irene Davis for her elegant black and white feature "Compensation." The latter film combines early 1900's photographs, two stories of romance -- past and present, silent film conventions and an insight into Black deaf culture, to create a profound mood film more akin to Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" than to any Miramax-bound aspiring director. A quiet film that might get overlooked if not for the award, "Compensation" should be heading to a museum and a film class near you.
On Tuesday, the Independent Film Channel and Kodak presented the IFC 2000 Student Film Showcase award winners. The Grand Prize winner and recipient of $10,000 cash and a matching $10,000 product grant from Kodak went to Kelly Riley for "Moonshine" (Rhode Island School of Design), "a taste of bootleg whiskey and Jesus." Honorable mention went to Jim Cox's NYU short, "Atomic Tabasco." The documentary prize and $2,500 went to Rebecca Marshall for "Jonah and the Wail" (SVA), and the animation prize, also $2,500, went to Brian Emerson's "Shadow of a Drought" (UCSB).
Shawn Lawrence Otto's "Shining White" the story of a destitute gambler who finds his last chance for redemption, was the recipient of the first annual Heathcote Art Foundation Fellowship for Screenplay Development, chosen from scripts submitted to this year's market.
And if winning an award doesn't get you recognition at the market, a Sundance admission announcement surely will. That's what documentary filmmaker Josh Aronson announced to audiences before the screening of his well received work-in-progress "Sound and Fury," about the world of deafness. For more about the documentaries of note and the rest of the market, check out next Monday's edition of indieWIRE.