FESTIVALS: It's Just About the Films at New Directors
by Mark Rabinowitz
(indieWIRE/ 06.27.01) -- "Are you kidding me?" This is the correct way to respond when someone asks you if you'd like to go to Hawai'i for a week. And thus, I was off to the 2nd annual Maui Film Festival at Wailea. A more rapturous setting for a film festival there has never been. After landing in Honolulu airport, I'm greeted with the humid air one often associates with the tropics and the flora and fauna one rarely associates with major international airports. Flowers and trees of all kind litter the terminal, causing me to stare about in slack-jawed wonder (much more of this sort of activity was to follow) and prompting FILMMAKER Magazine publisher Steven Gallagher to exclaim: "And this is only the airport!"
After a 30-minute flight from Oahu to Maui we picked up our rental cars and made the 30-minute drive to our hotels. Making the drive across Maui you are greeted with several climate zones, including tropical, sub-tropical and near desert. At one point, with a shopping center to my right, I thought for a second I could be in Arizona. One look at the 10,000-foot volcano to my left quelled that nightmare, right quick. I made it to my hotel, nay, resort, and found in my room a plentiful fruit basket and a 600-square foot space that would go for $1,500/month in New York.
By this time, some of you are saying: "Who is this ass, talking about his flight, the airport and his hotel? Who gives a crap how nice his hotel is!?" Well, from my point of view, the purpose of a festival review is not simply to report on the films and panels. There are hundreds of film festivals and many of them, especially regional ones, program much of the same product. What then separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak? Well, as they say in the restaurant biz, "location, location, location!" It's not that simple of course, but there's definitely more to a festival experience than just the films. If that's all you're interested in, skim the piece, looking for words in bold.
Festival founder and director Barry Rivers along with his wife and co-director Stella, have fashioned a warm and friendly atmosphere in which to have a film festival, complete with evening outdoor screenings on the slopes of a world-class golf course minutes away from Wailea Beach. I have never seen a better outdoor facility, complete with Dolby Digital sound and projection that rivaled top indoor theaters. By all accounts, the Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center (MACC) was also top notch. In addition, a portion of all ticket sales this year went to the Earth Communications Office, a not-for-profit group dedicated to the preservation of the Earth's natural world -- which ran amazing trailers before films at the fest.
Each night, a film was screened on the golf course and there was a special event for festival guests and high-end pass-holders, including the jewel in the festival's crown, The Taste of Wailea, where 8 chefs from Wailea resorts created exquisite dishes served in tasting portions, all served with many different wines on top of the Wailea Blue golf course with a stirring view of the Pacific and the sunset.
Of course, no festival is perfect, especially one in its infancy, so I can't let my critical eye be blinded by mangos, 81-degree ocean water or seared ahi with tamari soy sauce and hot sizzling oil. For someone used to getting the chance to catch some edgy, less-polished or thought provoking pictures at film festivals, Maui has a way to go, programming-wise. Opening night film "American Rhapsody" by writer-director Eva Gardos was a complete dud. True, the film was autobiographical, and certainly was filled with emotion and feeling, but it didn't work on a dramatic level. The story begins in the middle of the Cold War in Hungary, with a family desperate to escape to the West. The rule of "show it, don't say it" was egregiously violated here, with no sense of menace coming through, only characters intoning lines about understanding what it was like, without really portraying the implied horror. Only once, very near the end of the film, are we shown an explicit act of terror, and even that comes with voiceover and forced slo-mo.
Significantly better in execution if not in heavy-handedness, was Sally Potter's latest, "The Man Who Cried," starring Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, John Turturro and Cate Blanchett. The pic had not yet opened in Hawai'i, so was therefore considered a "Special Surprise Premiere." Anyone who came expecting some light family fare like last year's sneak of "Chicken Run" was certainly surprised by this somber tale of lovers from different upbringings, yet remarkable similar origins, whose love is torn asunder by the Nazi invasion of Paris. Well acted all-around (particularly Blanchett and Turturro; Depp is Depp), the film is weighted down by a near inexistent, crawling plot and the old "gypsy boy meets Jewish girl, falls in love, girl must leave boy due to Nazi invasion" story. It's not exactly conventional, but it's been done before and better.
Two other films screened at the outdoor venue were equally as flawed, but both had enough redeeming features to keep the evening from seeming wasted. Arne Olsen's "Here's To Life" plays like a Telefilm Canada After School special, which is exactly what it turns out to be. (Well, I don't know about the "after school special" bit.) The film is Olsen's directorial debut, and based on his previous writing credits ("Red Scorpion," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers"), you'd never have pegged him for the writer of a film that for all the world resembles "Cocoon" minus the E.T.'s. Some genuinely funny moments, but all in all, a Hallmark card of a film.
Nick Castle's latest effort brings us "Delivering Milo," a sweet but entirely predictable fable involving Milo, an unborn soul who decides that he doesn't want to be born, thus mucking up the world and threatening the end of the human race. Apparently, he must go of his own free will, although this is never explained. Enter Albert Finny as Elmore Dahl, a soul who has spent the past X number of years in Limbo. Elmore's assignment is to journey to Earth with Milo to try and show him how much life is worth living and convince him to be born. The rest of the plot is a series of obvious connections, and by 30 minutes in, you know the rest of the film. Finny is always great to watch, but he's beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to William Shatner.
Several of the shorts programmed were excellent, with Alexander Petrov's Oscar-winning animated film "The Old Man and the Sea," topping the class, with Leif Tilden's "bigLove" and Eric Anderson's "Horses on Mars" also making big impressions. The festival also programmed a solid selection of 2000-01 festival vets, including Yale Strom's "On the Q.T.," Randy Redroad's "The Doe Boy," Ian Darling's documentary about Warren Buffett (not to be confused with Jimmy) "Woodstock for Capitalists," Marc Levin's "Brooklyn Babylon," Maggie Greenwald's "Songcatcher," Kate Montgomery's "Christmas in the Clouds" and Dominique Deruddere's Oscar-nominated Belgian film, "Everybody's Famous."
The best thing you can say about the Maui Film Festival is that it is an outstanding location for a film festival, full of wonderful vistas and friendly people who really know how to take care of filmmakers and guests (although some short filmmakers were not flown out by the fest). In addition to the golf course screenings, there are "Sand Dance" screenings on the beach at Wailea. Unfortunately, the MACC screenings are held on the other side of the island from the golf course and hotels, so travel was sometimes difficult to organize. Also, due to the small number of venues, each film that was projected in a theater (a hotel conference room was set up to show films digitally) was only screened once. Rivers might consider entering into talks with a hotel or shopping center in Wailea about building a theater in the neighborhood in order to facilitate repeat screenings. Considering the number of vacationing families in the area, I'd be surprised if it wasn't jumped on. In fact, considering Rivers' penchant for thinking ahead, I'd be surprised if that wasn't already on the drawing board for future editions of the fest.
When it comes right down to it, Rivers' stated goal of becoming a festival like Telluride is a lofty one. He has a leg up, considering the location and he seems to have the support of the community, both personal and business, having built up quite a bit of good will. The next step is to attract the distributors, acquisition execs and top-tier films. Getting the right programming help and board of advisors/directors should be of paramount importance in the coming months. With that done, the word of mouth spread around the biz (and some early committals by some solid films) should get Maui a little bit of the way toward its lofty target.
[Mark Rabinowitz is the new film critic for Alternative Press magazine and a freelance writer. He claims that the world's greatest calamari salad is made by "The Pork Store" in East Hampton, NY.]