Palm Springs Film Festival: Sonny Bono's Baby Celebrates Sweet 16
by Brandon Judell
The first six days of the 16th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSFF) were a washout -- weather-wise. A dry sidewalk was not to be tread on. Consequently, you were forced into indoor activities such as watching films. Happily, PSFF offered a superb slate: 190 films from 65 countries, including 79 premieres (13 World, 44 U.S., and 22 North American). Additionally, 41 of the 50 flicks up for the Best Foreign Oscar made up part of these offerings.
That the films were choice should be no surprise to those who've followed the career of PSFF's executive director Darryl Macdonald. Here is the man who founded both the Seattle and Hamptons film festivals, and he ran Seattle for 29 years. Also present was Carl Spence, who serves here as director of programming, his same title in Seattle. Call the duo the "High-Culture Mavens," a pair bent on civilizing a low-culture terrain. They're succeeding blissfully.
To understand Palm Springs, note that arch-conservative Sonny Bono, who started this festival, is still considered a god here. You can even sit next to a life-size bronze statue of him midtown. That the new mayor, Ron Oden, is both black and gay, is still a shocker to many residents. As the septuagenarian volunteer-driver who picked me up at the airport noted, one or the other might be more palatable to the community than both simultaneously.
Then there was the opening night gala for "Coach Carter," held at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. The main exhibits there are furniture carved by B-movie actor George Montgomery. Yes, this is George's dining room table. Over there is his Queen Anne hutch. The attendees were joyful to mix with the minority actors of the film and the real Coach Carter among what looked like a Macy's showroom.
But after that night, there was no reason to complain about anything except the gales. Take January 8th's Awards Gala held at the Palm Springs Convention Center. There were more stars there in one evening, on stage and off, than most festivals have in their lifetime: Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jean Simmons, Howard Shore, Kevin Spacey, Lynne Redgrave, Virginia Madsen, Alexander Payne, Bill Condon, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Kirk Douglas, and even Bryce Dallas Howard. Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart was the emcee. Well, that you could complain about.
Linney noted: "At the end of the day, it's really all about people, and it's all about the experiences. And I have been deeply, deeply blessed over the past few years, particularly working with Bill Condon, one of the great human beings on the earth."
Neeson was more subdued: "I'm a big believer in film festivals. They are the force of the industry. They celebrate excellence, but more importantly they are events where creative ideas are shared that would have gone unexplored."
Payne, who collected the Director of the Year award, let loose with: "I am proud of being an American director, and I get inspiration from films not just from the '70s, which was the Golden Age of film, but also from our great tradition of filmmaking going back to the silent days. I also want to say that I think that our films are going to get better the next few years."
The night before there had been a party at Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner's former love nest for the world premiere of Raymond De Felitta's crowd-pleasing "The Thing About My Family," starring Peter Falk and Paul Reiser, who also wrote the screenplay. This often funny, slightly sentimental father/son road trip has the two leads searching for the female head of the household (Olympia Dukakis), who's absconded. It's more fun than "Meet the Fockers."
After the SRO screening, Reiser graciously said: "Thank you. Up to now we've just been playing it for four friends at a time in our house. This is so much nicer. So much more efficient than going door to door."
Less efficient is John L'Ecuyer's "Prom Queen." This Canadian effort is based on the true story of Marc Hall, who wants to bring his boyfriend to his high school prom. The teen leads are quite fine as is the screenplay. It's the direction and the two performances from "Kids in the Hall"'s David Foley and Scott Thompson that bash this well-meaning enterprise.
One of the fest's true highlights was Davide Ferrario's delicious comic romancer, "After Midnight" (Italy). This tribute to "Jules and Jim," early Goddard, Buster Keaton, and film in general is never less than clever. It's tale of a forward young woman in a fast food restaurant who is loved by both a car thief and the night watchman at the Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy.
Sergio Castellitto's "Don't Move" (Italy) is not only a shocker because it showcases Penelope Cruz acting up a storm in Italian, but because this also might be her best performance. She's so good here, one viewer gasped, "Now I see what Tom Cruise saw in her." Castellitto also stars in this soap opera of an affair, portraying a surgeon whose car breaks down in an impoverished neighborhood. There he rapes a young woman (Cruz) who lets him use her telephone. That's only the start of an 'amore' that keeps on destroying.
Director/writer/screenwriter Ligy J. Pullappally is a former Chicago divorce lawyer who read an article about a lesbian committing suicide in her birthplace of Kerala, India. That inspired her to create a film, the beautifully-wrought "The Journey," about two high school girlfriends who fall for each other, creating a scandal that shocks both their family and neighbors. Happily, there's no suicide here.
Shot on 35mm with the dialogue in Malayalam, Pullappally knows her feature will have a tough time earning a profit: "My film doesn't have songs and dances so it's not something that distributors feel confident about. Also it's very much a female-oriented story whereas in Kerala, the first question I always had when I was making this film was, 'Who's your hero?' And when I said that there's no hero in my film, it's like a cast of almost all women with some subsidiary roles for a few men, people were like really appalled by that. Like it's so out of the norm. Also there's the lesbian subject matter."
One of the best films here, one that might make several best film lists at the end of the year, is Dennis Gansel's "Napola." Imagine "The Dead Poet's Society" meets Nazi youth. This image might seem incompatible but it works beautifully. The stunningly handsome Max Rienelt, if you like blond Aryan types, plays an impoverished young boxer invited to enroll in the elite National-Political School-the Napola of Allenstein. He thinks this is the chance for a solid future. He doesn't realize that the Nazis want to turn him into a fighting machine without a soul. Spectacular acting, directing, cinematography, and screenplay simply overwhelm any obvious moments here.
Q. Allen Brocka's "Eating Out," however, is more forced than farce. A highly attractive cast with highly uneven skills are forced to play often irritating characters. Plot: Straight boy with gay male roommate falls for straight girl with gay male roommate. How does he win her over? He makes believe he's gay. Yes, nothing is believable here, yet everyone involved must be given credit for producing the most erotic, bisexual dirty phone call ever depicted in cinema.
Moving from the flawed to the flawless is what happens with Eytan Fox's masterful "Walk on Water" (Israel). Here a straight Mossad assassin must play tourist guide to a gay German to capture the young man's Nazi grandfather. Complex in how it handles political matters, it's equally funny, sexy, and wise.
In biz news, rumor has it that the American remake rights have already been bought for Erik Van Looy's "The Alzheimer Case" (Belgium). See the original. It can't be improved. This smashing crime/revenge caper has an aging assassin trying to kill the people who hired him to murder a young girl. His problem is that he's suffering from Alzheimer's and his memory is going. To help him in his cause, he takes on a police detective played by an actor being billed as Belgium's Brad Pitt. The film is an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
Then there's Ljubisa Samardzic's companionable "Goose Feather" (Serbia). Filled with sing-along bawdy folk tunes, lush cinematography, and a transporting sense of the land, the story takes place in the former Yugoslavia between 1914 and 1921. The hero, back from the war, is prevented from marrying his first love. This causes him to leave town, drink, drink, and drink some more until he winds up engaged to a rich man's daughter with a limp. Brave in that its main character isn't exactly likable, the director noted to me "This is a film without an ending because life has no ending." Samardzic, who spoke little English, got more press coverage than any other unknown director thanks to the unending efforts of Marc and Marla Halperin and their Magic Lamp Distribution Services LLC. They were everywhere pushing the bird.
Other films of note: Dominique de Rivaz's Bach bio, "Jagged Harmonies" (Germany); Gianni Amelio's magnificently acted "The Keys to the House" (Italy) about a reunion between a father and the disabled son he never met before; and Arsen Anton Ostojic's Tarantino-influenced "A Wonderful Night in Split" (Croatia). Several tales of drugs, murder, and suicide taking place simultaneously on New Year's Eve are revealed to us one after another. Coolio co-stars, but the director and cinematographer are king here.
So with films like these, plus star power, PSFF's dreams of being the next Sundance are more feasible then other fests that have the same dreams. Locale and Macdonald can make it all come true if he can start getting the buyers out here. "The stars help the cause of the smaller or less known filmmakers," he says one afternoon outside a screening. "They can aid the cause of foreign film in general in this country, I believe. The danger for us and the challenge for us really are to maintain the balance because there are certain festivals that shall remain nameless where the number of stars in attendance overwhelms the international films. Fortunately here, we have one night like that. The Awards Gala itself. People don't come here just for one night. They are either in for the whole weekend or in for the whole festival or at least half of the festival, and so the positive effect spills over onto the filmmakers who have yet to make names for themselves." Now if they can only get rid of Mary Hart.