Some Pain, Some Gain at Ninth Palm Beach International Film Festival
by Brandon Judell
Sun, phenomenally rich people who read a book every now and then, plus more than 125 features, documentaries and shorts comprised the ninth-annual Palm Beach International Film Festival (PBFF), which ran from April 16-23.
And there were stars, too. The living were honored: Ben Gazzara. The dead: Rod Steiger, who was represented by his charming wife. The classy: Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog") was presented with the horizon award, which was created to recognize an emerging talent. Additionally, the affable Michael Clarke Duncan garnered a career achievement award for "his extensive body of work." When Michael Clarke Duncan gets an honor for his extensive body of work (e.g. "The Scorpion King"; "See Spot Run"), you know everyone else in Hollywood turned it down with the exception of Tori Spelling, who was probably next on the list. Maybe he was being honored for his extensive body.
The opening-night feature was the Universal Pictures comedy "Connie and Carla," a tribute to dinner theater actresses everywhere and a massacre of "Some Like It Hot." I improbably enjoyed this mess and had tears in my eyes by the end credits. A drag queen reuniting with his brother, when played by David Duchovny, gets me every time.
While I fixed my smeared mascara, director Michael Lembeck and writer/star Nia Vardalos showed up to answer questions and glory in applause. "We're so happy to be here," the charming Vardalos noted. "The Palm Beach Film Festival has been very good to me and to a little movie called 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding.' [Screams from audience.] We came back because you made that movie into a big fat movie. I thank you all for going to the movie and then going home and telling your 27 first cousins."
Lembeck, possibly to fend off accusations that his musical might not win an Oscar for best film like another musical recently had, shared: "["Connie and Carla"'s] production was 45 days but just so you know how daunting this was for all of us, we had two weeks dance rehearsal; Chicago had eight. We had two weeks of song rehearsal; Chicago had six. We had 45 days to shoot; Chicago had 70 something. We had 25 musical numbers originally, and 100 pages of text, and everybody, thanks to Nia's extraordinary vital spirit, said, 'Let's go do it.' "
As for the rest of the slate, it reminded me of a moment on a Jerry Stiller TV roast, when some comic advised Janeane Garofalo that she wasn't obligated to star in every screenplay sent to her. One wanted to advise the charming, enormously hard-working Randi Emerman, the PBFF's executive director, in a similar manner: "Randi, love, you don't have to schedule every film submission sent you, and then not three times."
So many of the shorts were pointless, while many of the features made "The King of Queens" seem like a work of art. Especially unbearable were Laurel Moje Wetzork's "Rogues" (a long-lost sister convinces her music teacher brother she's working for the CIA) and Samuel Turcotte's "No Pain, No Gain" (a once-in-shape bodybuilder thinks he can discover a natural body-building drug). Well, there was pain for the audience. Whether it gained anything is another matter. I left each flick after 20 minutes. Those who stayed on later told me they wished they had been brave enough to depart. (Why did they remain? They met the flicks' directors. This is one of the hardships of attending film festivals. The helmers are always around and they are usually great people.)
Juan Gerard's film "Cuba Libre," which stars Harvey Keitel, features seven endings, an assortment of non-gelling tones, enough characters to populate a dozen soap operas, and a line that had the attendees giggling with recognition ("Shit! I'm never going to see the end of this damn movie."). "Cuba Libre" is a recounting of Gerard's Cuban youth. I chatted with the director about the film:
iW: This is sort of your "Cinema Paradiso"?
Gerard: Sort of. It's more "How Green Was My Valley."
iW: Was any of it shot in Cuba?
Gerard: We tried to shoot there. We went there with preproduction, but at the last minute we were told we had 24 hours to leave the country when we were three weeks away from shooting.
iW: Oh, you were planning to shoot there?
Gerard: Yes, they kicked us out, so we had to reschedule the whole film. We were about to lose Harvey, so we either had to collapse the film or to shoot somewhere else. We wound up shooting it in six weeks in the Dominican Republic.
iW: So is Harvey easy to work with?
Gerard: Oh, wonderful. He made the film possible because I had never done a film. This is my first script. We wrote it, my wife and I, with him in mind, and we sent him the script, and he said yes. Since I have never done a film before and never went to film school, it was hard to get the money. But he stuck with us for four years to get the financing which originally was 10 million. It got down to 7, and we finally shot it with 3.5.
Falling on the plus side was "Bright Young Things," Stephen Fry's delicious adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies." With knowing performances by Britain's future Sirs and Dames (e.g. Emily Mortimer; Stephen Campbell) and the aging giants (e,g. Peter O'Toole; Jim Broadbent), this tale of a young man who fakes a society column, causing his readers to start wearing green derbys, never lacks for wit or intelligence.
Toni Kalem's "A Slipping Down Life," which was deservedly in competition at 1999's Sundance Film Festival, is finally getting a theatrical release. Here, this moving adaptation of the Anne Tyler novel, was the closing night feature. Beautifully acted by Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce, this story of a young woman who carves a small town rocker's name into her forehead backwards would have benefited from a little cutting. Yet, Taylor and Pearce are so dynamic, you feel like a fusspot if you complain at all.
"Purgatory House," written by and starring the gifted 14-year-old Celeste Maries Davis, is all about a young girl who commits suicide and winds up in purgatory. From that vantage point, she has to constantly review her past while watching how her friends and family are presently moving on without her. She also, though dead, has to see if she can get a beau in her current state.
With top-notch cinematography by Christopher S. Nibley and an attractive cast, first-time director/producer Cindy Baer seems to a have a film that will intrigue junior high/high school kids nationwide.
Bubbly as a teen herself, Baer noted while I was tanning: "Celeste is my little sister in the Big Sisters of Los Angeles program. We were matched when she was 11 years old. She was a writer, and I was an actress. Celeste was going through a really hard time when she turned 13, and she always used writing as an outlet. Then she ended up in this teen-runaway shelter when she was 14. I had already known she was writing this script on the premise of suicide. I was just really worried for her. So I said, 'Celeste, if you come home, we'll do something with your movie. We'll make a five-minute short, and you can star in it because I really believe that acting can save lives. You need to express yourself.
"When she finally gave it to me, and I typed it up for her, I was just blown away by it. I thought, 'This isn't even just about Celeste. It's for all the other kids who are going through the same thing she is.' 'Purgatory House' is kind of symbolic for all the kids that are kind of living here and they're invisible, which is why our tagline is: 'Can you see me?'"
On the documentary front, Bobby Jo Krals and Abbey Neidik's "She Got Game" is a must-see for feminists, tennis fanatics, and emotionally abused children of pushy parents. This enveloping look at the women's tennis tour fascinates and illuminates.
Timothy Gorski's "Lolita: Slave To Entertainment" is a hard-hitting examination of the inhumane treatment of killer whales by the entertainment industry. It's impossible to watch without getting furious although the filmmaking could be more polished. (The film won Palm Beach's best documentary feature prize.)
The lovely Wendy Dent's "Girls from Ipanema" looks like a travelogue that's escaped from the E! Channel. Nonstop, gals and gents in teeny bathing suits, with just as little on their minds, kiss, walk, sing, and brown on Brazil's infamous beaches. Watch while wearing sunscreen.
Among the shorts, Swedish-born Mikael Forsberg's 19-minute "Marty and Sven" tells of an odd friendship. Marty is an obsessive/compulsive entertainer for L.A. children's parties. He dresses up as a chicken. Sven is his driver who's trying to sell his script to the parents of the kids Marty clucks at. Why 19 minutes?
Forsberg: "It's interesting. I went to film school in Los Angeles. I moved here years ago. The dean of the film school, she said, 'There are three types of shorts. One type is they're long. The second type: they're too long. The third type: they're way too long.' This one is just long."
Other shorts of note included Tate Taylor's "Chicken Party" (winner of best short); Eusunie Kahng's "Monsieur Renaud"; Sorrel Ahlfeld's "Love & Stuff"; Richard Yagutilov's "Park Pleasures"; and Alicia Comperchio's "Real Estate."
It should be noted that the main purpose of this festival is to raise huge funds annually for local film students to fund their education and also to supply a venue for their product. It succeeds on both aims admirably.