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Films Hold Their Own Against Paradise at Maui Film Festival

Films Hold Their Own Against Paradise at Maui Film Festival

Films Hold Their Own Against Paradise at Maui Film Festival

by Scott Foundas

Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman, and Zach Braff in Braff’s “Garden State,” which won the narrative audience award at the Maui Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Film festivals, whenever and wherever in the world they may be, have a funny habit of making time stand still, or at least seeming to. As one hurries about from screening to screening, with perhaps the occasional party or tribute squeezed in-between, all other considerations and concerns seem to fall away: When is the rent due? Who got voted off of “American Idol” last night? Did I leave the iron on? Hours blur into days. Until, that is, the hand of fate taps you on the shoulder (usually in the form of some wide-eyed festival volunteer) and reminds you that it’s time to leave for the airport — the first step on that abrupt journey back into reality. Personally, I’ve experienced this time-suspending sensation at festival locales far and wide, some relatively exotic (Cannes, Buenos Aires), others less so (Durham, N.C.; Winter Park, Fla.). But I’m not sure that I’ve ever suffered such an acute case of it as I did at the fifth-annual Maui Film Festival (June 16-20).

Of course, Hawaii has been known to have such an effect on people. Just ask the locals. No sooner had I landed in Maui than I was off to see my first movie — not one of the festival’s selections, mind you, but the Jackie Chan redo of “Around the World in 80 Days,” which I was due to discuss later that week on a Los Angeles-based radio show — while, en route, my taxi driver regaled me with the tale of her friend Jersey Chris. Jersey, so nicknamed as a way of distinguishing him from the multitude of other Chris-es in this particular cabbie’s social circle, arrived on the island some years ago now, ostensibly on a brief vacation. Soon he phoned his parents back in (you guessed it) New Jersey and advised them he had no plans of returning home, was becoming a windsurfing instructor and could they please pack up his belongings and ship them out ASAP thank you very much. As I was about to discover, five days in Maui and just about anyone with a pulse will have little difficulty seeing things from Jersey’s point of view.

There is, it should be noted, a seedier side to Maui: One afternoon, during a brief foray back to my hotel room, I happened to catch a few minutes of a local news report about a multiple shooting near an apartment building where “many murders have occurred in the past.” But such events seem a world away from the part of the island known as Wailea, where the festival takes up its annual residence and where, as another taxi driver informs me — Maui is, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is the sort of place where everybody seems to know everybody else’s business — Mayor Eastwood and Governor Schwarzenegger are regular visitors. In Wailea, one needn’t look far to find oneself surrounded by what can be described, without risk of cliché, as a lush tropical paradise. And so, on some level, the very notion of a Maui Film Festival seems a folly – much as CineVegas did when it first started. Given how much else one might do with one’s time on Maui, why on earth go to the movies?

Yet, like the local architecture, which makes sparing use of walls and doors, the festival has cannily incorporated itself into its surroundings rather than impinging on them. There are no less than three outdoor screening venues — one situated right on the beach — as well as a festival-sponsored sand-sculpture contest. Each evening, as darkness falls, some 3,000 ticket holders crowd on to the sloping grounds of the Celestial Cinema (a golf course turned into a state-of-the-art, open-air theater), while the festival’s staff astronomer — I’m fairly sure Sundance doesn’t have one of those — guides them on “a tour of the night sky” before a double-feature begins. And the festival itself is but one part of a popular, year-round series of film screenings that brings the best of contemporary independent and world cinema to local residents, suggesting that festival founder and co-director (with wife Stella) Barry Rivers has found a way of having his pineapple and eating it too.

Holding to the Rivers’ vision of showcasing the best available films instead of lusting after world premieres, the 2004 Maui lineup offered a more-than-acceptable cross-section of offerings from Toronto (“Festival Express,” winner of Maui’s documentary audience award), Sundance (“Maria Full of Grace,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”) and Cannes (“Dear Frankie,” “Seducing Dr. Lewis”), peppered with such soon-to-open studio and mini-major fare as “Two Brothers,” “Open Water,” and “Danny Deckchair.” With an eye towards local interest, a quartet of new surf documentaries fit the bill: “The Ride,” “Jaws Underground,” “Pororoca: Surfing the Amazon,” and “Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown.” There was even room for the rarefied pleasure of experimental filmmaker David Lebrun‘s masterful, decades-in-the-making “Proteus,” which begins as an inquiry into the life and work of biologist-lithographer Ernst Haeckel, but somehow manages to bring Freud, Lenin, and Coleridge along for its dizzying, hour-long ride. But perhaps Maui’s least qualified (and least explicable) success story was the fatuously new-agey pseudo-documentary “What the #$*! Do We Know?,” which sold out its two scheduled screenings so quickly that two more had to be added.

If Maui ran short on what might be considered new discoveries, even the seasoned critic and festivalgoer could ferret out titles in the program that had proved thus far elusive. In my case, that meant catching up with Jehane Noujaim‘s “Control Room” and finding it not just a brilliant study of the contemporary propaganda wars, but as gripping a portrayal of reporters and reporting as “Newsfront,” “Under Fire,” or “All the President’s Men.” Very far at the other end of the spectrum, Yann Samuell‘s insufferable “Love Me If You Dare” (“Jeux d’Enfants”) is not just the only movie romance in memory to end with its lovers being buried alive in cement, but one in which that act of singular stupidity would have been no less welcome had it come 90 minutes earlier. Only marginally more tolerable, Nick Cassavetes“The Notebook” serves as further proof that, in terms of his filmmaking gifts, this apple could not have fallen farther from its tree. However, Zach Braff‘s “Garden State,” which I missed at Sundance and which went on to win the narrative audience award here, is a surprisingly appealing you-can’t-go-home-again reverie, shot through with real anger and pain and spotlighting a bold, let-it-all-hang-out performance by Natalie Portman as exactly the sort of insouciant kook Karen Black might once have played.

When the cinemas were dark (or, in the case of the outdoor venues, light), there were award presentations to Woody Harrelson, Bill Maher, Ted Hope, and Angela Bassett, the last of whom spoke as astutely and articulately about the craft of acting as any performer I have ever heard elaborate on the topic. (To boot, her clip real was a keen reminder that she is also one of the best and most criminally underused actresses we have right now.) A bevy of panel discussions touched on such topics as Xtreme Filmmaking and The State of the Art. And festival patrons rarely had to worry about being well-fed, especially on the afternoon of the annual Taste of Wailea event, when local restaurateurs (including the likes of Wolfgang Puck) offered up a sampling of their most succulent delicacies.

If, at the end of the day, it was undeniable that Maui still has a few kinks that could stand working out (note to out-of-town visitors: rent a car!), it was also unassailable that the Rivers are deeply committed to the fostering and furthering of an eclectic local film culture on the island they call home. And that is no small thing. Besides, it’s hard to get too upset about a minor degree of disorganization in a place where the general pace of life is set to a placid ukulele beat. (Even the TV news theme music is closer to James Taylor than John Williams.) Should you happen to miss a movie, the surf’s always up, and it’s not going anywhere.

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