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Past Lives/Current Films: Palm Springs Has Banner Year and Sunshine, Too

Past Lives/Current Films: Palm Springs Has Banner Year and Sunshine, Too

“This is the most interesting gathering I’ve been to in 5000 years,” Shirley MacLaine quipped at the 2006 Awards Gala where she garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to her by pal Kathy Bates, who noted they were in four flop films together.

One could hardly argue with the acclaimed MacLaine, who also admitted she had just spoken with the late Sonny Bono, who started the Palm Springs Film Festival 17 years earlier. The once ultra-conservative congressman apparently was having a great time high above, even though his still-alive wife Mary had come to the festivities with a serious date.

But why is the flawlessly-run Palm Springs fest so special? There’s the desert and the mountains. There’s also overabundance of moneyed folk and sponsors (e.g. Mercedes -Benz; Tiffany & Co.) plus a charming gay-black mayor with a white lover who adores sparkly shirts. But more importantly, no North American film festival is able to capture the whole essence of world cinema as Palm Springs so handily does.

First, there’s the overload of major and minor Hollywood talent both on stage and in the audiences (e.g. Charlize Theron, Sally Kellerman, Michael London, Keanu Reeves, Suzanne Somers, Terrence Howard, Dyan Cannon, Viggo Mortensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Udo Kier, Ludachris). Then there’s Charlie Chaplin in The Circus plus an additional screening of 231 films from 71 countries, including 84 premieres. And don’t forget the majority of the entries for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar are here, too. (With Festival Director Darryl Macdonald and Director of Programming Carl Spence, two of the nation’s premiere cinephiles, running the operation, who can complain?)

Mortensen, star of “The History of Violence,” was eloquent when he presented Cronenberg with The Sonny Bono Visionary Award: “At the beginning of his career as a director, David Cronenberg was called a public menace at a session of Canada’s parliament. In subsequent years, his work has been termed idiotic and repellent and beyond the bounds of depravity. Most succinctly of all, he once was told, ‘I hate your fucken films.’ Those are just some of the milder indictments of David and his work that I recently learned about. When critics are puzzled and intimidated by movies sometimes their reaction seems to be to take personal offense and often savagely attack the director. Had I known about all the negative things that have been said about David, I could have saved myself the trouble of reading the script for “The History of Violence.” I needn’t have pestered him with so many questions before accepting the offer to play Tom Stall. Had I known how reviled he was, I would have simply said, ‘Sign me up immediately.’ He’s a man and an artist of my own heart.”

Cronenberg responded, “When I first heard I was getting the Visionary Award, I immediately called Doctor Herzig to thank him. He’s my laser-eye surgeon. And then I realized that it didn’t have anything to do with Herzig. It had to do with this festival . . .. I really have to say that [directing] is not so much a vision that you have but a compulsion, a compulsion I think that every artist has to not accept the official version of reality that culture and society gives him. It’s as if you always wanted to go into the ceilings and see what’s there and behind the walls and under the floorboards. It’s not so much looking up into the open sky, the way you might imagine a visionary would, but it’s rather digging into the dark little tunnels to get some understanding of what the human condition really is. So I accept this award as a recognition of that, that part of what an artist is.”

Shortly thereafter, Jake Gyllenhaal noted on accepting his Palm Springs Achievement Award: “Brokeback Mountain means a lot to me now. Artistically definitely, but socially even more.” Then he explained why his next few films won’t be musicals after he engagingly sang a few verses of the BeeGees’ “Night Fever”: “I thought I’ve already played a gay cowboy. If I did a musical, I think people would really, really start to question [my sexuality]. I think I might stay away from musicals for a little bit, but don’t think they’re not beating deeply in my veins. They’re a deep urge. A deep, deep urge.”

A few days later, Daryl Macdonald sat down with indieWIREin a chipper mood. After all the box office for this year’s fest was estimated to be $800,000, up 10% from last year. Attendees: 112,000. Macdonald explained: “Great programming is attracting larger audiences. Larger audiences are attracting more sponsors. The things that having more sponsorship allow us to do are attracting more media attention, which in turn grows the audiences. So everything feeds on everything else, and we just happen to be in the right place at the right time and have all of the right elements going for us, as do Sundance and Toronto.

Then speaking of the future, he added, “I’d like certainly to see us at the very least maintain our position as one of the top three festivals in the United States in terms of audience size. I’d like to grow our audience, and I’d like it to continue to grow to the extent that our facilities can handle. What I don’t want to see is it become so overgrown that screenings become really difficult to get into, and the festival becomes work as opposed to a pleasure to attend as it already is with some other festivals I’ve stopped going to which shall remain nameless.

“I also truly believe in working on audience festivals because that’s ultimately who it’s all about, bringing filmmakers and filmgoers together and making something incredible happen and hopefully creating opportunities for both parties.

Producer Sarah Green (“Frida“; “The Winslow Boy“) was ecstatic at the opening night party for her latest effort, “The New World“: “I’m so delighted. Palm Springs is a perfect kickoff for this film in 2006. It’s a festival early in the year. It’s wonderful to be here.”

Director Dan Ireland, whose “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” tied for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature with “Mother of Mine” from Finland, was also merry even before this award was announced. Starring Joan Plowright, his witty feature about a much older woman’s platonic relation with a much younger man reflects Ireland’s own past: “I throughout my life have always found older women so colorful so when I read the book, it hit. It definitely hit me.

Pippa Scott, a former actress (Auntie Mame) and TV producer (Dallas), showed up sporting a helmer’s hat. Her shocking documentary on King Leopold II of Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo, “King Leopold’s Ghost,” includes shots you’ll never forget. (Lots of amputated hands.) Pippa explained: “I began making little movies for the United Nations about refugees. And then I encountered this extraordinary story of a nation that has lost ten million people under a greedy, horrible king, and then another 4 million recently in the last 2 years. I said we got to tell this story. Nobody knows about this. These people were worked to death. Ten million of them to provide Leopold and his family with riches, and now the Belgium royal family is one of the richest in Europe after Queen Elizabeth because of this old bastard.”

Rick Stevenson‘s “Expiration Date” doesn’t deal with royalty but with a 24-year-old gent’s relatives who keep getting fatally hit by milk trucks on their 25th birthday: “Believe it or not, We applied to two places, Palm Springs and Sundance, and Carl Spence called us and offered us a wonderful spot here, but he said he had to know in 24 hours, and the Sundance announcement wasn’t for ten days. So I said, ‘Okay, give me 24 hours.” I called Sundance and I told them what was going on, and they said, ‘Well, we can’t possibly tell you early,’ and I said, ‘Then I’m withdrawing.’ And they said, “You’re withdrawing from Sundance?’ I said, ‘Yes. I’m going to Palm Springs.’ So I have no idea if we would’ve got into Sundance, but the experience was sort of empowering.”

Also empowering were many of the films screened.

Well, Cristina Comencini‘s “Don’t Tell,” Italy’s second choice for the Oscar, had its moments, but they were far and in-between. This overwrought drama about the aftermath of father/son and father/daughter incest with its annoying flashbacks and shrill characterizations is saved by a subplot about a blind lesbian and her new romance with a middle-aged woman rebounding from a broken marriage.

Ramon Salazar‘s “20 Centimeters from Spain” is your everyday Busby Berkeley musical about a narcoleptic pre-op transsexual. Adolfo/Marietta (Monica Cervera) longs to find true love and have her huge penis cut off. Ironically, the man of her dreams, who stacks fruit at a grocery store, insists he’s not homosexual while still insisting on getting fucked up the butt by Marietta. Some of the musical numbers here are dazzling, even those including ejaculations, but the lack of a strong story is at times a drag.

Sturla Gunnarsson‘s “Beowolf & Grendel” (Canada/Iceland/United States) is a highly enjoyable and intelligent retelling of the classic tale without the use of high-priced special effects. Gerard Butler is an especially convincing hero, and his legions of female fans attended every screening with cheers.

Harmage Singh Kalirai‘s “Chicken Tikka Masala” (United Kingdom) is the latest addition to the I’m-Hindu-and-gay-so-I-have-to-get-married-to-cheer-up-my-parents genre. The difference here is Jimi (Chris Bisson) winds up engaged to his boyfriend’s much older, alcoholic, rough-mouthed sister (the deliciously saucy Sally Bankes).

Mary Harron‘s “The Notorious Betty Page” is an adequate, at times amusing, rendering of the pinup’s hard-knocks life. The problem here is that Betty as played by Gretchen Mol is a dunderhead with little insight into herself and the society that wants to both idolize her and destroy her. And while Mol’s body is superb, she doesn’t have enough of the facial beauty that transformed Betty into an eternal wet-dreams star for her horny loyal fans.

Bernard Emand‘s “The Novena” (Canada) is the first part of a trilogy exploring various aspects of modern man’s angst. Well-acted, this is a tale of a suicidal female doctor whose life is saved by a highly religious store clerk who wants her to heal his dying grandmother. Minimal action is outweighed by the maximum sensibility behind this feature.

Another film of note is Tawfik Abu Wael‘s masterpiece, “Thirst” (Israel/Palestine). Here a Palestinian worker refuses to the leave his land that is now controlled by Israel. Even if it destroys his family, he’s going stay put and bring water to his arid household. Expect a touch of Antonioni.

Zuihaode Shiguang‘s “Three Times“(Taiwan) gets the award for inspiring the most walkouts. Deadly dull, it’s already garnering critical raves from the critics who go for this sort of fare.

Kevin James Dobson‘s “The Virgin of Juarez” stars Minnie Driver and Esai Morales as well-meaning folks trying to stop the abduction, rape and murder of young girls in Mexico. Although Dobson’s intentions are to be praised, this Virgin is nothing but an exploitative B movie with a gangland-shootout ending that is unbelievable and trite.

Also of note: Joseph Pitchhadze‘s highly accomplished look at modern Israeli society, “Year Zero; Avi Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes,” an eye-opening critique of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, using the Biblical Samson as his jumping off point; and Ido Haar chronicles the journey of a 57-year-old Israeli woman to meet the father she never met in Russia in the moving Melting Siberia.

Jean-Marc Vallee‘s “C.R.A.Z.Y.” (Canada) might just become the best gay film of the coming year. From his birth, when he gets dropped on his head, to the discovery of his healing powers, to his realization that he is queer, Zac, who was born on Christmas Day, is having a hard time. Whimsical, tragic, and often funny, this effort announces the arrival of a top-notch director.

Marc Rothemund‘s “Sophie Scholl-the Final Days” is a biographical film of a true Nazi-spurning heroine that works well if you can overlook the at-times didactic dialogue. And finally, Eyal Halfon‘s “What a Wonderful Place” (Israel) is an original comic/tragic look at the lives of Russian women who emigrate to Israel for a better life only to find out they are being brutally forced into prostitution.

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