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What Recession? Thriving Palm Springs Fest Celebrates 20th Year

What Recession? Thriving Palm Springs Fest Celebrates 20th Year

If you sidestepped the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) Awards Gala, you missed out on hobnobbing with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Anne Hathaway, Clint Eastwood, Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Josh Brolin, Gus Van Sant, Frank Langella, Sean Penn, Ron Howard, Dustin Hoffman, and even Dakota Fanning. No wonder this little party raised over one million dollars for the desert-based cultural phenomenon that was started over 20 years ago by Cher’s lesser half, the very late Sonny Bono.

Over a million! So where the hell’s the recession? In fact, by Monday night, PSIFF was celebrating its 20th year by breaking another million dollars in ticket sales – and it still had a week to go.

No wonder the Sultan of Suave, festival director Darryl Macdonald, wasn’t looking frayed around the edges. It’s hard to be depressed when you are beating the odds in this overwhelming manner.

“It’s a great, great sign, especially given the economy,” Macdonald chortled with the swagger of Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. “We had concerns going in like everybody else, but I think this festival has established a pretty good track record for payback. For when people go out of their way to travel to Palm Springs for the festival, they have a great time. They see great films, and they want to come back the following year. We get so much repeat business–people who have come back year after year, you know, combining both a great winter-time vacation and a great gorgeous sunny place, and a cultural event at the same time. Being able to combine those elements makes for pretty strong medicine for the wintertime blues.”

And, indeed, the audiences were chipper. Take the sold-out screening of Ella Lernhagen’s “Patrik Age 1.5” from Sweden. This touching comedy tells of a gay male couple that is trying to adopt. After much disappointment, the guys receive notice that a one-and-half-year-old boy is on the way to their home. However, their celebration is cut short when a 15-year-old homophobic lad with a police record shows up at their door. This touching, pertinent offering received a prolonged standing ovation at its finale, and one self-admitted heterosexual man avowed, “Let me tell you that this is not a gay film; it’s a human film.”

This was Lernhagen’s fourth offering, one Macdonald adored, but he was more enthralled by helmers who were just crawling out of their papooses.

“It became very apparent at a certain point in the process that…wow!…there are so many films by new directors that we are excited about,” Macdonald explained. “In fact, over a third of the films, 83 I think at the last count, are by first or second-time directors. What I’m seeing is the emergence of a whole lot of new voices and new visions in world cinema, which is incredibly heartening. It’s like cinema is going through a revitalization, one of those cyclic things it tends to go through every couple of decades, and we’ve certainly seen evidence of it here. And quite apart from international cinema, American cinema the same.”

“There’s a lot of talent out there that I’m very excited about. And it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to say that. I mean certainly new talents emerge every year in American independent filmmaking, but this year there seems to be an inordinate number of them. And, of course, we haven’t even seen what’s at Sundance as of yet…”

His faves?

“Tony Barbieri is an unsung hero. He made a film that we have here called “Em.” He’s an incredibly gifted young filmmaker who has a very distinctive point of view, and his films, while being exquisitely made, also really work on the emotions in an effective non-sentimental way. I think he’s very special.”

“Then there’s a film called ‘Baghdad, Texas,’ which came to us out of the blue. We’re doing the world premiere of it here, and I totally adore it. It’s actually the filmmaker’s [David H. Hickey] second film. His first film wasn’t widely seen at all. In fact, I don’t know if it was seen anywhere outside of Austin, Texas. But it has that distinctive Austin feel. You know, a touch of Richard Linklater. A touch of the Coen brothers for that matter, which of course is not Austin. It’s Lucy-goosey. It’s giddy. The whole storyline is a delight and totally unexpected.”

A scene from Tatia Rosenthal’s “$9.99.” Image courtesy of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Even more applaud-worthy according to Macdonald is Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino. “The film of his that we have here this year is ‘Il Divo,’ which, of course, I saw at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it knocked me on my ass. You get such a charge every once in awhile out of a film at a festival. You know, you go along and you like this and you love that, but you’re not blown out of the water by it. But when I saw ‘Il Divo,’ all of my senses were engaged. This is a filmmaker who has again a very distinctive vision. He’s a writer and a director. He doesn’t make films that look like anybody else’s films or for that matter even sound like anybody else’s films. He utilizes all of the technical gifts at his command, everything from the camera to the sound effects to the music to the framing, but he also has a real gift working with actors to just make films like nobody else makes them. I’ve described him as a sort of Fellini, Bertolucci, and Lina Wertmueller all rolled into one.”

Tatia Rosenthal’s “$9.99” (Israel) can’t boast that type of acclaim, but this adult venture into Claymation and puppetry that takes place in a Tel Aviv apartment building stirs up angels, loneliness, sex with models, body shaving, piggy banks, and the meaning of life into a highly enjoyable work of whimsy.

The talented Dan Ireland, who gave us Renee Zellwegner in “The Whole Wide World” (1996), has a new discovery on his hands: Jessica Chastain. Sadly, his vehicle for her, “Jolene,” an adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow short story is a mishmash of tones, misogyny, and soft-core porn. In less than two hours, the poor girl gets married at age 15 to a nerd, is seduced by her spouse’s boss, becomes a widow, has lesbian sex with a prison guard, copulates with numerous truckers…sometimes on top of vegetables, shacks up with a drug-dealing tattoo artist, becomes a pole dancer, beds up with a Mafia don, and weds a crazed heir who beats her while she’s pregnant and then pours oil paint down her throat post-pregnancy. It’s sort of like reading the New York Post while on a bad acid trip but without the Sudoku.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys” (Turkey) is lifted to extremely pleasurable heights by Goekhan Tiryaki’s superb cinematography. The involving story tells of Eyup, a chauffeur, who agrees for financial reasons to take the rap for a fatal car accident committed by a slimy politician. When released from prison, Eyup discovers his wife was receiving much more than money for his incarceration.

Dogme 95 makes a strong comeback in Adrian Sitaru’s feature debut, “Hooked’ (Romania), which stars the voluptuous Maria Dinulesco as Ana, a young prostitute who might have been run over by two adulterous picnickers. When she awakens from her stupor (or death), Ana seduces both members of the couple who don’t know whether to attack each other or wed.

Ronit Elkabetz, who starred in “The Band’s Visit,” directs a sequel, “The Seven Days” (Israel), to her 2003 offering “To Take a Wife.” No doubt viewing the original would be helpful in identifying the dozens of warring characters parading about here at the shiva of their loved one. Still, this at-times comic mixture of grief, greed, and lust is never less than entertaining.

Also noteworthy are Roberta Grossman’s documentary “Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” an ode to a poet who became Israel’s Anne Frank; Doris Doerrie’s lovely, crowd-pleasing paean to old age and love, “Cherry Blossoms”; and Micha Lewinsky’s highly engaging “The Friend,” in which a lonely dweeb discovers popularity after he poses as the boyfriend of a folksinger who dies from a shock from her electric guitar.

Barbara Sarafian is magnificent as a 41-year-old mother who reluctantly falls for 29-year-old alcoholic truck driver in “Moscow Belgium.” Francis (“The Dinner Game”) Veber teams up an assassin and a suicidal schlub in the very funny “A Pain in the Ass”; and Eric Bricker’s superb primer to architecture, “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman” is an instant classic in its field.

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