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A Fest, But No Feast

I'm Not Scared
by Greg Muskewitz

Only a few months after the questionable programming and short schedule of last year’s San Diego International Film Festival, the long-time festival programmer Ruth Baily passed away. (She had held the position for nearly twenty years.) More questions were raised as to whether the fest would even continue after that until word got around early this year that the new artistic directors were looking for suggestions for their considerably scaled back and under-funded extension of the festival. Several months, suggested titles, and e-mailed studio contacts, later, the ball dropped with their 2004 roster. It didn’t bounce. The extremely underwhelming weekend of films programmed contained a grand total of eight features — one being under an hour, two others being documentaries — and three separate categories of shorts. Out of the eight features, five are already scheduled to open between now and the end of summer, and only one held any particular interest for me. (That one, Rhinoceros Eyes, opens mid-May, so when the festival’s timing didn’t coordinate with my own schedule, it took away any imminent fear of missing something.) Still, in honoring Baily’s memory (though it was no fitting tribute), as was the prerogative of the new directors, I attended what I could.

***********************************

A Fest, But No Feast
Despite its brisk pace, the movie rarely abandons its conscience to merely go for a zinger.

Only a few months after the questionable programming and short schedule of last year’s San Diego International Film Festival, the long-time festival programmer Ruth Baily passed away. (She had held the position for nearly twenty years.) More questions were raised as to whether the fest would even continue after that until word got around early this year that the new artistic directors were looking for suggestions for their considerably scaled back and under-funded extension of the festival. Several months, suggested titles, and e-mailed studio contacts, later, the ball dropped with their 2004 roster. It didn’t bounce. The extremely underwhelming weekend of films programmed contained a grand total of eight features — one being under an hour, two others being documentaries — and three separate categories of shorts. Out of the eight features, five are already scheduled to open between now and the end of summer, and only one held any particular interest for me. (That one, Rhinoceros Eyes, opens mid-May, so when the festival’s timing didn’t coordinate with my own schedule, it took away any imminent fear of missing something.) Still, in honoring Baily’s memory (though it was no fitting tribute), as was the prerogative of the new directors, I attended what I could.

I’m Not Scared. A young boy in a rustic southern Italian village accidentally discovers what first seems to be a dead body, turns around to be a live boy, and turns around once more to be a kidnapped live boy. The twist is one of the kidnappers is our protagonist boy’s father, and both he and we learn of the kidnapping when he spies a news report on TV while his parents and other unknown men argue over their previously ambiguous issue. The remainder of the movie toils around with some bonding between the boys and the kidnappers’ quandary of what to do?, all leading to a predictably complacent anticlimactic climax. The themes of innocence lost tend to be inchoately dealt with, muddled on the basis that first, innocence was hardly just being lost, and second, the progression of any story is inconsistent. One specific area I’m Not Scared does excel is within its casting of child actors, especially Giuseppe Cristiano and Mattia Di Pierro, both of whom put American child actors to shame. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores.

The Return. The father of two teenage boys inexplicably returns home after a twelve-year absence and takes his sons on a planned weekend fishing expedition. It becomes clear early on, at least to the younger son, that the father doesn’t appear particularly keen on his parental position, but is quick to demand and assert his authority. (The older brother wants to please, at whatever cost.) Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film is not big on action or development, but rather observation, and as any silent participant of an oppressive weekend will tell you, it’s a frustrating bore. Again we have this parent/child alienation that by the end, is just as unexplored and undeveloped as at its introduction. What seems even more frustrating with Zvyagintsev’s treatment is that there is a potential for so much more. But he would rather play a game where he reveals none of the mysterious elements that he introduces (what has the father dug up from the ground, and why?), and without them serving as any greater purpose or explanation for being there. The Return has many of the right elements being utilized for maximized potential — the cold ambience, the shimmering photography, the moody score, the pensive performance of Ivan Dobronravov, the piqued interest of the viewer to want to know more — but Zvyagintsev settles for the mastery of several notes on key, and the rest completely out of tune. Further irony is that shortly after shooting was completed, the actor who played the older brother, Vladimir Garin, drowned in the same lake where this was shot. With Konstantin Lavronenko.

Flyfishing. From the U.K., a comedy about a gigolo who gets his shy friend to join the male escort service for predominantly elder or obese women, the latter of which winds up fucking the mother of a young teacher he begins to date. (In that order: mother first, then daughter.) Crass, dull, dreary (it didn’t help that it was shown on Beta), and seriously unfunny, after 45-minutes, I could take no more punishment. Directed by David L. Williams.

Alila. Pretension is inherent in a movie by Amos Gitaï, but at least here he lacks his usual pedantry (Kadosh, Kippur). Two-inglorious-hours with a dozen denizens of Tel Aviv, smothered in misery and minor misfortune, beginning with a father, his newly enlisted son, an ex-wife and her lover, an adulterating man, his mistress, and a handful of others from their love nest/complex who all turn up in random places. Gitaï is contented to boorishly pass the baton back-and-forth throughout the residents for the mere exercise of observation. Ensemble pieces are rarely so monotonous, usually gaining energy from trading around the storylines and never growing tired of any in the batch (think Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, or Magnolia, or Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, et al.); Alila is the opposite with each set of characters being borne out of ennui and with each return to them more tiresome and less fresh than the last visit. Never has a rotation of trading one storyline for another been so entirely stale. Most of the performances at least fill up the space with competence, as does the sedentary camerawork (slowly panning back-and-forth between two talkers, occasionally getting up for a tracking shot) of Renato Berta (Not on the Lips, Same Old Song, but Gitaï solemnly sticks to doing nothing with them, and as a collection of daily lives living, it hardly seems to represent anything specifically about the Israeli way of life.

Back to regular business …

Mean Girls. Caustic high school comedy written by Tina Fey, from the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” about a previously home-schooled junior (Lindsay Lohan) who lived in Africa with her zoologist parents, adjusting to the reality of a “real” high school. (Even for a smarter high school comedy, it doesn’t much resemble the one I went to.) She’s befriended by a pair of outcasts, a goth-y artist and her gay best friend, before she’s welcomed by the Plastics (“teen royalty”), and is cajoled into using her position to penetrate and help devise the downfall of superficiality while using just that to go incognito. Being as that it’s about high school, we’re sure to acknowledge the typical clichés such as school cliques (the Plastics, the jocks and their sub-divisions, the Asians, the nerds (the math squad, which joining would be “social suicide,” is known as the Mathletes), etc.), but the main focus is bringing down the queen bee and her “army of skanks” through some calculated tactics: setting them against each other. The movie, directed by Mark S. Waters, has just as much of a conscience as our main character, and in having such it only makes the laughs come all the harder. The division of Lohan’s character’s attention is well set-up between her friends, the Plastics, and the boy she is jonesing for, and even as the focus is as the title suggests, on the mean girls, the three strands continually orbit around one another to help build a development often missing from a typical high school comedy. Fey, who also co-stars as the math teacher, is similarly surrounded by other current or former SNL members — Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, and Amy Poehler (one of the few truly funny cast members around today) — and with this serving as her debut screenplay, one can only wonder why, as the head writer of SNL, her writing isn’t as consistently funny on the show. Still, in Mean Girls, she proves very capable of creating individual characters out of stereotypical blocks, all the while being sharply humorous about it. And despite its brisk pace, the movie rarely abandons its conscience to merely go for a zinger. With Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Seyfried, Daniel Franzese, and Jonathan Bennett.

Godsend. Not quite God-awful, but awful suffices nonetheless. Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos lose their eight-year-old son in a car-on-pedestrian accident (no time is wasted getting to the deed, unlike, say, The Punisher, also with Romijn-Stamos), and are approached by a fertility doctor (Robert De Niro) who claims he can clone their son. Flashforward eight years, give Cameron Bright a new haircut, and they have Adam (II), now the same age as when the original was killed; only now, he has begun suffering from what may be night terrors. Or maybe he’s suffering from prescient visions? Or maybe he’s suffering from something directly related to the cloning? (Memories of what previously happened? Someone else’s memories?) Whatever it is, we are sure to sludge through the possibilities with yawning consequences. Apart from a creepy set-up or two (the claustrophobia of the wooden shed), notwithstanding the jolting assistance of the score, director Nick Hamm moves about maintaining the thrill-less atmosphere strictly by-the-book, and with the script often helping to dismiss logical qualms such as the secrecy behind the cloning project, their relocation, time-ignorant travel, deserted locales, and other cliché counterparts (i.e., why does everyone speak in whispers?). Even the presence of De Niro serves as no call for legitimacy (though a movie exploring his motivations and back story come across as far more intriguing than this), helpless next to an unconvincing Romijn-Stamos and Kinnear, who has never been much of an actor in the first place.

Shaolin Soccer. Time out! A group of Shaolin disciples with names to go with their unique gifts (Iron Head, Mighty Steel Leg, etc.) are recruited by a former ace player (Golden Leg) to play in a tournament, working their way up to the reigning champs, Team Evil, coached by the nefarious ex-footballer who ended Golden Leg’s playing days. Long-shelved by Miramax, and reportedly rejiggered for an American release (any foreign signage has been digitally altered into English), the movie is far more distracted with effects-playing than soccer-playing. Far before the games are gotten to, all of the gags run cold, and very quickly — yellow card! And is there even a second you don’t doubt Team Shaolin will not win? All I could imagine is the boredom that the fans of the tournament had to endure with indomitable, super-human teams, which of course brings us to the boredom for the audience, too: red card, ejection from the theater! Directed by Stephen Chow; with Man Tat Ng and Yin Tse.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1105
originally posted: 05/02/04 03:18:16
last updated: 05/02/04 03:20:55
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