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Amateur Hour: The 2003 San Diego Film Festival
by Greg Muskewitz

I was a little bit hesitant about attending the sophomore effort of the San Diego Film Festival, inconveniently located downtown in the Historic Gaslamp Quarter, with iffy and expensive parking and a dubious line-up of movies scheduled. I didn’t go last year despite the promise of a couple titles — Das Experiment, 8 Women, The Weight of Water, Roger Dodger — but all of those eventually opened on their own which I then subsequently caught. Notwithstanding the donation of the opening and closing night movies, and one other studio-owned film, there was no hint of anything else with potential for distribution, or movies that called to be seen this year. What was on display was an inconsistent and under-performed selection of amateur movie-making, with more emphasis on glitz, glamour and possible celebrity encounters at festival-sponsored parties. This did not allow an opportunity — at least based on the brunt of the movies I attended — to see something that would not normally receive distribution but was still worthy of viewing.

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Amateur Hour: The 2003 San Diego Film Festival
It is saddening for the knowledge that the “best” here is so far away from the “good” elsewhere.

Apologies and the like on my behalf for the much overdue festival coverage, coming too soon after a surgery and in between annoying commitments such as doctors’ appointments, illness, and computer problems. As if I hadn’t fallen behind enough in this year …

I was a little bit hesitant about attending the sophomore effort of the San Diego Film Festival, inconveniently located downtown in the Historic Gaslamp Quarter, with iffy and expensive parking and a dubious line-up of movies scheduled. I didn’t go last year despite the promise of a couple titles — Das Experiment, 8 Women, The Weight of Water, Roger Dodger — but all of those eventually opened on their own which I then subsequently caught. Notwithstanding the donation of the opening and closing night movies, and one other studio-owned film, there was no hint of anything else with potential for distribution, or movies that called to be seen this year. What was on display was an inconsistent and under-performed selection of amateur movie-making, with more emphasis on glitz, glamour and possible celebrity encounters at festival-sponsored parties. This did not allow an opportunity — at least based on the brunt of the movies I attended — to see something that would not normally receive distribution but was still worthy of viewing. Most were examples of movies that should be buried from further venues, and likely will be. Without getting in-depth over other issues throughout the film fest — briefly including confused directions for festival attendees (“Press, VIP and Filmakers here”), cranked-up sound levels, several movies projected via video onto the screen, annoying BuzzMagazine bees flying around to poll audience reaction for the joke they called their festival awards, etc, — to prove an example of how uninterested the festival staff was about press attendance, I did not find out about the festival through their own people; I was alerted by one of my colleagues on this site, questioning if I would be able to cover it. When I called the PR group handling the fest to ask for access, I was told I already had a press pass awaiting my collection — as did the rest of the critics in San Diego — though similarly without an effort made on their part to let us know. They can let me know as much as they want next year, but I doubt I will be caught around anything they have to offer.

I am David. If the opening night movie was any indication of how high (or in this case, how low) the bar had been set, this festival was in murky waters from the start. Paul Feig, writer of the defunct TV series “Freaks and Geeks” makes his directorial debut with his own adaptation of Anne Holm’s book of the same name, about a young falsetto-voiced boy who is sprung from a communist concentration camp, with instructions to get from Bulgaria to Denmark. Each destination along the way sets up a zany bunch of characters, all of different languages, locales, and liberties, but all played with the same wide-eyed, naïve, and indistinct blandness as the last. The language on-screen is at all times English, once with a verbal warning that if David listens closely enough, he’d be able to pick up on foreign dialects, but the ability to do so here is a lazy resort. (As he stays with an Italian family for a brief time, the dining interlude suggests that the family has never sat down to eat together before.) Everyone sounds British and everyone speaks like the British, and is therefore never much of an awareness of the potential for cultural exploration and excitement. Much of the rest of the movie itself is a lazy attempt to replicate a base effect of this child’s perspective in a huge world; the progressive plot is straightforward and banal, the flashbacks are rudimentary, over-blown and over-emphasized, the characterizations are generic and cartoonish. Yet for all the reliance on childish elements and the storybook illustrations in place of scenes, the movie actually contains very little action to advance the winding course of the words that are so effortlessly spoken. The words creak with calculated composition (“You have to look at paintings differently than other things. More closely, listen what it tells you.”) that never sufficiently capture the foreignness of the situations or individuality of people, but instead you come out feeling like you’ve been talked down to for the past 90-minutes by your parents.

The Five Stages of Beer. Reportedly shot in nine days, the five-step process refers to one bartender’s advice for a typical Joe Schmoe to get over the wife that left him for a clown. (Literally, a clown.) However, his own notions tend to be of admiration towards the bar owner’s lothario ways, and so he approaches things in a half-assed and half-educated way. Ultimately it turns into a competition of identity and status between the spurned loser (who never appears to work) and the bar owner as each sets out with an ideal gal in mind, and ends up switching early on because of the roles they’re trying to front. Directed and co-written by Brian Mix, the humor is rather generic and therefore goes over well — and without the assistance of alcohol or the need to be inebriated — but it’s a fairly inconsequential piece of fluff. Considering that this was shot in nine days, the pace and scene breakdown tend to be tight and efficient, with additional support from the amiable performances, with one exception. Frank Lauria II, as the down-on-his-luck loser, is miscast and plainly unlikable. Luckily, the rest of the movie goes on satisfactorily, bolstered by the help of the opposite sex’s performers, with winning performances by Stacy Burnham (though no one bought her singing voice) and Jenya Lano.

[Post-script: For those in San Diego still interested, The Five Stages of Beer is showing in Carlsbad on October 18th, at 7:00 pm. It’s being featured by the Independent Film Society as part of their filmmaker’s series. Q&A with the Binary Film team follows the movie. It will be showing in the Schulman Auditorium at the Carlsbad Dove Library, at the corner of Dove and El Camino Real.]

Assisted Living. I don’t know if mockumentary would adequately sum up the intentions of director Elliot Greenebaum, but inconsistent is surely a label that could stick. Initially presented as a mock-documentary, a D-student’s tribute in film school to Christopher Guest, we get the extraneous interviews of several employees or employers from an assisted living home. Shortly thereafter, the gimmick has been retired and we’re requested instead to aimlessly follow around the slacker pothead protagonist, which is enough to bore most into an early retirement or commitment to some sort of halfway house. Along with the pointlessness of the actions going on, the arbitrary nature of what’s being followed and when, there is an enormous missing link throughout the movie: a human connection. But perhaps that would be asking too much when we cannot even get a clear image, reduced to slimy, scummy, blurred and dulled video detailing.

Searching for Paradise. A recent college grad with an Electra Complex for her ill Italian father struggles with the concept of what to do next. Obsessed with a “famous” actor (appearing on a low-grade “Inside the Actor’s Studio” upon first appearance, interviewed by a less-dorky Todd Solondz), she buys a video camera and films various love messages never to be sent. Before long, her father passes away and she takes her mother’s parents’ offer to visit in New York for a while, bringing her closer to her object of desire, eventually coming up with a scheme to sneakily meet her dream man. Myra Paci’s film is less about big events and more about personal events and character study. That venture, too, proves not to be wholly eventful, yet there is still something provocative and alluring within the film itself. When it isn’t alternating between the nettlesome grainy and haphazard video image, the cinematography is swift and very flattering of its star Susan May Pratt (10 Things I Hate about You), eternally biting and chewing and sucking on her full, pouty lips. (No pair of lips in recent screen memory recall such avid attention.) Pratt, too, is also able to carry the weight of the film (light or not), mixing a lot of conflicting emotions and convincing wanderlust without much basis to go on. Her character is never fully established — coming into the picture too late in whos and whys, and ducking out too early before a satisfying resolve could be reached — but Paci is able to relate the disillusionment, the distant obsession, the familial conflict, and a larger issue of infidelity, as viewed through the awkward eyes of a newfound adult. Not that the compliment should be taken too far, not beyond a step or two, Searching for Paradise was the most gratifying viewing experience from those movies I caught, enough at least to sustain one’s interest, if not to be saddening for the knowledge that the “best” here is so far away from the “good” elsewhere.

American Gun. Dated entry, insofar as the star is the deceased James Coburn, gnarled-handed and all, attempting to track down the murderer of his adult daughter by tracing the gun’s serial code across the U.S. “God never gives us more trouble than we can bear,” assures a local priest, to which Coburn counters, “If I were a weaker person, would my daughter still be alive?” Alan Jacobs’ movie certainly starts of with a compelling impetus, which unfortunately is often squandered by the plodding pace and insubstantial rhythm of the search. The movie’s progression becomes hindered by the constant breaks in time for unexplained flashbacks (cleared up by the end) and remorseful setbacks. Most of the performances are rather tired and ineffectual, even the fresh-faced Alexandra Holden. And though it’s enough to hold one over at least in order to follow the old man on his Deathwish quest, the revelation at the end, regardless of how it has the potential to throw a seasoned bloodhound off of its tracks, serves only to negate a majority of the events that proceeded it and remove the “worth” out of “worthwhile.” In retrospect, the unevenness of the plotting becomes all the clearer, and issues that didn’t settle properly at their introduction can fall into place, but not without the sense of feeling cheated and gypped. And of course, this stumbles into the trend of movies played here with the use of cheap video, even if it does not completely reply upon it throughout.

Melvin Goes to Dinner. Deplorable video feature from Bob Odenkirk, whereby four people with loose connections to one another end up at a restaurant for a no-holds-barred ranting and raving session. The movie is for whatever reason docked to Melvin’s perspective — after the out-of-context opening, it then occasionally swings around to a glimpse from his daily life, how he mistakenly called his old friend which set forward the meal date, and then progressively, if not linearly, how the other two women fit into the picture and scheme of things. Garrulous, obnoxious, perverse — they set the mood for what’s to come (what movie is complete without a reference to horse-fucking?), but not for how tacky and how lame they eventually do surface. Every once in a while, there is a moment that actually comes across like one might expect a sit down with friends, old and new, and the workings of conversation, to go, but Odenkirk is too occupied to dive for the raunchiest material possible (“I came so hard, I thought I’d shit my pants”) and spending way too much time in the space of coarse dialogue over the functions of film. If he is so impressed by the words he can place in peoples’ mouths, put it on tape and spare the art form some embarrassment. (Speaking of which, the sound projection also seemed to be playing off of a cassette, harsh and grating, too quick to compliment the content of the verbal diarrhea.)

Stuey. Mostly broken into flashbacks starting from pre-pubescence, recounted in a dank motel room to a stranger, Stu “the Kid” Ungar is forced to confront the past that brought him to a rise and repeated falls with gambling, among other problems. Undeniably influenced by Martin Scorsese and GoodFellas and Casino, the movie plays into the obsessions and tawdry side of Vegas (though it begins elsewhere), but never manages to gain an identity of its own. Director A.W. Vidmer can competently direct a motion picture that feels like a movie, even if it has a third or fourth generation quality feel to it. That does not mean, however, that Stuey sails smoothly; the storytelling drones on, details are hit-or-miss, clear-or-haze, the pace meanders, and the net gain at the movie’s end — whether or not it’s based on a true story — is minimal. Apart from the biographical treatment, there is little to learn or observe that has not been better mastered and filmed on previous occasion. For the most part, when Michael Imperioli takes over as the adult Stu, the stakes are raised to a higher end of a low scale.

The Kiss. Schmaltzy romance about an emaciated book editor who finds an old, incomplete transcript and hunts down the hermitic author for its proper dénouement. For a festival that featured so many amateur movies, down to the quality in which they were filmed, Gorman Bechard’s movie has the look of professional worth with the added delusion of professional actors Terence Stamp, Illeana Douglas, and Billy Zane. (Sadly, Eliza Dushku is repeatedly proving she doesn’t fit in this category.) But the funds that buy technical polish can do nothing to buff out the rest of the major flaws. The romantic angle of the movie, related through meager blocks of the book’s text filmed in black-and-white, is melodramatic, cheesy, and unromantic. It’s a further slight and variation on the concept of Paris When It Sizzles (already massacred this year in Alex & Emma) whereby our large-mouthed, milky white and angular waif envisions herself and her ex-flame in the place of the novel’s protagonists. All around, not just the laughable excerpts, the dialogue is clunky, forced, artificial. The projected reality is eye-rollingly a fantasy, replete with teen-mentality adults, unrealistic work places, unswallowable situations, etc. Never ignoring its imposter status as a writer’s movie, it fails to connect as a movie at all — Bechard’s direction is empty, meaningless, blank, unsubstantiated. And at the risk of sounding sexist (or explaining the movie’s blatant sexism), perhaps the most direct reason behind the off-key portrayal of women is because it’s directed by a man who has no idea what he’s talking about.

Em & Me. Palindromically titled mawkish mess, an offensively bad riff on The Straight Story, sees a loony old man (he eats and is a Fruit Loop) trek several states to visit the grave of his wife after overhearing his married-with-children daughter was to put him in a home. Along the way he meets an odd assortment of characters (a college freshman who lives under his father’s thumb; a liquor store-robbing duo out to fund their in-vitro fertilization; a gay mechanic — not too subtly taking care of the minority department as he is the only character who is black, etc.), dispensing would-be wisdom, inspiration and magic to all those he passes by. The movie fancies itself as enchanted and magical while at all times trying to attain a foot in realism, but the only place its foot is stuck — along with the rest of it — is in the grave. Nothing about this poorly amateur joke of a student film is realistic, from the ridiculous and melodramatic performances (and apparently Alan Young’s pathetic performance won the festival’s award for Best Actor, though the vote was done not by viewers, but by the board that selected the movies; is it surprising to know they gave it to someone who bothered to show up?), the laughably bad dialogue (Young to the mechanic’s boyfriend: “Your eyes dance when you talk about Lance”), to the coincidences in plot and lack of development of the characters, und so weiter. The most surprising thing about the movie is the professional quality of the filming (especially compared to everything else I saw), but its shot without a photographer’s eye, limping along and nondescriptly filming faces in the dullest manner TV shows go about it. I would be hard pressed to come up with a punishment — in or out of a festival — much worse than sitting through this. And if you ever wondered what had happened to Danielle Harris (now blandly a poor girl’s version of Thora Birch and Lacey Chabert), look no farther, and question no more. Some things are better left forgotten to figments of memory.

Pieces of April. The pieces are her family, on their way from Upstate New York to Manhattan, under the occasion of her invitation for Thanksgiving. They expect a mess — why?, because she’s the family’s self-dubbed black sheep, though none of them seem to see their own flaws, except maybe the pacifistic father who’s too far in denial. So the movie is split between their hellish drive down (additionally including the bitchy wife who has breast cancer, her mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, their pothead son, and all-too-perfect Miss Priss younger daughter) and April’s travails to prepare a nice homemade meal, complicated when her oven breaks down. Writer/director Peter Hedges packs in a fair amount of caustic, über-dysfunctional humor that ails most from its inability to say “when.” The feel-good mark at the end undoubtedly comes off as a stretch and doesn’t maintain the persona of any of the characters, but it slightly helps to offset the caked-on dysfunction that so persistently sticks to everything before that point. Notwithstanding the quirkiness of the apartment’s denizens, the actual casting is quite well-utilized, especially Patricia Clarkson. Katie Holmes does a fair share holding up her almost solo half with some solid support by Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), but what makes the movie almost impossible to sit through is the horrific digital video image, gunky, distilled, faded, as though looking through a bowl of gelatin cranberry sauce (pretending that it’s transparent, of course). It does not help, either, to subject us to the nauseous mindset of Clarkson’s character by shaking the camera around so much you’d think it was attached to Elvis’ pelvis.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=820
originally posted: 10/17/03 00:59:00
last updated: 12/30/03 21:59:43
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