CINEMA BLOSSOMS IN THE DESERT
18TH PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Two hours from Los Angeles, the Palm Springs International Film Festival has grown to be a top tier festival, and in its 18th incarnation, it has now topped even itself, showing 254 films from 74 countries, including the majority of films offered for nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars.
Palm Springs offers star-gazing in the clear, desert night sky, as well as its annual awards gala, where honorees this year included: Sydney Pollack, Cate Blanchett, Todd Field, composer Philip Glass, Kate Winslet, and Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Among the strongest of the 31 films viewed:
After the Wedding (Denmark): Director Susanne Bier has crafted a touching drama with nice twists, as the Danish head of an African orphanage (Mads Mikkelsen) returns to Europe to find much needed funds. He learns his CEO benefactor is married to his ex-girlfriend who, unknown to the head of the orphanage, had their child out of wedlock—a young girl just getting married. But the CEO has a secret of his own and subtly initiates his new friend into the family structure. Offered as the official Danish nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, After the Wedding avoids melodrama and touches the heart in a marvelous and constantly evolving manner.
Strike (Germany): Volker Schlöndorff, himself an Oscar winner for his powerful adaptation of the Günter Grass novel The Tin Drum, tells the previously unheralded story of Agnieska Kowalska, who was the figure behind the Gdansk shipyard strike that gave birth to the Solidarity movement in then-Communist Poland. As historical figure Kowalska, actor Joanna Bogacka is utterly engaging, both quirky and steely in her resolve, as the crane operator who let Lech Walensa take the lead in the battle for worker rights. Schlöndorff, in attendance to introduce the film, explained he learned Polish to better direct his fine actors.
How Much Do You Love Me? (France): The always inventive director Bertrand Blier created this romantic comedy involving a stunning prostitute (Monica Bellucci) who falls for a nerdy guy (Bernard Campan) whose greatest asset is his recent winning of a lottery. As the odalisque begins to develop feelings for her nerd, in comes the oddball gangster who rules the girl’s life and loves her as well (Gerard Depardieu). Blier, as screenwriter, exhibits his proficiency in the art of storytelling by adding wonderfully surreal touches to the final act, making this much more than a comedic love story.
Murch (USA): Edie Ichioka worked as an assistant to legendary film and sound editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Conversation). She and husband David have spliced together a video interview with the brilliant Murch in conjunction with cuts from his films. They have cleverly utilized editing techniques during Murch’s comments, which are wide-ranging and go far beyond what he teaches the viewer on sound and film editing. Murch is uniquely intuitive in much of his work, and as such, this is an important document for not just cineastes but those who work in film and video.
The Iceberg (Belgium): Co-directors and -screenwriters Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy display an expertise in creating physical comedy that transcends cultural barriers. A manager of a fast food restaurant (Gordon) accidentally locks herself in a deep freeze, and when her husband (Abel) and children do not notice she has been missing, she has a breakdown and decides to run away with a deaf fisherman. Recalling the deft visual humor of Jacques Tati, this delightful tale of a love triangle has a charm and cleverness that stays with the viewer long after the last amusing image.
Shut Up and Sing (USA): Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, along with Cecilia Peck, deserves kudos for this documentary on the Dixie Chicks, the ultra-popular country music group that was maligned for its lead singer’s uttering of an invidious comment about George W. Bush during a live concert. The doc then follows the ensuing media attention and boycott of the band’s work. The humor is steady throughout and emotionally moving by its conclusion. And with knowledge of the lies and deception that have surrounded the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the film takes on a greater significance about the nature of Free Speech in the Land of the Free.
The Boss of It All (Denmark): The US premiere of brilliant provocateur Lars von Trier’s latest film shows a bite and hilarity surpassing anything on the American version of TV’s The Office. A Danish business owner hires an actor to pretend to be the owner of his company in order to avoid personal criticism for his sometimes doctrinaire policies. But when the actor finds out the truth, despite his contract swearing him to secrecy, he launches a campaign to get even. The outlandishly funny final scene, when the actor-as-boss must sign papers selling the company, is a fitting tribute to the soullessness of business…and a surprisingly amusing change in direction for the creator of Zentropa and The Kingdom.
Salvador (Spain): Director Manuel Huerga and writer Lluis Arcarazo have made a stunning tribute to real-life Catalan revolutionary and martyr Salvador Puig Antich who robbed banks to support the poor in Franco-era Spain and was eventually executed after a Basque separatist bombing- assassination instigated revenge by the government. The absolutely brilliant cinematography by David Olmedes and screen charisma of Daniel Bruhl help make Salvador a memorable and beautifully made portrait of valiant defiance of fascism.
The Lives of Others (Germany): Set in Germany just before the fall of the Wall, Florian Henckel von Donnersmaerk’s film follows the life of an East German secret policeman who performs surveillance on a noted playwright and his actress girlfriend. As he develops empathy for their lives, the Stasi operative must make a choice about working within the Communist system or risking his own career to help the artists.