I spent the last few days at the Palm Springs International Film Festival for the second year in a row. I had gone to Sundance for about 8 years and I think the last time I went it was in the low single digits in Park City at the same time that the Palm Springs Festival (a week or so earlier) was in the 70s and 80s. Granted the movies are not always of the same caliber as those at Sundance, but it is easier to get in to see the movies since I can order tickets online without having to go through the Sundance lottery procedure only to find no online tickets available by the time my number rolled around. That meant standing in long lines freezing hoping against hope to get into a movie that I really wanted to see. From now on it is Palm Springs for me!
This year I saw seven films over the three days and I can honestly say that five of those seven were winners. What I mean by "winner" is that the film was good enough to be brought to the big screen. Sadly, most of these independent films will never see a theater screen but may be released on video. I certainly hope so. Here are my thoughts on these interesting and psychologically relevant movies. I put them in the order of my preference.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin: This movie was stunning in both its message and the acting. The basic plot is simple in its depiction of the eternal struggle between nature and nurture in combining together to yield a personality. Kevin (played exquisitely as a teenager by Ezra Miller) is the first child of Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly). From Day 1 you can tell that something is different about Kevin. He is one unhappy baby, crying all day long when he is with his stay-at-home mom but the few times you see his dad interact with him he is just fine. In one poignant scene Eva parks his stroller in the middle of a street right next to a jackhammer hoping to drown out Kevin's incessant howling. And while Kevin is infinitely polite to his dad he is downright belligerent to his mom but never in hearing distance from his dad. I am not giving anything away by telling you that Kevin eventually commits a horrific crime but the excellent direction of Lynne Ramsey leads you there in bits and pieces. No matter what your view is on genes vs. environment you will leave here questioning how this boy got to where he did in 16 short years.
- Sal: This movie is not for everyone. If you crave action then avoid this one. If you like long shots of scenery, ditto. However, if you want a penetrating look at the last 24 hours of someone's life and you enjoy continual close-ups of Sal Mineo's face (expertly played by Val Lauren) as he traverses his final day before he is brutally murdered, this is for you. What may seem mundane to some was just fascinating to me. I got to hear both Val Lauren and writer, director James Franco (yep, that James Franco) talk about the movie and understand that this is not a "biopic" or an "autobiography." It is just a day in the life, like any other day in the life, of someone, who we all knew from his performances in Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus, who is living his final 24 hours. I can't tell you more but you will learn to both love Sal Mineo and possibly be a bit taken aback by some aspects of his life. He was one of the first outspoken bi-sexual actors and he paid dearly for it in an unofficial, but blatant blacklist.
- If I Were You: This started out with the classic scene where a woman (Madelyn played by Marcia Gay Harden) accidentally sees her husband at a restaurant with another woman (Lucy) and they are clearly having an affair. Madelyn watches Lucy and her husband have a fight and follows Lucy as she buys a rope ostensibly to kill herself. The interesting psychological twist here is that Madelyn befriends Lucy without her knowing who she is and they talk about their respective men and decide that they will each advise the other on steps to take in their relationship. Turns out to be quite an interesting twist and makes a strong commentary on relationships and intimacy. If it makes it to the theater it should do well.
- The Perfect Stranger (El Perfecto Desconocido): This film, shot on Majorca and brilliantly directed by first timer Toni Bestard, stars Colm Meaney (you know his face but not his name as he is a well-traveled Irish character actor who is best known for his work as Chief O'Brien on Stark Trek: Deep Space Nine) as a man in search of part of his past who comes to a small town in the hills of Majorca knowing not one word of the language. Through a series of interesting twists and turns - and without much talking - he becomes a part of several lives and changes everyone for the better. This film really hit me at a base level as I talk a lot about the difficulties of communicating through electronic means but Mark (or Marco as the villagers call him) manages to use his facial expressions to allow others to communicate for him without knowing they are doing so.
- The Woman in the Fifth (La Femme du Veme): This movie will definitely get you thinking about what is real and what is not. Ethan Hawke plays a college lecturer and writer who has lost his job through some scandal (never really specified) and who has left the U.S. to reunite with his ex-wife and young daughter in Paris. Along the way he gets robbed and loses everything and has to live in a seedy hotel with seedy characters involved in some unknown criminal activity. He meets Kristen Scott Thomas (or does he?) at a party and the movie unfolds from there. Good psychological thriller with excellent direction by Pawel Pawlikowski (who directed My Summer of Love) which still leaves you with an unknown sense of reality and fantasy.
Of the last two movies Gypsy (called "Cigan" in Czech) did hold my attention for a short while but I rapidly tired of the message that gypsys are different and have a tough life and are discriminated against by white people. That just wasn't enough to hold my attention for the entire film. The final film, titled Expiration Date in English (and Fecha de Caducidad in Spanish) just did not interest me. The plot was a standard one where someone is missing and some people know he is dead while his mother still holds hope that he will return. In the meantime the mother is involved with several others who .... Nah, never mind. The plot is really not worth the space here.
I am hoping to visit the festival next year and perhaps even stay longer to see more movies. I think it does a great job of putting the "international" into a film festival with 187 movies from 73 countries and I only wish that I could see them all.