FilmFest DC: Reason to Smile

As the 16th annual Washington D.C. International Film Festival (FilmFest DC) begins today, I have much reason for optimism. FilmFest DC upgraded its theaters, subtracting the Tenley and the Foundry while adding Pentagon City and the DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC). The Foundry was a solid second-run theater and its recent closing is a loss to DC film lovers. But it was no place for a major film festival, as its small screens resulted in many potential filmgoers missing out. The Tenley was no place for any audience. The run down theater closed two years ago but was still inexplicably used by FilmFest DC last year. Pentagon City is a decent, if unspectacular theater, and the DCJCC features a relatively large, comfortable screening room. Both are substantial improvements. Unfortunately, FilmFest DC also added the Janus where, as a local critic once said, "You have to get there very early to get the one good seat." Still, the festival seems to be moving in the right direction and following through on the words of director Tony Gittens, who three years ago promised that the festival venues would match the quality of the films.

And it is the quality of the films that gives me the other reason to smile. In most years, I have to rely solely on the festival catalog descriptions and word-of-mouth, but this year I was fortunate enough to see eight FilmFest DC selections at last yearís Toronto International Film Festival. Six of these films I can proudly recommend. Letís take a look:


Strongly Recommend

The American Astronaut (U.S.A., dir. Cory McAbee) -- How does one describe a black-and-white sci-fi/western/musical/comedy? The film takes these genres and drops them in a Cuisinart. The plot, to the degree that it can be explained at all, revolves around a space cowboy sent to deliver a young man from a planet with all men to another planet populated solely by women. The effects (thereís no way I can call them "special effects") are so intentionally cheesy that they make the old Buck Rogers serials seem like The Matrix. But if the effects were any better the film would lose its shlock value. Letís just say that The American Astronaut is pure campy fun, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Jalla! Jalla! (Sweden, dir. Josef Fares) -- A crowd pleaser in the best sense of the term. Jalla! Jalla! is a hilarious look at two twentysomething friends in Sweden. Roro is the son of a Lebanese immigrant who tries to balance his love for a Swedish girl with his traditional family, which wants him to marry a Lebanese woman. Mans, Roroís friend, becomes increasingly concerned with his impotence. We follow Roro and Mans on a series of misadventures as they try to handle their problems. This comedy has a mostly light tone, but is serious and tender when it has to be. The two leads are naturally likeable and give very strong, engaging performances. Director Fares paces the film very well and brings it in at a tight 88 minutes. So many American films deal with the lives and loves of young adults, but often resort to cheap tricks and gross-out tactics for laughs. Jalla! Jalla! deals with some similar subjects but instead wins you over with its humor, charm and intelligence.



The Bank (Australia, dir. Robert Connolly) -- The Bank is a taut thriller that manages to make math and finance interesting. A mathematical genius claiming to have a formula for predicting the stock market goes to work for an oily bank president. Meanwhile, a couple sues the bank after its shady tactics lead to a tragedy. The Bank always keeps you guessing and is full of surprises. Anthony La Paglia, who recently dazzled audiences in Lantana, shines again as the villainous, greedy bank president, stirring memories of Michael Douglasís stellar turn as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Writer-director Connollyís gripping story also shows how amoral decisions by those with financial power can have devastating consequences for the middle and lower classes, which is especially poignant in Enronís wake.

A Hell of a Day (France, dir. Marion Vernoux) -- A Hell of a Day is the type of breezy comedy that the French seem to do so well. The film tells several interconnected stories featuring an unfaithful wife, an unfaithful husband (who is also the unfaithful wifeís brother), a bus driver whose wife leaveís him, and a photomat employee who loses her job. As the title indicates, these people all have very bad days. These kind of films are tough to pull off, but Vernoux flourishes thanks to a strong cast, a superbly constructed story, and deft pacing. A Hell of a Day reminds me very much of Happenstance, another terrific French comedy that had a brief American run but never found an audience here. I hope A Hell of a Day fares better.

Iím Going Home (France/Portugal, dir. Manoel de Oliveira) -- A very deliberate, tender film that works largely due to the touching performance of Michel Piccoli, who plays famed stage actor Gilbert Valence. While Gilbert is performing, his wife, daughter and son-in-law die in a car accident. Gilbert must get his life back together while also taking care of his newly orphaned grandson. Iím Going Home takes its time and is more concerned with character than plot. Much of the action takes place off-screen, forcing you to focus on the impact, and the characterís reactions. The film shows you Gilbertís life through a series of small, everyday events. Some might complain of the storyís episodic nature, but I think thatís fitting when showing someone trying to overcome a tragic loss through small steps. The ending was a bit too abrupt, but that does not tarnish the rest of the film.

The Orphan of Anyang (China, dir. Wang Chao) -- Another slow, deliberate film. The "orphan" of the title is not really an orphan, but rather a baby born to a prostitute. The call girl was impregnated by a brutal gangster, not exactly prime father material. She leaves the baby with a poor bicycle repairman who adopts it as his own. The gangster learns that heís dying and tries to take the baby. The characters are well-written and performed, but for me the draw was the way Chao shot and edited the film. Chao uses long still takes, and will let the camera linger on an area even after the characters have left. He gives you a firm sense of the surroundings and daily life in the Chinese province of Henan. At a time when many Hollywood films seem designed for those with Attention Deficit Disorder, Chaoís work is a refreshing change.


Do Not Recommend

La Ciénaga (Argentina/Spain, dir. Lucrecia Martel) -- Remember when you were a kid and your parents dragged you to some dull friends of theirs for the weekend. Remember being bored senseless, wanting desperately to leave, but being stuck there? That feeling captures La Ciénaga to a tee. This is yet another tale of the decadent bourgeois, as a rich family lives hedonistic meaningless lives, making existence awful for their children and their servants. Martel uses a documentary style, adding to the filmís realism. Unfortunately, this realism works against the film, because you do feel like you are there but desperately want to be somewhere else. Thereís virtually no story, and the characters quickly grow tiresome. "La Ciénaga" literally means "The Swamp." The family lives near a swamp, but wait, thereís a hidden meaning; the swamp refers to the charactersí lives. Get it? Just about anyone could figure that out no later than 10 minutes into the film. But then you still have to endure another 93 minutes.

Hotel (United Kingdom/Italy, dir. Mike Figgis) -- Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas) used to know how to direct films, but you would never know it from this mess. The plot (to the degree that I could figure it out) centers around a film crew shooting in and around a Venice Hotel. The hotel staff are kind and courteous, but they are also cannibals. No, Iím not making this up, but I wish I were. Figgis unintentionally illustrates the danger of digital filmmaking: directors who become so caught up in the mediumís possibilities that they forget about everything else. Figgis uses many tricks: dividing the screen into halves, thirds, and quarters (a la Timecode, his last film) He even tries night vision. He does everything except tell a coherent story or provide interesting characters. Even the quality of the digital camerawork is poor; it looks like someone shot it with a Camcorder. The result of all of this is a pretentious, revolting, complete waste of time.

Adam Spector
April 17, 2002


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