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General Tally:

-Dear Frankie (2 ½ Buckets)

-The Ride (1 Bucket)

-Around the Bend (3 Buckets)

-Finding Home (2 Buckets)

-Primer (2 Buckets)

     After skipping out on the first two years of the San Diego International Film Festival and missing priceless gems in independent cinema such as Roger Dodger, Pieces of April, 8 Women, Bus 174, and The Weight of Water, I finally forced myself to attend it, in its third annual run. After anxiously reading up on many of the movies in contention for the Best Feature Award, I eagerly anticipated a superb five days of screenings. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what the experience turned out to be like.


     On Wednesday of last week, I was pumped up for opening night. As my school bell rang at 2:30 in the afternoon, I ran home to complete my homework, in order to have enough time to drive downtown to San Diego’s prestigious, crime-abundant Gaslamp Quarter. And indeed I did. Taking the 5 freeway and merging onto the 805, it took nearly an hour to make my way to the Pacific Theatre. The ride was full of traffic, yes, but my excitement didn’t allow for any discomfort to enter my head.


     With that being said, first, I must emphasize the fact that there always comes a time when enough is enough. Even my euphoric face quickly morphed into a frown after waiting nearly an hour and a half to even be let into the theatre. Dear Frankie, the opening night feature was supposed to begin at 7PM. It turned out that the disorganized crew couldn’t even get the film running until 8:15. That is, after putting the audience through some pointless speeches and a stupid short-film called “I Am Stamos,” in which an old actor wishes to be John Stamos on his birthday and, when captured on video, his wish comes true. After filming “The John Stamos Show” under the “Full House” star’s identity, the real Stamos seeks his untalented impostor out. It made for a cute, little piece, but did we really need to watch it before Dear Frankie, when it was already a part of the Comedy Shorts Program? I don’t think so.


     What’s even more disappointing is that Dear Frankie, which has received strong buzz so far from the majority of critics, turned out to be an entirely ho-hum motion picture. I was often intrigued by it, but many of its scenes promises were not kept. At times, the film seems so insincere, it appears as if it is simply conning the audience into believing that it is a breathing motion picture. Nevertheless, on the bright side, Dear Frankie contains some terrific performances and insightful dialogue. These two traits, alone, make it worth recommending on the whole, more or less.


     In the film, the deaf Frankie Morrison (Jack McElhone) lives with his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and grandmother, Nell (Mary Riggans). The three are always moving around Britain, from house to house, as their financial-support is less than stable. Frankie’s mom walked out on his father, after a rather tragic incident in the child’s earliest years. Frankie has been told that his dad works on a ship for the military; Lizzie writes her son letters as if they’re from his supposedly heroic father. But, when Frankie discovers that his dad’s ship will be docking into port very soon, his mother must scramble to find an actor to play the man, so her son's heart will not be crushed. She had no idea that the carrier, bearing the name that she picked from a diagram in a magazine, actually existed in reality. Gerard Butler, Lizzie’s friend’s brother, fills the needed position, sympathetically.


     The film is overbearingly packed with melodrama and relies on sappiness that it doesn’t need in order to progress. As little Frankie beamed in several scenes and Alex Heffes’ musical score reached its crescendo, I honestly wanted to slap myself in the face because of the superficiality of it all. The saccharine-infused contrivance of Dear Frankie seeps out of every square inch of most of its frames. At times, I accepted this and the movie worked for me, pleasantly. However, when it isn’t executed properly, the film comes across as a bit of a nightmare. It’s a shame that Dear Frankie isn't a stronger movie, given all of the other things it has going for it.


     Hidden somewhere in its core, Dear Frankie has a strong narrative arc that is infused with cells of emotion and poignancy. With a few minor improvements, this could’ve come through in the final product, and the movie would’ve functioned as a genuine tearjerker just fine. To my dismay, and at the expense of a rather amazing Emily Mortimer performance, my disappointment in it still pokes at me, now over a week after seeing it. I was hoping for the first night of the film festival to be a spectacle; Dear Frankie’s selection for it was unfortunate. Then again, maybe I was swayed, in the picture’s disfavor, because the theatre was kept at a solid eighty degrees and the management neglected to turn the air conditioner on, despite many complaints from audience members. I kind of doubt it, though.


     Between my having a small cold, participating in tennis lessons, and wanting to watch the Presidential Debate last Thursday, I decided to not attend the festival that night. Not many big pictures were showing then; mostly small-scale documentaries and student films were in the spotlight. I could afford to take a pass, and so it went. Friday, on the other hand, was an entirely different story. Heading down, again, with the hope that I would see some great movies, I couldn’t have been happier.


     At 5:15 that afternoon I saw The Ride, which I was told was a Japanese surfing documentary by an online chatter. It proved to be just the opposite of such. Directed by a San Diegan with Hawaiian roots, it tells the story of a surfer who hits his head on a rock during a competition, and then travels back in time and meets Duke Kahanamoku, the Godfather of surfing. Keep in mind that this was originally intended to play on a family channel on TV, but acquired much popularity in Hawaiian theatres, allowing it to be rolled into some West-Coast cinemas. It is unfortunate that more people will have to be exposed to the horrors of The Ride, in the future.


     Only five minutes into The Ride, I regretted skipping over the showing of Rick, a film starring Bill Pullman, at the same time, on the grounds that its DVD release was imminent. But, I can guarantee you that it would’ve been better than watching annoying fools with accents gliding across miniscule waves and speaking pseudo-cultured dialogue. This all goes without my mentioning that all of the costumes in The Ride just make it more utterly ridiculous, even if claims of their authenticity ream true.


     When The Ride tries to become romantic, it’s absolutely hysterical. Equipped with slow-motion and high-pitched music, our protagonist, David (Scot Davis) falls for Lehua (Mary Paalani), one of his surfer-friends' sister. No cliché is leaved unturned in the process of this; David even has to take a test to prove his worthiness to have a relationship with Lehua because he is not an islander. The ending, in all of its predictability, proves to be equally awful. I will spoil it for you: David travels back into present time and meets Lehua’s great-granddaughter.


     Watching the movie, I was stumped by only one question. What redeeming characteristics are there in The Ride? When a film is not creative, we look to other forms of entertainment in it. They're nowhere to be found here; all that is present is an abundance in cheesy, emphatic lines (Ex: “Gosh! I feel so right here [Hawaii at the turn of the century]!”). Surfer-dude interjections from David ensue. I have a hard time believing that any kid under five would enjoy The Ride. However, this is not to say that it is content-appropriate for them.


     Television is a powerful medium. Why is it that all movies that are made to be played on it have to be so by-the-numbers and blasé? If I actually had the option of flicking on my TV and watching a great film on a regular station, I would think myself to be in heaven. I know, for a fact, that most watchers feel the same way. Looking at the miserable domestic theatre box-office averages, as of late, it would almost be smart for a studio to put something feasible on a cable station. They’d probably at least turn a profit then. Heck, I’d even take most January releases over something like The Ride. For now, I’ll simply have to keep on merely wishing that such a day comes, during my lifetime. I suppose I’m an idealist.


     After The Ride’s credits began to roll, I rushed on over to attend what was, perhaps, the largest movie playing at the festival, Around the Bend. Starring Christopher Walken, Josh Lucas, and Michael Caine, it proved to be the first, and only, good movie I saw at the event. I snuck in with the VIP’s to grab the best seats possible. My dad was less lucky and was stopped when the screenings’ coordinator saw that he had an orange pass and not a red one. However, I was able to save the chair next to me for him, and things worked out. What can I say? I was going to see Around the Bend with or without him, whether he liked it or not.


     After writer/director Jordan Roberts quickly introduced the film to the audience, the first reel began to play. Following four generations of men in the same family, Around the Bend is a sympathetic and very personal piece of work. Caine plays Henry Lair (oldest), Walken plays Turner Lair (next oldest), Lucas plays Jason Lair (next oldest), and Jonah Bobo plays Zach Lair (youngest). Henry, Jason, and Zach live together in one house, as Henry’s wife has died and Jason is in a trial separation with his. Turner has not seen his father or son for years, but suddenly enters the picture as Around the Bend kicks into gear. Unfortunately, when Henry decides to get the old family van working properly and travel across the country with his three descendants, Turner announces that he will only be staying with them for a day’s time. Shortly thereafter, Henry writes up some burial instructions in the local KFC and then passes on, in an act of contrivance. These instructions send the other three men around the United States, disposing of the ashes of Henry and his dog (who fatefully dies the day after his master), at several locations of America’s Favorite Chicken Restaurant. If they complete the task, Zach will receive all of the items stated in Henry’s will. If they do not, everything will go to Turner.


     Around the Bend captures a balance between comedy and drama that is, perhaps, the best that I have seen all year. Caine, who has about fifteen minutes of screen-time in the movie, is absolutely hysterical, and the sullenness of his character’s death juxtaposes well with the humor in his performance. When Around the Bend switches gears, the audience does not sense any interruption or imbalance. This goes entirely to Roberts’ credit; he acquires a level of storytelling that nears mastery, in writing and directing. Even if the pacing of his film comes off as a little choppy, he is an amazing talent, nonetheless.


     While Caine’s work certainly stands out the most in Around the Bend, the three other men in the Lair family are painted by the cast members, almost as beautifully. Walken captures subtle mystery in his role perfectly and preaches metaphors as if they’re messianic. Usually, I wouldn’t refer to such as a positive thing, but it works in this movie amazingly well. The script, which took Roberts almost ten years to write (he based it loosely on his own familial experiences), was surely some kind of revelation for the actors. Even Lucas, who I usually loathe, is terrific in Around the Bend, and certainly never annoying. The seven-year-old Jonah Bobo, who is supposedly dangerously smart for his age, should receive several awards for best acting by a child, come the end of this year. He is responsible for many of the film’s most poignant moments. That’s not bad at all for someone who can’t even use double-digits as their claim to fame yet.


     On top of that all, Around the Bend boasts a terrific compilation of songs on its soundtrack. One wonders how such a small movie was able to grab onto so much great music and so many great actors. Roberts said it wasn’t hard to do so. This is a good sign; it is one of the clearest signals that small independent gems, such as this one, may enter the mainstream market, in the foreseeable future. Around the Bend makes a few technical mistakes and, at times, relies on too many tongues in its cheeks, but works, nevertheless. If it were actually playing at my local cinema, I would be grinning from ear-to-ear. When that image becomes a reality, the filmmaking industry will have reached a new height. This movie provides me with more hope than I’ve ever had before, in such an area. And if that doesn’t merit a solid recommendation for it, then nothing else does.


     After the screening was over, I discussed writing with Roberts for a couple of minutes, and he told me that there are four steps to penning a quality screenplay. The first, “Madman”, is when an author writes everything with no constraints or limitations. The second, “Architect”, is when things loosely come together and a foundation is formed. The third, “Carpenter”, is when the vision is perfected and is ready to be critiqued. Finally, the fourth, “Judge”, is when a third-party looks over it. Many of his scripts have been purchased by studios, but Around the Bend is the only one that has been filmed. He’s made a good living by allowing his work to reside on shelves, but is happy that he was able to direct this one and release it under the recently founded independent-film division of Warner Brothers, as it means so much to him, personally. I’m anxious to see another picture come out of Roberts; this one serves as a debut that would satisfy almost anyone. Hopefully, it doesn’t take the nine years of the revisions that Around the Bend underwent to become a reality, for him to reach his sophomoric outing. First thing’s first, though; this one was just yesterday released in New York and Los Angeles.


     On Saturday, I was scheduled to see two films. The first of which was Finding Home, one of those pseudo-heavy-hitters that would like to be the micro-budget equivalent of In The Bedroom. But, the truth is, it is a movie so dull and laughable that, when there are genuine moments, the audience is better off ignoring them, as they are so out of place. Writer/director Lawrence David Foldes said he left the likes of genre films behind to make a “more meaningful” film. Newsflash: this is a genre picture at heart, carring all style and hardly any substance. As for its meaning--I don’t think there is one--aside from maybe one filmmaker’s embracing character stereotypes all too frequently.


     Lisa Brenner plays the protagonist, Amanda, in about the dullest and driest way possible. Constantly flinching in an “I’m so vulnerable! Oh, gosh dang it!” kind of disparity and s-l-o-w-i-n-g down her speech to about the speed of a mentally retarded person, she makes a definite attempt to be sympathetic. But all I had for her meek attempts to be artsy was apathy. Long story short, Amanda is an important member of the Big City Workforce, but when her grandmother dies, she inherits the failing family inn, on an island off of the New England coast, where we believe a terrible tragedy occurred in the past. At any moment when things “unravel,” blank stares from the viewer ensue. Did Foldes have any reason, whatsoever, for making Finding Home?


     At times, I was actually fond of the movie. Several moments work immensely well, in their own, quiet ways. But, between Amanda’s annoying presence and the tepid way in which the film was constructed, the ending result is mediocrity, at best. The gorgeous photography, which basically serves as a disguise for the lack of emotion in the whole thing, is respectable. Some of the camera’s shots add to the mystery of the hotel, melodically driving up interest. There is also a motif used with a scene done in the style of a slasher film, which is rather effective, even if it is desperately out of place. Also, whenever Misha Collins, who plays Dave, the supposed violator in Amanda’s childhood misfortune, came onscreen, I felt rather “at-home” with his character.


     There are two aspects of Finding Home’s script which eliminated any chance of it being mildly coherent, in the first place. The first is a subplot with Amanda’s boss, Rick (Johnny Messner), which leads to a violent chain in events that is rather unintentionally funny. The second is the mere fact that Foldes gives his characters too much intellectual credit. In Amanda’s voiceovers, she uses some metaphors that not even Dickens could’ve penned, and yet, in reality, she is a rather stupid person. How does she suddenly begin to understand her emotions, in certain scenes, when in the ones preceding them, she realizes nothing of what is going on in her life? Rarely does one’s mind just “click” as hers does in Finding Home, and rarely has there ever been such gawkily symbolic narration in an independent film.


     In the end, after so much superficial chaos, everything, of course, works out. Finding Home contains, essentially, everything that is wrong with Hollywood, wrapped up in tattered newspaper. Did I want the characters to be so optimistic about life as they were in the end? Perhaps, for happiness is what everyone aspires for, in life. However, in context, the outcome doesn’t make any sense. There is a reason Finding Home is not yet booked to play in art-houses across the country and that reason is not because studios are senselessly passing up on distributing a gem of an indie. I think that you should be able to fill in the blanks from there.


     Seeing as the new Brad Anderson film, The Machinist, filled up in less than two minutes, I opted for Shane Carruth’s Sundance-winning Primer to be my second and last feature of the night. I wish I had just headed home and gone to sleep, instead.


      Carruth is responsible for every inch of Primer; he wrote it, directed it, scored it, produced it, starred in it, and so fourth and so on. It follows two scientists, named Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who use a type of fungus to develop a time machine in a U-Haul storage garage, which makes doubles of them, and allows them to make changes in their pasts. They use it to bet on sports and buy and sell stock, turning dishonest profits. Of course, there’s always the question of what will happen when something goes wrong (ex.: Will both the doubles and the real Aaron or Abe receive one cellular phone call?). In addition, they can not let the two other scientists, who are a part of their usual team, find out about the invention, as they want to take all of the credit for it.


     The idea is kind of mystifying, by itself, but Carruth’s execution is flawed. Primer is valid proof that the “Show, don’t tell” rule in writing and filmmaking can be abused. Carruth doesn’t give the audience any clues about what Aaron and Abe are inventing or what it does; viewers have to merely observe everything that happens. This would’ve worked, had the film been more interesting. For awhile, I was intrigued by Primer’s apparent complexity. But, I only was able to go with its flow for a certain amount of time. About halfway through its duration, I no longer cared about what the hell was going on in Primer, and I have reasonable doubt that any other viewers will, either. My patience had been tested and I gave up trying to understand it.


     I’m beginning to think that it was Carruth’s very intent to make his film illegible, as I reflect upon it. Using quick-talking techno-babble and make-believe science, the experimentation and confusion that the characters undergo in Primer is the writer/director/star/producer/scorer/andallthatgoodstuff’s own form of masturbation. In certain scenes, all Carruth wants to do is prove that he knows more than the audience and can bend their minds more than the Sphinx did the Ancient Greeks'. If there was a point to his movie, I would be fine with this. But, the bottom line is: Primer’s riddle of a plot is just warped monotony. At least I was frustrated by its unnecessary puzzle of events; had I actually understood it all, I would’ve been bored to death because of its lack of purpose.


     Carruth shot Primer on 16mm film and later converted it into the 32mm format, making the movie for just $7,000. I have a feeling this is why it won Sundance’s Jury Prize, as there were certainly better movies playing at that film festival. Yes, what it does achieve under such a small production budget is rather remarkable. But, I’m sick and tired of hopeful filmmakers instituting mounds of deception in their motion pictures for the sole purpose of being deceiving. Film can function in so many ways; what is achieved by abusing it, in order to simply pleasure oneself? All Carruth has proved by playing mind-games with his audience members is that he is a dope. Turn the wannabe-intellectual crap off. Just turn it off.


     I was so disappointed in the five films that I saw on Wednesday through Saturday at the film festival, I decided to not trouble myself into attending the final day of it. If there was one thing it did for me, then that was made me realize how fortunate I am to be able to have a selection of quality films, playing at the ten theatres that are within a twenty-five mile radius of my house (yes, that is, perhaps, the first, and only, time that I will refer to multiplex-material as “good”). If the official selections look more like those in 2002 and 2003, maybe I’ll head back for the Fourth Annual San Diego Film Festival. However, I’m not going to get my hopes up anytime soon. Recovering from this year's lineup is essential. In such a recovery process, watching good films will be a must. As Pauline Kael so wonderfully put it: “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” Now, more than ever, I’m hungry.


* * *


Jury Prizes:


San Diego Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award - Cliff Robertson

Governor’s Award - Phyllis Diller

Best Feature Film Award - “Around the Bend,” director Jordan Roberts

Best Director Award - “Black Cloud” Rick Schroder

Best Screenplay Award - “Purgatory House,” Celeste Davis

SD Screenwriting Contest Winner - “Whitefish,” George Olson

Best Documentary Award - “Sonny Boy,” director Soleil Moon Frye

Best Short Film Award - “American Made,” director Sharat Raju

Best Actor Award - “The Box,” James Russo

Best Actress Award - “Her Majesty,” Sally Andrews

San Diego Feature Film Award - “Never Been Done,” director Matthew Powers

San Diego Filmmaker Award - Devin Scott

Feature Audience Award Winner – “Eating Out”             

Documentary Audience Award Winner – “Goodnight We Love You”


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews (10.8.2004-10.10.2004)


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