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One of the highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is its extensive program of films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—giving audiences a taste of the best movies from around the world (or, well, at least what government agencies around the world have decided are the best movies).

This year’s festival featured 43 of the more than 80 Best Foreign Language submissions for the upcoming Oscars—including eight of the nine movies on the Academy’s shortlist. The five nominees, as well as the nominees in all the rest of the categories, will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The nominees in the category generally tend toward the middlebrow, with serious historical dramas—often focusing on World War II—reliably taking up a few spots each year.

Such is the case this year—three of the eight shortlisted movies shown at the PSIFF deal with World War II and its aftermath: Denmark’s Land of Mine, about young German POWs forced to clear land mines in Denmark after the war; Norway’s The King’s Choice, about the first days of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940; and Russia’s Paradise, about a Russian resistance member in Nazi-occupied France.

Of these three, Paradise is the most artistically successful, doing more than just dramatizing sections from a history textbook. Shooting in black and white, in the constrained Academy ratio, director Andrey Konchalovskiy combines dreamlike imagery and magical-realist plotting with stark, clear-eyed depictions of life in a concentration camp, and the balance of power between Nazi officers and prisoners. The movie’s conceit of “interviews” with three main characters after their deaths is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it allows for poetic moments and quiet reflection that more straightforward historical dramas often lack.

Both Land of Mine and The King’s Choice take a more straightforward historical approach, and while they tell stories that have been underrepresented in historical accounts (at least outside their native countries), they only intermittently bring those stories to life. In Land of Mine, a group of young (most appearing to be in their early teens) German soldiers are kept as POWs in Denmark following the war, and are forced to clear the tens of thousands of land mines along the Danish coast. The movie offers a welcome perspective in which the Germans are sympathetic, scared young men who don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions; it’s the often vindictive Danish military personnel are the villains. But the young characters are nearly interchangeable; their eventual emotional connection with their Danish commander is predictable; and the suspense built around periodically exploding kids seems a bit exploitative.

The King’s Choice doesn’t have any exploding kids, and it’s a bit dry in its ploddingly procedural account of the few days between the time when Germany invaded Norway, and when the country’s King Haakon VII made an historic break with Parliament and refused to surrender to Germany. As director Erik Poppe explained before the screening, the king’s actions are an important part of Norwegian history, taught in schools—but without that inherent Norwegian pride, it’s hard to get worked up over this fairly minor military aspect of the war, or to get invested in the principled stands of a pampered (if likable) royal family.

After war movies, the next most-popular genre for the Foreign Language Oscar is possibly the intense domestic drama, represented by Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World and Iran’s The Salesman, both from acclaimed international auteurs. It’s Only the End of the World was adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play by prolific filmmaker Xavier Dolan, and despite its cast of French superstars (Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye), it remains stagebound and claustrophobic, with the characters tediously talking in circles during a tense family gathering over the course of a single day. Dolan is known for bold, visually inventive films, but here, he sticks mostly to uncomfortable close-ups and stands back as his actors chew the scenery.

The Salesman, from A Separation Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, is more restrained, even as its subject matter is darker. It’s a slow burn about a married couple whose relationship is strained when the wife is attacked in their apartment, and her husband becomes consumed with finding the perpetrator. But this isn’t some action-packed revenge thriller; it’s a contemplative story about responsibility and empathy, a rumination on the value of vengeance and a look at how seemingly strong relationships can be destroyed in a moment. The lead performances from previous Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are very good, and while the connection to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (a production of which the couple star in during the events of the movie) is a bit tenuous, both are thematically rich family dramas with satisfyingly downbeat endings.

Thanks to the creation of an additional executive committee several years ago, the selections for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category have gotten a little more diverse, and a few of this year’s shortlisted films fit less neatly into familiar genres. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini are all lighter than their fellow shortlist selections, with more emphasis on unique artistic visions. Ove is the most conventional, a feel-good dramedy about a grumpy old man who comes to appreciate life thanks to the efforts of his friendly neighbors. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, gentle movie that could star Tom Hanks if it came from Hollywood, and while star Rolf Lassgård makes for an appealing curmudgeon, the flashbacks slowly illuminating his tragedy-filled past eventually tug way too hard on the heartstrings. But Academy voters seemingly love to have their heartstrings tugged, and with its mix of the heavy and the heartwarming, Ove comes across as typical Oscar bait.

The most critically acclaimed movie on the shortlist, Toni Erdmann, is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, and it’s certainly the strangest and most challenging film of the eight shown at the festival. Running nearly three hours, Maren Ade’s film is a combination of cringe comedy, family drama and sociopolitical commentary, with plenty of strange detours along the way. The title character is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric, lonely old man who wants to reconnect with his corporate go-getter daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It takes almost an hour for Toni to emerge, as Winfried follows his daughter to her work assignment in Romania, and the movie unfolds at a meandering pace, with dry corporate meetings next to uncomfortable scenes of Winfried’s attempts to insert himself into his daughter’s life. Many have found the film moving, funny and profound, but for me, it was like listening to a long, rambling joke with no punchline.

The best of the eight shortlisted movies I saw at the festival is also the unlikeliest selection, the Swiss stop-motion animated movie My Life as a Zucchini. It’s also eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, but it’s a bit of a dark horse in both categories. That’s a shame, because director Claude Barras’ film is utterly charming, beautiful to look at and sweetly affecting. It’s the story of a young orphan (who goes by the name Zucchini) adjusting to life in a group home and eventually finding a makeshift family. The material isn’t groundbreaking, but the hand-crafted animation gives it a wonderfully skewed perspective, while the dialogue is funny and realistic, and the characters are very likable.

It was the last movie I saw at the festival—and it ended my experience on a high note. Hopefully Oscar voters will feel the same way.

Published in Previews and Features

When I interviewed local music legend Jesse Hughes in August 2015, he was in good spirits and quite excited about the then-soon-to-be released Eagles of Death Metal album, Zipper Down.

“This album is like John Holmes, only with a bigger dick,” Hughes told me. “I’ve never been one of those dudes who has tried to change or do something different. I pretty much want to make Little Richard proud, and I feel that this album has gotten me closer to that goal than any other record.”

Sure enough, the Eagles of Death Metal made waves with the release of Zipper Down—the band’s first new release in seven years. In fact, the Palm Desert-born band was enjoying the most critical acclaim it had ever received.

This high would not last: On Nov. 13, 2015, during an EODM concert in Paris at the world-famous Bataclan, the venue was attacked by terrorists. While the band escaped physically unharmed, 89 people lost their lives.

A new documentary directed by Colin Hanks, Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), was screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Saturday night, Jan. 14, at the Annenberg Theater. Both Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme attended the screening, as did Colin Hanks, who introduced the film and took questions afterward.

The film will air on HBO starting Monday, Feb. 13.

The documentary starts with Jesse Hughes at home in Los Angeles, about three months after the attack, on the day he and the rest of the band were slated to return to Europe to resume the tour. Gone is Hughes’ jovial, comedic attitude that he so often displayed while off-stage: He appears nervous as he packs his luggage and his manager hands him the boarding passes for the band and crew. He emotionally explains that the rock ’n’ roll music for which he’s always been known is now a huge question mark—because the tragedy in Paris will always be what comes up when people talk about the band.

The film covers the backstory of the band. Hughes and Homme talk about the first time they met each other, as kids in Palm Desert—and include an anecdote about Homme rescuing Hughes from bullies who had thrown him in a pool and wouldn't let him out. Homme describes Hughes as a guy who loves to talk about himself—although that talk is so amusing that you want him to keep talking.

Homme, who can't always tour with Eagles of Death Metal, was not with the band at the Bataclan. He describes being in a recording studio when he started receiving alarming text messages from the band at the time of the attack.

The band members each describe the attacks and their aftermath. While most of the members have already told these stories to VICE, Dave Catching—the band's guitarist and owner of the Rancho de la Luna studio in Joshua Tree—tells his story for the first time: He describes spending two terrorizing hours in a dressing room, hiding in the shower with the door barricaded. He said terrorists tried at various points to get into the dressing room—and that one of the terrorists eventually blew himself up nearby.

The final portion of the film shows the moment when the band finally plays again in Paris. Homme and Hughes are filmed greeting many of the survivors of the attack, shaking their hands and hugging. One man tells Hughes he saw the terrorists enter the Bataclan—and feels sorry because he didn't do anything to stop them. Hughes emotionally tells the man that he’s not at fault.

Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friend) is a heartrending look at Hughes, a rock ’n’ roller who lived through an event that would change him and his band forever. The film pays tribute to the victims in a beautiful way, and affirms that the terrorists in no way won anything as a result of the attack.

While the Eagles of Death Metal EODM will be associated with tragedy forever, the members confirm: They still believe in rock ’n’ roll.

Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends) premieres Monday, Feb. 13, on HBO.

Published in TV

Paul Verhoeven, who never really recovered from the delicious calamity that was Showgirls (although Starship Troopers was pretty good), tries his hand again at a female-empowerment movie. (Yes, Showgirls was supposed to be a female empowerment movie.) Unfortunately, he fails miserably.

Isabelle Huppert labors away as Michele, the owner of a company that makes terrible videogames. As the film begins, we see her victimized in a graphic assault scene that Verhoeven revisits again and again throughout the film. Michele takes an unconventional approach to the event—and as the mystery of the assailant’s identity plays out, the movie goes off the rails with weirdness.

I guess Verhoeven is shooting for satire here, but what he winds up with is a ragged, less-glossy rehash of ’80s flicks like Jagged Edge. It’s a bad mystery movie that’s trying to be shocking and even funny, but it feels desperate and trashy.

Huppert is a great actress, and she does all she can with what she’s given. Verhoeven, on the other hand, has basically lost it. Actually, he lost it a long time ago. Maybe another director could’ve made the strange elements balance out, rather than feeling exploitive and wasteful. I hate movies that revel in their cleverness when they are totally not clever. I also hate that the movie tries to explain Michele’s behavior toward her assailant as a product of her violent past. Oh, and you’ll guess the attacker long before the movie is half over. This is garbage.

Please note, however, that I am in the minority: A lot of people like this film. It has an 87 percent on RottenTomatoes.com, and in fact, it just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. (Huppert also won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama.) Perhaps I’m just a big, grouchy baby going against the grain on this one.

Elle is being screened on Tuesday, Jan. 10, and Friday, Jan. 13, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival; get tickets at psfilmfest.org. It opens on Friday, Jan. 20, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews

In the 1990s, the world was on the brink of massive changes in business and technology—especially in the camera/photo industry.

Camera Store, a film directed by Scott Marshall Smith, is set on Christmas Eve in 1994, in a camera store located in a shopping mall. The film will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 6; Saturday, Jan. 7; and Monday, Jan. 9.

Camera Store features two well-known faces: John Larroquette (Night Court, Stripes), and John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Larroquette plays Ray, a man has endured a great loss in his past—beyond the loss of ownership he once had in the camera store. Rhys-Davies plays Pinky, a man who spends the majority of his time at the bar in the mall and boasts that he has been married five times. Ray and Pinky have been sent a mysterious and attentive recruit, Pete (Justin Lieberman), to work with them.

During a recent phone interview, Smith explained how he cast Larroquette in the film.

“We had other notable actors in mind who were very interested in it,” Smith said. “Because of our schedule—it was so tight—many couldn’t accommodate our schedule. One of our producers was friends with John’s son. I knew that he loved 20th century play-writing and I thought, ‘Why don’t we send it to John and see what he says?’ John called me the next day, and he really liked it. I told him I could only give him 2 1/2 weeks of prep time. … John laughed and said, ‘Dude, I’ve done 30 years of TV. I’m used to getting a new script every morning.’ He stepped off the plane with his hair in that faint blonde color, those glasses—and he had it all nailed and figured out. He was the most prepared of anybody. He really delivered.”

Getting Rhys-Davies also made for an interesting story, Smith said.

“His manager is a great guy. He read it and loved it and saw it for John (Rhys-Davies),” Smith said. “He thought it could be a tour de force for him to show what he could do. John has made 300 movies or something like that. The manager said, ‘It’s down to a Skype call. Call John.’ John was living in the Isle of Man at the time, and somewhere way out in the boondocks. We had the most funny and charming conversation for 40 minutes about nothing. Then the movie comes up, and he said to me, ‘You want to fucking know if I can fucking do it!’ He launched into 20 minutes of Pinky. I said, ‘OK, John! Get on a plane. You’re doing this.’ I was so over the moon and I thought, ‘This will be exceptional!’”

Smith explained what purpose the character of Pete, the new employee, serves in the film.

“Every character has a professional, personal and private problem. His private problem is that he’s very damaged and very insecure,” Smith said. “It’s very clear he’s a very pent-up guy. What Pete really reflects is the next generation of business morals and ethics, and lack thereof. It’s like if Death of a Salesman was the funeral of the American dream, I think Camera Store is the requiem for it.”

The mall used in Camera Store appears to have seen better days.

“The mall we used was a Simon corporation mall. When we were looking for malls, I Google-mapped them all in New Orleans, and I could see just from the map view that it was a Simon mall,” Smith said. “It was built exactly the way they built them, with one anchor store on each end, and a bunch of stores in-between. Given what we had, we tried to make it look as vigorous as it was and make the camera store look like something frozen in aspect. The mall does already have this feeling in places of being down on its heels. … They can’t invest further in it until they figure out their finances.”

Smith said that he worked in a camera store himself in 1994.

“In 1994, we knew (digital) was coming,” he said. “I was a photographer back then, and we all looked at those images in 1994, and I said it was all rudimentary and that it didn’t work. …The more the software improved, the more the pixel absorption improved, it was finally going to come around and be far more convenient and provide instant gratification—which is what it’s all about in terms of selling anything in America.”

Camera Store shines in part due to the well-developed characters and compelling dialogue. The film also leaves one wondering what will happen to the characters.

“Everybody wins or loses in this movie, but at the end of the day, sometimes you have to lose everything to get yourself back,” Smith said. “I’ve showed this to younger guys in business, and they come out of it saying, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do.’ They’re honest about how ugly it really is out there. If this tiny film has any impact on anyone, the idea is we really need to examine what our values are. That’s where I hope it goes.”

For tickets and more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org/2017-ps-film-festival/films/camera-store.

Published in Reviews

In 1973, Jewel Thais-Williams opened a nightclub in Los Angeles called Jewel’s Catch One—and it quickly gained a reputation as the Studio 54 of the West.

For 42 years, the people at Jewel’s Catch One challenged racism and homophobia while offering assistance to those stricken by the AIDS epidemic and becoming a haven for African Americans, all while spurring innovation in fashion and music. In 2015, Jewel’s Catch One closed its doors.

A documentary about Jewel Thais-Williams and her club, Jewel’s Catch One, will be screened three times as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

During a recent phone interview with Thais-Williams and filmmaker C. Fitz, Thais-Williams talked about disco and her club’s legacy.

“It definitely had an impact on the gay and lesbian population, because at that time in California, specifically in Los Angeles, there were laws against those of the same sex dancing with each other,” Thais-Williams said. “With disco, we could all be in the same room dancing and not touching each other—still having a lot of fun, and forgetting that the reason we were doing that was because we were not permitted to.”

Fitz said Thais-Williams did more than just open a club; she transformed the community.

“In the film, we have Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, who had the hit ‘Shame,’ and Jewel and Evelyn speak specifically about that time,” she said about the club’s early days. “There was a whole lot of shame around (race and sexuality) outside of her club with family members and the community, and Catch One offered a place where they could be together and dance. … A lot of celebrities have stories about what Catch One meant to them and to the community.”

Thais-Williams said that in many ways, Los Angeles in the 1970s remained segregated.

“One of the clubs that started around that same time and was in West Hollywood—that club owner did not allow people of color or women into his establishment, and that was in the 1970s,” Thais-Williams said. “The Catch One was formally the Diana Ballroom and opened in the 1920s, and I had the opportunity to meet with Ella Fitzgerald right before she passed away. She used to play that ballroom with the big bands, and the black entertainers had to go up through the back stairs, and once their set was over, had to leave through the back stairs. They couldn’t stay and mingle with the patrons. That kind of segregation has gone on since we arrived here from Africa.”

Thais-Williams wasn’t just a business owner; she helped build and establish the LGBT community in Los Angeles. In June, she was the grand marshal of Los Angeles Pride. She is also the founder and executive director of the Village Health Foundation, a nonprofit natural-health clinic.

“The gay community back then was really big,” Thais-Williams said about the club’s heyday. “We had established businesses, banks and hotels, and we were involved in politics in the Democratic Party without being exclusive. We had a significant presence to where the lawmakers would consult with us about different bills and advances they had planned to make sure they didn’t step on our toes. We were in sync with the fact we had to fight homophobia throughout every level of life.”

Thais-Williams explained why Jewel’s Catch One closed last year.

“Forty-two years of hard work!” said Thais-Williams with a laugh. “(The closure had to do with) changes in society that we’ve seen across the board, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual. … A lot of folks were in the club scene because it was the only place where gays and lesbians could go and openly communicate, seduce, meet friends, meet lovers and eventually meet spouses. That was the safe place, and Catch represented that for them. Everybody knew they were welcome, no matter who they were. It was the time for gay rights and our becoming known and available to the broader society.”

Fitz said the documentary is about more than the club, and that she’s been amazed at the great reception Jewel’s Catch One has received thus far.

“We’ve played locally, across the country and in London,” Fitz said. “What’s amazing and what I found true at the very beginning is that there’s a message in it that one person can make a difference. A lot of people have left the theater with that in their hearts. That’s the importance in our film. It tells one woman’s story, but it tells her story through the AIDS crisis, helping folks by making a soup kitchen in the parking lot, by creating the AIDS Minority Project, and by creating a shelter for women with AIDS and their children. It’s not just the club, but what she did on that corner, all the way through her health clinic today. She’s never stopped, and it’s very inspirational for anyone sitting in the theater.”

Jewel’s Catch One will be screened on Saturday, Jan. 7; Sunday, Jan. 8; and Tuesday, Jan. 10, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which takes place Monday, Jan. 2, through Monday, Jan. 16. Tickets for individual films are $13, and various passes are available. For more information, call 760-322-2930, or visit www.psfilmfest.org.

Published in Previews and Features

When I moved to Palm Springs full-time in 1985, vacationers strolled downtown during “the season.” I shopped in the chic stores at the mall—at least until they closed down each summer. Spring Break was our biggest attraction (although local residents generally stayed home that week), but that did not last much longer: After years of laissez-faire treatment of young partiers, there was the riot of 1986, and then-Mayor Sonny Bono decided to shut down Spring Break.

In the years that followed, the International Film Festival was born, in 1989. The downtown mall closed. Downtown became dreary and sad.

Thankfully, Palm Springs has experienced a turn-around—as has the Coachella Valley in general—by hosting events and encouraging tourism that brings more diverse groups and revenues to the area. Now that downtown Palm Springs is finally heading toward progress at replacing the empty mall behemoth with shops, walkways, living spaces, arts installations, hotels and entertainment venues, you might wonder how the city has encouraged so many new people to visit—people who often return or even resettle here.

Enter Mary Jo Ginther, who serves as the director of tourism and marketing for the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. Ginther doesn’t actually work for the city: She and her staff are employed by SMG, a company she describes as “the largest manager of convention centers in the world,” with which the city of Palm Springs contracts to provide their tourism marketing services.

Working within the city’s budget allocations, Ginther and her group employ every method imaginable to attract visitors from across the globe, who will visit and thus generate transient occupancy taxes (TOT) and sales taxes.

“Palm Springs has developed an amazing reputation over the past 10 years,” she says, “as well as more than doubled its TOT revenues.”

Visitors may stay in large name hotels, small boutique inns or private guest homes. They come for gambling, events, conventions, the film festival, weddings, get-away weekends or as snowbirds escaping cruel winters in the Midwest and East. They come for family celebrations, school reunions, business meetings and themed special events. They drive down from Los Angeles, jet in from Canada or fly in to enjoy their long European summer holidays.

Ginther, 60, is a Palm Springs resident originally from East Chicago, Indiana. She started her professional life as a middle-school teacher, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in education at Indiana University Bloomington. She subsequently gained experience in the hotel industry, serving for many years as a banquet manager, and spending 22 years with the Hyatt organization. She was transferred to the Palm Springs area, where she worked as a general manager with the Hyatt, and as club manager at the Mission Hills Country Club. However, she had also visited here as a child.

“We used to come out every Christmas on the train to see my grandmother, who had retired to Pomona, and my aunt in Claremont. I know we came to Palm Springs, but I was too young to remember,” Ginther said.

Ginther has been in her current position for almost 10 years, and is a past-president of the Palm Springs Hotel and Hospitality Association.

The Bureau of Tourism not only focuses on generating tourism dollars for the city; it also oversees the Welwood Murray Library, the historical site that will house a show-business collection in downtown Palm Springs, and the Palm Springs Visitor Center. The staff coordinates efforts with the convention center, hotels, businesses and event planners.

“Our job is to help promote the city,” Ginther says, “so we try to bring all interests together.”

They also work with the Agua Caliente regarding casino visitation. “Once they have plans finalized for the downtown property,” she says, “I think we’ll all be amazed, because they have the springs, which is another attraction to bring people to Palm Springs.”

Ginther sees her biggest challenge as identifying and reaching people who are not necessarily vacationers or visitors coming for specific events, and enticing them to visit.

“We need the people who can come in on mid-week days, when hotels have more vacancies, and we have to expand beyond seasonality,” she says. “We have partners in the United Kingdom and Germany, among the places we do specific outreach, and the challenge is to put together attractive travel packages that include vouchers for hotels and cars and activities. And it’s so easy to get around here. The farthest anyone ever has to drive is about six minutes. That’s also a plus.”

Another challenge: “Although Palm Springs is known around the world, people always say, ‘But what is there to do?’ We need to be able to answer that for increasingly diverse groups of people.”

For example, outreach efforts are needed to expand the image of Palm Springs in LGBT communities; currently, there are 23 gay men’s resorts—but only one specifically appealing to lesbian women.

“We need to have other events to promote beyond ‘The Dinah,’” Ginther says, referring to the golf tournament originally named for late singer/actress Dinah Shore, which has now morphed into what is billed as “the largest lesbian event and music festival in the world,” slated to be held this year March 30 to April 3.

Additional efforts to promote Palm Springs are made by Bureau of Tourism staff members attending travel trade shows, representing the city at travel industry conventions, and via advertising.

“We have our own advertising budget and marketing schemes,” Ginther says, “but our job is really to bring together all interested parties, not duplicate efforts made by others, and get people to come to town, stay locally and discover Palm Springs.”

With a focus on Palm Springs being a place to “Stay–Play–Dine–Shop,” the street life downtown once again feels stimulating and chic, and the prospects for the future are encouraging. Thanks in part to hard-working people like Mary Jo Ginther and her associates, the world is getting the word about Palm Springs being the place that is “like no place else.”

But those of us who live here already know that.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Remember the classic South Park episode titled “An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig”? Well, Danish film Men and Chicken at times feels a motion-picture follow-up of that episode. At least that’s how it felt to me when I saw it at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Saturday night, Jan. 9.

An old man is on his death bed as the film begins. His son, Gabriel (David Dencik)—who has a strange appearance, including a cleft-lip scar—arrives to see him. The old man asks about Gabriel’s brother, Elias (Mads Mikkelsen); Gabriel begins to get nauseous. As Gabriel goes to the sink in the hospital room, his father dies.

Meanwhile, Elias is on a date with a woman in a wheelchair who is apparently a psychiatrist. Elias, too, appears to have a physical abnormality on his face, including a cleft lip. After immediately ending the date, he’s shown in the restaurant bathroom masturbating as Gabriel calls him on his cell phone to tell him their father has died.

When Gabriel and Elias are together, they find a video tape their father left for them that reveals a family secret: He wasn’t their real father. They were adopted and both have different mothers who died during childbirth—and their real father is some sort of mysterious scientist on an island.

They travel to the island, where there are only 41 residents. As they arrive at their father’s mansion—which looks burned out and ready to fall down—they are met by their three biological brothers: Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Franz (Søren Malling) and Josef (Nicolas Bro). The three brothers are not pleased—and beat up Gabriel and Elias.

Gabriel and Elias return the following day and eventually find themselves hanging out their brothers, all of whom have physical abnormalities, including cleft lips. Meanwhile, all of the characters act … strangely. Elias continues to masturbate at random moments; Gabriel has moments when he throws up in his mouth; Gregor is obsessed with trying to meet women and asks Gabriel for his help in doing so; the other two don’t seem to know how to live like civilized people

You can guess how Men and Chicken is going to end within the first 30 minutes. In order to get to that predictable ending, you have to endure moments of random masturbation, barnyard animals walking with human feet or tiny arms, physical beat-downs at the dinner table, and, of course, the adventure of Gabriel trying to get into the basement.

Director Anders Thomas Jensen’s film has been called a “dark comedy.” Well, there very few moments of comedy. Men and Chicken is more of a kooky cult film that often doesn’t make sense. At least Men and Chicken is only 104 minutes long—and there is indeed an ending.

Published in Reviews

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende remains a divisive figure more than 40 years after his death. The documentary Beyond My Grandfather Allende, being screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, shows that even his family is divided when talking about him.

Allende was elected to the presidency in Chile in 1970, carrying out his vision for “The Chilean Path to Socialism.” On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean military carried out a coup. It’s been said that Allende committed suicide before members of the military entered the presidential palace. While his family members have accepted his death as a suicide, many people don’t believe he killed himself.

In Beyond My Grandfather Allende, his granddaughter, Marcia Tambutti Allende (the director of the film), is shown with one of her cousins looking at newly found photographs of their grandfather. Marcia asks whether their grandmother, Hortensia Bussi, the former first lady of Chile (who was still alive during the filming of the documentary but died in 2009), has seen the photos.

Allende’s living daughters—Isabel Allende and Carmen Paz Allende—are shown. (Another daughter, Beatriz Allende, committed suicide in Cuba several years after the coup.) When Marcia tries to talk to Hortensia Bussi about her grandfather, Hortensia Bussi is hesitant to discuss him—stating that she is tired and wants to stop the interview. The coup deeply wounded the family, scattering the exiled family to Mexico, Cuba and other places around the world.

The film offers several revelations about Salvador Allende. A family friend discusses Allende’s numerous failed campaigns for various positions in the Chilean government, including three failed campaigns for president. Hortensia discusses how tiring the campaigns could be, and how long her husband would be away from the family. Salvador Allende was quite a ladies man, and Hortensia admits she knew about his extramarital affairs, but that their bond was nonetheless tight and couldn’t be broken.

Unfortunately, the film does not reveal much about the Allende family. Another one of the Allende grandchildren tells Marcia that the questions they have about their family are worthwhile, and they should get the answers. However, Marcia’s mother, Isabel—who recently served as a cabinet member in Chile’s government—tells her there needs to be an understanding as to why these questions are not up for discussion.

While the Chilean people argue over the coup and the Chile that followed under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Allende’s family members struggle over simple family history that they will not or cannot discuss. Beyond My Grandfather Allende doesn’t reveal much—except for the deep pain being suffered by Salvador Allende’s family.

Beyond My Grandfather Allende will again be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5. For more information, visit the festival website.

Published in Reviews

After Jack Pettibone Riccobono filmed his 2007 documentary short The Sacred Food on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, he realized the reservation had a darker story to tell.

He went back to film The Seventh Fire, which was shown at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 3, and will be again screened on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

The Seventh Fire follows two residents of White Earth, Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday—both of whom are Native American gang members. Brown is shown throughout the film using drugs, and the law eventually catches up to him to add three more years in jail to the 12 he’s already served throughout his life. Kevin, Brown’s 17-year-old protégé, is following in Brown’s footsteps.

Before Sunday’s screening at the Palm Canyon Theatre, Riccobono and Brown sat down for an interview.

The film lacks a back-story about the reservation and the Ojibwe tribe. Brown filled me in on some basic history.

“The tribe is actually the second-largest tribe in North America,” Brown said. “I’m enrolled in a Minnesota Chippewa tribe, which is a combination of bands of Chippewa Indians. We call ourselves the Ojibwe, but in our language, we’re referred to as the ‘first people.’ We migrated from the East Coast and settled around the Great Lakes. We had to fight the tribes that lived there before, because we were given this prophecy: This was our final place for living. That’s how we ended up all around the Great Lakes.”

As far as opportunity goes on the reservation, Brown said the situation is dire.

“I had the opportunity to grow up there sporadically,” Brown said. “(I was also) in 39 foster homes throughout the state of Minnesota. Occasionally, I would return to the reservation. The living conditions would vary. There would be some working families who were pretty well-established and financially established, but the majority of the homes had very limited income.

“People would come and tell us we were an impoverished community, and I didn’t know what that meant. Right now, I think it contributes to this mundane atmosphere, where people are just disgusted and repulsed by waking up, so they aren’t embracing the life as they should. There’s no love for life anymore, so it’s contributing to depression, crime, suicide, drug use and everything else. It’s ripe for problems, and now since heroin and meth came along, it’s out of control. The situation is critical and dire. It’s just insane.”

Riccobono noticed some of these problems when he went to the reservation to film The Sacred Food.

“It was about wild rice, which is a sacred food for the tribe and part of the Seven Fires prophecy,” Riccobono said. “When they were leaving in the northeast, they received a prophecy to migrate west and look for where food grows on the water. In the lakes region, in the upper U.S. and Canada, they found the wild rice, which they found to be a sacred food from the creator. I made that short, and two years after I made that, I read about the issue about inner-city gang culture and prison culture migrating out to these Native American communities. So I started to look into it, and there was very little out there in terms of films, books or journalistic pieces, so I said, ‘Let me go back to the place where I know people, and see people there who might be willing to talk about it.’

“In October of 2010, I went back and visited the tribal college and played the short. Rob was in the class that day, and we first met. We agreed to move forward on the project and did 14 shoots over two years.”

Riccobono said he had to earn the trust of both Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday in order to film them doing drugs, dealing drugs, or in the midst of chaos.

“It was a long journey making the film, and it’s a huge leap of faith and trust you build up with your main subjects,” Riccobono said. “We always thought of Rob and Kevin as collaborators on the film, and they shot footage on their own. Rob contributed numerous writings of his own to the film, and we feature one of his poems.

“It was an interesting artistic process. For the community where we shot the majority of the film, the fact we kept coming back meant something, because a lot of people don’t go back again. We did 14 shoots over two years. I think the only way you can build trust is by being serious, keeping coming and respecting people’s wishes. If people didn’t want to be filmed, we didn’t film them. We tried to discuss the project and what we were making.”

Brown is shown in the film surrendering to go to jail for three years. It also includes scenes from a party that was thrown for him the night before, and Brown is shown doing drugs in the morning before making a phone call to his father—and breaking down. At the end of the documentary, Brown explains that again being in jail gave him a different perspective—after the drugs were out of his system.

“I served 37 months,” Brown said. “I took a full inventory of what I’ve been in my life … owning everything, and making no excuses for it, then seriously sitting down and choosing to live in a different way.

“I were to put it on one concept, it would be that I had to stop being reactive and start being proactive. I finally understood that. Now I’m learning different things and appropriating them by how I think and how I act. I base these things on respect, good nature, cheer and meaning the things I’m talking about. I’m finding a lot of success with that.”

Brown conceded it’s hard to watch what he does in the film.

“It’s hard for me to watch it now,” Brown said. “I don’t recognize that person, even though I was that person, and I am that person. My speech is different. I was so under the influence, and I had no idea it was that bad. I never want to go back to that. I can’t.”

Brown is currently unemployed.

“I do have a trailer house on the reservation, and right now, I’m not working, but I do plan to start working when I get back,” he said. “It’s hard for me, because it’s hard to tell an employer that I need a full-time job—and I might have to leave for about a week and go to a film festival or whatnot. There are things that are piggybacking from this film, and I have no idea where that’s going, but all I know is I want to be available whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

While Brown is doing better, the status of Kevin Fineday is up in the air.

“Kevin is back on the reservation, and Rob has had some contact with him on social media. The last I heard from him was about a month ago,” Riccobono said. “We reiterated that he has an open invitation to go to the La Plazita Institute in New Mexico, which is our main outreach partner that does amazing work connecting Native American youth to their indigenous culture. In the film, we see that he has a chance to go there, but he’s not really willing to take that leap. I don’t think he’s in that place yet to change his life. We tried to show him the film a couple of times now, and unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. We’ll keep trying, and we’re going to be doing outreach campaigns in Minnesota and screenings there, so I think he’ll have a chance to see it. Maybe seeing it will have an impact on him.”

Brown is the father of six children, and he’s hoping that he can make an impact on the reservation in a positive way.

“There are upstanding members of our community doing things that they never thought they’d be doing, and trying to raise their kids to go to school,” Brown said. “There are so many problems. I have six children, and I’m anxiety-based about their future, but I take into consideration what I’ve been through, and I know what I’ve passed on to my kids. All my kids have shown me they’re resilient, and they’re tough. I know they’ll be OK, because they’re strong, and they’re showing me that. … They’re all considering moving in with me, and three years ago, they wouldn’t have considered that.”

During the interview, Brown had a book of his poetry that is combined with stills from The Seventh Fire. He’s actually a talented writer.

“All I know is when I share my writings that it draws a lot of emotion out of people,” he said. “What I can write and put on paper can make people cry, and I know that’s a gift. It’s not something everybody can’t do.”

The Seventh Fire will again be screened at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. For more information, visit the festival website.

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

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