Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Love for the Coachella Valley was a running theme during the Local Spotlight series at the Palm Springs International Film Festival—whether it was expressed by filmmakers who live in the area, or by the onscreen showcases of local landmarks and institutions.

The three Local Spotlight films come from different perspectives and have different goals—but all of the filmmakers involved clearly have a passion for the community.

Co-directors (and married couple) P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes joked about the surprisingly strong turnout for a 7:30 p.m. screening in Palm Springs at the festival debut of their documentary House of Cardin, a tribute to legendary fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Palm Springs residents for the past five years, Ebersole and Hughes developed a love for Cardin’s work thanks to the prevalence of his designs in midcentury modern furniture, setting them on a journey that culminated in the first authorized biography of the notoriously particular fashion icon.

Once Cardin agreed to participate in the film, that opened doors to celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick and others. House of Cardin is a comprehensive look at Cardin’s prolific career in fashion, home furnishings and branded items of all kinds. (Ebersole and Hughes themselves own the Cardin AMC Javelin featured in the movie, shown in a distinctively Palm Springs driveway.) The movie is slick and informative—the kind of thing you could easily imagine streaming on Netflix—and it conveys just how massive the Cardin brand was at its height.

Cardin—still working at the age of 97!—has been involved in so many projects in so many phases of his career that the movie can be a bit unwieldy as it attempts to encapsulate his entire life. For viewers who know nothing about Cardin, the movie offers a sense of the scope of his work and his desire to encourage ethnic and economic diversity in fashion. It’s also relentlessly positive, and can feel a bit overly promotional, especially in the brief sections about Cardin’s personal life that gloss over his complex relationships. Still, the filmmakers could only include as much as they were allowed access to, and as a love letter to the Cardin empire, the movie succeeds.

Director Leo Zahn’s Iconicity (which had its world premiere at the festival) is also a love letter to artistic achievement, in this case to the many quirky art movements in the Coachella Valley and the Mojave Desert. Zahn, who’s lived in Rancho Mirage since 2010, previously made two other documentaries dealing with the cultural history of the Coachella Valley—2016’s Desert Maverick (about architect William F. Cody) and 2018’s Sinatra in Palm Springs—and Iconicity rounds out what he refers to as a loose trilogy. It’s a travelogue of sorts as Zahn visits artists in places including Joshua Tree, Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea’s Slab City and Bombay Beach, chatting with artists in each place, many of whom create unconventional, location-specific works.

Zahn has a clear enthusiasm for the art and artists he features in the movie, and his passion for the material carries the unevenly structured film. Zahn devotes nearly half of the running time to Bombay Beach, which has been extensively transformed by the artists who have colonized the town in recent years. Bombay Beach and its Biennale art festival are fascinating enough subjects that they could easily support their own feature, and Zahn simultaneously takes on too much and not enough by trying to incorporate multiple art communities and movements in the film. At the same time, the movie succeeds in creating a desire to learn more about the artists and their work—and it continues Zahn’s efforts to bring local culture to a wider audience.

The third movie in the Local Spotlight section, Christopher Munch’s The 11th Green, doesn’t have much in common with House of Cardin or Iconicity … or any other movie, for that matter. It’s a narrative film from the writer-director behind cult movies including The Hours and Times and Letters From the Big Man, and while it was mostly shot in Palm Desert and the surrounding areas, it’s not specifically about the Coachella Valley. It’s tough to say what the movie actually is about, since it feels like it was crowd-sourced from conspiracy-theory message-board posts about a government cover-up of UFOs.

Campbell Scott plays a journalist who investigates his late father’s involvement in the alien conspiracy, while staying in his family’s sprawling Palm Desert mansion and working/sleeping with his father’s former assistant (Agnes Bruckner).

Meanwhile, Barack Obama (Leith M. Burke), on vacation in Hawaii, convenes on the astral plane with the ghost of Dwight D. Eisenhower (George Gerdes) to learn about the history of alien involvement in human affairs and decide whether to reveal the truth to the American people. (The movie takes place during Obama’s presidency.) These two completely bonkers storylines never quite fit together, although they sort of converge toward the end of the movie.

Munch takes advantage of the beauty of Palm Desert, shooting in plenty of picturesque outdoor spaces and setting scenes at local businesses, but the location is incidental to the plot. Veteran performers Scott and Bruckner do as well as they could with the absurd storyline, but the best this baffling oddity can hope for is a sort of ironic cult following, along the lines of movies like The Room and Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings.

As far as local culture goes? It’s in a class entirely of its own.

Published in Previews and Features

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has kept tinkering with the way the nominees for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film (recently renamed from Best Foreign Language Film) are selected, the initial shortlist of selections has gotten longer.

That’s a good thing for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which has become the destination where film-goers can see the largest number of submissions for the award. This year, the festival programmed 51 of the record 93 submissions, including all 10 movies that ended up on the shortlist. The final five nominees were announced Jan. 13, on the last day of the festival.

Several of the shortlisted films were among the festival’s hottest tickets—I got stuck sitting in the front row for two of them—and there’s a general sense of excitement among attendees about seeing these movies before their big awards spotlight. Two of the shortlisted movies, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (from South Korea) and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (from Spain), already enjoyed pretty extensive theatrical releases before the festival, garnering plenty of attention and prior awards (and deservedly so; they each made the Oscar nominee cut, too). But the other eight were all genuine discoveries, even if they’ve been making the festival rounds for several months now.

The category is still dominated by World War II and WWII-adjacent narratives, and three of this year’s selections (Russia’s Beanpole, the Czech Republic’s The Painted Bird and Hungary’s Those Who Remained) take place in the immediate aftermath of the war. Beanpole and The Painted Bird are both bleak, often-punishing stories about despair and cruelty, while Those Who Remained is warmer and more optimistic, albeit still tinged with darkness.

Beanpole features a haunting lead performance from Viktoria Miroshnichenko as the title character, a tall, pale, soft-spoken young woman working as a nurse in Leningrad after fighting in the war. Miroshnichenko’s Iya is so traumatized by the war that she suffers paralyzing seizures, one of which leads to a horrible tragedy as she cares for the 3-year-old son of her friend and wartime companion Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). The dire future prospects of the two women are balanced a bit by their strong emotional connection, and Beanpole embeds a tender, well-acted story of queer intimacy in its exploration of postwar misery (although the misery usually wins out).

There’s nothing but misery in Václav Marhoul’s deeply unpleasant adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird, which follows a young Jewish boy’s odyssey across an unnamed Eastern European country in the final days of World War II. At nearly three hours long, the movie is an unrelenting parade of grim torture, as young Joska (Petr Kotlar) drifts from one horrific ordeal to another, taken in by a series of adults who beat, rape, abuse and enslave him, without even a sliver of kindness until the very end. Rather than illuminating the inherent cruelty of human nature, The Painted Bird just wallows in sadism, and its lurid acts of violence quickly become laughable. The black-and-white cinematography is sometimes gorgeously composed, but like the periodic appearances from famous faces (including Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper), it’s just superficial gloss on deep, abiding ugliness.

The gentle Those Who Remained is almost the exact flip side of The Painted Bird. It is a sweet story about two traumatized people forging a connection after losing nearly everything. Set in Budapest in 1948, Those Who Remained walks a fine line between heartwarming and uncomfortable in its story of a teenage girl and a middle-aged doctor, both of whom lost their entire immediate families in the Holocaust, connecting with each other in what could be a surrogate father-daughter relationship … or something more. Director Barnabas Toth pulls off a tough balancing act, keeping both main characters sympathetic while subtly questioning whether their relationship is appropriate. Those Who Remained is a quiet and contemplative movie, sometimes to its detriment, when characters’ motivations are unclear. But it points to the possibility of hope in the darkest times, without coming across as treacly or disingenuous.

Moving away from World War II, other shortlisted films grapple with equally serious issues, often in stark and harrowing ways. My favorite of the entire slate is the Polish religious drama Corpus Christi, which takes a seemingly contrived premise (an ex-con poses as a Catholic priest) and uses it as a meditation on the nature of faith and forgiveness. Bartosz Bielenia (who received the festival’s FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actor in a International Feature Film) gives a fantastic performance as a genuinely devout young man whose criminal record prevents him from attending seminary. When he’s mistaken for a priest in a remote small town, he embraces the chance at a new start both for himself and for the town’s residents, who are still healing from a devastating car accident that killed multiple local teens. What could be a story about a criminal taking advantage of trusting small-town residents is instead a celebration of compassion and forgiveness. It was deservedly one of the five Oscar nominees.

That’s more optimism than you’ll find in any of the other selections, although each has its positive moments. The French drama Les Miserables, also one of the five Oscar nominees, is not yet another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, but it does feature many Hugo references in its story of tensions between police and residents of one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods. A thriller with elements of Training Day, Do the Right Thing and landmark French film La Haine, Les Miserables finds room for sympathy on both sides, while still depicting police power as largely destructive. It’s tense and chaotic, although a little thin on characterization and narrative structure.

Class differences are also central to the Senegalese magical-realist fable Atlantics, which is already available to a wide audience on Netflix. Mati Diop’s debut feature pits poor workers against exploitative capitalists in the form of a supernatural romance of sorts. A group of construction workers who drown on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to Spain looking for work return as spirits to torment the rich businessmen who denied them fair wages at home. The core of the story, though, is young Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), whose longing for her drowned boyfriend grounds the political story in identifiable emotions.

Estonian historical epic Truth and Justice is the stodgiest and most old-fashioned movie on the shortlist, and the one likely to generate the least amount of interest from critics and audiences. Based on the first volume of a five-novel series that is considered Estonia’s defining national work, it’s a slow-moving period drama about rival farmers, spanning nearly 25 years of bitterness between rural neighbors in 19th-century Estonia. It’s handsomely crafted (with some sweeping vistas) but mostly dramatically inert, and while it’s become the biggest box-office success in Estonia’s history (recently toppling James Cameron’s Avatar for that position), its appeal is unlikely to transcend borders.

The biggest outlier on the list is Honeyland, a documentary from North Macedonia that also made the shortlist for documentary feature (and was nominated in both categories). Documentaries aren’t usually submitted in the foreign language/international category, although Honeyland does offer a distinctive representation of rural Macedonia in its portrait of an aging beekeeper and her clashes with a neighboring family who disrupt her time-honored honey-gathering techniques. It’s the kind of perfectly encapsulated conflict between tradition and modernity that makes you question how the filmmakers simply stumbled onto it, and it unfolds with the deliberate (and sometimes tedious) pace of a naturalistic drama, leading to an ambiguous but dramatically poignant conclusion.

Maybe it belongs on this list after all.

Published in Previews and Features

Every January, the desert gets a dose of Hollywood-awards-season glamour with the Palm Springs International Film Festival. This will be its 31st year, and the event is larger than ever, boasting estimated audiences of more than 135,000 and attracting cinephiles from all over the globe.

This year, screenings begin on Friday, Jan. 3, and go through Monday, Jan. 13—and the 2020 version of the festival will have a little more of a local flair.

The reason: The festival’s first-year artistic director, Liliana Rodriguez, is a Coachella Valley native, and she’s making sure the festival’s local roots remain interwoven into its DNA.

“Recently, I’ve been focusing on injecting more of a local feel into the festival with more films in Local Spotlight, as well the new local jury,” she said.

The Local Spotlight film program has expanded this year to feature three films: The 11th Green, House of Cardin and Iconicity. All three films have a distinct style and offer unique perspectives from hometown filmmakers, bringing the relationship between community and festival closer together.

“Locals love the festival and look forward to it every year,” Rodriguez said. “Being a Coachella Valley native myself, it only makes sense to make it something that (locals) can be a part of as well as take pride in.”

The Annenberg Theater, the Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, Palm Springs High School, the Regal Cinemas Palm Springs, the Palm Canyon Theatre and Mary Pickford Is D’Place will host more than 500 screenings of more than 180 films, across every genre, during the festival run.

“I work really closely with our six programmers, who travel the world to find movies for our audience,” Rodriguez said. “There is a lot of discussion about what movies we felt would make a great fit. It is another beast having to schedule all the films. Programming for a film festival is very intense, but always rewarding when you see it all come together.”

One of Rodriguez’s favorite PSIFF programs this year is the Gay!la program. “We're showing Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I often think about out of the blue, even if I saw it first months ago,” she said. “After that, we have Gay Chorus Deep South, a really powerful documentary.”

With more than 180 films in the festival, Rodriguez said it is hard to select just a few must-watch films. “Some personal favorites are Pain and Glory from the great Pedro Almodóvar; First Love for genre fans; and Song Without a Name for something that will stick with you for a long time after you leave the theater.”

Rodriguez said that while the festival features a lot of glitz and glamour, it also has a lot of events that are meant to please true film-lovers—including some events that are free and open to the public.

“Here at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, there’s an emphasis on making sure that all attendees leave with something memorable,” she said.

One particularly interesting free event is “Shortlisted: Best International Feature Film Panel,” taking place at the Annenberg Theater at 4:45 p.m., Monday, Jan. 6. The event will feature a discussion with directors whose films are on the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film.

For first-time festival goers, Rodriguez recommends checking out the festival’s website, as well as the social-media picks each day—or they can take a different approach, and just pick something spontaneously.

“Some of my favorite stories are from people who tell me they went into a movie totally blind and loved it!” she said.

“It starts with the movies for me, so I really hope people will find something they really connect with. There are so many films from all over the world. Bringing those films to our festival-goers and having them experience the stories they bring has always been the goal.”

The Palm Springs International Film Festival takes place from Friday, Jan. 3, through Monday, Jan. 13, at various venues. Tickets to individual films are $13, starting for the general public on Friday, Dec. 20; six-pack tickets are $69. For tickets or more information, visit

Published in Previews and Features

As more and more countries submit official selections to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, the showcase for those submissions at the Palm Springs International Film Festival has taken on greater prominence within the festival.

This year’s recently concluded event featured 43 of the 87 submissions, including all nine movies that have progressed to the shortlist for nominations. (Five films will be ultimately be nominated; nominations will be revealed Tuesday, Jan. 22.)

Some of those shortlisted movies have enjoyed relatively widespread release in advance of their potential nominations, including Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (the submission from Mexico), which is available to anyone with a Netflix subscription and has played in theaters across the country. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (from Poland), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (from Japan) and Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning (from South Korea) have also been making their way to audiences, at least in art-house movie theaters, over the last few months.

Eight of the nine filmmakers (all but Pawlikowksi) appeared at the PSIFF: Cuaron and Kore-eda were both on-hand for in-depth discussions of their films, and Kore-eda joined the other six filmmakers for the panel “Eyes on the Prize: Foreign Language Oscar Directors in Discussion.” Audiences probably didn’t need to be prodded to see Roma, but the festival still performed an important service by playing Cuaron’s expansive family drama on the big screen, where its lovely black-and-white cinematography, meticulous shot composition and immersive sound design can be most effectively appreciated.

Cold War also features lovely black-and-white cinematography and meticulous shot composition, but its constrained, boxy Academy ratio provides a contrast to Roma’s enveloping wide-screen images. Both movies tell deeply personal stories inspired by their directors’ family backgrounds, and both are clearly delivered with passion and care.

Veteran directors Kore-eda and Lee returned to familiar themes with their latest films, with Kore-eda once again tenderly exploring the idea of makeshift families in his affecting drama Shoplifters, and Lee delving into the darkness of human relationships in his Haruki Murakami adaptation Burning. Shoplifters follows an extended family of grifters who turn out to have dark secrets in their past, but it’s mostly about how people neglected by the system can come together to support each other. Burning is a bit more inscrutable, with its ominous love triangle among young people in Seoul, but it also highlights the way that lonely people latch onto each other for support (in this case, with disastrous results).

The other five movies on the Oscar shortlist have yet to reach American audiences as extensively, but some of them will be worth seeking out when they do. The Danish selection The Guilty and the Colombian selection Birds of Passage, both unconventional crime dramas, are the best of the lower-profile movies on the shortlist, with fresh approaches to familiar genre material.

Made on a shoestring budget, Gustav Möller’s The Guilty is set entirely in a small office and focuses almost exclusively on star Jakob Cedergren, who plays a police officer recently demoted to working as an emergency-services operator. When he gets a call from a woman who says she’s been kidnapped, he takes increasingly dangerous risks to do what he believes is necessary to help her. What at first seems like the story of a man determined to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences, eventually reveals itself as a character study of someone who is so desperate to prove himself that he’s willing to put other people in danger. Möller manages to build consistent tension via nothing more than a series of phone calls, and Cedergren, who’s onscreen for nearly every second of the movie, is captivating as the morally compromised cop.

Birds of Passage, co-directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, also offers a fresh perspective on a familiar crime narrative, with its real-life-inspired story of indigenous Wayuu families who get involved in Colombia’s drug trade in the 1960s and ’70s. Structurally, the movie hits nearly every beat of the well-worn rise-and-fall crime-lord story, as the ambitious Rapayet (José Acosta) builds an empire selling marijuana, first to Colombians and later to Americans. There are the clothes and houses and cars that get fancier and fancier; there’s the long-suffering wife whose function is mainly to bear children and worry; there’s the escalating bloodshed leading to inevitable tragedy; there’s even the screw-up brother-in-law whose idiotic actions get people killed. What makes Birds of Passage stand out is the way it combines a naturalistic study of indigenous culture with the grittiness of something like Goodfellas, highlighting universal human tendencies toward greed and pride, as well as the unique qualities of Wayuu life that influence their building of a criminal enterprise.

Both Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka (from Kazakhstan) and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (from Lebanon) are less successful at portraying marginalized people in a way that draws in the audience. Instead, both movies are essentially unrelenting parades of misery, putting their destitute main characters through an endless string of misfortune.

In Ayka, the title character (Samal Yeslyamova) is an immigrant from Kyrgyzstan living illegally in Moscow, and the movie opens with her abandoning her newborn baby at the hospital. Things only get bleaker from there, as Ayka attempts to secure meager employment, runs from a loan shark’s enforcers, suffers the health consequences of leaving the hospital too early, and tries to stay one step ahead of immigration authorities. Shot in a series of often nauseating hand-held close-ups, Ayka is thoroughly unpleasant without being illuminating or transcendent, and its treatment of its lead character feels more sadistic than sympathetic.

Capernaum has more visual beauty, and even moments of levity, but it too spends most of its running time torturing an innocent protagonist. In this case, that’s 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who runs away from his abusive home only to end up facing more poverty, starvation and mistreatment. In an absurd framing device, Zain is in court suing his parents for giving birth to him, with an argument that comes dangerously close to advocating for sterilizing the poor. Labaki relies on the cuteness of her lead actor (as well as an even cuter baby that Zain sort of adopts in the movie’s second half) to elicit cheap sympathy, and throws in a stream of plot developments that get more melodramatic as the movie lurches forward to its overwrought present-day courtroom showdown.

The final movie on the shortlist is the most old-fashioned, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s three-hour-plus German historical epic Never Look Away, loosely inspired by the life of renowned artist Gerhard Richter. The film fictionalizes Richter as Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), and he’s a bit of a cipher as his life and career parallel the development of Germany from just before World War II through the erection of the Berlin Wall. Von Donnersmarck, who also directed the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, seems more interested in the evolution of German politics than he is in art, using Kurt as a point-of-view character to explore Nazi atrocities, Communist repression and capitalist decadence, as the character moves from one regime to another. The filmmaker also invents a rather cartoonish villain, a Nazi-affiliated doctor played by The Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch, who torments Kurt in every phase of his life, as a sort of avatar for the darkness of the German character. The stately, slow-moving film is the opposite of the daring art produced by its main character.

It’s also unlikely to take home an Oscar, as one of the higher-profile movies on the shortlist is all but guaranteed to be the winner. (Really, Roma is pretty much impossible to beat.) But there’s more to foreign cinema than lavish productions from major directors financed by huge corporations—and the PSIFF does a great job of letting audiences discover that.

Published in Previews and Features

Director Nick Frangione had a troubled upbringing in rural Pennsylvania—but he used those experiences to inspire Buck Run, a film that will premiere as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The film follows 15-year-old Shaw (played by Nolan Lyons), who is reunited with his alcoholic father as he’s coping with his mother’s death.

“It’s very, very similar to my childhood, but it’s not exact,” Frangione said during a recent interview. “I did grow up in rural Pennsylvania; my mother passed away when I was a teenager, and my father and I had to renegotiate our relationship. It’s very similar, but there are slight differences. My father wasn’t a hunter, for example, and we didn’t live in a hunting cabin. I also was out of place in my town, and I didn’t really fit very well.”

In the film, the funeral for the mother provides a major plot point.

“The father is very poor, and he’s kind of forced into this situation where he doesn’t have the means for (the funeral), and the main character, Shaw, doesn’t understand that or have the ability to understand that,” Frangione said. “He just really wants to honor his mother and honor her memory and have the normal things one would expect when a parent passes away.”

The on-screen chemistry between Nolan Lyons and James Le Gros, who plays the father, is splendid; Frangione said the casting couldn’t have been any better.

“(Nolan) was just amazing. I wanted a very sensitive kid, and I didn’t want the story about a rough kid. Nolan was just that immediately in the audition: He blew everyone away,” Frangione said. “We really wanted James (Le Gros), because I don’t think there is anybody in the world who could have played that role as well as he did, and it was just perfect.”

The film was shot in rural Pennsylvania.

“We shot in a farmers’ market when it was really happening; we got real Amish people to be in the film,” Frangione said. “We embedded ourselves in the community for a number of months to be able to do that, and we became a part of it, which is the only way I wanted to do it—all real locations, real people’s homes. They all got to know us, and we got to know them, and we made lifelong friends.”

Making a film that’s loosely based on your own life can lead to some perspective-challenging moments, according to Frangione.

“It brought up a lot,” he said. “At first, I really only saw Shaw’s perspective, and I realized no one would want to watch that film, because it’d be too cynical. It was a process of understanding my own father and understanding the people and the place I came from. It ended up being very cathartic, and yet beautiful. It was hard at times, and also really beautiful and worth it at the end of it all.”

Frangione said he plans on working again with the writer of Buck Run, David Hauslein.

“The writer of Buck Run and I are working on another film about a 1970s trucker. It’s sort of a similar thing,” he said. “I didn’t know a lot about truckers, but I’ve grown up around them and have seen them in Pennsylvania. It’s about a trucker and his wife whose son gets kidnapped.”

Buck Run will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 5 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 6, at Palm Springs High School, 2401 E. Baristo Road; and 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 8 at Mary Pickford is D’Place, 36850 Pickfair St., in Cathedral City. Tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit

Published in Reviews

Imagine you’re a young filmmaker. You write, plan and shoot an entire movie—and then someone you trust takes all of the footage and completely disappears.

That’s the real story of the documentary Shirkers, which was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, before being picked up by Netflix and released on the streaming service. It will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 4, 5 and 12.

In 1992, a Singapore teenager obsessed with cinema, Sandi Tan, gathered her friends and set out to make a film she’d written called Shirkers. Georges Cardona, an American living in Singapore, was Tan’s film teacher and the director of the film. When the film was finished, Cardona vanished.

Years later, after Cardona’s death, the film canisters were found and returned to Tan, but without the audio tracks. The documentary starts off as an unsolved mystery, as Tan explains the story, shows scenes from the film, and sets out on a quest to try to understand Cardona’s life and what really happened.

During a phone interview with Tan, who now lives in Los Angeles, she acknowledged that her story is rather strange.

“I’ve lived with it for so long that it’s been a big part of my life,” Tan said. “It’s the secret I’ve had to suppress for so many years that belief is not even part of it. … It seems like a story that’s stranger than fiction.”

Singapore has a notoriously authoritarian government, and Tan said there wasn’t an outlet for independent filmmakers back when she shot Shirkers.

“We were really the only people making an independent film, which is why it was such a revolutionary act,” she said. “… It’s a huge chunk of history that was stolen along with it, along with our dreams. … We just did it without any support or permission. We just shot it.”

Tan at the time was a punk-rocker and artist who found a way to get her hands on material that inspired her.

“I was part of the whole mail-art thing where you’d send your collages and zines to people around the world, trading with them, and you could make mixtapes and send them to another friend somewhere else,” she said. “My cousin in Florida was sending me videotapes of movies I wanted; I’d send her homemade T-shirts as trade. It was our version of the internet. My cousin would rent movies from Blockbuster and copy them onto a VHS tape—things like Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona. I was really into David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. I was also obsessed with Tim Burton. I loved Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table; that was a very inspiring film for me.”

The original Shirkers has never been released; the only parts ever publicly shown are the scenes included in the documentary. The fact that the audio has never been found presents a challenge.

“We could put together a silent version of the film in a creative way, but with creative sound,” Tan said. “I’m not sure about dubbing, which is kind of tacky. I really think it could work as a silent movie with subtitles with creative sound and music. A lot of people want to see the original film, and I’m sure there’s some way we could get that done someday.”

She remembered the first time she watched the footage after it was found and returned to her.

“The strange thing is it was exactly the way I remembered it,” she said. “I was very relieved that I wasn’t imagining all this stuff. All the colors, all the locations, the expressions on people’s faces and everything was exactly as it was in my head, but I had no proof of it, and couldn’t tell anyone.

“When I saw the footage in Burbank with someone who was seeing it for the first time and had no idea what the story was, his jaw just dropped. I knew we had something that was extraordinary and a story that had to be told.”

Tan did not have kind things to say about Georges Cardona.

“His way of being creative is to take away the dreams of other people,” she said. “If other people were able to do things, he would help them realize their dreams and take them away. He’s a very fascinating figure, because we have a lot of (his type in) the film and entertainment industry—people who want to create, but create loss and destruction so they are remembered in some way.”

After the loss of the original Shirkers, Tan said she learned some valuable lessons.

“I have never lost my will and desire to be a filmmaker,” she said. “I really rediscovered my confidence and voice with the help of the technology that’s available. You can do amazing things, and it’s liberating and empowering to realize you’re not the sorceress’ apprentice; you’re now the sorcerer.”

Shirkers will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 1:45 p.m., Friday, Jan. 4, at the Annenberg Theater, 101 N. Museum Drive; 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 5, at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Road; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road. Tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit

Published in Previews and Features

If you’re not a follower of Native American history, you’ve probably never heard of the late Wilma Mankiller—even though she’s arguably one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

Thankfully, a new documentary, Mankiller, takes a deep look at the life of Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film, directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

During a recent phone interview with Red-Horse Mohl, she said a documentary on Wilma Mankiller seemed like an obvious thing to do.

“Wilma Mankiller passed away in 2010, and I obviously knew who she was because I’m Cherokee, but a lot of people don’t know who she was,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “In 2011, PBS reached out to us and said, ‘Maybe you and (co-producer) Gale (Anne Hurd) should think about doing Wilma’s life story.’ The irony is that it took us six years to make the film when we thought it would take a couple of years. It turned into way more than a biography. Her message is still really relevant and really important.”

Mankiller, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a prominent member of the Democratic Party, a liberal activist and a self-described feminist.

“I knew she was a great leader, but never really knew why she was a great leader or what her leadership style was,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “After doing the film, I was really impressed by how she was never angry, never divisive and never looked at her opponents as if they were enemies, and instead looked at them as someone to embrace and to learn from. … For me, especially in this climate that we’re in right now, I think she really role-modeled being a servant leader and thinking about solutions … and work she did as opposed to her own self and her ego.”

During Mankiller’s leadership from 1985 to 1995, the Cherokee Nation became one of the most prosperous Native American tribes in America, with strides in education, employment opportunities and health care.

“I have not met anyone who is Cherokee who feels she is not an icon,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “During her life, she had political opponents, which is bound to happen when you’re in a political situation, but at this point, everyone agrees she did so much for the nation. You can’t argue with the facts—where the Cherokee Nation is at now financially, and most of it is based on groundwork that she laid. … I would say every Cherokee reveres her, regardless of whether they voted for her or were on her side politically, because it doesn’t matter anymore. I think everyone can recognize the greatest Cherokee leader we’ve ever had.”

Joe Byrd, who followed as chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1995 through 1999, was embroiled in scandal. Red-Horse Mohl explained why his tenure was briefly mentioned in the documentary.

“We wanted to include (a mention of Byrd’s tenure), because we felt it spoke to (Mankiller’s) character about after she left office—being so sick yet still caring about the Cherokee Nation—but we didn’t want to take a left turn into the political part of what happened after she left office. … In short, Joe Byrd and his administration were accused of … mishandling government funds and fraud. In order to find out if that were true, the judicial side, which is separate from the executive branch, ordered an audit of all their books. They refused to give them up, and in order to avoid the audit, fired all the existing tribal police and tribal judges. It was pretty bad in terms of what they were doing, and no one knows what really happened, and no one ever went to jail. Wilma felt that some third party needed to intervene, and she wasn’t just going to sit in her sickbed and let this happen, and she really could have. She used her relationship with President Bill Clinton, with the federal government, and she wrote letters and made phone calls, and they got some intervention and people came in to help.”

As a Native American filmmaker, Red-Horse Mohl said it’s hard to break through stereotypes and misconceptions that all Native American tribes and nations went through the same things. 

“That’s why Gale and I really want to make more of these films, because we see the ignorance,” she said. “I meet so many people who are friendly people say, ‘We just had no idea.’ … We typically don’t appear in history books; we don’t appear in film or television, and we’re not in the media. There’s no context for the average person to understand any of that. We do feel a sense of obligation with our documentaries to shed light on things that need to be told, because nobody else is really telling them.”

Mankiller lived with several health conditions throughout her life, and survived a horrible car accident. Red-Horse Mohl said dealing with all of these complications helped make Mankiller a remarkable person.

“One of the things I learned about her was not just strength of character, but physical strength,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “We all live with, ‘I’m tired today,’ and ‘I have too much work.’ I don’t know anyone who had as much going on physically as she did her entire life. She had kidney disease in her 20s. She had a bad car accident, and toward the end, she had multiple things going wrong. Everyone who knew her and was by her side said it was hard for her … but she never complained and was still really good at getting things done.”

Mankiller also covers Wilma Mankiller’s husband, Charlie Soap, who was just as active as she was.

“He is so committed to the Cherokee Nation just as she was, and it’s part of why they were probably so good together,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “He’s still very active and lives in the same house. He’s very active in community organizing and helps to raise money through grants and other projects. He’s still very busy with the Cherokee Nation and projects she would want to be a part of, and he does that in part for her memory.”

Mankiller will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 5; and 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 6, at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Road, Palm Springs; and 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 13, at Mary Pickford Is D’Place, 36850 Pickfair St., in Cathedral City. General admission tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit

Published in Previews and Features

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, 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 It opens on Friday, Jan. 20, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews

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