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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 www.psfilmfest.org.

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 www.psfilmfest.org.

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 www.psfilmfest.org.

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 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

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