2009 Florida Film Festival Features Chizfilm Movie Reviews
April 9, 2009

FFF 09 Part II: “Original Cinema” Features

by Jonathan Chisdes

If you read my last article on Monday, you know I just spent a fantastic week at the eighteenth annual Florida Film Festival. In addition to all the shorts, some of which I just wrote about, I managed to see eight feature-length films, most of which were quite enjoyable.

I want to start off talking about “Alien Trespass” even though it was the very last film that I saw at the festival, because it is the first which will be released. In fact it’s already playing a limited engagement but will soon, hopefully, be playing at a theatre near you.

This comedy is an homage to the B sci-fi/horror films of the 1950s, such as “The Blob,” “The Thing,” “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” etc. Rooted in Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation and anxiety about the space-race, these low-budget, campy films were drive-in fodder for a generation of teenagers. “Alien Trespass” successfully imitates the style of these films, honoring them and mocking them at the same time. Careful attention is paid to period detail as well as cheesy overacting and low budget effects such as putting a man inside a monster suit or shooting day-for-night.

Despite being rooted in the 50s, there’s a wink and a nod from the present, such as in the line, “Edsels will be around forever,” or showing a husband and wife having two separate beds but sleeping together, cramped, in one of them.

My favorite scene was when the kids went into the theatre to watch “The Blob.” In the movie-within-the-movie, the monster attacked a crowd in the theatre while, in “Alien Trespass,” the monster attacked the kids in the theatre. And then, of course, we were also sitting in a movie theatre watching all this which made it triple fun. What a delight!

Another movie that I enjoyed very much was “Lymelife,” a humorous coming-of-age story set on Long Island in the 1970s. It stars Rory Culkin and has a stellar supporting cast including Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessy, Cynthia Nixon, Timothy Hutton, and Rory’s own real-life brother Kieran Culkin. Naturally, the acting by everyone was excellent.

Rory’s Culkin’s character has to deal with the threat of lyme disease, a neighbor who goes around shooting his rifle, a father who is cheating on his mother, a local bully, a brother home on leave from the Army, and a crush who is more interested in older men. God knows it’s not easy being a teenager.

Of course, it’s even harder being a Mexican immigrant in South-Central Los Angeles. And that’s the focus of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s documentary, “The Garden,” which was recently nominated for an Academy Award. This documentary focuses on a community garden that was created by the Latino residents of LA’s South-Central neighborhood who used thirteen acres of public land to grow their own organic produce.

Unfortunately, through a loophole in the law, the land which had been taken from its original owner, under the right of eminent domain, was deeded back to him. Now the owner wants the Latino farmers off his land. A series of political and legal battles ensues. Filmmaker Kennedy keeps the issues interesting, current, and the audience is on the edge of its seat, hoping against hope, that the interests of the common man can prevail against those of power.

Maybe the mayor or a certain presidential candidate can intervene. Maybe environmental charities can help. Maybe famous movie-star activists can help raise money. Or maybe commercial interests will just prove too powerful.

There were four foreign films that I saw at the FFF. The most unusual of these was Ramchand Pakistani about an eight-year-old boy living in a small, remote village near the India/Pakistan border. One day he absent-mindedly wanders across the border into India; when his father runs after him, the two are captured by guards and accused of being Pakistani spies. They are sent to a prison deep inside India where they end up spending five years. On the outside, back in Pakistan, the wife/mother receives no word of their condition and maintains a long vigil.

I have to tell you, this film was just heartbreaking. It gave me such hatred for the politics of distrustful nations as well as for prison guards. And I think of the tragedy of this poor kid—not only was he robbed of five years of his youth, but I wonder what the long-term psychological effects would be on one who spends five of his most formative years being treated as a subhuman.

The movie was beautifully photographed and it was interesting for me to notice the costumes—quite a contrast between the bright, brilliant colors worn by those outside and the drab, faded colors worn by those inside.

Unfortunately the filmmakers were not in attendance; there were so many questions I’d have loved to ask, not the least of which was about the cooperation of both Indian and Pakistani filmmakers. I wondered if the story behind the story was just as or even more interesting than the movie itself.

Another very good foreign film I saw was called “Séraphine.” It was a French movie about an early 20th Century painter called Séraphine de Senlis who painted bright, lively, abstracted plants and flowers. Poor, and living in rural France, she made her own paints the old-fashion way. Nobody paid much attention to her or her paintings until a visiting German art critic discovered her almost by accident and then tried to help her career.

Séraphine “was a bit nutty,” to quote my sister, with whom I saw this moving film. Consumed by her religious devotion to her art, she had little grasp of money (she could only understand extremely poor or extremely rich) and couldn’t understand how the tide of history, such as the intrusions of World War I and the Great Depression, could affect her life.

The film took its time to tell its sad yet beautiful tale. Outstanding cinematography and acting added to the enjoyment of reveling in early 20th Century art and history.

Another French film I saw was the enjoyable comedy “Shall We Kiss?” It begins when a man and a woman meet by chance on the street and end up spending a wonderful afternoon and evening together. When the man wants to give a kiss in parting, the woman tells him a story emphasizing that every kiss has the potential for serious consequences.

Cute and funny, but also with a note of seriousness, the film had a wonderful classical music score (including Shubert and Tchaikovsky) and made me think about some of the seemingly random events in my own life, some of which led to a delightful day, some of which led to serious relationships.

The final foreign film I saw was the most disappointing. It was an Italian movie called “Il Divo.” It was about the rise and fall of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti who was prime minister of Italy seven times; after leaving office, in the 1990s, he was accused of corruption and mafia ties. Though it could have been an extremely interesting film, I’m forced to admit I found it quite confusing because there were so many details and minor characters. I’m not sure but I think, maybe, the filmmaker was assuming an Italian audience who was familiar with recent political events in Italy; perhaps he felt he didn’t need to explain things that Italians take for granted. Unfortunately I and others who aren’t up on Italian politics of the 1990s would have a lot of trouble following the plot.

So now, finally, I want to conclude with “Poundcake,” the film that, in my view, was the best of the festival. And it’s not only my view because the film won the Audience Award for Best Film as well as the Jury Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Set in 1987, the hilarious “Poundcake” explores a dysfunctional family. The adopted daughter is sleeping with her vulgar, one-handed boss; the older son works the overnight shift at a radio station fielding calls from listeners who tell him he sucks; and the younger son has spent his whole life drifting from one unsuccessful project to the next (hmmm… do I know anyone like that?). Over the Thanksgiving holidays, the parents tell their children that they are getting divorced; hilarity ensues as deep-seated emotions surface in the wake of this announcement.

The Eighties music that pervades the soundtrack, as well as the vintage clothing and hairstyles, may make you nostalgic for your childhood if, like me, you grew up in the Eighties. And the witty dialogue will keep you in stitches.

The talkback afterwards was quite lively. The two actors who played two of the children and also co-wrote the screenplay were both present. So were the director and the producer. The actors/writers had once worked in improv comedy, so whenever anyone asked a question, they had a funny answer. Although I considered several of the questions asked by the audience rather inane, it was still quite fun because the answers were highly amusing.

Although the movie has yet to get a distributor, I can’t imagine it will be too far into the future, given how popular it was with both audience and jury. I look forward to the time it will be playing nationwide and I’ll be able to see it again.

So that’s that. Overall, I’d say the 2009 FFF was a huge success. Of the 34 films I saw, I certainly enjoyed the vast majority of them. Film festivals are always worth going to and I’m looking forward to the next one that I’ll be able to attend. Whenever and wherever that is.

Return to Chizfilm Movie Reviews where you are welcome to leave comments and subscribe to future updates. If you enjoyed this or other Chizfilm reviews, be sure to tell your family and friends.