For the last two years now I’ve taken a few days away from my 9 to 5, and headed out to Palm Springs, California, to checkout some movie offerings from around the world at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. I like to think of it as a movie lover’s tonic. Something to clear the mind after enduring a year’s worth of mainstream movies that predominately seem content to recycle past projects.
Many of the films screened between January 1 – 11, will likely never make it to your local theater, but therein lies their appeal. These are smaller independent motion pictures, and as such, not micro managed for commercial appeal. They open windows to places we’ve never seen before, tackle difficult subjects, and challenge the audience.
My plan for the festival was the same as last year. First, buy a bunch of tickets. Then when the schedule is released, I select movies that are playing during the time I’ll be in Palm Springs, one in the morning, and one later in the day. I don’t care where they came from or what they are about, and I go into these screenings with no expectations.
Here are my ‘2 cents’ for 5 movies I saw during the festival.
Country: Netherlands (Additional Countries: Germany)
Directed By: Saskia Diesing
Written By: Saskia Diesing, Esther Gerritsen
Starring: Abbey Hoes, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Gijs Blom, Monic Hendrickx
Writer/director Saskia Diesing’s coming of age story, deftly blends nice moments of humor, with a touching father daughter relationship and the weighty subject of assisted suicide. Juxtaposing a sixteen-year old’s first forays with romance, with her handicapped father’s attempts to end his life.
Saskia Diesing’s and Esther Gerritsen’s script, while decent, relies too heavily on the ‘would you rather’ game dialog to broach the films serious topics. And the movie doesn’t really find its rhythm until about half way through. Preferring at first to deliver a collection of nice individual scenes, with little to no narrative thread holding them together.
The performances from Uwe Ochsenknecht and Abbey Hoes as the father daughter couple however, do well to mask the film’s flaws, and their scenes together stand out as the best moments in the film. Their conversations cleverly and subtlety debate her father’s wish to end his life, and help both parties come to terms with this extremely complicated issue.
Country: Ethiopia (Additional Countries: France, Germany, Norway, Qatar )
Directed By: Yared Zeleke
Written By: Yared Zeleke, Geraldine Bajard
Starring: Rediat Amare, Kidist Siyum, Welela Assefa, Surafel Teka
A young Ethiopian boy called Ephraim is left to live with his uncle’s family after the death of his mother. His only companion and emotional anchor in the world is his pet lamb, Chuni – who is headed to become the family’s holiday feast unless Ephraim can find a way to save him.
This film, from first time director Yared Zeleke, is a coming of age story that pits familiar themes of tradition against education and progressive thinking, while a young boy comes to terms with the death of his mother. It’s beautifully shot by Josee Deshaies (Saint Laurent), and tells a slight, even occasionally humorous story amidst a backdrop of poverty and an uncertain future.
Rediat Amare who plays Ephraim, does extremely well in his acting debut to anchor the film, but his inexperience (along with the directors) is evident, as the film frequently lingers long after the ‘moment’ in a scene has passed, and the overall pace of the film seemed slower than it should have been.
On My Mother’s Side
Directed By: Dominic Goyer
Written By: Dominic Goyer
Starring: Marc Paquet, Sylvie de Morais, Élise Guilbault, Marc Béland, David La Haye
After his mother’s suicide, David (Marc Paquet) discovers his father wasn’t the sperm donor, and the subsequent investigation into his mother’s past exposes some unsavory truths.
This is the first feature from director Dominic Goyer, and unfortunately it shows. From its flat photography, to its unsophisticated soundtrack, this is essentially a TV move with delusions of grandeur. That’s not to say it’s a terrible TV movie at all, it’s just when you’re sat in a theater seat, you expect a film, and not something operating on the same technical level of a British soap opera. If I edited together a few episodes of Eastenders, and charged you $10 to see it, you’d likely want your money back.
The mystery at the center of this drama is intriguing enough, and the small artsy animated segments are interesting. The conclusion to this mystery however, is really unsatisfactory. Culminating in a quickly scuttled single reaction shot, and very few answers for the beleaguered viewer that took the time to get to that point in the film.
The supposed emotional impact of the son’s investigation, and subsequent reaction to it never seemed credible either. Which I believe is the result of a really uninvolved performance from Marc Paquet, and an odd script that paints this unlikely detective as unsympathetic, and not the man the audience should be rooting for.
Genre: Drama, War
Directed By: Terence Davies
Written By: Terence Davies
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Ian Pirie, Niall Greig Fulton
Based on the seminal Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song follows the trials and tribulations of Chris (Agyness Deyn) as she comes of age amidst life on her family’s farm under the brutal rule of her father.
This is a period piece, and to be honest, doesn’t bring a whole lot to the screen we haven’t experienced before. By now we know how social attitudes towards women worked back before the First World War when this story was set, and how little was expected of them except to keep a house and raise children. And other than a dreamy story book quality to this production, this film gladly adheres to this genre’s staples. Great costumes, rustic settings, great photography and superb performances.
But while Sunset Song doesn’t try to break the genre mold and present this tale of endurance in a fresh new way. At least it doesn’t fail at being what it’s supposed to be. The production design is first-rate, and Michael McDonough photography is superb. The lead performance from Agyness Deyn is also tremendous. This is potentially a star making turn from the young up and coming actress. Through her performance, we’re drawn into Chris’ world, and root for her as she tackles the many challenges that befall her. We feel her loses, celebrate her victories, and cheer when she takes a stand.
Set the Thames on Fire
Genre: Black Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Directed By: Ben Charles Edwards
Written By: Al Joshua
Starring: Michael Winder, Max Bennett, Noel Fielding, Sadie Fros, Sally Phillips, Lily Loveless, Gerard McDermott, Portia Freeman
Set in a dystopian water-logged London, Set the Thames on Fire, follows the fine tradition of quirky ‘out-there’ movies like Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Delicatessen, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. An experience akin to watching a three-ring circus perform without the big top, in the rain.
Set the Thames on Fire is nuts, but there is actually a story in that madness. A somewhat simple plot about escaping a dystopian London swamp for warmer pastures, as power players old and new scheme to use the story’s central dreamers as pawns in their game. Beyond that, this is just a crazy ink drawing come to life. Passions amidst the dour. Running mascara on a clowns face. It’s brutal and ugly in places, occasionally certifiable, and even beautiful and moving. An absolute must see experience, and certainly the most interesting film I saw at the festival.