Just in time to beat the summer doldrums-not to mention a Hollywood slump of epidemic proportions-the San Diego Film Festival rides to the rescue this weekend. All year long the festival gurus have been sorting through upwards of 1,200 submissions. Now, more than 75 of the best independent films of the year will be shown over four days in Gaslamp Quarter movie theaters. It's enough to make a film buff's teeth sweat.
So if you want to get your film fix, attend some industry parties, learn how to sell your next screenplay or perhaps have a celebrity sighting or two, log onto www.sdff.org, where you'll find information on passes, panels and more. Here are some film highlights:
Saturday, Sept. 24. Noon
This is the essential film-festival movie. It's powerful, intense, low-budget and making its premiere in San Diego. Little man follows writer/director Nicole Conn and her partner Gwen Baba through the birth of their second child, Nicholas, who arrived 100 days premature. The odds against Nicholas' survival are overwhelming, but Conn is determined to overcome them, against all medical expectations and doctor's advice and contrary to the wishes of her own spouse.
Little man is intensely, painfully personal. And that intimacy itself invites judgment upon the filmmaker, as we're compelled to ask what sort of person would open the most intimate and excruciating moments of her life up to public censure. But that same intimacy makes for extraordinary and unforgettable filmmaking.
There are any number of reasons to dislike Conn. By her own admission, she is a bully, single-minded and at times impossibly selfish. Her betrayal of Gwen is of such scope and implication, that it's difficult to even comprehend. Even so, it's impossible not to be moved by her story.
She is heartbreakingly sincere and megalomaniacal, valiant and repulsive. And though the film isn't perfect, its maudlin tendencies can be forgiven, considering the circumstances of its creation. This is one of the most affecting movies you will ever see.
Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click.
Friday, Sept. 23. 5:30 p.m.
Documentary filmmaker Canann Brumley follows Marine recruits through the harrowing ordeal of boot camp. Un-narrated, with no interviews or other camera interaction (other than a brief introduction of the recruits), the film is strangely mesmerizing. However, much like the actual experience of boot camp, the pace is erratic. There is a lot of hurry up and wait. Equal time is given to the recruits looking for their boots and cleaning their barracks as for any forced march or combat exercise.
Like the bored and stressed recruits, it would be easy to feel that this is a long run for a short slide-especially as there's little in the way of personal drama. Someone lies after failing to complete an obstacle, another embarrasses himself by calling out for help during a drill. But the recruits' identical clothing, buzz cuts and dirty faces make them difficult to tell apart. This was clearly Brumley's intent, and a valid artistic choice, but the result is that his film isn't as gripping as it might have been.
Brumley wanted to let us form our own opinions about how men become Marines, and in this he has admirably succeeded. There is little shred of any personal opinion or moral framework here. But that means it also lacks any discussion of what this training is for. Other than one riveting personal combat scene, it would be easy to imagine that the main purpose of being a Marine is marching and cleaning.
The film is most often scuttled by technical issues. It isn't miked, so it's often difficult or impossible to hear what's going on. The single camera means that reactions aren't caught, or scenes are broken off abruptly.
By the time it's done, the film is an intense and harrowing experience. Though it's difficult to feel invested in any character, it's easy to feel proud and relieved for them as they stand before their families at the end. If Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click. doesn't move you, it will at least shake you.
The Cape of Good Hope
Thursday, Sept. 22. 7:45 p.m.
The Cape of Good Hope is the antidote for the truism that a light, feel-good movie must necessarily be twee and uninteresting. It's a somewhat welcome relief from standard dark film-festival fare.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, director Mark Bamford's film follows three intertwining love stories. Kate, a wealthy South African woman runs an animal shelter, and with her two employees/friends, explores new relationships and discovers new facets of old ones.
The Cape of Good Hope is about the myriad forces in our lives-racism, xenophobia, the pressures our family places on us and those we place on ourselves. While it doesn't address any of these issues in depth or have anything remarkably original to say about them, its strength lies not in it's intensity, but in its effortless charm and humor that encompasses everything from the comedy of manners to pratfalls.
The whole is effervescent and thoroughly enjoyable. If Bamford occasionally diverges from probability, or states explicitly that which would be better unsaid, it's important to remember that the film is ostensibly framed as a romantic comedy, and thus is a masterpiece for that genre.
Saturday, Sept. 24. 7:45 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 25. 2:45 p.m.
When financial crisis looms, Andrew (Eric Balfour, of Six Feet Under fame) tries to preserve his idyllic SoCal existence through a quick prescription-drug deal and takes his best friend (Colin Hanks) and girlfriend (Lauren German) along for the ride. When the drug run in Baja goes sour, the three friends find themselves alone, in danger and with only each other as increasingly unreliable companions. As Andrew makes one terrible decision after the next, the world around him unravels.
The first thing every San Diegan is going to notice about Rx is the total lack of geographical continuity in the driving sequence from L.A. to San Diego. But once that's done, Rx is surprisingly engrossing, thanks in large part to the charismatic performances of Balfour and German.
Like The Cape of Good Hope, the strength of Rx lies not with its originality, but rather with forceful and low-key storytelling. It's easily more gripping than films that contain 10 times the action, simply because of its intense honesty.
At 87 minutes, Rx feels short, but its tautness is an asset in keeping the audience involved, and director Ariel Vromen did a service to the film in making sure there was nothing superfluous getting in the way of this tense and frighteningly plausible story.
The film festival opens Sept. 21 with Prime, the new Ben Younger (Boiler Room) movie that features Uma Thurman playing a woman in love with a younger man. Meryl Streep plays her shrink and possible future in-law.
On Saturday and Sunday, you can see Earthlings, a graphic study of the relationship between people and domestic animals. Produced over several years, the film uses hidden cameras to examine some of the world's biggest industries that depend on animals. Joaquin Phoenix, who narrates, calls this film the most important work he's ever done. Be warned, though-although Earthlings is said to be life-altering, it is also very, very graphic.
This year, the festival showcases Native American films. Duos of movies (a short and a feature) will be shown Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Especially well-received has been 5th World, about two Navajo Americans hitchhiking their way across the reservation.
One of the great things about film festivals is that they give you the chance to see short films that are often unavailable to the general public. This festival will feature almost 60 shorts, mostly broken down into groups with themes-such as comedy or drama, and with running times of about 90 minutes.
Lastly, there are lots of panels on various facets of the film industry happening throughout the festival. Find a schedule of them and of the festival shindigs on the website.