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Festival Preview: The 8th Annual Scottsdale International Film Festival

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Although I began as an ardent attendee, my involvement with the annual Scottsdale International Film Festival (SIFF) has grown with each passing year, right along with the festival that has since screened 200 films from more than 48 nations around the globe to 37,000 attendees since its inception in 2001.  Utterly inspired by the humanistic outlet for theatergoers and the power of cinema as a tool for global understanding, my devotion to merely attending soon felt like a call to duty as I morphed into first a volunteer team supervisor before finding my footing as an official festival blogger for The Arizona Republic online, became the Festival Ambassador, grant writer, and film festival guide summary contributor and editor here in 2008 as we celebrate our eighth year. 

 

Needless to say, when it comes to SIFF, I’m a bit biased and all the more excited by the incredible events slated for this year’s festival scheduled from October 3 through the 7th.  Although despite an impressive lineup of unique offerings that enable SIFF’s mission to “use film to foster a meaningful understanding of the world’s cultures, lifestyles, religions” and provide a haven from the constant barrage of grim realities and inescapable truths for our loyal attendees, this year festival goers are in for quite a treat as a bonus screening is scheduled for Thursday, October 9. 

With director Mike Leigh and actress Sally Hawkins scheduled to attend the Arizona premiere of their award-winning critical favorite Happy-Go-Lucky, which earned honors in Berlin, it adds the icing on the cake of our Sundance-favorite Opening Night kickoff Phoebe in Wonderland and Barry Levinson’s supremely funny Hollywood insider comedy What Just Happened? starring Robert De Niro that closes the fest.  While these three titles are all English language, it’s always been Festival Director Amy Ettinger’s goal to emphasize the international in the festival’s title.   

In fact, when our inaugural festival was scheduled to commence on September 28, 2001, little did our festival director, the Scottsdale community or the rest of the globe know that they would soon be waking up to a very different world on 9/11/01 with the horrifying events that shook our nation.  And while the global climate seemed so dire, the SIFF worried that the last thing people would want to do just 17 days after 9/11 was to come to a theatre to see a film yet much to the surprise of the festival, “the community turned out in force at double seating capacity” and sadly, attendees had to be turned away.  What better thing for our mourning population to do than to run to “embrace diversity rather than run from it”– attendees noted to the festival director—in order to utilize cinema as a vital “looking glass into other cultures and ways of life.” 

It’s the continued existence of the festival with “an ever-growing audience” base that exemplifies the wish of our attendees “to be global citizens” and keeps inspiring the festival “to seek out even greater cinematic experiences and windows into the farthest reaches of the world.“  Although extreme effort is taken to seek out high value, independent films as well, a “majority of the international works screened at the festival champion stories of people who stand their ground to make a difference and who seek change for the better;” thus, we can leave the theatre “feeling enriched and inspired to become agents of change,” as noted on the site. 

Additionally, the only festival within the Phoenix metropolitan community that specifically focuses on foreign and international film and routinely attracts official selections from countries around the globe for the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the Academy Awards, it’s a bittersweet privilege to provide audiences with the opportunity to see a large portion of works that wouldn’t normally be released in the community when just five films are nominated for the Oscars.  And in the past, films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Babel, The Kite Runner, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and The Queen– all SIFF Official Selections– have gone on to earn both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. 

While it’s impossible to predict which films may be awards contenders this year and as of now, I’ve only had the privilege of screening roughly a dozen in advance for summary writing and editing purposes, I wanted to offer a mini-guide of selections to showcase the diverse offerings and point out some of the most exciting inclusions for 2008.

Opening Night Selection: Phoebe in Wonderland 

Devotees of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s classic Alice in Wonderland series will be sure to seek out tickets to writer/director Daniel Barnz’s cinematically dazzling tea party which draws numerous parallels to Carroll’s work.  At a crossroads between acceptable childhood innocent curiosity and imaginative exploration mixed with peculiar Alice-like behavior, we follow the tale of the sensitive nine-year-old Phoebe (Elle Fanning), as her tendency to live in her creative mind is beginning to baffle her classmates, teachers, and parents (Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman).  When she’s given the lead role in the school’s theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland by her unorthodox new drama teacher Ms. Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) who likens herself to the Mad Hatter, Phoebe becomes increasingly drawn in by the play, which is coincidentally the same topic of her mother’s scholarly dissertation turned nonfiction work.  Mistaking her daughter’s erratic mannerisms as a cry for motherly attention, Hilary Lichten (Huffman) tries to intervene when Phoebe runs into trouble with her strict principal (Campbell Scott), however when it becomes apparent that Phoebe is going through something more than just a fleeting fascination with Alice’s “looking glass,” those around her realize they need to stop listening to themselves and start listening to Phoebe.  Tenderly drawn, heartfelt, and filled with gripping portrayals from its ensemble cast, Barnz’s Wonderland was screened in a highly successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before it was singled out by several critics as one of the festival’s hidden gems.

Screening and Special Musical Event: Crazy 

The opening quote from this superb biopic of legendary 1950’s Nashville guitarist Hank Garland warns that in Garland’s words, “The music business can be hazardous to your health.”  However, Crazy director Rick Beiber would have done just as well citing the other famous musician his lead actor Waylon Payne previously portrayed in the Oscar-winning Walk the Line—Jerry Lee Lewis– by including a line that may have contributed as much to Garland’s unraveling as it did to Lewis, namely that, “Too much love drives a man insane.”  Chronicling Garland’s life from his humble debut at the Grand Ole Opry to becoming one of the most sought after studio session players in 1950s Nashville, contributing excellent work to country and rockabilly classics by Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and countless others, the film illustrates both Garland’s tremendous range which found him challenging himself across all genres as well as his passion for the music which often led to fights, disagreements, and reckless encounters as he butted heads with domineering musical executives and other performers.  However, as temperamental as Garland was when it came to his music, his pure joy for the medium is unparalleled, which made it all the more complicated when he falls into a love that quickly turns into an obsession with Ali Larter’s beautiful Evelyn, a quick-thinking blonde impervious to his “groupie tactics.” Tragically, after becoming his wife, Evelyn learns that she’s no match for the lure of the road or the promise of a new song, which leads to a rocky road ahead for the married couple as well as Garland’s career when he continually tests the limitations placed on him by corrupt industry.  With admirable attention to detail, Crazy gets a mighty boost from the performance of its gripping lead Waylon Payne, in a role that he no doubt knew in his blood, having been born to two country music artists in their own right.

Note: Actor and musician Waylon Payne will be in attendance on Saturday, October 4 to introduce the film, participate in a post-screening Q&A and perform his music outside and under the stars in Scottsdale. 

Absurdistan 

“No water, no sex.”  Whereas the women in Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy Lysistrata withheld sex from their men to end a war, the women in the village of Absurdistan concoct a similar plan out of necessity in order to get their community’s water pipe fixed.  However, unlike the women of Lysistrata, the results of their decision don’t end a war but rather begin one of epic proportions between the sexes complete with the usual devices of espionage, sabotage and tested loyalties. For Absurdistan, director Veit Helmer’s allegorically absurdist, unusual comedy employs cinematic techniques utilized in Jeunet’s Amelie and Gorris’ Antonia’s Line.  Along the way, Helmer balances the broad comedy of the piece with a sweet tale of youthful love among Aya and Temelko, who, born on the same day, have been destined for one another’s arms their entire lives.  But will their village’s feud end soon enough for them to finally come together?  For the answer, we’ll have to look—not to the stars—but to the water.

Dark Matter 

After earning the highest score on a academic qualifying exam, it seemed like the sky was indeed the limit for brainy cosmology student Liu Xing (Liu Ye) who left his Beijing home to work alongside his scientific idol, Dr. Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) at an American university.  However, comingling superstring theory with the indefinable, immeasurable topic of “dark matter” which became his obsession proved to be both Liu Xing’s greatest academic challenge as well as the ultimate metaphor for the darkness lingering just below the surface of Liu himself.  When his former academic rival arrives at the university and not only seems far more at ease in embracing Western culture but also threatens to take away Liu’s place as Professor Reiser’s pet, Liu realizes that his dream to find a definitive proof for his theory to win a Nobel prize and marry a quintessential blonde haired, blue-eyed American wife may be jeopardized by university politics and academic egos.  Based on a horrific 1991 incident that ended in tragedy at the University of Iowa, the structurally operatic film which is divided into headings of the five elements marks the feature filmmaking debut of internationally renowned theatrical director Chen Shi-Zheng.  In addition, it features a wonderful performance from Meryl Streep as a supportive university benefactress whose own love of Chinese culture makes her the natural choice to take the department’s international students– especially Liu– under her wing. 

Drifting Flowers 

Divided into three hypnotically photographed, thematically linked vignettes, award-winning filmmaker Zero Chou offers audiences an unconventional look at gender and sexual orientation in Taiwan with her third feature film, Drifting Flowers.  Although it opens with a fascinatingly heartfelt tale of two sisters struggling to stay together in a society with prejudices regarding disability and homosexuality, the film’s real discovery is in the terrifically naturalistic performance by university student turned actress Chao Yi-lan as Chalkie, the good-hearted, tomboy accordion player who appears in two of the film’s segments.  Using a constantly moving train as a symbol for journey and femininity throughout, writer/director Zero Chou transports us as her heroines drift along like tough but delicate flowers blooming in their own time while navigating through self-discovery, familial duty, and friendly loyalty with the ultimate destination of love in all of its incarnations. 

The Grocer’s Son 

Clip this coupon:  Art-house fans charmed by The Station Agent and Pieces of April should be sure to add The Grocer’s Son to their festival ticket shopping list which was inspired by both director Eric Guirado’s love of road movies such as the Wim Wenders classic Paris, Texas as well as his own work as a television documentarian crafting cinematic portraits of traveling grocers over the course of eighteen months. Although it’s set during an idyllic summer, The Grocer’s Son is a warm celebration of the French countryside in the tradition of Eric Rohmer’s Autumn Tale.  After having traded what he perceived to be a dead-end existence in the south of France for the hustle and bustle of city life a decade earlier, thirty-year old Antoine sacrifices personal ambition for family duty when he reluctantly agrees to return to his home in Provence upon learning that his father has fallen ill.  With his free-spirited, academically ambitious friend and crush Claire in tow, Antoine takes over his father’s work driving the family grocery delivery truck throughout the sleepy, sparsely populated and eccentric community.  And while journeying throughout the hamlets, Antoine is surprised to realize that he has a lot to learn, not only about the business which he finds fills an important human need throughout Provence, but his own life as well, while rediscovering the important things in life—namely, love, friendship and family. 

Happily Ever After 

More than anything else, the endlessly optimistic yet eternally unlucky Yukie Moirta (Miki Nakatani) wants to be happy… if only for a little bit.  Unfulfilled in her daily work serving customers as a waitress in a noodle-bar where she’s the oblivious target of her boss’ misguided romantic attention, Yukie’s home life is further complicated by the unpredictable moods of her brawny live-in lover Isao Hayama (Hiroshi Abe).  Prone to repetitively flipping over their kitchen table complete with Yukie’s sumptuous cuisine on ever-changing whims, the irrationally quick-to-anger unemployed Hayama who spends his days gambling away the money he steals from his girlfriend’s wages is nonetheless adored by the faithful and loyal Yukie.  Unfailingly calling him her “darling,” Yukie fondly recalls the way her lover had saved her from fellow members of his old Tokyo Yakuza street gang.  Convinced that he’s a changed man and their love will set him straight, Yukie ignores the naysayers and fights the odds to earn her own slice of happiness in director Yukihiko Tsusumi’s adaptation of Japan’s wildly popular heartbreaking comic strip “Jigyaku no Uta,” from creator Yoshiie Goda. 

Not By Chance 

Produced by Constant Gardner director Fernando Meirelles, this impressively audacious and high quality debut feature film from Brazilian writer/director Philippe Barcinski follows in the thematic and cinematically stylistic footsteps of Altman’s Short Cuts, Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and Haggis’ Crash.  Centering on the alternately tragic and romantic yet always unpredictable fates of its seemingly unrelated characters, we first meet Enio, a middle-aged Sao Paulo traffic controller whose orderly existence, driven by mathematical logic and scientific precision is thrown into a tailspin after he discovers there are things beyond his control.  After a startling event shakes Enio to his core, we encounter the younger talented billiard player Pedro, who, similar to Enio has a passion for structure in the geometric design of his pool table designs, and later discover that he is also linked to the film’s earlier climactic event.  Polished, breathtaking and expertly photographed with a memorable score woven throughout, Not By Chance is one of those films that will not only get audiences talking about the existential matters of free will vs. destiny but will also benefit from a second viewing. 

The Pope’s Toilet 

Upon hearing rumors that 20,000 Brazillian tourists will be flooding their tiny Uruguayan village for the 1988 visit of “The Traveling Pope,” His Holiness John Paul II, the locals of Melo eagerly sell their land and take out enormous bank loans in preparation to erect nearly 400 food stands in the hopes that God will provide them with fortune.  While his neighbors opt for mouth watering recipes, long-time smuggler Beto—weary from the lengthy treks he makes along into Brazil to bring back goods to sell to businesses while dodging a crooked customs officer—decides to put on his notorious thinking cap, scheming that logically after one eats, the next requirement will find passersby looking for a suitable restroom.  Impulsively, he enlists the help of his devoted but frustrated wife and ambitious daughter who longs to escape her fate and become a journalist, by erecting an enclosed “pay toilet” fit for a Pope on his property.  However, when the expenses begin mounting, Beto finds himself struggling to make ends meet, not only to provide for his family but also to create what he deems will be the moneymaking answer to all of their problems, which he—along with his neighbors—feel will no doubt be solved by, if not a Catholic miracle, then a visit from the Pope.  Alternately funny and melancholic, with an obvious homage towards classic Italian neorealist films such as The Bicycle Thief, this deceptively simple and quirky offering became Uruguay’s official entry to the Academy Awards.  It also raises some vital questions about ethical and moral obligations and implications that arise when religious figures travel to poverty-stricken communities, leading to mixed results that are sure to have festival attendees chatting away, especially while in line for the restroom. 

Strangers 

Although if asked honestly, most of us share a preference of dating within our party lines, in America, we frequently express that it’s best to keep politics out of love.  However, the discovery of a true romance seldom goes according to plan.  And imagine how much tougher courtship becomes when in the Sundance hit Strangers when the man and woman who find they’re becoming increasingly drawn to one another are Israeli and Palestinian respectively.  Beginning with a typical “meet cute,” classic romantic comedy set-up, World Cup tourists Eyal and Rana first catch each other’s eye sitting opposite one another aboard a Berlin train.  After mistakenly leaving with their opposite yet identical rucksacks and phoning to arrange a swap, the two strangers find themselves stranded in the overly-crowded city and find unlikely shelter in a large apartment upon learning that all hotels are booked.  Despite a few tense moments and awkward jokes, they manage to form a bond despite their differences and soon slide rather naturally from friendship to romance amidst the celebrating city.  Although unlike the admittedly naïve characters in Richard Linklater’s similarly plotted Generation X classic Before Sunrise, the problems Eyal and Rana face are global in scale. Ultimately, following their separation in Berlin after a night of young passion, the two must come to terms with how their experiences, family duties and ethnicity will impact any chance of a future when Eyal forgoes Rana’s wish and heads to Paris to reunite with his beguiling new love.  This becomes especially complicated when a second Israel-Lebanon war begins.  Hopefully optimistic, surprisingly touching and exuberantly photographed with earnest portrayals by its young leads, the fast-paced film admirably avoids the predictable tragedy one would fear. And along the way it should manage to inspire even the most politically cynical audience members that perhaps it isn’t too late to remember the old 60’s slogan to “make love, not war.”

Time to Die 

If it hadn’t already been used as the title of one of Chekov’s most beloved short stories, perhaps writer/director Dorota Kedzierzawska would have been better off renaming the admittedly melancholic Time to Die, The Lady With the Dog instead.  Time is bolstered by the feisty, winsome performance by its 91 year old lead actress Danuta Szaflarska as Aniela, a strong-willed woman who adamantly refuses “to go gently into that good night.” With her loyal border collie Phila (short for Philadelphia—possibly a reference to W.C. Fields’ gravestone of “I’d rather be in…”) at her side, Aniela, prefers to spend her days wandering around the sprawling, dusty, overwhelmingly large and slightly dilapidated wooded Warsaw home that was once the setting of grand World War II era parties.  Between spying on her neighbors and sharing nostalgia driven tea (or more accurately liquor) parties reminiscing with her dog, after Aniela discovers that scheming relatives and locals may be in cahoots to inherit her property, the elderly woman realize it’s time to stop living in the past and start planning for the future in order to outwit the others. 

An entire schedule of films along with summaries of the rest of the incredible lineup, also featuring Sidebar Programming in the form of Independent Films, GLBT Spotlight, Latin American Spotlight, and Special Advance Screenings and details on the Opening Night Party can be found on the official website.  With an interactive new look and the opportunity for users to rate and review films, visit movie websites, see photo slideshows, plan their own handy printouts of self-created schedules, and purchase tickets right from the site, you’re sure to be able to design a tailor-made festival plan for a cinematic trip around the globe, minus the overwhelming expense.   

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About Jen Johans