Monday, April 20, 2009

Salem Film Festival: An Overview of Opening Weekend

The opening weekend for the 4th annual Salem Film Festival has come and gone, and I was there for six of the events. First things first: the new Salem Cinema is beautiful. It pleases me to no end to have an art house cinema like that about five minutes from where I live. About the films: every film I saw was either good or great, something that isn’t always bound to happen with festival films. Overall I’m glad I shelled out the money for a weekend pass; it was one of the best film experiences I’ve had, and that’s all thanks to the beautiful new Salem Cinema and the wonderful array of films and filmmakers at the festival. Some brief thoughts on specific films after the jump…

Throughout the week I’ll post more detailed and traditional reviews of the films I saw this weekend. For now, however, here are some highlights from my weekend:

Opening night I went and saw the film Once More with Feeling starring Chaz Palminteri and Linda Fiorentino. The film, directed by indie stalwart Jeff Lipski, is about a psychiatrist named Frank Gregorio(Palminteri) who once had a passion for singing. As he prepares to sing a song for his daughter’s wedding, his fire is rekindled and the only appropriate outlet is through a karaoke bar located in the local bowling alley. This creates problems with the family as they wish they had more of their father around – he sees it as his family not taking an interest in what he’s doing and what he’s passionate about, and thus it inevitably leads to a romantic interest with Fiorentino, a quiet lurker in the bowling alley bar who sees talent in Palminteri. There are hidden secrets and truths and something else lurking behind the intentions of Fiorentino, but nothing every overtly sexual; the film is too smart for that and doesn’t rely on Hollywood conventions. The film parallels the story of the father with a story about his daughter (the wonderful Drea de Matteo) who is also considering an affair with a local policeman. Lipsky’s film is touching and warm and had me smiling from beginning to end. There are moments that come from real life situational humor, moments that evoke genuine laughter – a kind of been there, done that tone to the punch line. The film also (wisely) sidesteps the siren song of sitcom humor or drama – there are no false moments of mistaken intentions, there are no wacky moments of sexual advances, and most importantly, the characters don’t act like their actions don’t have consequences. It’s irrelevant whether or not the main characters do or do not have affairs, but what is important is that Lipsky’s film actually shows them weighing the pros and cons of said affairs. Rarely do you get a film or a filmmaker that has the patience to show that. The only minus for the film was the way it was filmed; filmed in digital some of the film was a little murky and in some scenes I definitely noticed the digital photography more than the story, but those are nitpicks. Lipsky was in attendance for a Q and A afterwards and mentioned that filming on digital was something that he didn’t want to do, and it’s something he’ll never do again.

The following day I attended the Celebration of Cinematography seminar with Vilmos Zsigmond in attendance. He was accompanied by fellow cinematographer James Chressanthis who directed the recent documentary about the careers of Vilmos and Laszlo Kovacs. They both showed clips from their films and answered questions about the art of cinematography. I will follow-up with a more detailed account of the event tomorrow or Wednesday, but I just want to point out that there were some great quotes about the film industry and filmmaking today. Also, I asked a question about Heaven’s Gate without mentioning the title of the film, Vilmos, ever the diplomat, kindly sidestepped my question and answered it in a way without ever addressing what I was getting. Oh well, it was worth a shot.

After the seminar I had a few minutes to prepare for the one film I was most looking forward to, Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. This is a powerful film about the thin line between truth and reality and how we remember things. Like any good Egoyan film, Adoration begins in flashback and then works its way towards a conclusion via more flash backs, until finally the major epiphany happens and Egoyan unravels the final layer. I admit I am a huge fan of his films and probably an apologetic one at that, but this is a film of tremendous power that ranks right up there with Egoyan’s own masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter. I felt lucky to see the movie as we were informed before the film began that it probably won’t be released until July or August.

Later that night I watched the Japanese film Kabei: Our Mother which is a deliberate and poignant WWII melodrama. There is a shot at the end of the film that shows post war Japan in a small rural village, it’s an unexpected punch to the gut as most of the film is quite tame aesthetically. This is your typical Japanese film, slow, methodical in its melodrama, and wonderfully acted. The director Yoji Yamada has apparently been around a long time as I researched him prior to seeing the film and found that this was the man’s 80th film (!). At certain points I felt the films length, but then to the films credit I was sucked right back in for another 45 or 50 minutes. A really nice film.

The final film of the night was the real surprise, and I think ultimate winner, of the festival. Jeffery Goodman: The Last Lullaby. Tom Sizemore stars as a “retired” and weary hitman who can’t sleep, stumbles upon an opportunity to make some money which dominoes into events that get him more and more involved with someone he is supposed to kill. The film is a highly affective small town neo-noir in the vein of Blood Simple, Red Rock West, and 2007’s The Lookout. There's also a nice homage to John Boorman's noir classic Point Blank. Sizemore still has the chops to act, and the look of the film is gorgeous as we were treated to a pristine 35mm print made solely for the Salem Film Festival. The film doesn’t rely on the clichés of the thriller; rather, it has fun with the conventions and motifs of noir: the weary protagonist, the man who gets in too deep, ambiguity, etc. There’s a great shootout scene that is intelligent and relies on silence and smarts, rather than guns blazing. It’s films like this that get me excited about the fact there are still filmmakers out there who realize that, when making a film like this, subdued and classical film techniques are always going to trump the “in-the-moment” action style found in most movies containing shootouts. The violence in The Last Lullaby is shocking, not because it’s ultra violent, but because the loudness of gun bursts always breaks the comforts of silence. It's an amazing film that succeeds in existing in that kind of no man's land found in sorta-commerical, sorta-indie films like In Bruges and the aforementioned The Lookout.

I wrapped my weekend by seeing a touching Chinese/American film called Children of Invention. The film was made before the market crashed and millions of people lost their jobs, but it has come at an appropriate time. The film concerns a mother who is trying to make ends meet after her husband has left her to go back to Hong Kong. Elaine Chang and her two young kids live just outside of Boston in an abandon new construction condo (the owner is out of town for five months, so their friend allows them to stay there). Elaine is constantly looking for the next “get rich quick” idea as she spends most of her day replying to ads in the newspaper. Eventually she is conned into a pyramid scheme and the bad goes to worse as events unfold that leave her kids vying for themselves. There are moments of real joy that are cut with moments of intense anxiety as Elaine struggles to figure out how she will get food on the table. The title comes into play at the end, something I dare not spoil, but I will say this: when the kids’ moment of reverie is interrupted by the harsh realities of the world they have to live it, well, it was one of the most poignant moments of any film I saw at the festival. The film is doubly remarkable by the fact that the two young young actors carry the film, and kudos to writer/director Tze Chun for not making the kids sugary-sweet and going the conventional route where the audience’s emotions are manipulated; which is usually the case with films concerning small children.

Overall it was a great weekend and the films are still fresh in my mind. I’ll post some more thorough reviews throughout the week. Until then…


  1. Hey Kevin, What about next weekend? Are you going to see The Eternal City on Saturday? We'd love for you to check it out.

  2. Jason:

    I'm really going to try to get to some of the films next weekend; however, the reason I bought my pass for just one weekend was the fact that next weekend is very busy for me. That being said: I'm going to try my hardest to get out and see some films, and yours plays at a good time for me. I'll put it at the top of the list. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Well this is some round-up here, but Kevin Olsen's enthusiasm (and stamina) are certainly amazing. What's really terrific is that you didn't have to suffer through some stinkers, which (yes) in a festival like this is rare.

    I'll admit to you Kevin, that the film that has me most enthused is Atom Egoyan's ADORATION, which of course you also admitted had you pumped. And I'm delighted and surprised at your report that we may have a winner here. Like you I rate THE SWEET HEREAFTER as a masterpiece, in fact I do believe it's the second greatest Canadien film ever made, behind Claude Jutra's MON ONCLE ANTOINE. Egoyan has of course, never equaled that shattering film, but he's had a few others that have worked partially, like EXOTICA and FELICIA'S JOURNEY. I have not really heard much about this film, so your report reports the great news!

    I am unfamiliar with Yoji Yamada, even though you relate that he's made 80 films!?! Anyway, KABEI exposes a weakness in me for these kinds of films (this one set in post war Japan) I bet it really recalls Ozu, no?

    I wouldn't think I would go for something like THE LAST LULLABY with Tom Sizemore, but your recommendation does blunt my concerns a bit, especially as you compare the independent essence with the likes of two films I did like: IN BRUGES and THE LOOKOUT. (you also mention RED ROCK WEST, BLOOD SIMPLE and even th emodern noir classic POINT BLANK)

    But I guess this conveys the good news:

    "The film doesn’t rely on the clichés of the thriller; rather, it has fun with the conventions and motifs of noir: the weary protagonist, the man who gets in too deep, ambiguity, etc. There’s a great shootout scene that is intelligent and relies on silence and smarts, rather than guns blazing."


    That was really cool beans there that you had a question fielded about HEAVEN'S GATE, even if the answer you desired was shirted around. But Vilos Zseigmond is quite the cinematography icon, and that documentary really sounds buffo!

    As far as ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, it's always a treat to have Linda Fiorentino and Chazz Palminteri. Remember Linda in THE LAST SEDUCTION?! I also don't like the inflated use of digital video, even though some say the future will bring a preponderance of this. Again, like LAST LULLABY, I wouldn't ordinarily think this would be my cup of tea, but you sound impressed by this well-crafted inde. And again, great stuff with that Jeff Linsky Q and A! That really makes for a complete experience!

    What a fantastic round-up here, so well-written and infectiously enthusiastic!

  4. Sam:

    Thank you so much for the kind words and wonderfully worthwhile comments. I love it when people comment on this site and add to the conversation, so I hope you'll be around more to contribute your always insightful thoughts to Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Commentator's like you make this blog a lot of fun for me.

    Yes, most of the films I saw were good to great. More detailed reviews are forthcoming as that will help explain what I specifically liked about each film. There are of course some films that scream DVD rental (Once More With Feeling and Kabei come to mind), but that doesn't mean they aren't worth your time.

    Yes, I remember The Last Seduction, one of my favorite neo noirs. I asked the director of the film at the Q and A if she was difficult working with or preferred to be photographed a certain way. He said she was absolutely wonderful to work with (and this man had no reason to lie as he was pretty candid all night), and claimed she was a real class act. It's a really nice performance by her as she does her own singing in the film and has a tremendously beautiful, seductive you can imagine.

    I harnessed my thoughts a bit on Adoration because I want to save that for the full review -- which is coming in a few days. The film is a masterpiece, and as I stated above, rivals The Sweet Hereafter (but we'll see about that upon subsequent viewings).

    Kabei did indeed remind me of Ozu. I admit that I don't always have the patience for Japanese cinema, but this film, despite its soggy middle, was a positive experience.

    I hope you do give The Last Lullaby a chance, it's really quite a shockingly good indie noir. Watching it reminded me of the assured direction and confidence found in Paul Thomas Anderson's debut film -- a kind of noir picture itself -- Hard Eight. It's a remarkable debut film in the sense that it never really takes the easy way out.

    Thanks again for your comments. I look forward to more conversing.