The Nantucket Film Festival 9
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     I attended the Nantucket Film Festival a couple of weeks ago.  I managed to see 8 features and 2 shorts.  The feature films were: A Home at the End of the World, Garden State , Napoleon Dynamite, Easy, The Door in the Floor,

Seducing Dr. Lewis, Red Lights, and Maria Full of Grace. The shorts were: Dysenchanted, a very cute short with Jim Belushi as a therapist in a group session with Dorothy (the Witch's Dorothy), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and one normal person, and Spidermen, a very sweet short about a little kid on Halloween whose mother wants to take away his candy so he will go to sleep.

These films have all been making the rounds of the film festivals but most of them will be in a least limited theatrical release this summer or fall. I also attended a live reading of the screenplay for Side Man by Warren Leight. The actors reading parts in the screenplay included Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Tom Cavanagh (Ed).

     Here are my mini-reviews of the feature films, roughly in order of how much I liked the films:

1. The Door in the Floor (limited release July 14)

    The Door in the Floor is based on the first one-third of A Widow for One Year, a recent book by John Irving. The idea of carving off the first bit of the book to make a movie came from Tod Williams, who wrote the screenplay and directed. John Irving went along with the idea. The filmed portion of the book focuses on the father and mother of Ruth (the Widow from the title) when she (Elle Fanning, Dakota's sister) is 4 years old. The family is trying to recover from the death of her two older brothers in a car crash. Her mother (Kim Basinger) is in a deep depression. Her father (Jeff Bridges) is compensating by filling his life with constant activity.  The parents separate and Bridges hires a teenage boy (Jon Foster) to be his assistant for the summer. The boy becomes romantically involved with Basinger in one of those teenage fantasies that never happen in real life. The little girl is obsessed with remembering her brothers through the many photographs hanging in their house.

    Having read the book, I couldn't fathom why Irving would allow someone to make part of it into a movie. And screen adaptations of Irving's books (The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Cider House Rules) have ranged from good to awful.  So my expectations were not that high. But The Door in the Floor is very, very good. Geoff Bridges is a god as far as I'm concerned. He is so good and takes over the part so completely, that he dominates this movie. The rest of the cast, which includes John Rothman (also playing a father as in Easy) and Mimi Rogers, are all good. Basinger has her best role since L.A. Confidential. Foster does quite well, acting up against the heavyweights in his first big role. And Fanning who is only 5 years old does an amazing job, playing the little kid who has had to grow up very fast amidst grief all around her. I was pretty much blown away by this movie which was the best film I saw at nff9.

2. Maria Full of Grace (limited release July 14)

      Maria Full of Grace is a film about Columbia shot on location in Columbia and New York City. This film, in Spanish with subtitles, tells the story of a young Columbian woman.  But it was written and directed by a non-Hispanic American man (Joshua Marston). The star, Catalina Sandino Moreno, was studying advertising in College in Bogota, and taking acting classes on the side, when she was among the hundreds of women who auditioned for the part. So on paper, Maria Full of Grace would seem to have little chance of being a good movie, let alone a popular Indie film.  But you never know. It is a great movie and it has already won the Audience Award at Sundance. 

     Maria Full of Grace tells the story of a young woman (Moreno) in a small town in Columbia who works in a factory that packages roses for shipment. Like in all real small towns (and movie small towns), the young people have few options.  They can continue the small lives that their parents lead or they can take a chance,, go to the big city and try to do better for themselves. Maria, who is pregnant and just broke up with her boyfriend, takes the chance and heads for Bogota. She is hired as a "mule" to carry heroin to the United States.  To do this, she must swallow the heroin and carry it in her stomach. She befriends an older "mule" (Patricia Rae) who shows her the ropes. When Maria reaches New York City, the nightmare really begins.

    Maria Full of Grace is a really wonderful movie. Even though it tells the very hackneyed story of the drug trade, it seems very fresh when seen through the eyes of Maria. Moreno, who plays Maria, is the main reason that the movie seems so real and intimate.  She does great in what is her first professional acting job. Similarly, the director has made a very good film that, although definitely an Indie film, has very good production values. The rest of the cast are very good, particularly, Orlando Tobon, playing Don Fernando, the local fixer who runs a travel agency in New York but spends most of his time helping out his neighbors.  The interesting thing is that Tobon is not an actor. He is the real-life Don Fernando. Go see Maria Full of Grace if you have a chance.

3. Easy (Fall 2004)

    After looking for love in all the wrong places, a young woman
(Marguerite Moreau), living in San Francisco, decides on 90 days of celibacy to get her head together. She is recovering from a fling with a poet (Navven Andrews) and is attracted to a late-night comedy-show host (Brian F. O'Byrne). She has a slightly dysfunctional relationship with her sister (Emily Deschanel, Zooey's sister) and father (John Rothman).

    This is a very enjoyable little film. Easy is what Indie films should be all about. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. And it has yet another first time director, Jane Weinstock. She does a very nice job particularly in using different background colors to convey the changing moods of the film. Easy doesn't have the rough edges that one expects from a first-timer. The whole cast is fantastic but it is Moreau in the lead role who steals the film. She has been knocking around in small roles for a long time but this may be her breakout role. O'Byrne is also great as the man who tries to coax Moreau out of her self-imposed celibacy. There are a couple of familiar faces. Andrews, playing the poet, was the soulful Indian bomb disposal expert in The English Patient. And O'Byrne's ex-wife is played by Caroline Goodall (White Squall, Schindler's List).  Easy feels very real and unforced, at least to someone who is taking a little celibacy break of his own right now.

4. Garden State: (release July 30)

    A young man (Zach Braff) comes home to a small town in New Jersey for the first time in 9 years in order to attend his mother's funeral. He is on bad terms with his father (Ian Holm). While at home, Braff spends most of his time getting reacquainted with his high school friends (Peter Sarsgaard etc.), and wooing a young woman (Natalie Portman), he meets in a doctor's waiting room. Braff has a lot of issues that he needs to work out. 

       Braff also wrote and directed Garden State. It's a typical coming of age movie, written/directed/starring the same person. It's pretty well written with lots of whimsy.  But it's a bit rough and meanders a bit. The direction is interesting but is full of film-school camera shots. The best is when Braff walks through an airport men's room and all the automatic faucets come on as he walks by.  Braff, a native of New Jersey, is best known as the star of Scrubs. He is very likeable. Portman (a.k.a. Queen Amidala) does her usual good job. It seems like she has been around forever but she is only 23 years old. Her first film, the memorable The Professional with Jean Reno, was made when she was 13.  However, the best thing in Garden State is Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass).  He steals every scene, he is in, just by looking at the camera with those eyes. He's amazing. Braff's father is played by Ian Holm (a.k.a. Bilbo). It's a very small part but Holm makes the most of it. All in all, Garden State is also a sweet film with a few nice layers.

5 . Napoleon Dynamite (limited release June 11)

      A weird unsocialized high school kid, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), living in a small town in rural Idaho, starts to interact with the other kids at school (Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino). He also has to deal with his nerdy brother (Aaron Ruell) and sleazy uncle (Jon Gries). Heder has only a vague connection to the real world but he wants to get better connected. In particular, he needs to find some skills that will help him attract girls and not get thrown up against his locker all the time. He makes his first friend, Pedro (Ramirez) and is attracted to a girl (Majorino), but keeps getting thrown off track by his family and his own weird goofiness.

    Napoleon Dynamite, the movie, is also really weird and goofy.  Jon Heder is probably the weirdest star of a movie since Yahoo Serious in Young Einstein but he has a lot of heart and that projects through the screen. Otherwise, it's the usual silly coming-of-age plotline, i.e., everyone is good at something and there's a lid for every pot. Napoleon Dynamite has yet another first time writer/director, Jared Hess, who actually comes from the Idaho town where the movie was filmed. There are lots of laughs and lots of bad toupees. Efren Ramirez, as Pedro, is hilarious. Majorino, the love interest, looks pretty much like she did when she was the kid in Waterworld.

Look for Jon Gries as Uncle Rico.  You may recognize him as Lazlo, the guy who lives in the closet in Real Genius. Real Genius is the best geek movie ever but Napoleon Dynamite is pretty funny.

6. A Home at the End of the World: (limited release July 23)

      This is another movie from a novel by Michael Cunningham. Last year, The Hours was adapted for the screen. A Home at the End of the World follows the life of a man (Colin Farrell) who had tremendous trauma as a young boy. He is orphaned while in high school and goes to live with his best friend (Dallas Roberts) and his parents (Sissy Spacek & Matt Frewer a.k.a. Max Headroom). The movie takes place at three stages of Farrell's life, as a young child, a teenager and a young man. In the last segment, he goes to live with his childhood friend in NYC, and meets and falls in love with an older woman (Robin Wright).

    This is a very sweet movie and definitely a different role for Farrell. It is an interesting love triangle with two men and one woman who all sleep with one another. Farrell gets to show that he can actually act. Wright is good as always but is getting a bit stuck in faded flower child roles (White Oleander, Forrest Gump). She will always be The Princess Bride to me although her best film is The Playboys. I've never seen Dallas Roberts before. He is really good. And it's very nice to see Sissy Spacek is working again. She is great even as "the mother" which is her usual role these days. The two kids playing the child and teenage Colin Farrell look just like him. The fake heavy eyebrows help.

     This film has another first-time director, Michael Mayer who does a good job. Despite its unusual triangle, A Home at the End of the World is just about three people trying to make a family and find their place in the world.

7 . Seducing Dr. Lewis (New York June 18)

    Seducing Dr. Lewis is a cute little film.  It is in french with subtitles. If you have ever seen Doc Hollywood, starring Michael J. Fox, this new film will seem very familiar. In Doc Hollywood, a young doctor, on his way to become a plastic surgeon in LA, is stranded in a small southern town by car trouble.  The entire resources of the town are devoted to trying to lure him into staying there as the town doctor.  It's a favorite of mine. In Seducing Dr. Lewis, the Mayor (Raymond Bouchard) of a small town in Québec lures a young doctor (David Boutin) to visit under false pretenses. Then, the entire resources of the town are devoted to trying to lure him into staying there as the town doctor.

    Seducing Dr. Lewis is much rougher and more uneven than Doc Hollywood but it's is pretty funny. The supporting cast are playing all the usual small town characters. They are all quite good especially Raymond Bouchard who plays the Mayor of the town. The film was shot on location in Harrington Harbour Island in Québec.  Seducing Dr. Lewis is silly but heart-warming.
8 . Red Lights (release ?)

      Red Lights is a French film (with subtitles) that starts off as a story about a couple having marital woes and ends up as a film noir. It has been adapted from a book by the prolific French writer, Georges Simenon, best known for his Maigret series.   Red Lights tells the story of a married couple (Jean-Pierre Darroussin & Carole Bouquet) who are driving to pick up their young children from summer camp.  Darroussin is unhappy, perhaps going through a mid-life crisis. He is drinking a lot and arguing with his wife.  Their road trip becomes a trip to hell.  After a few too many drinks and near accidents, the wife gets out of the car and disappears. Then, as in any good film noir, the husband picks up a mysterious hitchhiker who proceeds to hijack him and his car.

    Red Lights has its moments but its one of those movies that wears you down and like the characters in the movie, after a while you just want the nightmare to end. It is a bit of a shock when the movie goes into a death spiral and the characters, who were fairly normal at the beginning, get involved in murder and mayhem.  It's very well done but I can't exactly say that I enjoyed it.