Best of the 2011 Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival

The Palm Springs International Film Festival has grown to such remarkable proportions that over 130,000 people attended its 205 films from 69 countries during the Festival’s run of Jan. 6-17. While 41 of the 65 films nominated for the Foreign Film Oscar were unspooled, it was often the movies that were not nominated that impressed this reporter and has him hoping for their domestic distribution so that others might enjoy them.

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The Sound of Noise (Sweden/France/director: Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjarne Nilsson)

Hands down, the most innovative and imaginative feature, The Sound of Noise takes five actual percussionists and injects them into a loopy but brilliant feature about anarchist percussionists whose outlandish, flashmob public performances turn a city inside out. The only hope to stop them is a music-hating investigator who is sick of hearing how brilliant his symphony conductor brother is. Joyous, unpredictable filmmaking.

Small Town Murder Songs (Canada/Ed Gass-Donnelly)

Variety named Gass-Donnelly to their 10 Directors to Watch list and rightfully so. He has taken a small town murder story made an indelible impression, with the aid of a totally captivating Peter Stormare as a policeman estranged from his Mennonite community for a previous act of violence. When his ex-girlfriend is involved with the main suspect of a murder, the flawed hero of the tale can barely handle the pressure. Bruce Peninsula’s powerful soundtrack and a fine turn by Martha Plimpton aids the director of this simple but haunting work.

Louder Than a Bomb (USA/Greg Jacobs, Ron Siskel)

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, Louder Than a Bomb is the name of the largest youth poetry slam in the world, held each year in Chicago. The filmmakers follow four young people who converge on Louder Than a Bomb with different family stories and a unified need to express themselves. In addition to their moving personal histories, the doc features some stunning work, rendered in sometimes gut-wrenching performance style, with loud and lasting results.

Hello! How Are You? (Romania/Spain/Italy/Alexandru Maftei)

Before the screening, director Maftei joked this is the only romantic comedy ever made in the history of Romania. That country’s penchant for dark material is subsumed by this offbeat and sexy comedy-drama about a former musician who is relegated to turning pages for a concert pianist and his dry cleaning shop wife, stuck with him in a passionless marriage. Their oversexed son insists on being given a computer which husband and wife use to flirt in chat rooms online…unknowingly with each other. Maftei avoids the cute factor with a winning rom-com unlike any seen on these shores.

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Copacabana (France/Holland/Marc Fitoussi)

French actress Isabelle Huppert has proved she can play any role and here she plays mother to her real-life daughter Lolita Chammah. When wacky but poor mother cannot afford her strait-laced daughter’s upcoming wedding, she takes a miserable job selling timeshares in Oostende, Belgium. Director-writer Fitoussi is never cloying or phony and Huppert’s remarkable performing genes have clearly been passed on to Chammah in this lovely, melancholy slice of domestic life.

Goethe (Germany/Philipp Stolzl)

Beautifully crafted in costuming, location, cinematography and soundtrack, this portrayal of the early years of literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe accents his legal career, the tragic first love of his life and the suicidal urges that led to his initial success with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Alexander Fehling is ably supported by a terrific cast, including Moritz Bleibtrau (Run Lola Run, The Baader Meinhof Complex) as his boss and competition for the hand of a beautiful woman.

The Space Between (USA/Travis Fine)

Recent Golden Globe winner Melissa Leo is having a breakthrough year and in Travis Fine’s sensitively written and directed film, she plays an alcoholic flight attendant on the edge of being terminated. In the days after September 11, 2001 she becomes responsible for a young American Muslim boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center and must be escorted somehow to Los Angeles, where he will attend a special school. Fine’s careful portrayal of the cultural differences and growing respect between the two lead characters set up Leo for a role she effortlessly and powerfully embodies.

The Recipe (South Korea/Anna Lee)

Last year’s South Korean film Mother was this writer’s favorite film of the year and now, director Lee has co-written with Jang Jin a film from that country that almost defies description. It begins as a gentle parody of detective stories, as a Seoul TV journalist tries to find the cook of a beancurd stew soup that is so perfectly made, it instills an otherworldly sense of well-being to those who merely smell it. But without our even noticing, The Recipe shifts to a gorgeous love story that takes on mythic and poetic dimensions that one wants to savor long after the film has ended.

The Double Hour (Italy/Giuseppe Capotondi)

Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) is a hotel maid and Guido (Filippo Timi) is a security guard who takes her to the villa he guards, where robbers coincidentally break in. Guido is killed. Or is he? Sonia is in a coma, imagining Guido was killed. We assume. Director Capotondi melds two different versions of reality in this psychological thriller and love story that uses symbology to entrance and trick the viewer in a most challenging and provocative manner.

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Womb (Germany/Hungary/France/Benedek Fliegauf)

Hungarian director Fliegauf makes his English language debut with this mesmerizing, dreamlike and disturbing psychological science fiction film. Eva Green plays a woman who loses her lover (Matt Smith) to a car accident but has him cloned and gives birth to a baby who grows back into the boy and eventually the lover she once knew. The psychosexual tension and madness that permeate the relationship, as Smith’s character begins to question his identity, is fascinating, proving that conceptual sci-fi can be just as gripping as aliens and spaceships.

Alex Gibney, Jack Abramoff and the Corruption of US Politics

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Alex Gibney does not believe in making small, personal documentaries. He pursues outsized figures and major political topics that shape our times. His prolific output includes serving as writer, director and producer on the Oscar-winning exploration of interrogation techniques in Iraq, Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as the indictment of corporate greed and malfeasance in the Oscar-nominated, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and a portrait of one of literary history’s great iconoclasts, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Gibney’s resume includes a Grammy, Emmy, Peabody and the DuPont Columbia Award. His other notable producer credits include No End in Sight, which laid out false assumptions given for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Martin Scorsese’s music series The Blues. His latest film details the larger-than-life, currently jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the financial impediments to true democracy in this country. It is called Casino Jack and the United States of Money and will be released nationally on May 7 from Magnolia Pictures.

But his doc on the lobbyist who helped funnel money to 210 members of Congress, 35 percent of them Democrats, posed more challenges than shooting footage in a war zone. The probes into Abramoff and his money machine eventually resulted in the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and an often cited photo seems to connect Abramoff with then President George W. Bush. But Gibney had to demonstrate his nonpartisan fairness of approach to an imprisoned former Washington insider.

Neil Volz, as a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Ohio congressman Bob Ney, from 1995 to 2002, testified to Team Abramoff’s use of lavish gifts, free trips and tickets to major sporting events, which resulted in both men, depicted as longtime friends, receiving jail sentences. Ney is also featured in Casino Jack, and Gibney feels the only reason Ney agreed to be on film was to have his say, after learning Volz confessed on camera.

Gibney’s challenges did not end there. Abramoff himself agreed to appear in the film. But Gibney was only allowed to talk with him and prevented from even taking in a pencil. Finally, the warden of the prison relented after a protracted battle with first amendment lawyers. Another complication arose when film director George Hickenlooper, planning a film called Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey, announced he had interviewed and filmed Abramoff no less than five times for research. Abramoff’s attorney then notified Gibney he would not be given the opportunity to shoot Abramoff for his doc, which began before Hickenlooper’s project.

“The Department of Justice, in a very heavy handed way, put a lot of pressure on Abramoff,” Gibney said. “And when you’re in prison, you’re in a very vulnerable position. They did not want him to be interviewed.”

Despite Abramoff’s going on record for a feature rather than a doc about his life, Gibney has not only made sense of the internecine flow of lobbying money during the time, but also he has captured the life of Abramoff without missing the bigger picture. “I don’t think Jack Abramoff was a rotten apple,” Gibney asserted. “I think he was spectacular evidence of a rotten barrel.”

Jack Abramoff was part of the process of lobbying in our nation’s capital, one that as of 2008 disperses $3,200,000,000 each year via more than 15,000 lobbyists to influence legislation. But Gibney’s portrait of Abramoff is one that suggests a true believer, a man whose commitment to his ideals took him to some very unique places in life.

Abramoff grew up in Beverly Hills and was a record-setting high school wrestler. He became Chairman of the College Young Republican National Committee. In 1985, he got involved with Citizens for America (CFA), a group that raised funds for “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua. Abramoff supported brutal opposition leader Jonas Savimbi in Angola. Abramoff left CFA after being accused of mismanaging funds and found an appropriately related field as President of Regency Entertainment, where he produced the anti-Communist action film Red Scorpion with muscleman-turned-actor Dolph Lundgren.

In 1994, Abramoff began lobbying and as Gibney’s documentary shows, his manipulation of funds resulted in improper use of Indian gaming revenue, deals with shadowy Russian energy companies and in the most outlandish segment of the film, a foray into the commonwealth of the Northern Mariannas Islands. The latter project, which utilized DeLay, claimed that clothing manufactured in NMI was “made in the USA” due to a trade law loophole. The sweatshop atmosphere included female workers being paid a pittance and literally chained to their sewing machines.

Casino Jack staggers the imagination, for Abramoff also has a connection to the fraudulent purchase of a gambling boat enterprise. When owner Gus Boulis would not sell, he was shot to death. The film also details the less-than-holy trinity of Abramoff and archconservatives Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, and how they benefited from the cash that was generated.

Gibney does not believe that lobbying in itself is unjust. He sees political campaign finance reform as the linchpin for a more representational democracy. “Where it becomes a problem is this system of legalized bribery,” he said, a term that he has regularly used in the promotion of Casino Jack, “that we have in this country, which will only become worse now with the recent Supreme Court decision [equating financial contributions with free speech]. Because you have congressmen and senators who have to raise so much money that they have to spend two to three days out of every working week dialing for dollars or going to fundraisers. We’re paying them to raise money. We’re not paying them to govern any more.”

It’s no surprise that with a story and central character this complex, Gibney’s original cut was three hours and the one shown at the Sundance Film Festival, slightly over two hours, was edited again. Gibney understood that he was moving away from Abramoff’s personal story in a version of Casino Jack that followed a stunning tributary: Abramoff also fed money toward the Medicare Modernization Act, a huge subsidy paid by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to the federal government to prevent the latter from negotiating prices directly with drug manufacturers.

There is a limit, no matter how judicious a film’s construction, to audience comprehension. In the case of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney manages to entertain as well as enlighten, with humorous images of key lobbying figures appearing on slot machines and clips from films of yesteryear. But with current outrage about derivatives, bailouts for banks “too big to fail” and countries like Iceland and Greece teetering on the edge of insolvency, a hardened look at the effects of lobbying in the richest country on Earth can hopefully have an impact on issues like earmarks in legislation, more disclosure in lobbying and, as previously noted, the dysfunctional system of campaign finance. Jack Abramoff, scheduled to be released in a few months, is just one of the more interesting symptoms of a structural disease in American politics. “But then,” Gibney summarizes, “corruption happens when you believe so much in your essential goodness, that you think you can’t do anything bad.”

[Below: the currently incarcerated Jack Abramoff]

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A Feeling of Community in the Desert

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There is a middle road between the corporate character of chain hotels and expensive boutique establishments in the Coachella Valley, and for the traveler in Palm Springs who wishes to have both privacy and communal charm, there is the Tuscany Manor Resort.

Recently refurbished in 2008, the Tuscany Manor is situated on a cul-de-sac off of Vista Chino on the outskirts of downtown Palm Springs, so that the amenities of the town are just a few minutes away and yet, there is more of a sense of being sheltered by the San Jacinto Mountains, which tower over the courtyard.

And there, one will find a proliferation of fruit trees—lemon, tangerine and grapefruit—along with the de rigeur swimming pool (solar-heated) and Jacuzzi. The large barbecue within this encircled patio leads one to infer that the Tuscany Manor, a ring of one- and two-bedroom suites, appeals to not only individuals touring through the area but for corporate retreats, weddings and other group social functions.

Many properties leave you to your own devices, should you need assistance after office hours. But when one walks through the iron front gate of the Tuscany Manor, you find the office, with a lovely, multi-colored mural of a fountain on its wall, and are greeted by gregarious general manager Pete Dourbayan, who, comfortingly, lives on the premises in one of the units.

The Tuscany Manor encourages longer stays, as their suites include nicely appointed kitchenettes with utensils, cookware and the like. Furthermore, they are pet friendly, allowing furry friends under ten pounds to accompany on your stay. There are also laundry facilities on the site so that you can comfortably settle in, if the visit is more than a weekend getaway.

Lest you think that the terra cotta and apricot color schemed Tuscany Manor does not serve the business traveler, please note that the suites have high speed Internet capability, a fax is available and there are unlimited free local calls, if you want to find out the best place to quaff, golf, munch or lunch.

Mr. Dourbayan informed me that the property was originally developed to house dignitaries and has over the years been adapted to the spacious Southwestern décor suites it now features. The Tuscany Manor is part of the Beachtree Properties group (www.BeachtreeProperties.com) which includes unique locations in Palm Beach, Molokai, Cape Cod and Atlantic City.

Tuscany Manor Resort, 350 West Chino Canyon Drive, Palm Springs,760.416.8916, www.Tuscany ManorResort.com

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Best of Palm Springs Short Film Fest ‘09

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Our Neck of the Woods 

The 2009 version of the Palm Springs International ShortFest and Short Film Market is concluded and, as the largest festival of its kind in North America, press more easily can navigate the 315 films via not only the programs at the Camelot Theatres multiplex but their film library, abuzz each day with buyers, filmmakers and press.

Over the past 14 years, 64 films screened here have gone on to garner Academy Award consideration. Among the most notable films:

Sparks (USA, dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt) The Shooting Stars section of the Fest has radically improved, as evidenced by Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. His editing as well of this Elmore Leonard adaptation is snappy and vibrant, as fire investigator Eric Stoltz thinks sexy rock star Carla Gugino purposely burned her house down in the middle of a larger fire and he thinks he’s going to find out while drinking excessively with her. Gordon-Levitt (TV’s Third Rock from the Sun) sure learned a lot from starring in Scott Frank’s The Look Out and a feature from him will hopefully be warming up in the wings.

Cages (Mexico, dir. Juan Jose Medina) Winner of the Best Animated Short, Medina’s eerie and fascinating ten minute film follows an old man who traps desert creatures, only to find an entity not of this Earth is trying to lay a trap for him.

Red Flag (USA, dir. Sheila Curran Dennin) A seemingly normal woman (Nell Gwynn) goes out on a series of blind dates where red flags literally pop out of the unacceptable men she meets. When Mr. Right appears, she waits expectantly for him to do something wrong. A charmer, attractively shot.

Found (Canada, dir. Paramita Nath) The most visually remarkable short of those screened, Found is nonfiction lyricism, a short doc on Toronto poet Suvankham Thammavongsa, who explores her father’s discarded scrapbook that documents the family’s escape from Laos in the 1970s. Nath utilizes live action, animation, old movies and text with a searing impact and Thammavongsa tells us how her family could not afford the equivalent of $2.50 to go to a hospital when she born, a baby born “about the size of a pop can.”

The Clockmaker’s Revelation (Mexico, dir. Paula Froehle) Director Froehle has created a wonderfully dreamy short of a female clockmaker whose supernatural thoughts accompany her during her work. With lush music and the image of grandfather clocks with curtains providing a view into another dimension, this is a film that is contemplative and relaxing, despite its allegorical wonder.

Our Neck of the Woods (USA, dir. Rob Connolly) Connolly won the Best Short Award at Sundance with Our Neck of the Woods, an offbeat but carefully observed slice of life. A foreman (a very sympathetic Nathan Johnson) at a plant that spray paints lawn decorations in the shape of deer falls for a new employee, a girl from the Russian republic of Georgia. Married, he still wants to save her from the soul deadening of the job and plans to steal money to send her away. With the deer spontaneously bursting into flames and an alternate reality heard over the plant loudspeaker, Connolly shows a wicked, smart wit.

The Happiness Salesman (United Kingdom, dir. Krishnendu Majumdar) Christopher Eccleston, tremendously effective in films like Jude and Elizabeth, struts his stuff as a possible door-to-door Satan who tempts a young women with a constantly crying baby to trade her soul for an ideal future, which he can show her on a laptop. Majumdar nails the creep factor of Steve Gomez’s script and raises the hair on the back of the neck with a terrific take on an old theme.

Once Upon a Crime (USA, dir. Lilli Birdsell) This combination of black and white live action, art and animation poses a hard-nosed female prosecutor against Snow White, who is condemned for her connection to a case that allegedly involves necrophilia, animal cruelty and child endangerment. Birdsell has found a visually arresting way to wring more humor out of a storybook character.

Abuelo/Grandfather (USA, dir. Mary Anne Kellogg) Kellogg, a choreographer and former dancer for Twyla Tharp and Pilobolus Dance Troupes, impresses in her first film. It’s an endearing tale of a 12-year-old girl (the gifted Britt Flatmo), whose mother has recently died and rejects her Spanish speaking Argentinian grandfather during his visit, until he warms her heart again by teaching her to dance the tango.

You’re Outa Here (US, dir. George Griffin) A hilarious, high-speed blast of jazz, with lyrics and singing by Lorraine Feather, inspired by Fats Waller’s music. It’s a blend of stylized animation detailing all the reasons why the central character must kick her boyfriend out the front door. A rare instance of song lyrics and visuals kicking serious comedy butt simultaneously.

Boarding Pass/Pasaje (Puerto Rico, dir. Ana Clavell) Another terrific animated short, but here, Clavell’s soft focus imagery hits the audience hard, as we see the withering away of a young girl, Marysol,whose mother, already gone, had passed on AIDS to her. Despite its uplifting and poetic ending, Boarding Pass is an important reminder that animation can deal with crucial, disturbing issues often untouched in live action.

Spring Film Roundup

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Throw Down Your Heart 

Anticipation can be a joyously agonizing pastime. In the case of Sascha Paladino’s documentary about banjo maestro Bela Fleck’s journey to Africa to explore the origins of that instrument, the wait will be worth it. Paladino’s first film won the Audience Award at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival and it opens no sooner than April 24 in New York and June 5 in Los Angeles. But Fleck, who has won 11 Grammys in more categories than anyone in music history, let his music, as well as that of musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali, speak volumes, rather than having an intrusive voice over.

It is the perfect decision, for the easy-going, almost shy Fleck has an innate ability to merge his prowess with others in a magical cohesiveness, whether it is with a twelve-foot ground-based xylophone, with the akonting, thought to be the original banjo, or with the heartbreaking, beautiful voice of Mali singer Oumous Sangare. There are some gorgeously edited sequences, courtesy of Paladino, Fleck and Scott Burgess and no one will ever be able to question the expertise sound mixers Wellington Bowler and Dave Sinko, who get crystalline sound whether outdoors or in a rudimentary and crowded hut. www.throwdownyourheart.com

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Adoration

Atom Egoyan has a history of adapting work to film that has novelistic twists and character complexities, as in his astonishing version of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Here, Egoyan writes, produces and directs, again with an eye toward the malleability of truth and personal responsibility. A young man, Simon (Devon Bostick) is encouraged by his teacher (Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) to use his imagination in the telling of a horrifying tale: that of an unknowing woman whose husband plants a bomb in her baggage as she boards a plane, in an act of sub rosa terrorism. Simon, in trying to understand his own fractured family history,then pretends this story, told in a classroom, really took place and disseminates it in an Internet chatroom, prompting an outpouring of strong responses from the community.

Egoyan is a master at gradually connecting character histories and Adoration is no exception. Khanjian as always impresses and Bostick, despite his youth, has a dark-eyed, intense charisma that the camera loves. As with The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat, Egoyan’s complex rumination on the Armenian genocide of 1915, Adoration plumbs the depths of his characters’ psyches without ever seeming to be subject to the often tedious laws of exposition. (Sony Classics, May 18)

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Sleep Dealer

On a limited budget, writer-director-editor Alex Rivera has crafted a disturbingly imaginative science fiction nightmare that takes on virtual reality, immigration, global water rights, the exploitation of Third World labor and more. Rivera and co-writer David Riker create a world in which Mexican laborers get “node jobs,” ports inserted into their bodies so that they can remotely do industrial labor jobs in the US while actually working in virtual reality factories south of our border. Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Pena) leaves his tiny village, where one must pay to get access to water at a high-tech, militarized dam, and heads to Tijuana. His father was killed by US missiles, after Memo tapped into a military network with electronic equipment.

Instead of “coyotes” leading Mexicans illegally across the border, “coyoteks” lead poor Mexicans to the new Tijuana, in search of better-paying but dangerous work in virtual factories. It is here Memo meets Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela), a failing writer who secretly publishes tales of Memo’s life, inadvertently connecting Memo to the Mexican-American pilot (Jacob Vargas) who killed his father. Admittedly, Rivera cuts some corners regarding, ironically, plot connectivity. But Sleep Dealer is the kind of film that is so startling in its vision, especially a perfect ending image, that its weaknesses are easily forgiven and its concepts not easily forgotten. (Maya Entertainment, April 18)

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Hunger 

Previously reviewed at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Hunger is in current release. The directorial debut of Irish visual artist Steve McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment. (IFC Films)

The Housewife as Show Biz Goddess

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[Corinne Dekker, Jayme Lake, Jamey Hood, a.k.a. The Housewives] 

If you pay attention to the house music before the beginning of the musical comedy It’s the Housewives!, you will clearly hear a polished parody of Pete Townshend of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. The music is played by Laurence Juber and his wife, Hope, updates the lyrics to fit the domestic frivolity about to come. Townshend had poor Tommy lose the power of speech and hearing after his father killed his mother, prompting a psychiatrist to sing, “He seems to be completely unreceptive/The tests I gave him show no sense at all.” Ms. Juber has brought it home, in more ways than one: “She seems to be completely undomestic/The tests I gave her show no skills at all.”

The skill of the Jubers is incontestable. He played lead guitar for Paul McCartney’s Wings and has 14 CDs of his own. She directs and writes with the comedic instincts one would expect, as the daughter of TV’s Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch.) And what could have seemed like an obvious and straightforward take on the fantasy life of some average housewives really becomes something big. Because the hit group The Housewives has broken up and ex-star Becca (Jamey Hood) tells her plumber (Tony Cicchetti), who recognizes her, the story of her band’s breakup; we are treated to dead-on song style parodies that the Jubers have totally down.

They include the scorching blues number “Ironing Bored,” the self-explanatory “The Reynold’s Rap,” and, when The Housewives were in their New Wave mode, the completely uproarious “Domestiphobia,” with delightful, goofy, robotic choreography, courtesy of Kay Cole. Ms. Juber, with Ellen Guylas, has fashioned a book far cleverer than one might expect. The inevitable reunion concert is a satirical take on musical groups who break up and are forced to tour again. In this case, conniving Lynn (Corinne Dekker) and ditzy Lexie (Jayme Lake) make up with Becca onstage, after resolving the source of their disruption, namely who makes the best guacamole.

The three femme leads all blend voices smoothly and Hood, especially and appropriately, has a knockout voice and can really sell a song with her physicality. In fact, the Jubers manage not only a glossy, fun musical but something that will come as a surprise to men and women alike: the ability to wring sexual innuendo from moments as simple as taking off an oven mitt.

[It’s the Housewives! at the Whitefire Theatre, Studio City, though March 29.]

Patch Rose and the Meaning of a “Writer’s Community”

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[Patch and Cookie Rose, at rest.]

My friend Patch Rose is gone. But as sad as I feel right now, his departure simultaneously serves a great purpose. It reminds me of the importance of a writer having a “community.”

He beat the odds, Patrick Francis Rose did, living two years in remission with a virulent brain tumor called a glioblastoma. But it came back, with a fury that could not be withstood. Or understood. He was buried on Valentine’s Day, which had a doubly cruel irony, as it was also the birthday of his widow, Cookie.

And yet, when I think about Patch, I think about one of the most alive and vibrant people I have ever met.

The way I met Patch has much to do with honoring those who have left us. And it has much to do with what we writers do and how important it is to pursue a somewhat nebulous term known as “coummunity.”

My mother was a writer, an actor and a teacher and she influenced me to follow in those career paths. When she succumbed to lung cancer, I wanted to honor the work she had done and the lives she had touched. So I founded the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction in 2000. I put in some money, my father Andrew put in some money and every year, I give away three prizes to the best humor writing in any form from anywhere in the world, in my mother’s name.

In 2005, without a doubt, the funniest piece submitted was entitled “X Marks the Spot,” a wonderfully absurd rumination on the religious practice of Ash Wednesday and one person’s efforts to get his ashes in gear, so to speak, during a lunch hour. The writer was some guy named Patch Rose of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Every December 24, Christmas Eve, I call the winners of the Mona Schreiber Prize to tell them the good news. And when I reached Patch and praised him and told him I’d be sending 500 bucks his way and posting his work on my website, I could hear his voice constrict with emotion. He told me about the GBM tumor that he had overcome. I told him that his story, that the conversation we were having, was precisely the reason I had founded the Mona Schreiber Prize in the first place.

I only wish that check could have had more zeroes to the left of the decimal point.

But one thing I have always known about writers is that they often toil alone and are not always the best spokespeople for their work. Writers need to connect with writers, with readers, with organizations. In a word, they need community beyond the walls of their offices and homes.

I am convinced that after the winners of the MSP have spent their modest checks—no doubt frivolously frittering it away on food, clothing or shelter—that what might remain is the idea that their work has been acknowledged, that they belong to a new circle, a newly expanded community. That even if they have to go back to some job that depletes their soul, they can remember the feeling of officially being awarded, an encouragement to continue the often less than staggeringly wealthy lifestyle of the writer.

Patch told me, after his first place award, that he was going to come out to California to visit me, bringing his wife Cookie, who had been by his side through the trauma and was about ready for a damn vacation, thank you very much.

I encouraged him to do so but knowing that many well-meaning people (especially me) make promises about visiting friends in far away places and rarely do so.

But one sunny Southern California afternoon, I greeted Patch and Cookie on my doorstep. And let me tell you, Patch Rose, to me at first glance, was utterly elfin, with an irrepressible smile and eyes that fairly glowed, that emanated a cognition of what it is to be fully alive, to have beaten, for the moment, death.

I took him and Cookie out to my favorite local restaurant, Café 50s, where posters and paraphernalia from that era adorned the walls, where the jukebox played hot stacks of wicked wax and the burgers and shakes were undeniably good.

There was only a brief moment of sadness in that, our only day together. It came from within me, not from Patch or Cookie. Patch no longer had hair, due to his cancer treatments. But he refused to wear a wig or a baseball cap or knit cap. He was completely free from the self-consciousness of those who worry about their weight or the shape of their ears or that pimple or any other cosmetic issue. And when I first saw the scar on the side of his skull, a cold chill went through me and I felt my insides spasm.

Yet, here he was, a guy who was told, after the surgery, that glioblastoma patients, at best, had a year to leave. He was about to pass that marker, and in his eyes and words I felt the energy of a man who had been given a reprieve. It did not matter how long, to him. It was a commutation of sentence. He had defied the doctors, the odds, the Fates.

And he had come out with his wife to visit me. I spoke with them about the profession of writing. Patch was no neophyte, being a reporter at the Truth or Consequences Herald. We spoke of agents and publishing and syndication and I encouraged him to finish the book of essays he had already begun, based on his columns, both funny and frightening, on dealing with cancer.

He was calling it A Year to Live? I loved the title, the question mark at the end. And I loved its other suggested meanings. How do we live when we uncharacteristically live in a compact period of time? And how is it different from how we were living before?

At the end of lunch, they told me, excitedly, they were going to drive west to the beach, to Santa Monica, to the Pacific Ocean, and feel the water and sand seep through their toes.

They said they had never seen the Pacific, that they had always wanted to do that. They looked like exuberant young children in grownup bodies.

They didn’t know it, but in that moment, I came very close to crying in front of them. I didn’t. They would have been tears of joy. But I figured Cookie and Patch had already shed more than their fair share of tears. They didn’t need to see mine.

I have met many people who think that writers are too concerned with achieving immortality via their writing. I have to rely on the old line of Woody Allen’s: I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

I say, we all have egos. Some of us invest in our artistry. Some of us invest in our children and our lineage. Some of us get facelifts. We writers cannot know what impact we will have when we are gone. Most of us will never live the dreams we had for our work. But there is a tangible satisfaction in sharing our work with loved ones, with some kind of audience while we live. It is about community. That community might be Truth or Consequences. Or thanks to the Internet, it might be international. But part of what we writers must do is try to touch people, including the ones we will never know. Because despite their anonymity, they are part of our community too.

Patch Rose lived to 43. Now, he is somewhere else. But he is still part of my community. I have a slim but delightful volume on my bookshelf called One Year to Live? And I have in my mind the memory of a man with impossibly alive eyes who changed my world, and some others, a man who managed to make a scar on the side of his head look as natural as his smile.
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[Despite having health care coverage for Patch, Cookie is in debt tens of thousands of dollars. If you are able, please visit www.patchrose.com and donate what you can.]

Iris Bahr says “Dai (Enough)” in 11 Ways

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If anyone has the right to comment in a solo show on the tragedy of the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian, it is Iris (ee-reese) Bahr. Her renowned and multiply-awarded performance has a Hebrew name that, not only means “enough” but with cruel irony rhymes with the English word for the fate of the 11 characters she depicts in a Tel Aviv café, moments before a suicide bomber detonates his terminal expression of protest.

Bahr has her feet in the world of both Middle Eastern and American Jewry, as she moved to Israel with her family as a girl of 12, served in the military there and eventually came stateside, studying both Neuropsychiatry and Religious Studies at Brown University. Dai has in its setup a series of interviews with characters and the ironies keep piling upon each other. An actress is going to shoot a movie in Romania about a Palestinian bomber and an Israeli girl he falls in love with, just before he is to blow up a target. The actress has come to Tel Aviv for research, not knowing that her research will come to bear deadly fruit. Director Will Pomerantz has this production punctuate each monologue with a horrendous sounding explosion—each sounding slightly different—and the audience, knowing the fate of these odd characters, feels desperation and tension throughout the performance.

Bahr’s Israeli accent is of course perfectly authentic and it requires great attention on the part of the American attendee to make out all the words at first. But once one is attuned to the dialect, the show totally holds one near the edge of the seat, as we wonder how much personal history we will glean before each sudden demise. And in another irony, it is the American Jewish characters whose Zionism seems the most ardent in this work, bile spilling freely.

Among the wayward souls of Dai, we meet a gay German young man who stalks his former Israeli lover and a female Russian Ph.D. in Physics who hilariously comments on Israeli males, as she now makes a living as a hooker. The more elderly Israeli Uzi tells us that his wife accused him, “You have lost your emotions. I’m tired of looking for them.” Part of the reason for his flat affect is losing one son in armed conflict and learning the other is about to flee to fairly aggressive but admittedly safer confines of New York City.

Bahr has done plenty of TV and standup but this is theatre, raw, deep, conflicted and in the end, astonishing, and it is no surprise that the show was a hit at Edinburgh, off-Broadway and has won the Lucille Lortel Award for Solo Show here, as well as gaining nominations for Drama Desk and UK Stage Awards. Along with the Golden Globe-winning animated feature Waltzing with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman, it would seem Bahr is among the Israeli artists who, while having no simple solution, cannot bear the never-ending cycle that eradicates lives and, upon closer examination, life stories.

Dai (Enough), written and performed by Iris Bahr, The Lillian Theatre, Hollywood. www.plays411.com/dai

2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival

One wonders how much bigger the Palm Springs International Film Festival can get. Unlike our economy, it seems to grow and prosper every year, and the 2009 version sported 208 films from 73 countries and set, once again, records for attendance and box office. Among the Oscar-winning and –nominated celebrities who were honored at the Gala were director Ron Howard and Sean Penn, an odds-on favorite for the lead role he played in Milk.

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$9.99 (Israel, dir: Tatia Rosenthal) This stop-motion puppet animation feature is constantly surprising and extremely evocative. It is set among the denizens of a Tel Aviv apartment building, and based on the stories of Etger Keret, who co-directed last year’s delightful Israeli bit of magical realism, Jellyfish. Here, we have the voices of Geoffrey Rush and Anthony Lapaglia and masterful work from director Tatia Rosenthal who brings an emotional depth to animated features rarely seen on these shores.

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The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany, dir: Uli Edel) A leading candidate for the Academy Award for Foreign Film, Uli Edel’s sweeping history of the 70s revolutionary movement, the Red Army Faction, features a blistering pace and some absolutely astounding scenes of street violence. Making the true story all the more fascinating is the conviction of German journalist Ulrike Meinhof who gives up her career to join the ultra-violent leftist group, which spawns imitators, even while it is being systematically being taken apart by the state.

Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (U.S., dir: Roberta Grossman) A heartbreaking and seemingly impossible story lies at the heart of this documentary, narrated by Joan Allen. Hannah Senesh, a 23-year-old Hungarian Jew living in Palestine in 1944, returns to her homeland to fight the Nazi occupation. Her one-day encounter with her brother and imprisonment near the cell of her mother, as well as her execution even as the Reich is crumbling make up a true life tale as tragic as it is hard to believe. Grossman’s recreations are tastefully shot and Senesh’s poetry beautifully completes this harrowing doc.

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Cherry Blossoms (Germany, dir: Dorris Dorrie) Writer-director Dorrie creates a beautifully shot tale of a German man whose wife does not tell him he has a brief time to live. They travel to Japan to visit an estranged son, where the wife suddenly dies and her husband forges a bond with homeless young woman who performs Butoh dance in a public park. Elmar Wepper and Aya Irizuki make a special onscreen, cross-cultural, father-daughter type impact that is undeniably affecting.

A Deal is a Deal (United Kingdom, dir: Jonathan Gershfield) Mackenzie Crook plays an Underground train driver who has two people die in front of his train and learns he can richly retire if a third happens to die in the following week. Enter belligerent Irish rapscallion Colm Meaney, who agrees to commit suicide for money and then makes Crook jump through hoops to accommodate him. Imelda Staunton has a nice turn as a jilted wife in this heartfelt and clever black comedy.

Four Nights with Anna (Poland, dir: Jerzy Skolimowski) After a long absence of more than 15 years, Skolimowsi has come roaring back with a haunting tale of a Polish crematorium worker who may or may not have raped a woman who lives near him in a village. His obsession grows to the point that he continually sneaks into her home, watches her sleep and putters about her home without ever waking her. Having co-written Knife in the Water for Roman Polanski, Skolimowski knows how to create almost unbearable tension, which he does here most ably.

The Friend (Switzerland, dir: Micha Lewinsky) The Oscar submission from Switzerland, The Friend is a drama with a sly wit, as a shy young man (Philippe Graber) falls for a depressed singer who has him pretend he is her boyfriend, just before she commits suicide. Unable to tell her family of their arrangement, he winds up comforting them and getting deeper and deeper into lies, as the dead girl’s sister falls in love with him. Nuanced performances all around make this an engrossing film with a quiet but insistent tension throughout.

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Hunger (Ireland, dir: Steve McQueen) The directorial debut of visual artist McQueen is nothing less than mesmerizing, telling the story of the Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, and the decision of Bobby Sands to starve to death in protest against British policy. The film is elegantly shot, with stunning bursts of raw anger and just when you think you have a handle on the directorial style, a brilliant mid-film discussion between Sands and a priest perfectly explores both sides of Sands’ commitment.

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Last Stop 174 (Brazil, dir: Bruno Barreto) Another Oscar submission that certainly deserved at least a nomination, Bruno Barreto’s Last Stop 174 is a staggering fictional account of an actual bus hijacking in 2000 Rio de Janeiro. But Barreto makes the standoff the very last part of a story in which a woman is convinced that a street urchin (the magnificent Michel Gomes) is her biological son and his spurned love for a streetwalker shatters his hopes for a peaceful and stable life.

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Mermaid (Russia, dir: Anna Melikyan) Magical realism melds with the fertile visual imagination of writer-director Anna Melikyan in this sweetly tragic tale of a young girl (Masha Shalaeva) who stops speaking and only regains the ability when she falls in love with a handsome but nefarious young man in Moscow. The fantasy sequences and telekinetic powers of the lead character perfectly accent this colorful, resplendent feature.

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The Necessities of Life (Canada, dir: Benoit Pilon) Winner of the Palm Springs Jury Award and yet another Oscar submission, this elegiac period piece follows an Inuit named Tiivii who is taken from his family to recuperate from tuberculosis in a 1952 Quebec City, where no one speaks his language. A young, dying Inuit boy, also hospitalized, gives him the strength to perservere in this carefully crafted drama.

No Subtitles Necessary: Lazlo and Vilmos (U.S., dir: James Chressanthis) A terrific documentary about two world-class cinematographers and lifelong friends, Vilmos Szigmond and the late Lazlo Kovacs. Their stunning tale of risking their lives to smuggle out footage of the 1956 Soviet invasion of their Hungarian homeland is in marked contrast to their gorgeous filmwork, including, for Lazlo, Easy Rider and Frances, and for Vilmos, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Deer Hunter. Among those honoring their lives and work are critic Todd McCarthy, Dennis Hopper, director Mark Rydell, Karen Black, Sharon Stone and fellow top-notch d.p., Vittorio Storaro.

Tear This Heart Out (Mexico, dir: Roberto Sneider) Among the nine shortlisted films for the Oscar was this sumptuous, 1930s period epic, following the marriage of a beautiful young girl to a brutal, upwardly mobile general who has his eye on the presidency of Mexico. The music, architecture and clothing of the period perfectly accent the fine work of all, especially Ana Claudia Talancon, who portrays the central character, from ages 15-30, amid the murder, betrayal and infidelity she has married into and cannot leave.

Top Ten Films of 2008

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 [Waltz with Bashir]

No top ten film list is really worth one thin dime if it does not grapple with comedy versus drama, animation vs. live action, documentary vs. narrative, studio vs. independent and yes, American versus the rest of the film world. Support these films in their video life and they might just cut back on making lame, bloated superhero cookie cutter epics. Unless you like that sort of thing. In which case, what are you doing reading this?

1. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. He visits others, trying to piece together his past, intermingled with fantasy sequences that startle and fascinate the viewer. Folman punctuates the search for a solution to Middle East peace with a startling, last-minute transition to live action, made all the more powerful by the recent Hamas-Israeli eruption of seemingly never-ending violence.

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2. The Girl Cut in Two (dir. Claude Chabrol) Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this brilliant work.

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3. Mister Foe (dir. David Mackenzie) Also known as Hallam Foe, played by Jamie Bell, a 17-year-old who suspects his father of killing his mother, sleeps with his stepmother, runs off to Edinburgh and lives on the street and rooftops, until he spots a woman who is the spitting image of his mother in her late 20s. Kate (Sophia Myles) hires him at the hotel where she is in charge of human resources and finds herself drawn to him, even as she is involved with a married man. Mackenzie’s script captures a young man’s obsession, charm and, inevitably, a surprising twist on his sexuality to boot. Add a terrific UK indie soundtrack that shifts perfectly with the moods of the film—and won an award at Berlin—and you have a coming-of-age story that breaks new ground…and one’s heart.

4. Mongol (dir. Sergei Bodrov) Nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar for Kazhakstan, a winner with the National Board of Review, Mongol is all that an historical epic should be: lushly shot, powerful in its action sequences yet not so oversized that it does not connect to human emotions. Bodrov manages all this in telling the story of the persecution and ascendancy of no less than Genghis Khan, not generally associated with the woebegone. In the process of his conquering half the known world in the 13th century, we see this freed slave in action sequences that are not so much loud and large as thrilling, abetted by the remarkable scenery of Mongolia, at times in places where roads had to be built during production.

5. The Counterfeiters (dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky) Is there anything more treacherous, more deserving of easy condemnation than another Holocaust film that breaks no new ground, but merely elicits simple tears? Ruzowitzky’s unique yet nerve-wracking film of the largest counterfeiting ring in history, run from a concentration camp, is based on fact. Karl Markovics plays the Jewish counterfeiter who must fake UK, then US currency or die at the hands of the Nazis, and he is always engrossing. August Diehl is his equal, as the lone member of the team who would rather die—and jeopardize the lives of all the counterfeiters—than cooperate with the Reich. The film poses a do-or-die dilemma that made other harrowing Holocaust films, like the adaptation of Sophie’s Choice, so excruciatingly memorable.

6. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton) By now, we have all come to acknowledge the artistry—both visually and in storytelling, that Pixar has brought to the moviedoing public. But with Wall-E, they have gone a few steps farther. Not only does the film open with no dialogue and the establishment of a robot, a cockroach and an earth besmirched, but it winds up, astoundingly yet workably, in outer space, lambasting humans who have grown fat, lazy and driven around by technology. Its unique structure, typically gorgeous art design and welcome social commentary all combine to make this a very special jewel in the Pixar crown.

7. Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris) No one expects Morris to top his Oscar-winning feature documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, but with this fascinating examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, as well its manipulation and coverup, he has again done something both profound and mesmerizing with the form. Not only will those searching for demons find them in the film, but Morris’ “visual analogies” and a tremendous score by Danny Elfman highlight a doc that does so many things: It exposes how widespread the military knowledge was about prisoner abuse, how inadequately run the prison was and, most importantly, how the framing of a photo or an issue determines the guilt or innocence of those involved.

8. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard) Howard should be roundly commended and future filmmakers should take note that successful stage plays, like Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon will likely do better adapted by the playwright and featuring the same leads, in this case, living legend Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who has gone from nailing Tony Blair to capturing talk show host David Frost with great acumen. Not only does Langella capture the egotism of Nixon but something more, the sense, inevitably, of failing his mission as a president, and it makes the denouement of this sharply paced and observed film, with great help from Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones and others, strike a deep chord of wounded memory, befitting a film about the legacy of the Watergate break-in.

9. Choke (dir. Clark Gregg) Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and marvelous Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

10. Adam Resurrected (, dir.Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

(Honorable Mention: Elegy, In Bruges, Kabluey, Madagascar 2, Milk)