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Fest or famine?

This year’s Boston Film Festival has a woman’s touch
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 8, 2006

THE LAST KISS: Women are ballbreakers, so curl up like a dog and take it?

Last year the Boston Film Festival might have become the first film festival to offer more parties than movies. That may be changing. Now in its second year under Robin Dawson, the 2006 edition has 16 features plus a History Channel documentary (still way down from the 40-plus-feature BFF glory days), four short documentaries, and two programs of shorts. “I think it can become another Sundance or Toronto,” said new artistic director John Williams at a press conference a couple of weeks ago.

They’ll have to add a couple of hundred more movies before they can start thinking of that. Nonetheless, Williams might not be as deluded as he sounds. The quantity is still low, but the quality of the programming has improved. There remain the requisite studio films with stars in tow seeking promotion the week before they open, and the earnest independent films, some with local roots, with little to recommend them. Overshadowing these, though, are compelling and original features and documentaries chosen with an eye for consistent, relevant themes.

Women direct nearly half of the entries. Local filmmaker Hayley Cloake’s festival closer, THE HOUSE OF USHER (September 15, 8:30 pm, with the director and stars Izabella Miko and Austin Nichols), sets the Edgar Allan Poe story in the present day. Poe’s original has decadent and hypersensitive Roderick Usher inviting the narrator to console him as his beloved twin sister wastes away in the blighted title manse. Cloake’s house has all the chill of a B&B in Newburyport, which is where Jill (Izabella Miko), the ex of Rick (Austin Nichols), returns for his sister’s funeral. She pokes around after hours in her underwear and bumps into Mrs. Thatcher (Beth Grant), the hatchet-faced caretaker, as well as scary family photos and vestiges of Rebecca. As up-tight as Roger Corman’s 1960 version is exuberant, Usher represents good indie intentions gone awry.

The festival opener, Rhode Island filmmaker Mike Cerrone’s HOMIE SPUMONI (September 8, 7 pm, with the director and stars Jamie Lynn Sigler and Joey Fatone; also September 9, 5 pm), has a childless Italian couple finding a black baby in a river near their village. They move to New York and raise Renato (Donald Faison) as another Italian-American. His real parents show up, and he realizes he’s black! Plus he falls in love with a Jewish girl. Homie inverts Steve Martin’s The Jerk with fewer laughs and more preaching.

Crude though the guys in Homie may be, they’ve got nothing on Dito Montiel’s adaptation of his own memoir, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS (September 11, 7:30 pm, with the director and star Chazz Palminteri). We meet Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) in LA in 2005 as he reads from his “wonderful book.” But a phone call from mom cuts his glory short and he heads home to Queens to attend to his ailing estranged dad (Chazz Palminteri). The past intrudes also by way of Montiel’s frenetic, hyper-stylized flashbacks. When he leaves off the razzle-dazzle, the familiar story of a neighborhood kid torn between art and brutality (represented by two friends) and suppressed by a loving but non-comprehending father almost makes the bad behavior and pretentious directing bearable.

Saints involves wallowing in misogyny, and there’s plenty more of that in Tony Goldwyn’s THE LAST KISS (September 12, 7:30 pm, with the director), which, based on a screenplay by Paul Haggis (Crash), follows the romantic misfortunes of a group of buddies. Michael (Zach Braff) has the perfect fiancée, so why does he sneak around when she gets pregnant? Maybe he’s scared off by the plight of Chris (Casey Affleck), whose wife has treated him like shit since their child was born. Maybe he’s inspired by the example of Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), who’s got a new woman every night. Whatever the reason, he learns his lesson: women are ballbreakers, so curl up like a dog and take it.

Such an attitude conjures the specter of violence against women, something Mia Goldman confronts in THE OPEN WINDOW (September 10, 7:30 pm, with the director and stars Robin Tunney and Elliott Gould; also September 11, 3 pm). Another blissful engaged couple, Peter (Joel Edgerton) and Izzy (Robin Tunney), encounter evil when a creep climbs into Izzy’s studio. Few films have as accurately re-created the rage, despair, and self-destructiveness such victimization causes. It’s not pleasant viewing, but it is illuminating, despite the glib resolution.

Not only do women filmmakers dominate this festival, but an unflinching honesty marks their movies. Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady’s documentary JESUS CAMP (September 9, 7 pm, with the directors) opens with an alarming image: tykes in war paint and camie uniforms assaulting an audience in the name of Jesus. It calls to mind indoctrinated children in Palestinian refugee camps vowing martyrdom, a comparison Becky Fisher, the director of the title retreat, embraces.

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  Topics: Features , Oliver O'Grady , Chazz Palminteri , Dito Montiel ,  More more >
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