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Report From the Halfway 2 Hollywood Film Festival

by Dave Heaton, Jill Goodheart, Jeffrey Ruggles

It doesn't take much high-level thinking to realize that there's something wrong with film distribution in this country. Just look in the newspaper, and see how many movie complexes are showing the same film in four different theaters, and how many of the theatres in your city are showing the same 10 films. Even the arthouse theatre scene isn't what it should be, with chains pushing their way into control in that area as well. Here in Kansas City we've got a nice batch of theatres that show independent films or "art" films…but still there's a big time gap between when these films are released in New York City and when they make it here. It isn't rare to see a foreign film locally, then notice that it's out on video two weeks later. Many of these films also only remain in theatres for a week or two, given the economic necessities involved in running a theater. Helping to balance that gap by showing films that wouldn't otherwise get shown here is the Halfway to Hollywood Festival, organized by the Fine Arts Theatres Group, which runs three theaters in the Kansas City area.

The first Halfway to Hollywood Festival took place June 15 - 24, 2001. It was in part a showcase for newer films that wouldn't get much of a regular release here, but more so than that it was a celebration of the art of the cinema in all of its forms. The festival showed more than 50 films over 10 days, in three theatres. One theatre, the Englewood, was the home to a festival within the festival, the Area 51 Festival. Exclusively showing science-fiction films that were originally released in 1951, that festival also included a special showing of The Lost World, with live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, and a showing of The Day the Earth Stood Still which included appearances by one of the film's stars, Billy Gray, and by sci-fi-film expert/legend Forrey Ackerman, who hosted several of the other films as well. The other two theatres, The Fine Arts and The Rio, showed a mix of smaller independent films, foreign films and slightly higher profile films which would eventually be released in the city for regular runs. There also was a mini-festival of Stanley Kubrick films, shown along with the Kansas City premiere of the documentary Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, which was introduced and discussed by Brian Jamieson from Warner Brothers pictures. Another special event was two appearances by avant garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who showed some of his films during one appearance, and showed a documentary about his life and works at the other appearance. Another significant event was the premiere of a nearly-finished version of the locally made film C.S.A.: Confederate States of America (see our accompanying article on the previous page).

With a festival like this, it's hard to take everything in, especially when some of the films conflict with the workday, timewise. Still, a few of us managed to see a handful of films; our descriptions of them are below. Some of these films have already come and gone in the largest cities in the U.S., some of them are making their way across the country right now, and some have been shown more rarely. Outside of the films discussed below, the festival included a ton of interesting and outstanding films. Some of the ones we missed include: Faat Kine, Chasing Sleep, Human Resources, The Girl, A Room for Romeo Brass, Saragossa Manuscript, The Legend of Rita, Non-Stop, Too Much Sleep, The Taste of Others, Seaside, Dusk, The Weekend, Voyages, Onimasa, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Orphans.

For more information on the festival, go to their web site.

The Anniversary Party

If the backstory behind The Anniversary Party--two Hollywood actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming) gather their Hollywood friends (Gwynth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, Jane Adams, Parkey Posey, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals) and make a relatively off-the-cuff film about narcissistic Hollywood types getting together for a party---makes you think that the film will be an insider's lovefest or pompous bore, erase those thoughts from your head. This film is a highly entertaining breeze; both comedy and drama, it integrates the two in a way that's fun, witty and genuinely likeable. There's a boatload of talented actors here, and they're not just props. Each character is fleshed-out and genuinely human. The central event of the movie is a gathering in celebration of the wedding anniversary of Joe and Sally (Cumming and Leigh), despite the fact that their marriage is rather shaky, several of the guests were invited mainly for business or political reasons (like the next-door neighbors with which there is a constant feud over Joe's dog's behavior), and many of the guests don't get along with each other. The film tracks the various characters' evolving interactions with each other, as well as the goings on of the party, which alternates between being awkward circumstances and true fun. Of course, the night reveals much about the characters' true feelings, some of which come out after an experience with ecstasy. The film delves into serious material, what's really going on in the inner lives of the characters, but do so without losing a lively and generally light atmosphere.--dave heaton

The Beaver Trilogy

The one waste of time in the bunch, The Beaver Trilogy consists of three short films, shot on videotape in the early 1980s (but not released until this year), about a man in Beaver, Oregon who performs as an impersonator of Olivia Newton-John (and occasionally Barry Manilow. The first is genuine, a documentary depicting the man, Gary, talking to the film's director, Trent Harris, about his hobby, and then putting on his Newton-John act at an open-mic night. The first film is the most interesting, but still it's pretty dull, mostly because the subject of the video simply isn't that entertaining, unique or intriguing. It's also just plain odd to watch, as it seems like the filmmakers' intent was to laugh at this guy, but he really isn't that funny, and neither are the inevitable (and by now extremely tired) jokes about how uncultured small towns supposedly are. Yet the worst is still to come: the second and third films are reshow the scenes depicted in the first film almost word for word, but now with actors instead of real people. While Sean Penn hits some great notes in his turn as Gary, he still doesn't make an already boring story any more watchable the second time around. And Crispin Glover falls far from making a third take on the same material anything but tedious. Billed as "hilarious," this film was anything but. I read a review that described this as "genius," so maybe I'm missing something, but to me this was a supreme waste of time from beginning to end.--dave heaton

George Washington

The opening passage of George Washington quickly establishes the setting in a series of sweeping shots set to dreamy music. The camera moves along train tracks, over abandoned buildings and dead industrial parks, and across the faces of the children for whom this setting is their playground. The film portrays a group of young kids who spend their days in this landscape, playing games, talking (with each other, and with the small group of men who work in seeming isolation in the area), and in general behaving like kids do. First-time writer/director David Gordon Green uses his camera to immerse you in this setting, and his words to develop a collection of genuinely human characters who the viewer is instantly comfortable with. The film's first section is character- and scene-setting, giving us a feel for the lives of these children in this economically depressed section of the South. As the film proceeds, a few plot twists affect the film's tone greatly, as the children are made to deal with a tragic accident. The further the plot goes, the darker the film becomes, yet also the deeper it gets, as it moves from being an enjoyable slice of life to a rich text that touches on questions of heroism, friendship and, in a broader sense, the mythology of America and the "American dream." A film both gritty and poetic, George Washington has few clear-cut messages but compels you to think, and uses visuals as much as plot to do so.--dave heaton

The Gleaners & I

"There's a fine line between art and play," filmmaker Agnes Varda says at one point in The Gleaners & I. She's referring to an art exhibit which uses items found in the trash, but she could as well be describing the tack she took when making this documentary. Ostensibly about "gleaners," people who make use of the leftover crops that the farmers rejected, in the French countryside, the film becomes a playful riff on all sorts of "gleaning," from homeless city dwellers who "dumpster-dive" out of necessity to a man who lives off of food from dumpsters because his personal code of ethics prevents him from paying for food, from people who take broken appliances to fix and give to the needy to Varda herself, who gleans images and stories from life around her and presents them in this film. Varda's playfulness emerges not just through the way her brain connects one type of gleaner to another, but through her dynamic visual sense. There's a wealth of amazing images and shots in this 82-minute film, like a scene where Varda looks films passing trucks through her hand to one where she accidentally films the dangling lens cap and then incorporates it into the film. Everything about this film is play, but it's also serious art, a work which actively dives into people's lives and presents their stories, vividly showing us the world in a whirlwind tour.--dave heaton

Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale

A fascinating man and his equally fascinating travels are the focus of this outstanding low-budget documentary. Tobias Schneebaum is a true-blue New Yorker who also loves a good international adventure. In his twenties he went into the jungles of Peru and became part of a tribe which happened to be cannibalistic in nature. Later in his life he also spent time living with native peoples of New Guinea. Here filmmakers David and Laurie Shapiro have convinced him to return to both New Guinea and Peru with them, to show them where he lived and discuss the experiences. His stories are remarkable; involving friendships and more intimate relationships with the people he met, as well as a wide array of experiences that were new to him at the time, they demonstrate the ways traveling (as opposed to tourism) can bridge cultural divides. In telling Schneebaum's stories, the film touches on all sorts of larger issues, especially Western influence on less "developed" nations and the subjectivity of weirdness. Keep the River on Your Right offers Schneebaum's account of his history, but also offers his evolving and nuanced perspective on his own experiences and on the world. It's a film without any easy answers, but one which not only introduces us to a kindly, intriguing man but also uses his stories to get at a bigger picture of the world.--dave heaton

The King Is Alive

The King is Alive marks the fourth installment of the love it or hate it Dogme 95 movement. Kristian Lerving directs this horror/psycho drama, which is set entirely in the north African desert. The story centers around a group of international tourists whose bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Of course none of the passengers are skilled bushmen so one can imagine the panic that ensues. That is until one man proposes that the stranded vacationers perform a crude version of King Lear. What follows is a creepy, funny, gut-wrenching film that will leave the viewer feeling exhausted much like the stranded persons of the film. Although the film lacks some development of ideas that other Dogme films realize, it is well worth a watch. The digital video looks incredible at times and adds to the eerie nature of the film. The King is Alive is not a masterpiece, but it is an interesting step in a new direction of filmmaking.--jeffrey ruggles


"One" is the melancholy tale of a couple of longtime friends, one of whom has just been released from prison, the other a former baseball player who blew his chances in the majors and now works as a garbage collector. The filmmaking is simple and beautiful -- often shot through doorways with the main action happening outside of view. The details of the friends' lives and past lives reveal themselves naturally, without typical "movie dialogue" that exists for the sake of informing the audience, but is silly and unnecessary for the people in the film. Charlie (Jason Cairns) begins putting his life onto a better path when he leaves prison; he begins to take classes at the local community college, starts to date, and even volunteers at the medial supply company where he was originally placed for community service. Nick (Kane Picoy), who lives in his parents' basement, begins to resent Charlie's quest for self-improvement. Despite this, the two remain friends. Charlie and Nick's story is full of hope and disappointment as it examines overbearing parents, futile attempts to ignore the past and willpower coming off failure.--jill goodheart

Regret to Inform

The short but dense documentary Regret to Inform traces the histories of women who became widows at the hands of the Vietnam War. As an American film, Regret to Inform obviously focuses on American widows and their fears in sending their husbands off to a confusing and unpopular war. The women share just how much they wanted their husbands to stay at home and their experiences receiving telegrams letting them know that their fears were justified. One American woman is the particular focus, as she travels from the U.S. the area of Vietnam where her husband Jeff was killed. However, the film surprises a bit by examining not only the experiences of these American women, but also the tales of Vietnamese women who were in the heart of the war and lost their husbands. Some became informers to the Viet Cong and others turned to prostitution as a means of making a living. Regret to Inform also stretches the idea of who is considered a "war widow" by talking with a woman whose husband died in 1988 due to cancers caused by Agent Orange, and tells the story of another women whose husband committed suicide because he couldn't stand the flashbacks. All of these tragic stories are accompanied by black and white photos of happier times and exquisite scenery of modern day Vietnam. Moving, but not sappy or over-emotional, Regret to Inform places us in a past many of us cannot understand and in a present we may never see.--jill goodheart

Signs & Wonders

Difficult to digest and impossible to summarize, Signs & Wonders is a dizzying head trip. A mystery in the true sense of the word, the film is many things at once: a family drama about an American businessman living in Greece, Alec (Stellan Skarsgard), who vacillates in confusion over leaving his wife Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling) and their two children for another woman (Deborah Unger); a suspense thriller about the same man's obsessive actions regarding his ex-wife and her new lover, a Greek activist named Andreas (Dimitri Katalifos), a depiction of the evils of corporate globalization, specifically U.S. business harming the culture and community of other countries; a poem about how we interpret the world around us, one filled with mysterious visual clues in the form of signposts, real and unreal, scattered throughout the film, and a whole lot more. Skarsgard adeptly portrays the epitome of the dumb American, a wealthy man who thinks the world is his to take. Yet he is also a thoroughly dumbfounded man (to a quite humorous extent), a person so convinced that the world around him is a map for him to read, a guide for what to do next, that he takes every word someone says, movement someone makes and piece of clothing someone wears as a personal message to him. With stunning cinematography (it was shot on digital video) and a swirling score by Adrian Utley of Portishead, Signs & Wonders has an ambitious sense of style which matches the broad intellectual sweep of the film. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter and written by Nossiter with poet James Lasdun (the two previously collaborated on the 1997 film Sunday, Signs and Wonders is a spellbinding film that requires multiple viewings to really figure out, a puzzling work that demands active viewing on the part of filmgoers.--dave heaton


Songcatcher uses people's stories and good old melodrama to make a point about the role of music in the lives of people and their communities. It follows a rather stuffy musicologist, struggling to find her place as a woman academic in a patriarchal world (Janet McTeer), who travels to the Appalachians around the turn of the century to visit her sister (Jane Adams) and ends up fascinated by the music of the area. As depicted in the film, it was a community where everybody sang, where songs were handed down from generation to generation and took an integral role in people's everyday lives. As a musicologist, she is first interested on a strict historical and analytical level, as the songs stem from British ballads of the past), but of course as the film progresses and her life becomes wrapped up in the lives of the people, she has a more humanistic interest in the songs. Songcatcher's beauty comes in part through how well it captures both the songs and the musical mood of the community in the film. There's an abundance of jaw-dropping performances in the film, both from actors obviously trained as singers and some who obviously weren't (though that lack of training fits perfectly with the everydayness of the music in the film). The film also pairs the songs, which often deal with people's stories from love to murder, with the goings-on of the community, occurrences involving love, betrayal, power struggles and more. In the end, that pairing is the spark of genius that really delivers the film's central message that music is at its core about people more than notes, instruments and scores. It's about the people who wrote the songs, the people whose stories were written about, the people performing the songs and the people listening--and the invisible connections between these people and more. Crossing time, place and superficial personal and societal differences, music is the bridge, and Songcatcher captures that fact perfectly.--dave heaton tells a real-life, human story that is more complex and more affecting than most fiction. Following two highly educated twentysomethings who are pursued their dreams of success in the business world by starting an Internet company which helps facilitate local government operations online, the film has more twists and turns than most films, but the kicker is that it all really happened. Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim filmed founders Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman with hopes that the company would take off and be the next big thing, and they would have it all on tape (or DV, actually) from the start. The company is not an overnight success, but the power struggles, strained friendships and financial and legal maneuvering make for truly compelling cinema. Through telling this story, not only captures a snapshot of the late 90s boom in Internet commerce and its inevitable failings, but offers a rich tale about success, friendship and the places where the two come into conflict. The film is both more watchable than you'd imagine and more complex than any plot summary can convey. A great example of the heights that documentary filmmaking can reach. --dave heaton


With Taboo (Gohatto), the legendary director Nagisa Oshima returned to film after over a decade of working exclusively in television. It's a film that takes the same bold, critical look at the inner workings of societies that Oshima displayed in his previous films (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Cruel Story of Youth, In the Realm of the Senses, etc.). Here the society in question is a Japanese shogun's personal militia in the 1800s. Having trouble recruiting experienced samurai, the militia takes two men into their group who are young but talented at fighting, as demonstrated in the film's opening scene, depicting the trial fights that the men undertake. One of them is Sozaburo Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda), an androgynous man with an angelic face and delicate demeanor. He becomes the film's central focus, as his presence causes all sorts of drama, from men who pursue his affections outright, to those who keep up a macho façade while secretly longing to sleep with him. Jealously, fear and struggles of power take center stage as the film depicts how the various men in the militia relate to him. Japanese director/actor/celebrity Takeshi Kitano has an important role as the captain of the militia; the film is essentially from his point of view, though not technically so, as he is the one character whose thoughts are revealed throughout the film, both through his expressive face and the filmic device of letting viewers hear his thoughts. A mix of humor and melodrama, Taboo is essentially a soap opera, but one dealing with a subject outside of the mainstream discussion of history, that of homosexuality amongst military men. While a historical film in the sense that it is based on real-life history in a general sense, and does use some real-life people as characters, it also has a tinge of the supernatural about it. Through the film's increasingly unreal visual style, and the almost otherworldly look that Matsuda's character has, Taboo toys with themes of fantasy within the context of history. A complex and visually stunning film, with a superb score from omnipresent composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, Taboo, like Japanese cinema in general, deserves to be distributed more widely than it has been thus far.--dave heaton

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