Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

" Failure is not quite so frightening as regret "
The Dish

MRQE Top Critic

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Part small-town fair, part indie movie fest, the Waterfront Film Festival brings a weekend of excitement and edgy and interesting movies to little Saugatuck, Michigan. Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, Saugatuck is known for its seaside attractions, art galleries and general liberal atmosphere.

Adding to the charm of the whole event is the fact that there’s no actual movie theater in Saugatuck. The American Legion (small), the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (medium), and Saugatuck Yacht Services (large) served as eccentric venues for the films.

I live a few miles of north of Saugatuck in the larger city of Holland. I’ve been particularly excited for the WFF, because I’ve found it extremely difficult to find good independent movies in the local video stores.

Movie Habit showed interest in having me write up the WFF, and The Holland Sentinel thought that a festival wrap-up would be perfect for their Sunday issue. Suddenly, I was no longer a freelance writer — I was MEDIA (and, later, I even had the badge to prove it).

The movie selection was exciting and diverse. They ranged from Academy Award nominees, such as Winged Migration to small-budget gems like American Mullet. I spent a night planning exactly which movies I would see and when — a schedule I quickly abandoned when the festival started.

Thursday, June 12th (Opening Night)

 Eric Christian Olsen contends with surfboard-burning cultists
Eric Christian Olsen contends with surfboard-burning cultists
Still badgeless, and mostly anonymous, I stalked the opening night event in downtown Saugatuck. The first movie Local Boys, was shown for free on a huge outdoor screen. The headliner for the event was Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark, whose “We Were Only Freshmen” song I particularly despise. But he was adequate, as were the other musicians. At one point, though I unfortunately missed it, ER’s Erik Palladino (starring in Justice) got up and did a decent version of a Doors song. A female impersonator, who specialized in imitating Carol Channing followed, and then the movie started.

I quickly lost interest in the movie (see review) and went around listening to people and interviewing the police officers who were standing by in case a particularly nasty popcorn fight broke out. I couldn’t get much out of the cops, except that “they didn’t expect any trouble.” The junior of the two police officers looked more willing to talk, but his partner kept him quiet. Beware, ye keepers of the peace, for I AM MEDIA.

Local Boys

In some ways this was a good choice for an opening-night outdoor film. It didn’t demand much of the audience, had loud music and surfing scenes, and entertained a crowd who were just happy to be there. It was not a very good movie though.

It’s a cliché-ridden surfer flick about fatherless surfers Randy and Skeet who deal with various issues like mom’s new boyfriend/surf legend Jim Wesley and some sort of gang of surfboard-burning cultists. Eric Christian Olsen, who played Randy, is starring in the new movie Dumb and Dumberer, which is an appropriate follow-up to this simplistic film.

To be honest, though, I actually didn’t stay through the whole movie, so the second half could have shown how, really, all of us are surfers, gliding on the silver crest of the tidal wave we call existence. But I doubt it.

Friday, June 13th (Day 2)

 Paul Giamatti is the celebrity version of cartoonist Harvey Pekar
Paul Giamatti is the celebrity version of cartoonist Harvey Pekar
I connected with the media office to receive my press kit and MEDIA badge. To be honest, the badge helped me feel more comfortable interviewing the public, which was my key assignment for The Sentinel. Right away, while I was waiting in line for Daddy Cool, somebody came up to me to talk. I also interviewed a couple who came to the festival for their anniversary and a young filmmaker whose film, Anamnesis would be featured in the Student Filmmaker Showcase.

I also had the chance to attend one of the seminars, “Pitfalls and Successes: Making an Independent Film,” held in the local high school. Particularly interesting was the dichotomy between the idealism of the independent movie directors and the bottom-line rhetoric of the industry bigwigs. I also got a good appreciation for the amount of work and money that goes into even the smallest film.

I didn’t see nearly as many films as I hoped to, as I needed to be on the streets talking to people. But I did see the excellent Shaolin Soccer and American Splendor which both made me optimistic on the state of world cinema.

Daddy Cool

The premise of Daddy Cool is simple at its core. A woman with a difficult childhood converses with her therapist, who also has problems. But on top of the plot are layers of symbolism, all elements drawn from 50’s Sci-Fi and Horror movies. We are led to believe that her therapist may actually be a werewolf — and why? Because the patient sees her therapist as a predator. The patient sees images from her past through the static of her television — which shows how imperfect her memories are, and how she can only impassively review them as reruns. Even the fact that the woman is a transsexual (perhaps a nod to Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda) is revealed as symbolic of an incident from her childhood.

I’ve only understood the metaphorical nature of the film in retrospect. While watching it, the quirkiness seemed heavy-handed. The werewolf subplot seemed almost tacked on and irrelevant to the main story. Lines of television show dialogue spouted from a head in a jar seemed just silly. And, perhaps most of all, over the intended corniness of a movie that is influenced by low-budget B-Movies, there was an unfortunate level of unintended corniness in Daddy Cool from actually being a low-budget independent movie.

None of this makes me not want to recommend the movie to people. Personally, I want to see the film again to reexamine how cleverly it was written — and to think about how it could’ve been improved.

Shaolin Soccer

Shaolin Soccer takes the oft-told story of several unlikely characters forming a successful sports team (Bad News Bears, The Replacements, etc.) and expands it tenfold with impossible wire-fu stunts and computer-generated special effects. A player leaps high into the air and kicks the ball so fast it burns like a comet entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The goalie attempting to make the save has his clothes shredded off by the impact. As the matches continue the action gets more improbable, more extreme, and more hilarious.

The key to the film’s success is director, writer and main actor Stephen Chow. He is reminiscent of Jackie Chan in his prime: funny, instantly likeable, and physically-talented. Whether he is singing bad karaoke in a dive bar or exercising in a public place, he commands your attention effortlessly.

I love seeing foreign movies get attention from mainstream American moviegoers, and I think this movie could be big, or rather that it should be big. And even though the special effects aren’t quite as good as in The Matrix: Reloaded, I found Shaolin Soccer much more fun.

American Splendor

Ill-tempered, cynical file clerk Harvey Pekar has documented his mundane existence in comic book form since 1976. And, ironically, by describing his ordinary life and observations, he became an underground celebrity, leading to appearances on Letterman, a theatrical version of his comic, and now this movie. This basic incongruity is the motif of American Splendor, and it makes the unique style of the film very appropriate.

The movie switches between dramatized scenes of Pekar’s story, real-life conversations with the actual people being portrayed, and animated segments. These changes between reality and artistic interpretation heighten some of the basic issues in the film. Is the character that Pekar has created in his comic really “Harvey Pekar?” Is the character in the movie perhaps more Pekar-ish than the real one? And is Harvey Pekar really the everyman he portrays himself as, or the underground legend that he has become?

Paul Giammati is compelling as the movie version of Pekar, and the rest of the cast shine, even as they perform the difficult job of personifying real people that the audience can actually compare side-by-side. Moviegoers who have seen the 1994 documentary Crumb, about Pekar’s friend and collaborator Robert Crumb, will particularly enjoy the way this movie works as a companion piece.

Saturday, June 14th (Day 3)

 Matt Dillon goes up in smoke
Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts goes up in smoke
My piece for the Sentinel was due, so I had to nip down to Saugatuck for some more quotes and then return and sort all my quotes and ideas into a coherent article.

Then I went to see Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts. I wasn’t able to review the film though. I was having difficulty following it, because there was a man-mountain sitting in front of me. It was a packed house, so I couldn’t just get up and find another seat. I could barely make out 2/3 of the screen with his giant keyhole form blocking the middle of the screen.

I think it was about half-way through the film when a woman finds the dead body of her friend. The camera focused on her anguished face and the scene froze. A brown, bubbly ring appeared in the middle of the screen and expanded outward ... and then darkness and the entire theater was filled with gasps of horror. The film had begun to burn.

It would’ve been a good end to Local Boys, but I was actually beginning to enjoy City of Ghosts (what I could make out of it anyway). A volunteer had the unpleasant task of telling the entire audience that the projector had seized up, and it would at least another hour before they could fix it. Several members of the disappointed crowd asked him how the movie ended, but he claimed ignorance. They refunded or exchanged people’s tickets and we all slunk disappointedly into the night.

So Saturday was a bit of a flop for me and movie-watching.

Sunday, June 15th (Closing Day)

 A magical forest of marijuana hides somewhere in Kansas
A magical forest of marijuana hides somewhere in Kansas
I tried to make up for the dearth of movies yesterday by seeing several today. I ended up seeing three: Rolling Kansas, Justice and Pull Out.

The festival wound down and I didn’t ultimately get to see many of the films I wanted to, due to time restraints, like American Mullet and Winged Migration. At the end of the day though, when I returned to my car, I was pleased to find a flier for a new independent and foreign video store opening up in Saugatuck.

Rolling Kansas

A trio of brothers (and their friends) find a map to a magical forest of marijuana that their deceased hippie parents left for them. Rolling Kansas starts out strong and funny, as the group evaluates the situation and organizes themselves for the trip. But the film quickly loses momentum as the characters reveal more about their lives on the car ride. It’s soon evident that we’re not learning more about complex characters, but rather that we’re hearing some very feeble cheap laughs. Kevin thinks he’s gay, Dink slept with his elderly babysitter, etc.

The film didn’t work as a funny stoner-flick (because it’s not funny and the focus isn’t really on the marijuana), much less as the humorous but thoughtful movie the filmmakers may have been trying for. Rip Torn, as an aging hippie, steps in and saves the film for a few good minutes, but the film descends back into inanity the minute he’s off the screen.

I do give Rolling Kansas credit for one thing: it had one of the most stupid, illogical endings I have ever seen put to celluloid. I wish I could tell you more, but if you do decide to see the movie, you’ll appreciate having the same feeling of, “what the hell?!?!?” that I did.


Justice had a strong and interesting main story. Drew, a conservative-leaning comic book writer (ER’s Erik Palladino) creates a superhero based on a real person, as a means of coping with the fact that his friend died in the World Trade Center attack. This set-up provides an interesting look at how people deal with feelings of grief and powerlessness.

What fails with Justice, however, are the two side stories, featuring an Indian street vendor and a social worker. There is little or no conflict in the stories that doesn’t get resolved effortlessly. The filmmakers were seemingly trying for a Short Cuts-like effect, where everyone’s life intertwines with each other. But the end result left me just wondering when the movie was going to get back to the main story.

Pull Out

Pull Out is a great, low-budget documentary which shows how we can all analyze our lives to find an interesting story. Jyllian Gunther goes to her ex-boyfriends and asks them questions about why their relationship didn’t work out. She doesn’t necessarily ever get a solid answer, but the audience can make their own conclusions with the evidence presented.

The movie brings out the amateur psychiatrist in all of us, as you realize how Gunther’s bond with her father clearly shaped her relationships with the other men in her life. Also intriguing is seeing how the men and their feelings towards Gunther have changed.

Towards the end of the film, though, it was a little nerve-wracking when I realized that the woman in this very revealing, personal documentary was actually sitting behind me in the theater, preparing to answer questions from the audience.