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The 2001 Gen Art Film Festival

Manhattan’s Gen Art Film Festival (www.genart.org, May 2-8, 2001) operates on a unique premise – ‘7 premieres, 7 parties’ – and so its unique, condensed structure puts some pressure on it. With only seven features films playing (each accompanied by a short), there seems to be no excuse for a clunker. filmcritic.com managed to catch four of the festival’s seven films, and we can report that overall Gen Art did well, showing a willingness to both take risks with cynical and avant garde fare, and to embrace good ole’ heart-tugging romance.

The highlights of the films we saw were the opening and closing night entrees, Just a Kiss and The Chateau, both of which ran at the monstrous Sony Theaters Lincoln Square. The theater is less than a decade old but was designed like a gigantic movie house of old, with ornate wall designs and seating for what seemed like thousands (by way of comparison, San Francisco’s Castro Theater comes to mind).

On opening night, Just a Kiss was preceded by The Office Party, a short film by ex-Daily Show producer Chiara Edmands. The film, featuring The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart and Dave Attell as well as Ralph Macchio, Tate Donovan, Clea Lewis, and Carol Kane, was an amusing chronicle of a wild office party in which one passed-out reveler (Attell) takes getting blitz to a whole new level, and what happens when people have to sober up in the morning. The cast is pleasant and amusing, and the airy short seemed an appropriate counterpoint to the bizarre and pointed Just a Kiss.

The directorial debut of actor Fisher Stevens, Just a Kiss features Ron Eldard as a man who makes a terrible mistake with his best friend’s girlfriend (the enchanting Marley Shelton). Their brief dalliance sends every character’s life spinning toward a series of wildly improbably events. All the performances are crisp and enticing, particularly Marisa Tomei, as the psycho stalker of a advertising mascot, and Shelton, but it could be said that the real stars of Just a Kiss are Stevens and screenwriter Patrick Breen, who adapted the film from his own stage play and also portrayed the mascot. The film uses computer animation to great effect to emphasize emotional highpoints. Moments like the trickling of blood down a character’s skin, or a sudden wounded or guilty look in one’s eyes, are enhanced by gleaming digital color, and the viewer is left to ponder the significance of moments in a new and refreshing way. Just a Kiss is also blessed by a bold screenplay. Breen creates some unique personas, such as Shelton’s warm but clueless neurotic, who offers her apartment to Kyra Sedgwick after sleeping with Sedgwick’s boyfriend (Eldard), and responds to Sedgwick’s suggestion of the gesture’s inappropriateness by stating ‘I’m not very good with women.’ Overall, Just a Kiss is a film not afraid to take chances on both script and screen, and those chances (save for the cop-out double ending) pay off.

I’d report on the opening night party, but Gen Art overbooked, leaving hundreds stranded outside of Lotus, dejected and boozeless. The screening itself, however, was not without celebrity star power, as Matt Dillon sat in front of us, and Liev Schreiber was spotted on his cell phone right after the screening. (And while I didn’t witness this myself, I heard that Sedgwick’s husband, Kevin Bacon, was in attendance. And since I spoke with someone who saw him – does this make me two degrees from Kevin Bacon? [No. -Ed.])

The next night, moved to the more practical Loews State Theater at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, began with Metropopular, a hilarious animated short that created physical human personas for numerous metropolitan areas, and had them battle for the title ‘America’s favorite city.’ To see the physical bulk that is Newark say to New York City ‘I want to be like you’ was almost worth the price of admission itself. The feature that followed was The American Astronaut an experiment brilliant in concept that unfortunately couldn’t live up to its own conceit. The film was written and directed by Cory McAbee, leader of the band The Billy Nayer Show, and while not a pure musical, the film was largely driven by the band’s original roots rock. Shot in black and white, The American Astronaut is a space fantasy about a planet of men trying to negotiate a deal with a planet of woman to provide them with a male specimen that was taken from another planet of men who worshipped him, because he actually once saw a woman’s breast. The film’s first 15 minutes were a delight of style, as the blunt cinematography combined with the bizarre nature of the characters to create what seemed a signature style for a bold new director. In one brilliant scene, the hero Astronaut (played by McAbee) is followed into the bathroom by two hoods, but instead of roughing him up, they terrorize him with a song and dance number, the music supplied by a children’s record player. The scene is hilarious and original. But when McAbee leaves the men’s planet in search of the boy, the film’s pacing deteriorates rapidly, almost grinding to a halt. A new plot about a nemesis who turns people to powder seemed ridiculously non-sequiter, and by the time the film staged an entire production number in silhouette, people were milling toward the exits too quickly to appreciate the inventive staging. The American Astronaut was a grand experiment that failed, but the gorgeous cinematography, quirky characters, and potential for invention makes me hope that McAbee tries again, this time with a little help on the screenplay and much better sense of pacing.

(Quick party note – that night’s party at Studio 54 was the only one filmcritic got to. The booze was free for the first two hours, leading to much drunken debauchery and dancing. Suffice it to say that the attractive young crowd had a very good time, and there was much picture taking and schmoozing and even some twirling of dance partners on Broadway, which is best left for another story.)

The next night’s short, World Record Guy, was either a failed mockumentary or a serious film that inappropriately mocked its characters. Either way, this depiction of a son seeking vengeance against his uncaring father by breaking all his world records was its inventive plot by being way too uneven to be appreciated. The feature was American Chai, the warm and funny, if a bit too conventional, story of an Indian/American college man trying to bridge the gaps between his aspiring rock and roll life and his traditional Indian family. Lead actor Aalok Mehta (brother of writer/director Anurag Mehta) is friendly and appealing, the perfect middle of the road presence for this middle of the road comedy. While the film started strong and then slowly devolved into cliché and sentimentality (I counted three instances of Mehta talking about the need to ‘follow my heart’) you couldn’t help but like Mehta and root for things to go his way, even though the script left no doubt that it would. The supporting characters were equally appealing and obvious. Overall, American Chai was as light and airy as the tea its name evokes.

We took a break over the next three nights, which featured:

Welcome to Death Row – a documentary about the controversial and violent rise of Death Row Records;

Margarita Happy Hour – a feature about ‘cigarette-smokin’, cocktail-swillin’ hipsters in Brooklyn;’

Amy’s Orgasm – a feature about a female self-help author who falls for a Howard Stern type shock jock. (Just from the description, why do I feel that the next line should be ‘hilarity ensues!’)

The closing night returned to the maje
stic Sony Lincoln Square. The opening short, Offside, told the supposedly true story of a group of World War I soldiers who found a brief moment of bonding with their German adversaries, courtesy of a soccer ball. While that description pretty much tells you what you need to know, the film was well-shot and acted, a fine job by director Leanna Creel, although the film’s somewhat sappy nature guaranteed that no one was surprised when Creel introduced the celebrity who bankrolled it – Michael Bolton!

After the shock of that celebrity sighting wore off, we were treated to The Chateau, the delightful story of two ‘brothers,’ (the black one is adopted) who inherit a French chateau from an uncle they didn’t know existed, and have to deal with the French staff who’ve been there all their lives. The film’s director, Jesse Peretz, was the bassist for the band The Lemonheads, but the career change seems to have been a smart move. The Chateau was shot on digital video, and, surprisingly, was completely improvised. Paul Rudd, as the sweet, naive dimwit brother, is hysterical and endearing, and the fact that the film was improvised shows a range that was previously unexposed for the actor. If The Chateau winds up with any sort of distribution or exposure, this role could be a real career builder. Romany Malco is also appealing as Rudd’s L.A. hipster brother, and look for Donal Logue in a great cameo as yet another L.A. hipster given his comeuppance by the defiant servants.

The Gen Art film festival is to be applauded for its sense of adventure in picking this year’s films. While the results were a bit hit and miss, the sense of risk made for a lively time.

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