Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Delray film fest, part 2: A look at the highlights

Gale Harold, left, and Fay Ann Lee in Falling for Grace.

By Hap Erstein

Below is a selection of highlights from this year’s Delray Beach Film Festival (the full schedule can be seen here):

* The Answer Man: As we efficiently learn in a media montage at the beginning of this quirky romantic comedy, reclusive Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) wrote a hugely successful account of his alleged conversations with God 20 years ago and has shunned all publicity as well as the steady stream of fans of his book, Me & God, who feel certain he has insights into their personal dilemmas.

Fame has turned Arlen into a curmudgeon and, anyway, he only has the most superficial, glib answers for the masses. One such seeker is a bookstore owner and recent graduate of an alcoholism rehab clinic, who learns where Faber lives and keeps showing up on his doorstep, eager to take Faber’s unwanted books in exchange for responses to his philosophical questions.

Also quickly smitten with Faber, despite his grumpy ways, is a single mother and chiropractor (Lauren Graham), who intrigues him since she alone seems never to have heard of him or his book.

Screenwriter/director John Hindman juggles several different movies in The Answer Man. There’s the romance, which refuses to adhere to the rules of the genre’s formula. There’s a satire of the publishing industry and the gullibility of the public. And, least successfully, there’s a broad comedy, which is handled clumsily and undermines the other threads.

Still, Daniels is persuasively misanthropic, Graham is appealing and the film risks going into darker territory, without losing its audience accessibility. (Today at 7 p.m., Crest Theater)

Among the chickens in Food, Inc.

* Food, Inc.: Make a point of having a meal before you see this muckraking documentary, because you are not going to want to eat afterwards. Filmmaker Robert Kenner makes a crusading case against big business, its pervasive corruption of our food supply and the government’s willingness to stand by and watch it happen.

Like an extended 60 Minutes segment, Food, Inc. details how mom-and-pop farmers are being squeezed out of business, in favor of fat-cat corporations such as Monsanto, which is genetically engineering commodities such as soybeans, then monopolizing the market. Inhumane conditions for raising chickens are exposed and the one supplier to mega-processors like Tyson who objects has her livelihood eliminated. A mother whose young daughter dies of E. coli poisoning takes her campaign for more rigorous food inspection to the U.S. Congress, but meets a wall of indifference. And so on.

Understandably, the companies being accused of wrongdoing want nothing to do with Food, Inc., but the result is a very one-sided film. Among the talking heads in the movie is Eric Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation, the indictment of the McDonald's of the world. It became a film that used humor in its argument, something that Food, Inc. could have bolstered its effectiveness by employing.

Still, Kenner’s unappetizing film is certainly, uh, food for thought. (Saturday, May 23, 6:15 p.m., Movies of Delray)

* Falling for Grace: Underappreciated Asian-American actress Fay Ann Lee jump-starts her career by writing, directing, producing and starring in an entertaining, if predictable cross-cultural romantic comedy about an ambitious New Yorker eager for acceptance.

Grace Tang (a name she chose for herself in admiration of WASPy Grace Kelly) wants in with the Metropolitan Opera Junior Committee so much that she never corrects them when they jump to the conclusion that she is the famous designer for the high-ticket Hong Kong couturier, Shanghai Tang.

That confusion of mistaken identity leads to Grace being pursued by monied bachelor Andrew Barrington Jr. (Gale Harold), a crusading lawyer trying to close down Chinatown’s sweatshops, but also Grace lying about her parents, passing them off as her personal immigrant charity cases. Yes, she atones for her transgressions and finds happiness, but there are enough fresh twists in Falling for Grace to make up for its clichés.

Lee is an assured director, even in filmmaking-unfriendly New York. As a performer, she is a natural audience empathy magnet. And as a producer, she somehow managed to lure the likes of Roger Rees, Christine Baranski and Margaret Cho to her calling-card project. (Friday, May 22, 7:00 p.m., Movies of Delray)

A scene from The Magistical.

* The Magistical: Making an independent film is hard enough, but making an animated feature independently seems insurmountable. Still, writer-director John Cernak has succeeded with a solid story and impressive computer-generated visuals that combine to produce a fantasy that should appeal to youngsters and adults alike.

His story is mythic in its scope, a good-versus-evil yarn about the title guardian of all creatures and her wayward attempt to preserve all the world’s beings. It involves a spell that grants immortality to the last surviving member of each species. But one evil dragon-like Draken resolves to eliminate all the other Drakens, making him impervious to harm. The unlikely hero, the only creature able to stop the Draken’s scheme, is a baby cub.

The involving story is elevated to mythic proportions by the attractive animation, and Geoffrey Holder’s basso narration is another impressive touch. Now all Cernak needs to do is figure out how to break through the Disney marketing monopoly. (Friday, May 22, 4:00 p.m., Crest Theater)

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