It's probably just a coincidence that bombs started falling over Baghdad about 10 minutes after I checked into my hotel in Cleveland, where I was to cover their 27th annual International Film Festival. But there seems to be some unfortunate connection between me leaving town to watch movies and the occurrence of a horrible international incident with a ridiculous body count (9/11 went down during the Toronto fest). For the record, my next trip is in June, so you have until then to load up on the duct tape and bottled water.
Much like Toronto, albeit to a lesser extent, this New Kind of War had major ramifications on us regular folk who just wanted to hang out in the dark and lose ourselves in independent and foreign cinema (between running around trying to catch basketball scores, anyway). The star power were too scared to fly into town to help promote their films, and several screenings were canceled because airport customs officials were wary of releasing large metal boxes from strange, unpronounceable lands (which turned out to contain film prints and not WMD).
But none of that nonsense prevented Clevelanders from turning out in droves to support their festival. After all, why stay home and hide in the bathtub when you can see any of the three tremendously entertaining Mental Hygiene programs? Remember those messed-up, post-World War II classroom films they used to show kids in an attempt to mold them into one big, subservient, Village of the Damned-like mass of well-mannered little cretins? Well, they had about six hours of them in Cleveland. Shorts with titles like Beginning To Date, What Made Sammy Speed? and Narcotics: Pit of Despair made me laugh until my face and stomach both ached. As funny as the extremely dated films were, they were made even more enjoyable by the knowledgeable introduction of Ken Smith, the author of the encyclopedia of classroom films (also called Mental Hygiene).
The other comedic highlight of the festival didn't really have anything to do with a proper film, either. If you're the kind of person who watches the Super Bowl for the ads rather than the game, you'd really dig World's Best Commercials, which was a last-minute replacement for one of those movies that couldn't clear customs. Thankfully, WBC only sounded like one of those stupid television specials hosted by Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. For starters, there's none of that "witty" banter between the hosts --- it's just non-stop award-winning commercials from all over the world.
As far as the "regular" films went, the first two I saw happened to be in black-and-white, from Eastern Europe, and happened to feature gypsies putting deadly curses on the male lead's best girl. Temptations, a Hungarian picture, is about a young man named Marci (Marcell Miklós), who is searching for his father. Along the way, Marci ends up swapping a bunch of onions for an underage gypsy (Julianna Kovacs) capable of some pretty nifty sleight-of-hand.
Romania's Every Day God Kisses Us On the Mouth tells the sad story of Dumitru (Dan Condurache). It starts out promisingly, when Dumitru gets out of jail and wins a girl in a card game. But she's a vindictive gypsy who reads his palm during sex and tells him he's going to die. Then Dumitru gets home, finds out his brother knocked up his wife, and decides to travel around with his new best friend, who happens to be a goose.
Gypsies don't play a major role in Edi, Poland's official entry into the last Oscar race, but there is a character they call Gypsy in it. The titular Edi (Henryk Golebiewski) is the George half in an Of Mice and Men-type relationship with a slow alcoholic named Jurek (Jacek Braciak). The two men live together in squalor, but Edi's love of books lands him a gig tutoring the rebellious younger sister of the town's two biggest illegal liquor tycoons. When Princess (Aleksandra Kisio) gets knocked up, she's afraid her psycho brothers will kill her boyfriend Gypsy, so she pins the pregnancy on Edi. Trouble ensues, as do a lot of rather dazzling overhead shots. Edi won the juried competition for Eastern European films.
Another unusual recurrence was films in English that were still subtitled. A couple of them, such as Lynne Ramsey's Ratcatcher, were due to heavy Scottish accents. Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen is a very compelling departure about a teenager named Liam (Martin Compston), who desperately wants to give his mother the best homecoming ever when she comes home from prison. It's nice to see Loach put away his sledgehammer and tell a thoughtful story, while letting us all know that there is still a lot of poverty in Glasgow.
More subtitles and another Of Mice and Men story surfaced in This Is Not a Love Song, a Public Image Limited-inspired tale about two colorful individuals (Michael Colgan and Kenneth Glenaan) who run out of gas, hike to a farm, accidentally kill the farmer's daughter, and then find themselves on the run from a frightening tracker (Harry Potter's David Bradley). It's a little like Deliverance mixed with Beckett and a smidgen of Gerry (which, ironically, is the name of the farmer's daughter).
Hong Kong's Fulltime Killer wasn't entirely in English, but the parts that were still had English subtitles. Anyone who digs high-octane Asian action flicks, or really enjoyed the Sly Stallone-Antonio Banderas movie Assassins (which was written by those Matrix brothers, by the way), should be enthralled by this tale of competing hitmen-slash-interesting love triangle. Plenty of wonderfully edited slow-motion set pieces, lots of delicious gunplay, and an almost alarming number of references to other action movies, like El Mariachi and The Professional, make it pretty clear writer-director Wai Ka-Fai is a big film fan himself.
The highlights of the Cleveland fest included Lukas Moodysson's brilliantly disturbing Lilya 4-Ever, about a teenage Russian girl (a shockingly terrific Oksana Akinshina) who gets mixed up in a Swedish prostitution ring; Levity, the directorial debut of Men In Black scribe Ed Solomon, which pits an emotionally broken Billy Bob Thornton against an inner-city missionary (Morgan Freeman), a drug-abusing teenager (Kirsten Dunst), and the sister of the kid he accidentally killed 26 years ago (Holly Hunter); and the opening night film American Splendor, a very Ghost World-ish true story about a sad sack Clevelander, named Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), who turns his boring life into a popular Robert Crumb-illustrated comic book. This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner masterfully shatters the fourth wall by incorporating commentary from the story's real-life participants.