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There’s no better time of year to be in Palm Springs than early January. The air is rejuvenating, the desert landscape alluring, and amidst all the easy living, PS kicks annually kicks off film festival season.  Now in its 23rd year, the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) prides itself on appealing to both the first-time moviegoer and the seasoned connoisseur. For the former, there were easily digestible films like Lasse Halstrom’s Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, which opened the Festival, and the Tilda Swinton-starrer We Need To Talk About Kevin; for the latter, the 276-minute Taiwanese film, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. For those looking to kill an entire weekend watching one documentary, the festival obliged with Mark Cousins’s 15-hour epic, The Story Of Film: An Odyssey.

In the last couple of years, the Festival has pared down the number of foreign film Oscar submissions. According to Festival director Darryl Macdonald, “It was becoming clear that some of these films weren’t measuring up to the quality of programming we wanted to present.” Altogether, 188 films from 73 countries ran during the 10-day Festival, including 40 of the 63 foreign language Oscar entries. Macdonald declared that “The balance of programming was stronger than ever.” With more than 130,000 filmgoers and 220 filmmakers (writers, directors, and actors) in attendance, the PSIFF remains a movie lover’s paradise.

Given its proximity to L.A., the Golden Globe Awards, and Sundance, the Festival has never been shy about courting Hollywood glamour, with the Convention Center hosting its annual Black Tie Awards Gala honoring notable films, stars, and directors from the previous year’s films. This year, the star wattage was hotter than usual, with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Michelle Williams, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and the ensemble cast from Young Adult, among others, walking the red carpet.  For some, the excitement proved too much: a 65 year-old man collapsed and died while watching the red carpet festivities. Inside, the sight of Brangelina turned the normally blasé PS crowd into giggly autograph hounds; they besieged the couple’s table with cameras as they ate, with one woman following Jolie to the bathroom in an effort to get a candid shot.  (Imagine what Evelyn Salt would’ve done with her). “I thought we had a more sophisticated public,” said Macdonald, who professed embarrassment.  “I’ve never seen anything like it here before.”

One place the stars didn’t go was the after-Gala party at the Ace Swim Club, which featured a DJ spinning 80s disco, no food, and almost no people.

Stars aside, the majority of time here is spent trying to choose correctly among films that most people know little about. This year, I only had time for a quick two-day visit, and with so many films not yet released or reviewed, it became a crapshoot. I relied on the daily recommendations listed in the Palm Springs Desert Sun, some of them from MacDonald himself.   Unfortunately, those did not always pan out.

Because of a scheduling conflict, I missed the most crowd-pleasing film of the Festival, Starbuck, a Quebec comedy that took home the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. The film is about a middle-aged loser whose pregnant girlfriend dumps him on the same day he learns that he is the father of 533 children, thanks to his sperm bank donations twenty years prior. Instead, I opted for the chance to hear Gary Oldman talk about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which screened before the Q&A. The movie is an old-school, bravura piece of Cold War filmmaking, aided by a stellar British ensemble cast (Colin Firth, John Hurt). Oldman is pitch-perfect as senior intelligence officer George Smiley, who’s asked to investigate a mole within Control, the MI5-like agency from which he’s been forced into early retirement.  Director Tomas Alfredson lays on the conspiracy, anxiety, and paranoia in the best British fashion. To say the film is convoluted is like saying there’s early bird dinner specials in Palm Springs, but I’m not the best audience for these films, having been lost by the first ten minutes of Inception.

Onstage, Oldman was in fine form, telling chatty anecdotes about John LeCarre (“A real spy who can’t speak Russian,” he said), family life, and a career that spans more than 70 films. More entertaining than the film was Oldman’s Q&A.  He noted that the cast was “six degrees of Harry Potter”, (with the exception of actor Mark Strong.  He proudly pointed out that the film “doesn’t compete with James Bond and doesn’t insult your intelligence.” Tinker, Tailor he added “has a pace like watching a lava lamp. You’ve got to listen, you have to work.  I’m a little tired of being assaulted by sound and imagery at the movies.”That last remark drew appreciative murmurs from the audience, even if most of them couldn’t tell you the plot of Tinker, Tailor if their lives depended on it.

The rest of the Festival for me was hit-and-miss. At 10am on Saturday, I took a chance on a French film, the terribly titled Declaration Of War, billed as an “exhilarating, thoroughly triumphant musical dramedy about a loving young couple who give birth to a baby with a brain tumor.” In retrospect, it is easy to ask – what was I thinking? No good can come out of a story like that, though the setup was promising: the parents, a carefree bohemian couple who lock eyes at a dance club, are barely prepared for the rigors of raising a child. The film, though, never really delved into that.  Not much of consequence actually happens, aside from the usual hysteria of hospital visits, misdiagnosis, and hand-wringing. Even the sick child was strangely unappealing – not a good sign.

Mexico’s Academy nominee, Miss Bala, was a major disappointment. Meant to be a cutting-edge look at the Mexican drug wars, it’s about a struggling young Baja woman who, hoping to win the local beauty pageant, is kidnapped by a local drug gang and forced into a life of crime. In more skilled hands, this could’ve been an incisive black comedy, or a stark portrait of the drug wars, a la Traffic. Instead, director Gerardo Naranjo poured on the violence and skimped on the logic.

I took a second stab at the drug wars via Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Jose Padilha’s remake of the 2007 film Elite Squad. Part action thriller, part documentary-styled confessional, the film follows a police commander-turned intelligence agent Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) on his quest to bring down the drug gangs of Rio De Janeiro.  He does, only to find himself t the mercy of an even more insidious enemy: the corrupt cops and politicians who are really running things Hard-hitting and vividly shot in Rio’s streets and prisons, the film maintains a relentless pace throughout.   It doesn’t break any new ground, and it’s hamstrung by Nascimento’s wall-to-wall voiceover (a common theme in the foreign films I saw) but it was one of the most entertaining films of the weekend.

I took a sampling of Arab world cinema with Love In The Medina, a Moroccan film about sexual obsession and forbidden love – in this case, the young lovers,  are already in arranged marriages. Directed by Abdelhai Laraki, the film juggles too many storylines in a confusing flashback structure, and fails to develop its two main characters fully enough to invest us. By Hollywood standards, the steamy sex scenes are somewhat chaste, but the implied eroticism and sensual atmospheres – Turkish baths, intimately lit love nests – lend the film a charge nonetheless.

The best performance of the weekend was actor Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead, Michaël R. Roskamhis’s crime drama about the Belgian cattle hormone Mafia. Yes, you read that right. In the best line of the weekend, Roskamhis, introducing the film, described it as a “farm noir”. But the crime drama took a back seat to the tortured personal drama of the films titular protagonist, a man who’s grown up addicted to testosterone injections as a result of a childhood beating that stunted the growth of his male attributes. Schoenaerts beautifully conveys the anguish of a lifelong outsider from his own species.

Saving the best for last, I stood on line for almost an hour (media and passholders share lines at PS) for A Separation, which after its Golden Globe win has to be considered the front-runner to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Skillfully directed by Asghar Farhadi, the film begins with a secular middle-class family in crisis: wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran and provide a better life for their daughter; her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) refuses to leave his aging father, who has Alzheimer’s. Simin asks for a divorce, but as that’s playing out, an unfortunate incident pits the family against an impoverished religious couple. Over the course of the film, the notion of separation becomes a gripping metaphor for all levels of Iranian society, from socio-economic to religious.

As the film bounces between home and the Iranian court system, viewers are faced with a series of increasingly complex ethical dilemmas involving each character, as information is expertly withheld and then released. At a certain point, I felt like less I was watching a film, and more like I had been dropped into the painful lives of people in a country where repression and separation are a way of life.

Outside the theater, people stood in packs, arguing passionately about what they had just seen, analyzing the film’s marvelously ambiguous ending, trying to figure out which side, if any, had the moral high ground. It was a thrilling illustration of film’s power to provoke and challenge, and it was exactly the type of experience you hope to get at a film festival that truly lives up to the word, ‘international.’

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