One of the great challenges faced by any film festival is to, in essence, find its own voice. Most film festivals follow a similar template: short films, student films, documentaries, and features, the latter leaning towards an often uneasy combination of small, low-budget films hoping for industry and public exposure, and larger-profile releases looking to garner street cred by winning an award or two before hitting the local Cineplex. Even festivals purporting to promote, say, local artists, usually find there are not enough community-based projects to sustain them. The Malibu Film Festival (MFF), despite the almost ridiculously glamorous local show-biz populace, in its fashion featured local residents, both young and old, for their contributions to filmmaking. Michael Madsen, a Malibu local who received a well-deserved nod for his impressive body of work, probably did more for the festival by showing up and graciously accepting the honor than the prize will ever do for his career.
The most impressive filmmaker represented at MFF was local resident Dominic Scott Kay, an 11-year-old writer/director whose two films, Grampa’s Cabin and Saving Angelo, were entered in the short film competition. Grandpa’s Cabin, starring the estimable Robert Forster, Eloise De Joria, and young Dominic himself, tells the story of a single mother reconciling with her estranged father upon learning of his terminal illness. In a few simple scenes, two lifetimes of hurt and pain are gently set on the road to reconciliation.
Based on a true story, Saving Angelo concerns a boy (Kay) whose determination to rehabilitate an injured dog left for dead on the roadside affects the lives of his family and community. The film features Kevin Bacon as a fireman who ultimately takes the fully recovered Angelo in and makes him the firehouse mascot.
Kay already has a greater grasp of film grammar, narrative, and how to elicit truthful, nuanced performances from his actors than many of his adult counterparts. More importantly Dominic, or Dom as he is known to one and all, is obviously concerned with matters of the heart, and Lord knows the world could use more filmmakers with his sensibility. In a self-effacing interview, Dom indicated he was having meetings with various Hollywood producers about directing a feature, and one could feel the paroxysms of envy rippling through the film school grads present in the audience.
The centerpiece of the festival was Strength and Honor, an independent film shot in Ireland by first-time Irish writer/director Mark Mahon. Starring Michael Madsen as a retired boxer forced back into combat to raise money for his son’s life-saving operation, Strength and Honor also stars Richard Chamberlain, Patrick Bergin, and Vinnie Jones in one of the hammiest performances this reviewer has seen in quite some time. The film is set largely amongst “The Travellers,” Ireland’s equivalent of the Eastern European gypsies. Madsen quietly anchors the film with a restrained, understated, and heartfelt performance, wisely underplaying while those around him chew the scenery, spit it out, and then chew it back up again. Strength and Honor is gritty and atmospheric, and the bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred boxing matches are grippingly executed. However, the script is almost absurdly cliché-ridden, the narrative often confusing, and rather than simply trusting his actors and the circumstances to tell the story, Mahon too often resorts to melodramatic devices, such as swirling montages replete with heavy ethereal music that sounded like something Enya might have written the day the dog died. These tricks serve only to highlight the story’s melodrama, and rather than pull the audience in, they serve to distance the viewer from directly empathizing with the characters. The portrayal of The Travellers was also troubling, as their thirst for blood reduces them, en masse, to something less than human.
In the short film category, the best of the lot was the highly amusing Looking Up Dresses. The flick recounts a nerdy young man’s (Jade Williams) attempt to recapture his smoking hot, but bored girlfriend (Wendy Jones) by proving, in the middle of a Sunday church service, that he is masculine, edgy, and unpredictable.
MFF ended with an awards ceremony hosted by actor/comedian Joel McHale, writer-producer-host of The Soup on E! The after-party at Taverna Tony in Malibu was fun and intimate, which reflected the overall vibe of the festival. However, perhaps a result of downsizing, the proceedings were somewhat marred by the presence of vendors selling $500 designer sunglasses and land in Costa Rica, among other items, hi-end mercantile endeavors that certainly felt at odds with MFF’s home-grown agenda and its attempt to attract the average moviegoer, always the bread and butter of any small film festival.
For further information, go to malibufilmfestival.org.