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Newport International Film Festival, 2002

     In its 5th year, June 4-9, the Newport International Film Festival kept a grip on its A-list of national sponsors, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Mercedes-Benz. But donations were slashed after 9/11. Fewer gratis tickets floated about this year, for movies or mansion parties. The sit-down clam-and-lobster feast of prior closing nights became, in 2002, a stand-up affair of chicken and shrimp pieces on a stick.

     Fortunately, the Newport Fest stayed generous where it mattered, offering lodging for more filmmakers than ever before, including novice directors, who showed their shorts in five special progams. As its tradition, Newport 2002 was a brilliant spot to discover feature documentaries, its selection more thoughtful than the publicized pickings at Sundance. Among the shiniest non-fictions were Massachusetts works: Mai's America, made by Framingham's Marlo Poras, and, Newport's jury prize for Best Documentary, My Father the Genius, by JP's Lucia Small.

     Of fiction features, I enjoyed My Kingdom, a baroque, Liverpool-set modern-day King Lear starring Richard Harris as a white-maned gangleader with tarts for daughters, and The Last Kiss, a smart, modish Italian comedy about the pangs of unrequited love, the pains of adultery, which should hit flying in US theatres. I sampled American indies with buzz: Dylan Kidd's Roger Dodger, Best Film at the Tribecka Film Festival, and Gary Winick's Tadpole, a favorite at Sundance. What a contrast! Roger Dodger is edgy and cool, a discovery; Tadpole is lame, tame, sitcom dreck.

     Back to the Hub, and Mai's America. Somehow, this remarkable documentary, which showed at the New England Film Festival, went unsung by the local press, though it's won the Audience Award at South by Southwest, and it's playing at the P-Town Film Fest and on PBS's POV in August. I'm here to proclaim it among the best local films of the new century, this heartbreaking tale of one year in the life of a Vietnamese exchange student in America. The filmmaker, Poros, discovered Mai in Communist Hanoi and followed this effervescent, winningly optimistic girl back to the USA where, expecting paradise, she got bogged down in rural Mississippi with a white-trash, TV-glued family of depressives. Thank Buddha for her surprise friends, a left-liberal history teacher and this Bible Belt town's sole giddy transvestite.

     Roger Dodger? Think Sex, Lies, and Videotape for dialogue this brittle and witty about goings-on under the sheets. Roger, played with rakish command by Campbell Scott, is a self-proclaimed master of seduction, proudly from Mars and putting it to impressed Manhattan-based Venusians, including his boss (Isabella Rossellini). But is he last month's flavor? Are his lines getting old hat, and women grossed out? Much of Roger Dodger is a fantastic night on the town, in which he plays city rat to his country mouse nephew from Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg). Trying to get the 16-year-old laid, they run into two alluring chicks (Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Berkeley) in a night club. What ensues is first-order screwball comedy, with a Cassavetes sour twist.

     Tadpole, which opens July 26 in Boston, cost Miramax millions to buy at Sundance, despite its muddy, uncinematic DVD look. And do we really care that the teen preppy lead (boring Aaron Stanford) is pining for his fortyish stepmom (Sigourney Weaver)? The kid's supposed to be sensitive because he quotes Voltaire. I didn't buy it, nor his seduction by a fortyish masseuse (Bebe Neuwirth), nor much else in a script of laugh-track one-liners. For this indifferently made film, Winick was crowned Sundance's Best Director.

     Finally, the most sensitive, personal evocation I've seen of 9/11: Kevin Breslin's 9-minute A Smile Gone, But Where?, a world premiere at Newport, a docudrama starring Jimmy Breslin, recreating the columnist's experience of passing a smiling woman on the street for months and months, then she disappeared that fateful day. Is this alluring stranger alive or dead? Breslin's anguished waiting is that of everyone in America.

(June, 2002)


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