The best 2 week party in San Jose started last night, and of course I was there (as I have been for every year since...holy cow, 2002!)
As soon as I picked up my press badge, there was much celebrating, drinking, hugging old friends, making new ones...at the festival lounge in The Continental. My standard rule for scheduling my festival is already rolling along--drink with me, and I'll see your films. The disperse nature of the festival complicates things this year (it's split between San Jose and Redwood City, rather than being a tight festival village like in recent years.) But the films that I've already drunk with and are honor-bound to see are:
THE DEATH (AND LIFE) OF CARL NAARDLINGER (love that title!)
NEW CHEFS ON THE BLOCK
SHORTS 1 (specifically, BRIAN MICKLER)
SHORTS 3 (specifically, BAE)
SHORTS 5 (specifically...I don't actually remember which one I drank with)
THE DUNNING MAN
Good job, you filmmakers are doing Cinequest right! Everybody else, step up your game!
Okay, then it was time for the opening night show. The glorious California Theater. More friends and more hugs. The mighty, mighty Wurlitzer organ. The introductions, the thank-yous, and then the film, THE LAST WORD.
Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, the ultimate powerful, controlling woman. And given the politics of the past year it's tempting to draw parallels about getting to know and sympathize with the old bitch and realizing that her bitchiness is the result of a lifetime of having to be twice as smart, twice as strong, twice as forceful, and twice as dedicated as the men she worked with. But I don't think political allegory is the intention. And I'm a little uncomfortable using the "b-word" but it's there in the movie and hard to ignore (in particular, a little joke about how she puts the "bitch" in "obituary.")
Oh yeah, the obituary. After an incident with booze and pills--which she insists was an accident--she peruses the obituaries and realizes the local writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) has a talent for making the recently deceased sound like wonderful people with grand lives--even people whom Harriet personally knew were awful and boring. So she marches into the newspaper office and demands that Anne writes her obituary. Of course, she's not going to just let Anne do it. She's a control freak, so it has to be done just right. And when her first draft is inadequate, Anne challenges Harriet that maybe the problem isn't her writing, it's Harriet herself. And so Harriet takes charge to rather cynically make her obituary look good. She already had an impressive career in advertising--before she was forcibly ejected from her own company. But she needs friends, family, an adorable underprivileged youth to mentor (introducing the adorable and funny AnnJewel Lee Dixon.)
Even the minor roles are excellent in the film, including Joel Murray as a former colleague, Anne Heche as Harriet's estranged daughter, and Philip Baker Hall (Cinequest alum with DUCK back in 2005) as her ex-husband who has no illusions about who Harriet is, but still loves her. His role is brief, but provides a powerful emotional ground for the film.
Ultimately the film succeeds, not just in making the audience appreciate Harriet, but in doing so without softening her edges too much. We don't appreciate the nice person she becomes, we appreciate--maybe even love--the strong, inspirational, even wise woman she always was.
Director Mark Pellington sat down for a brief Q and A afterward, and was gracious and humble, and I believe truly appreciated the audience as much as we appreciated the film. Even when the questions veered into strange territory of numerology, he had a good attitude about it all.
And then the party, over at the Farmers Union. And also Olla, although I didn't actually get next door for that. I'll have to check them out later in the festival. Anyway, plenty of drinks, a bit of food, and soon enough it was time for me to head home. Had to get a little sleep, because there's a lot of Cinequest left to do.
Running Time: 108 minutes
My Total Minutes: 419,640