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One sings, one doesn’t

The BFF has little to celebrate; the HFA has ‘Edward Yang’
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 10, 2008

080912_yiyi_main
YI YI: Edward Yang’s masterpiece is a rich-textured tapestry of the assorted lives in modern-day Taipei.

This year, at least one element in “Boston Film Festival” is no longer true. The BFF now takes place in Cambridge. Clinging to life in its 24th year, the event — which runs September 12-17 — has crossed the river, relocating from the Boston Common to the Kendall Square Cinema.

And when you come down to it, even the “film” part looks a little dicy. Every year the BFF presents an “Excellence in Film” award. This year’s tribute goes to famed local writer Robert B. Parker, author of the novel on which the opening-night film, Edward Harris’s APPALOOSA, is based. It’s a good movie, but what’s with a film festival giving out an award for “Literary Excellence?”

Okay, a festival should be judged by its films, not its awards. And if the three-hour ANNE OF GREEN GABLES: A NEW BEGINNING (September 15 at 8:15 pm) sounds like a TV movie, that’s because it is — it’s scheduled to broadcast on Canadian TV some time this fall. Kevin Sullivan (this is his fourth entry in the made-for-TV Gables franchise, which started in 1985 with his adaptation of the original Lucy Maud Montgomery children’s classic) has spun a prequel of sorts to the story about the feisty red-haired orphan and her adventures in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island. After watching the show, I would say it could only benefit from commercial breaks; it resembles a Nicholas Sparks novel with forays into Charles Dickens parody.

An older and wiser Anne Shirley (played by Barbara Hershey, who shows she’s just a girl at heart by galloping about in her big 1940s pants), now a successful writer, mother, and widower (husband Gilbert having been killed in World War II), has returned to the homestead of the title to write a play about her early origins. A packet of letters found under a floorboard springs the flashback machine into motion. Left to his own narrative devices, Sullivan leaves no shrieking, melodramatic cliché untouched, and plucky Anne meets every iniquitous twist of fate with a high-pitched, overwrought oration.

Sample dialogue: Wicked Poorhouse Headmistress: “A little beggar like you should thank the Lord that we’ve taken pity on you at all!” Anne: “To sleep in such cramped conditions is more than my imagination can abide!” WPH: “Put up or shut up! At least this bunch doesn’t have fleas!”

About an hour into this wretchedness, another Shirley — Shirley MacLaine — shows up as the haughty owner of half the town, and her character takes a shine to Anne while leading the wrong side in the war of capital against labor. But by that point you might be wishing you had a remote handy to change the channel.

On the other hand, producer Marc Abraham’s directorial debut, the closing-night entry FLASH OF GENIUS (September 17 at 7 pm, with Abraham and star Greg Kinnear scheduled to appear in person), is a real movie; it’s due in theaters October 3. But the premise alone — the true story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper and how he tried to win the patent rights from the Ford Motor Company — suggests that it might have been more comfortable on the small screen. Greg Kinnear brings an earnest seediness to Bob Kearns, an engineering professor at a small college who gets the title inspiration while driving his wife and their six kids home from church during a rainstorm. It all ends in an extended courtroom drama that’s less exciting than you might expect. The moral of the story, I suppose, is not to trust a business partner if he’s played by Dermot Mulroney.

A powerful documentary can justify almost any film festival. But if there’s one here, I didn’t get to see it. Denice Ann Evans’s THE SPITTING GAME: THE COLLEGE HOOKUP CULTURE (September 13 at 3 pm) has about 28 minutes of substance in its 82-minute length. And Jenny Alexander’s compelling DETAINED (September 16 at 5:30 pm), about an immigration raid on a New Bedford in 2007, is only 28 minutes long.

Well, how about the “Festival” part? There are the usual parties, but is there anything to celebrate? Maybe it’s my own perverse taste, but I found Boaz Yakin’s DEATH IN LOVE (September 16 at 7:45 pm), nutty as it is, a treat. I had admired Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies (1998), but in the decade since he’s been making mainstream movies like Remember the Titans (2000). He seems to have been stockpiling numerous weird, indie ideas in the meantime; now he’s put them all together in this extravaganza.

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