2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival: Crystal's Picks

By Crystal Harrell

The Eagle Huntress (United Kingdom/Mongolia/U.S.)

The Eagle Huntress is a dazzling directorial debut from Otto Bell that captures the underdog story of a 13-year-old Mongolian girl named Aisholpan who strives to become the first female eagle hunter. Her quest does not come without difficulty, however, as she fights against a male dominated, old-fashioned society that opposes her dream.

Filmed with a small team of three people, the cinematic scope of The Eagle Huntress is visually impressive and cleanly cut. Bell intimately captures the endearingly tender relationship between a father and daughter as he schools her in the way of the hunter, while also revealing the breathtaking icy landscapes of the isolated Asian country. The eye of the camera also changes when necessary to best preserve the realism of the documentary. GoPro footage of Aisholpan courageously climbing down a steep slope to obtain her baby eagle is expertly recorded with thrill and intensity, while various slow motion and tracking shot techniques are used to the advantage of capturing the majestic power of a swooping bird of prey going in for the kill.

Director Otto Bell (left) at the PSIFF screening of The Eagle Huntress

Director Otto Bell (left) at the PSIFF screening of The Eagle Huntress

The Eagle Huntress is not only a story of triumph and self-discovery, but one of resounding truth. Aisholpan’s journey towards her passion showcases someone who is profoundly mature for her age, and having a wild, winged companion resting on her arm is a testament to how she is able to tame unpredictable forces of nature with such ease. The trials and scrutinizing words she endures from her elders do not affect her in the slightest, thus the ribbon-wearing girl pushes forward in her quest to preserve a role in her nation’s history. Filled with charm, light-hearted humor, and amazing people, Bell’s documentary is picturesque enough to read like a scripted child’s adventure instead of events based in reality. This inspiring tale of determination is enough to make cynics believe that the sky is the limit when it comes to achieving a dream. 

Lost in Paris (France)

Starring and directed by the husband-and-wife creative duo of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, Lost in Paris follows a Canadian librarian [Gordon] who goes in search of her missing elderly Aunt Martha in Paris. Once there, she meets a homeless man [Abel] who assists her in more ways than one.

Matched in both comedic timing and awkward charm, Dominique and Fiona possess palpable chemistry onscreen that makes their scenes together effortlessly entertaining to watch. Especially prevalent in a scene where they dance together aboard a boat house restaurant, the couple are in sync with their exuberant mannerisms and mastery of performance art. As the plot of the film progresses, the initial hostility they instill on one another transforms into one of genuine care. They drive the entirety of the narrative as they set off on an adventure without an exact destination.

The humor found in Lost in Paris is mostly reliant on a variety of situational and physical comedy routines courtesy of the talented lead roles. Like an homage to the classic silent film stars who used excessive body language to convey their emotions, words fall by the wayside when it comes to exercising elaborate montages of physical action. Miming techniques are also put to use in a particular fishing line sequence very Chaplin-esque in nature. The hilarity that ensues from the choreographed stunt work is simply breathtaking to watch, whether it be an elderly couple practicing some fancy footwork on a bench or a thrilling ladder balance scene atop the Eiffel Tower. Sheer delight from start to end, Lost in Paris deserves to be recognized as one of the most inventive comedies of 2016.

The Idol (Palestine)

The Idol tells the story of young Mohammed Assaf and his journey to compete in the 2013 Arab Idol competition. The movie is a fictionalized account of the actual events that led Assaf, a former wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, to win the television show. 

Needless to say, music plays an incredibly important role in The Idol, both as a narrative device and as a means of infusing Palestinian culture into an environment that aimed to suppress that kind of expression. Mohammed’s passionate vocals punctuate scenes with an exotic flair conjured by hope for a better future. The way the drama film’s cinematography focuses on the decrepit street views and cityscapes of turmoil underscored by traditional Palestinian songs juxtaposes the images with a patriotic beauty. The emotion and conviction with which Mohammed sings pierces moments of silence like a bell tolling for a sacred observance. Music acts like a peaceful remedy for a wounded nation, and it is with this notion that Mohammed begins to feel the pressure as he advances further into the singing competition. 

While the film depicts itself as sort of a biographical drama, there is an entire cast of actors playing pivotal roles from the singer’s life. The movie’s plot begins in 2005, where Mohammed, his sister, and their group of friends struggle to live their dream of becoming famous musicians and eventually moving out of Gaza. The performances given by these young actors are genuine and believable as they navigate through the unjustness of their society. Young Mohammed and his sister Nour share moments of tender optimism that carry the audience through bleaker circumstances later in the film. Another interesting choice in editing comes with the inclusion of original footage taken from the competition and interlaced with the actor’s portrayal of Mohammed. Truly a picture of triumph, The Idol memorializes a moment of unforgettable success for a young man with a seemingly impossible dream.

This Beautiful Fantastic (United Kingdom)

This Beautiful Fantastic just made its rounds in the film festival circuit, and continually captivated audiences with its infectious charm. The romantic drama centers on orderly librarian Bella Brown [Jessica Brown Findlay] who, with the help of a cantankerous neighbor [Tom Wilkinson], attempts to restore her bedraggled garden at the threat of eviction from her landlord. 

The making of a fascinating story, especially when set in limited locations, is very dependent on acquiring a strong cast, and the personalities displayed in this film are exceptionally noteworthy. Bella’s assortment of odd quirks—including her innate fear of foliage, her acquired kinship toward ducks, and her strict OCD—elevate the journey her character takes from the start of the movie to its resolution. Tom Wilkinson excels in his role as the stubborn and equally smart-mouthed Alfie, often stealing scenes with his clever one-liners and rapport with the talented Andrew Scott as Vernon the cook. Even Jeremy Irvine, who plays the protagonist’s love interest Billy, emanates a refreshing eccentricity in his role as an inventor. Each individual adds their own unique flair to the spectacle, and the result is nothing short of alluringly brilliant. 

From left to right: Director Simon Aboud and Crystal Harrell

From left to right: Director Simon Aboud and Crystal Harrell

One of the primary focuses of the movie is that Bella wants to publish her own children's book. Unfortunately, the daily drudgery of life and her own personal plot line get in the way of her creating an ending for it. Director Simon Aboud made it a point to invent a timeless atmosphere for the film without the influence of contemporary technology to detract from the story. The viewer is completely submerged in a fable of secret gardens and hidden love, which also coincides with Bella's tale of Luna the flightless bird. It is through the use of powerful symbols and strong parallels between the relationships we grow together as people and the flowers that bloom because of Mother Nature's care that ties together the entire film. After all, sometimes the root of desire is worth the effort that comes with it. Like a budding rose, This Beautiful Fantastic unfolds before curious eyes with a stirring of color and radiance. 

My Life as a Zucchini (France/Switzerland)

My Life as a Zucchini is a French-Swiss animated feature that chronicles the adventures of young Zucchini after he is placed in a foster home with other children with troubled pasts. It is here that he discovers new friendships, his first love, and a stronger sense of family. 

From the get-go, the audience is by Zucchini’s side as he transitions from his lonely, troubled home life to the initially intimidating foster home. While he doesn’t necessarily receive a warm welcome from the other youths at first, they form a powerful connection spurred by their mutual desire to belong and shared familial hardships. What ensues is an evocatively endearing story that captures the very essence of childhood. Light-hearted camaraderie materializes so naturally among the children, with no pieces of dialogue sounding out of place or not befitting the situation. It’s like watching several mismatched pieces join together to complete one beautiful puzzle. The authenticity is all too poignant. 

Of course, laughter comes not without tears. My Life as a Zucchini does not gloss over the harsh realities faced by the film’s protagonists, and foster youths in the real world for that matter. Zucchini’s mother is obviously a neglectful alcoholic, his love interest Camille has a sadness in her eyes from her parents’ grisly fates, a shy blonde girl named Alice is implied to have been sexually assaulted by her father, etc. It’s not the typical subject matter to be found in an animated film about children, and that is precisely why the movie is so intelligently aware of the story it wanted to tell without sugar-coating the content. Abuse, mental illness, and addiction exist and affect those most vulnerable in a very impactful way, and My Life as a Zucchini succeeds in revealing that truth. As heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, this film will captivate you with its youthful trappings of utter brilliance.