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Wise Beyond Her Years: Jena Malone costars in 'Saved!'

Beautiful Truths

Cinema Epicuria gets personal

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For most fans of the cinematic arts, the recipe for a memorable film festival is simple: we want a laid-back environment, a focus on excellent films we might not get to see anywhere else, and maybe a certified filmmaking celebrity or two. Not too many, though--just enough to get our pulses thrumming.

Cinema Epicuria, the familiar name for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, now in its seventh year, has been steadily developing a reputation as one of the county's most laid-back, film-focused events, with just enough celebrity action to make people take notice. And people are taking notice.

With its added emphasis on food and wine--free winetastings and culinary treats are offered at all screenings--Cinema Epicuria has grown larger each year, this time adding a new venue devoted specifically to documentary films, a new animation program, and a full-fledged awards ceremony, while also continuing its popular subfestival of extremely edgy films, affectionately known as the Lounge.

A new director of programming steps up this year as well: Hollywood insider Tiffany Naiman. Asked to describe the tone of this year's festival, Naiman is precise. "We've programmed a lot of really personal films this year," she says, "films that look at the way we all live together."

The programming at most film festivals often ends up revealing an accidental theme or two, with several films falling together into some unofficial category. At last year's SVFF event, for example, there was a surprising number of films about people engaged in long conversations. Asked if there are any such themes among this year's films, Naiman admits there are a few films about rock 'n' roll (see sidebar) and many featuring strong lead performances by women.

This year's Imagery Honors--in which three actors or filmmakers are honored for their work--is an all-female event, a cross-generational homage to the work of Jena Malone (Bastard Out of Carolina, Contact, Stepmom, Donnie Darko, Life as a House), Deborah Kara Unger (Crash, The Hurricane, The Game, Sunshine) and Irish legend Fionnula Flanagan (James Joyce's Women; Rich Man, Poor Man; Some Mother's Son; Waking Ned Devine; The Others). There will be an additional tribute to the career of actress Blythe Danner, appearing in the emotionally gripping two-person drama Quality of Light, also starring Robert Forster, a tribute recipient in 2002. All four women will be in attendance at the festival and available for audience questions following the screenings of their films.

Jena Malone has major roles in the forthcoming United States of Leland and the festival's closing-night film, Brian Dannelly's Saved! Also starring Mandy Moore, Heather Matarazzo, Macaulay Culkin and Mary-Louise Parker, Saved! (already the subject of lots of college radio buzz) is a bit like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, only set at a Christian high school.

"It's a fun movie, but it's also very personal and very important," says Malone, 19, speaking by phone from her home in Lake Tahoe. "Belief is a beautiful thing and it's a powerful thing, but because it's so powerful it can also be dangerous. We're seeing that in the world today. In Saved! we're breaking down a lot of the stereotypes in one specific group, the group of young people involved in this New Age kind of Christianity."

In the film, Malone plays a born-again at the top of the heap at American Eagle Christian High School, with Mandy Moore as her best friend, another popular senior whose life has been held together by nothing but her beliefs. "It propels her to do things that are not necessarily good," says Malone. "My character has experiences that cause her to question her faith. That's what the film is saying: question your beliefs. Test them, because without understanding how your philosophical foundation is structured, how can you grow as a person and build on that foundation? In the process of testing those beliefs, whether you come back to them or not, you will have strengthened the belief you end up with."

Malone underscores the importance of film festivals, where smaller films are acknowledged and celebrated. "Unfortunately, most American cinema doesn't want to feed and nurture us with lots of different ideas about the world and about life," she says. "A lot of American cinema is built on manipulation and formula. That's not true of everything, but it seems so rare when you see something really stunning, like many of the independent films and even some of the more unusual studio films. But it's sad that those films aren't more widely known and talked about. No one's walking around wearing The Weight of Water T-shirts, and that's one of the best and truest films I've ever seen."

Truth, explains Malone, is what independent cinema is all about. "For me, it does comes down to truth," she laughs. "Complicated truths or beautiful truths that make you laugh, simple truths or messy truths that help us to express what we're seeing and feeling and experiencing. I want movies to be about what's true, what's real, what's important."

That applies to the kinds of movies she hopes to make with the rest of her burgeoning career. "It's good to do work that you want to do, that satisfies you and makes you proud," Malone says. "When it's your status or your career that is dictating what you do, when you are no longer making choices with your heart, it kind of sucks."

Where Jena Malone is just starting out, Fionnula Flanagan has, in her words, "been around forever." The kind of actress who people recognize when they see her, even if they can't place the face or remember the name, Flanagan has been making first-rate films since 1974's Picture of Dorian Gray. Many American audiences first saw her in the epic TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, and she won major acclaim when her one-woman show James Joyce's Women was made into a critically praised film in 1985.

In recent years, she's landed a string of gem parts in popular films, from Mrs. Mills, the ghostly housekeeper in The Others, to Teensy, the recovering alcoholic Southern belle in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Some will remember her as the scientist who claimed to be Data's "mother" on Star Trek: The Next Generation. While there will certainly be clips of those roles and others at the tribute, the only film she's got running in the festival is One of the Oldest Con Games, a delightful 20-minute short featured in the Narrative Short Films program. In the film, directed by Karen King, Flanagan plays a grieving widow who isn't the easy target two con men assume she is.

Speaking from her Los Angeles office, Flanagan describes her viewpoint when asked to sum up her own acting career. "I know people always say they've been fortunate about being able to do this and that, and I think, yes, I certainly do feel fortunate," she says. "There are certain things I've gotten to play that I really loved playing, because they meant so much to me in the larger world, issues that were very personal."

Along with James Joyce's Women ("Making that film was a journey that was very personal for me," she says), Flanagan cites Jim Sheridan's Some Mother's Son, about the 1981 prison hunger strike in Northern Ireland, as a meaningful experience. "It was something that was very close to my heart," she says. "I feel extremely grateful to have been a part of that film, to have played one of those mothers and to have been able to carry that story.

"If a film has a resonance in the larger world outside the film, then it's of interest to me," she continues. "If it doesn't have that, then, well, it's just a job. But I've been fortunate that those kinds of gifts have been given to me along the way--movies I've done that have to do with remarkable moments in the history of our time."


Cinema Epicuria runs Wednesday, March 31, through Sunday, April 4. For a complete listing of the over 100 films and events, check the website at www.cinemaepicuria.org or call 707.933.2600.


Almost Famous

Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the opening-night film of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, is one of many films this year to examine the world of rock 'n' roll, its makers and its fans. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica Mayhem is an in-depth look at the musicians behind one of heavy metal's most successful bands. The Devil Cats is a mockumentary about an all-girl band who've made themselves famous but can't actually play music. And while Mayor of the Sunset Strip, by veteran filmmaker George Hickenlooper, may seem like a bit of a mockumentary itself, the film and the man it's about, Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, are 100 percent the real thing.

Bingenheimer, born and raised in Mountain View, is something of a Forrest Gump in the L.A. rock scene, an unassuming guy who's managed to become friends with nearly every major rock star of the last four decades, many of whom, like David Bowie, appear on film to sing his praises. The movie is set for a national release following its screening at the festival. After years of hanging out with the famous, and in some ways helping them to become famous, Bingenheimer might be on the verge of joining the ranks of rock 'n' roll celebrity himself. He was even asked to contribute his voice to a character (DJ Fish) on Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants.

"Celebrity, um, it's been a big part of my life, I guess," Bingenheimer allows by phone, "because I've been involved in radio, doing my show in L.A. on Sunday nights, being a rock writer for various publications, and doing the English Disco [the club he once owned on Sunset Strip], where famous people were always around."

While there are those who would decry the shallowness of the celebrity-worshipping culture he's a part of, Bingenheimer has a sweetly simple take on the subject. "It makes you feel happy to meet a celebrity," he says. "It feels good to say, 'Wow, that actor or actress, that musician, is so cool. He spoke to me.' It's a simple thing, but it's nice when it happens."

--D.T.


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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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