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Big names, eclectic lineup at Boston Film Festival

By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2010

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The elder statesman of Boston-area film festivals, the Boston Film Festival’s programming has for most of its 26 years tried to strike a balance between major Hollywood releases and under-the-radar independent films. While bringing to town a mix of marquee names and relative unknowns to accompany their films, the weeklong event, running Friday through Sept. 23, offers an array of dramatic features, documentaries, animated works, and shorts — many said to be making their US and area premieres here.

This year represents one of the stronger lineups in the festival’s recent history. It’s led by the much-anticipated “Conviction,’’ which is already generating strong Oscar buzz for one of its stars, Sam Rockwell, who is scheduled to attend the film’s screening on Saturday at 9:15 p.m.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, “Conviction’’ is the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) of Ayer, a working mother who waged an 18-year fight to overturn the 1983 wrongful murder conviction of her brother, Kenneth (Rockwell). Waters earned first her GED, then college and law school degrees, all in a desperate effort to represent her brother after he’d run out of appeals through public defenders. Working with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit “court of last resort,’’ Waters was able to obtain DNA testing on crime-scene evidence in the case, leading to Kenneth’s exoneration in 2001. The impressive cast also features Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, and Melissa Leo. The film will make an early screening at the BFF (on the heels of screenings at the Toronto Film Festival) and opens theatrically in October.

A major release that will have its US premiere at the BFF is the dramatic comedy “It’s Kind of a Funny Story’’ (screens Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.) starring Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Lauren Graham, Viola Davis, and Keir Gilchrist. It’s about a teen who comes of age during a five-day stint in a Brooklyn, N.Y., mental hospital. Recent Oscar nominee (for “Frozen River’’) Melissa Leo has another solid role as agoraphobic Lois Riley in “Welcome to the Rileys’’ (screens Sept. 21 at 6:45 p.m.) opposite James Gandolfini as her husband, Doug. Still distraught over the death of their teenage daughter eight years earlier, the couple find their lives upended by a 17-year-old runaway (Kristen Stewart) whom Doug meets on a business trip.

The BFF kicks off at 7 p.m. on Friday with the world premiere of “To Be Friends,’’ a quiet, dialogue-heavy drama that explores the very nature of intimacy. Directed by Jim Eckhart, brother of actor and executive producer Aaron Eckhart, the film stars Joelle Carter and Todd Stashwick (Carter, Stashwick, and Aaron Eckhart will be in attendance). The leads play characters called simply Her and Him, lifelong friends on the verge of redefining their relationship. Another indie, “Locked In,’’ follows at 9:30 p.m. With Boston locations, it’s a psychological thriller about former advertising whiz kid Josh (Ben Barnes) who finds himself at a crossroads after his car accident (in a Boston tunnel) leaves his young daughter with mysterious injuries. Costarring Sarah Roemer and Watertown’s own Eliza Dushku, who will both be in attendance, it explores the emotional and psychic tolls that the tragedy takes on all involved.

Other performers slated to appear at the festival include actress Leslie Bibb, who will present her office-set dark comedy “Miss Nobody’’ (Saturday at 7 p.m.) about a secretary’s penchant for killing off rivals as she climbs the career ladder. There’s also Wade Williams and Stephanie Lemelin, stars of the Rockport-shot murder mystery “The Last Harbor,’’ about an alcoholic cop’s investigation and search for redemption (Sept. 20, 9:15 p.m.). And there’s Ryan Merriman, star of the inspiring sports drama “The 5th Quarter’’ (Sept. 22 at 8:45 p.m.). Directed by Rick Bieber and costarring Andie MacDowell and Aidan Quinn, it’s the true story of how Jon Abbate, mourning the tragic death of his younger brother Luke, rallied the Wake Forest, N.C., college football team to its most successful season in school history.

A first for the BFF this year is that all screenings will take place at the much-heralded, invitingly intimate Stuart Street Playhouse, a 425-seat, stadium-style, state-of-the-art independent cinema at 200 Stuart St., in Boston’s Theater District.

There are several strong documentaries in this year’s festival, led by the world premiere of “Norman Mailer: The American’’ (Sept. 22 at 4 p.m.). Directed by Joseph Mantegna (not the actor), the film holds some local appeal since much of it was shot in Provincetown, Mailer’s home for many years. It chronicles the writer’s childhood in Brooklyn, the start of his writing career at Harvard University, and his stint in the Army during World War II, which served as the impetus for his breakout novel, “The Naked and the Dead.’’ Interspersed with material about his literary achievements are revealing interviews and irresistible footage — Mailer’s frequent, contentious appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show’’; his unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York — that detail Mailer’s controversial nature and turbulent personal life, including his six marriages. One of the more sensational and colorful interviews is with ex-wife Adele Morales Mailer, who recounts the night of drinking and debauchery that ended with Mailer stabbing her and his subsequent sentence to Bellevue.

Another historically fascinating documentary is “The Two Escobars’’ (Saturday at 4:45 p.m.), a powerful portrait of upheaval in Colombia directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist. The film focuses on two unrelated men, notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and soccer star Andres Escobar, who was expected to lead Colombia to the 1994 World Cup until his shocking murder.

Topical material is deftly handled in “Please Remove Your Shoes’’ (Sept. 20, 4:45 p.m.) an incisive, maddening account of the bureaucratic nightmare that is airport security since 9/11. Writer-producer-director Rob Del Gaudio’s film, which has its world premiere at the BFF, exposes the weaknesses in the system despite all the money being spent on bolstered security. Modern medicine and breast cancer treatment is the timely subject of Elizabeth Holder’s “I Want So Much to Live’’ (Sept. 19, 3 p.m.), a compelling story of the researchers, physicians, patients, and breast cancer advocates along with the pioneering biotech company that waged a 30-year effort that resulted in the world’s first targeted biotechnology therapy for breast cancer.

With several films on the bill that are set in the Boston area, it is fitting that the BFF will honor the 35th anniversary of “Jaws,’’ the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic shot on Martha’s Vineyard, with a Sept. 19 screening. “Jaws’’ starred the late, great Roy Scheider as the now-iconic Chief Martin Brody, and the BFF will pay special tribute to the actor, who died in 2008, with a closing-night screening of his final film, “Iron Cross.’’ In this 2009 drama, Scheider plays Joseph, a retired New York police officer and Holocaust survivor who travels to Nuremberg after the death of his wife to reunite with his son (Scott Cohen). Soon Joseph becomes convinced that living in the upstairs apartment under a false name is the former SS Commander (Helmut Berger) who murdered Joseph’s family during the war.

Scheider’s wife, Brenda, will accept a career achievement award in his honor at the screening, which will also be attended by “Iron Cross’’ cast member Alexander Newton, the film’s writer and director, Joshua Newton, and producer Kevin Farr.

For more information, including a full list of screenings and events, visit www.bostonfilmfestival.org.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.

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