Whereas the Jubilee is so fringe it's occasionally opaque, Halfway to Hollywood (this year screening more than 45 films) is noticeably breezier and more accessible. The two festivals are like Slamdance, the rebel festival that lauds movies too weird or wacky for the major fests, and Sundance (which some observers say has lost its edge), the paterfamilias of independent cinema. While the Jubilee featured mostly actors you've never heard of, Halfway to Hollywood brings movies with celebrities such as like Jodie Foster, John Turturro and Kate Winslet.
Winslet, who garnered three Oscar nominations before her 27th birthday, lends her talents to Michael Apted's Enigma (May 5-6), written by Tom Stoppard as if he were reinventing Nancy Drew mysteries. Winslet plays Hester, a worker bee at Bletchley Park, Britian's World War II code-breaking facility that looks like the campus of a private liberal arts college. We know she's smart because she wears bookworm glasses and doesn't have a boyfriend. Enter Tom Jericho, a sad-sack code specialist played by the immensely talented Dougray Scott. He's been on hiatus mending the shattered heart resulting from the mysterious end of an intense affair with Claire (Saffron Burrows), Winslet's ex-roommate. It's as if Tom's and Hester's IQs are sexual kindling.
What brings them together is the potentially disastrous buildup of German U-boats heading toward a 141-strong convoy of merchant ships from North America. The Enigma of the title is the name of the Bletchley Park code-breaking machine; it's also a perfect description for Claire, who disappears from Jericho's clutches but haunts him like a crime.
While Winslet overuses the mannerism of pushing up her glasses when she's nervous, Scott masterfully vacillates between palpable depression and patriotic enthusiasm. The story is a compelling salute to WW2 intrigue movies.
In the French entry Maelstrom (May 4-5), the Bibi character played by the lovely Marie-Josee Croze could be Amelie's dark cousin. Director Denis Villeneuve's lunatic spinning of the chronology begins with the introduction of the narrator: the bloody carcass of a fish, who explains that what's about to unfold is "a very pretty story." The dead fish is lying -- the next image is Bibi undergoing a suction abortion to the tune of Hair's "Good Morning Starshine." It is a fascinating trip.
The daughter of a famous business titan, Bibi is not having much luck with her own endeavors; in fact, her brother fires her and bars her from the boutique she is managing for him. She nurses her sorrow with anonymous sex and Ecstasy and, at the end of one uninhibited night, kills an eccentric old man with her car. Her guilty conscience doesn't keep her from socializing; eventually, a friend's complaint about an order of bad octopus in a restaurant leads to her fortuitous meeting with the victim's hunky son. Maelstrom contains one of the best scenes you'll see all year: Bibi meets her victim's coworkers, who toast his memory by wishing horrible atrocities on his yet-to-be-discovered killer. As they say things like "I wish his killer would die a slow and atrocious death," Bibi is raising her glass as well, her face full of massive contradictions.
Hampered with a lot less style and too much elbow-in-the-ribs self-awareness is director Jackie Garry's The Curse (May 7-9), a feminist take on the werewolf genre. Garry wrote and produced it, too, so she has only herself to blame for casting unskilled actors and stealing bits from Hitchcock and the Coen brothers. It's a howler, all right.
Frida is a TV-movie development girl who is beset with the B-movie version of unattractiveness -- again, she's considered dowdy because she wears glasses. When she's bitten by a fellow shopper at a chaotic lingerie sale, her menstrual cycle is complicated by a new development: She becomes hirsute and starts chowing down on men. A couple of detectives are on to her, but they don't have any evidence; her bloody sheets could just be an embarrassing lapse of hygiene. That is, until the cuter dick falls for her and finds a fang in her bathroom.
Made by a man, The Curse would be hooted out of circulation by sensitive types offended at the implication that a woman on her period is a monster to be avoided. In Garry's hands, it's just sophomoric, an extended dream sequence from Ally McBeal. Its attempts at being funny-grisly -- as when Frida gets rid of a victim's arm via her garbage disposal -- don't work; we've seen it all before. And Garry's homage to Psycho's shower scene is so inept it makes you long for Gus Van Sant's much maligned remake of the original.