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KIFF of Death

Halfway to Hollywood, it's hard to smile.

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You've got your year-old Harvey Keitel drama, and you've got your French psychosexual controversy bait from 2002. Where are you? You're either flipping through the upper reaches of premium cable or lining up for another frustrating local attempt at a film festival.

From Friday, September 10, through Wednesday, September 15, the fourth annual Halfway to Hollywood event, now called the Kansas International Film Festival (the new name isn't any tonier, but it eliminates the question: Halfway from where?), shepherds nearly fifty multiplex fugitives and distributor-challenged smaller productions onto three screens at the Glenwood Arts Theater (9575 Metcalf in Overland Park, 913-642-4404). As with past festivals, however (and not just the KIFF), most of the program consists of titles in a decaying orbit around the festival circuit. There's no discernible theme (unless you count joylessness), though in a year in which the popular documentary has already reached critical mass with Fahrenheit 911, you'd think the festival's liveliest titles would be its non-narrative ones (but not necessarily its nonfiction ones; see this week's cover story about the festival's burnt offering, Bazaar Bizarre, page 13).

Unfortunately, with relevant pre-election agit-prop such as The Corporation and The Hunting of the President still MIA from KC screens, the KIFF limits its timely fare to Persons of Interest, about the U.S. Department of Justice's suspicion of Arabs and Muslims following the September 11 attacks. Less immediate but equally daunting are Arna's Children (theater kids in the West Bank), Voices of Women (Afghan women in peril), War Takes (Colombians in peril), Balseros (fleeing Cubans in peril), Mojados (fleeing Mexicans in peril) and Hiding and Seeking (Orthodox Jews staying put but in peril).

Sure, it's not really fair to assume that the Australian documen-tary Naked Feminist -- which, the festival's notes promise, "challenges the mythology surrounding women in the porn industry head-on through a series of candid interviews with porn stars, academics and feminists" -- will be anything less than scintillating. (Porn-star image in peril? Academics? Money shot!) But let's focus, people.

The KIFF's most commercial draws are Code 46 and Mean Creek, two movies that opened recently to mostly positive reviews in larger markets -- that's bigger cities to those of us in fly-over country. The former is reviewed above; the latter, a coming-of-age, bully-reversal tale set on a revenge-inspired rafting trip, is the fest's most compelling mainstream offering.

The rest of the narrative films include the usual meta (Break a Leg, another struggling-actor movie starring struggling actors, this time Molly Parker), cameo-driven wackiness (the self-explanatory short I Am Stamos), actor-directed domestic drama (Off the Map, Campbell Scott's stab at quirky-family-as-magical-realism), foreign-produced English-language showdowns (Taking Sides, Harvey Keitel versus Stellan Skarsgard), shaggy-dog genre hybrids (Mindfield, espionage, murder and family from a pair of Wichita filmmakers; and the Marlee Matlin-starring sci-fi docudramedy What the Bleep Do You Know?), and sex (the pandering Secret Things, from France).

For armchair film historians, the KIFF serves up a pair of de rigueur silent-film-with-new-avant-garde-score screenings: Alfred Hitchcock's original, silent version of 1929's stabbing Blackmail, and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, the cornerstone of vampire cinema. The Alloy Orchestra, a trio devoted to scoring old silents, performs new music for both movies. That Nosferatu is a matinee is typical of the KIFF's counterintuitive programming.

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