|by Matt Mulcahey
Yes, Austin, Texas’ annual celebration of independent film did wrap up on March 17, but many of the films are just now making it to those of us who aren’t lucky enough to live in a thriving metropolis.
Trying to decide which movies to see and which to skip is the hardest part of any film fest, and I didn’t choose very wisely this year, missing SXSW award winners Manito, The Misanthrope, Spellbound, By Hook or By Crook and Mai’s America.
What can you do, so many movies so little time. With Y Tu Mama Tambien, CQ and The Cat’s Meow finally making their way around the country and many of the films destined to land on video, here’s a guide to what to check out and what to avoid from South by Southwest 2002.
Y Tu Mama Tambien
As in Easy Rider, where the journey of what are essentially two drugged out losers becomes an examination of the American landscape they cross, the misadventures of Mexico city teens Tenoch and Julio in Y Tu Mama Tambien explores today’s Mexico, with subtle layers of social commentary and classism.
Tenoch, from a well-off family with political clout, and Julio, who leads a more middle-class existence, are preparing for a summer of boredom after their girlfriends leave for a vacation in Italy. Until they meet Luisa at a family wedding. They invent a fictional pilgrimage to a beach called Heaven’s Mouth and invite her to come along, never imagining she’ll accept the offer. Luisa initially declines, but when her husband confesses to having an affair she decides to hit the road with the boys.
Existing at a point where its young characters are old enough to comprehend the consequences but still young enough to recklessly disregard them, Y Tu Mama Tambien is a celebration of life defining moments. Though the joy these characters feel can’t last, like the carefree bliss of youth, it remains forever in their memories.
Journeys With George
Anyone who stayed awake in high school American history has heard how television changed the face of the presidency. Without fail, some teacher will bemoan that Franklin D. Roosevelt would not be elected today because of his handicap, or that John F. Kennedy only beat Richard Nixon because of Nixon’s disastrous appearance in a televised debate.
In the modern age of communication and spin doctoring, the image a candidate presents is often more important than any stance they might have on an issue. With her documentary Journey’s With George, former NBC news producer Alexandre Pelosi provides a glimpse of a president-in-the-making unlike any ever seen. Free of the constraints of image consultants and pollsters, the film provides a look at an unscripted George W. Bush, as seen through the eyes of his press corps on the long and winding road to the White House.
Topa Topa Bluffs
In Hollywood a killer script is hard to come by. In fact, a good movie idea is such a rare commodity that a pair of screenwriter friends immediately start to think of ways to off each other when one of them comes up with a golden movie pitch.
The kicker is the movie idea (two writers on a backpacking trip try to kill each other for sole possession of a script idea) forms the film’s storyline as well, as mistrust slowly drives struggling playwright Martin McClenon (the lovechild of Steve Buscemi and David Cross) and high body-count screenwriter Robert Knepper (the spliced DNA of Robert Patrick and Peter Weller) over the line. Though the twists at the end are a few too many, with its cynicism and pitch-black sense of humor Eric Simonson’s feature directorial debut is a dark good time.
Since Fellini’s 8 ½ it is almost required that filmmakers at some point make a self-reflexive film about the making of a film. But unlike most Roman Coppola (yes, another damn Coppola) has decided to do it his very first time out.
Lacking the pretense and self-importance that often accompany this sub-genre, Coppola’s CQ is a brilliantly designed, well acted, lighthearted tribute to filmmaking in a state of flux. Set in Paris in 1969, the film within a film is a cheesy 60s sci-fi (think Barbarella meets Logan’s Run) called Dragonfly. After the original director (Gerard Depardieu) is fired and his replacement breaks his leg(Jason Schwartzman, in a very funny performance as a spoiled wonderkid a la Steven Spielberg), the film’s editor (Jeremy Davies) is put in charge of coming up with an ending and finishing the movie.
The Last Game
The CB West Bucks are the #1 ranked high school football team in Pennsylvania and the #5 ranked team in the country. During their quest for a third straight state championship the team faces almost every obstacle imaginable. The team tears itself apart from within. The star player contemplates quitting. The season’s last game is a showdown with the states #2 team, which just happen to be coached by the son of the Bucks coach.
If all these elements appeared in one film, coupled with a final game that features a team rallying around an injured player and a last second play to determine the outcome, you’d shake your head in disbelief at all the clichés. But The Last Game isn’t some Varsity Blues retread; it’s a documentary that proves fact is more interesting than fiction. In an odd paradox, all of the clichés that make sports movies so tedious are exactly what make The Last Game so joyously captivating.
Though this documentary about backyard wrestling begins like one of those 1 a.m. ads on the E! Channel that coincides with College Girls Gone Wild, director Paul Hough eventually manages to get a little insight into the deluded, sometimes downright frightening, sport of backyard wrestling.
Initially, The Backyard almost seems like one of those Daily Show interviews were you ask yourself, “Doesn’t this person know they’re being mocked?” The most appealing wannabe grappler is the so idiotic he’s funny The Lizard. Looking as if he weighs 100 pounds and has an IQ less than a turnbuckle, The Lizard’s dream goes from laughable to memorable when he’s chosen for a tryout in the WWF after a videotape audition.
The film covers all sorts of backyard wrestling, from schoolboys in Britain to suburban wrestlers putting on shows for their families to sadists who will probably end up in prison. Though The Backyard manages to convey a frightening look at what occupies the time of today’s bored, aimless youth, the film fails to adequately examine why kids all over the world are embracing this increasingly violent “sport.”
Martin and Orloff
With the same sort of bizarre antics as The Kids in the Hall, the members of the sketch comedy group The Upright Citizen’s Brigade make their feature debut with Martin and Orloff. Striving for off the wall loopiness, the entire movie feels improvised, as if a bunch of friends got together and tried to make each other laugh.
Ian Roberts plays Martin, an ad exec that designs mascot costumes. After an egg roll costume he designed results in a death, Martin attempts suicide. The attempt fails, and Martin ends up in the office of psychiatrist Dr. Orloff. Whether inciting a softball game brawl, going to a strip club for pie or being chased by a professional football player known for his enormous unit, Martin is dragged along for a few days of misadventures with Orloff.
A gritty character study about an autistic 15-year old kid would seem an odd choice for the directorial debut of David Goyer, whose spent his entire screenwriting career pennin both good (Dark City, Blade and Blade II) and bad (Demonic Toys, Kickboxer II, Death Warrant) genre flicks. But the fit is a perfect one.
Goyer shows a keen visual style and a flair for mixing character and story, but the real show here is the actors. Young Sam Jones III is nothing short of brilliant as Zigzag, whose autism continually incurs the ire of his druggie father (Wesley Snipes, always seeming to do his best work in films few people see). When Snipes gets in trouble with a bookie, he orders Jones to scrape together $200 or else.
Rounding out the great cast are John Leguizamo as Jones’ Big Brother, Oliver Platt as a sleazy restaurant owner and Natasha Lynonne as a reluctant hooker with a heart of gold.
Worth a Look:
The Slaughter Rule
Though the premise makes it sound like the Hoosiers of six-man football, The Slaughter Rule is not really about football at all. It’s about the acceptance and wisdom that marks the transformation between boyhood and adulthood.
After the death of his absentee father from an apparent suicide, Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling) just wants to play football and forget about it. However, he’s cut from the high school team, giving Gideon (David Morse) a chance to recruit him for his six-man team. But is Gideon really concerned about Chutney or is he a sexual predator? In the end the point seems to be it doesn’t matter, that either way he’s deserving of pity and respect. The film proves one thing everyone should already know: David Morse is one hell of an actor. But it also gives a glimpse, along with The Believer, at how good an actor Ryan Gosling might turn out to be.
Eternally busy character actor Tony Shalhoub steps behind the camera for the first time with this mockumentary about beauty and insecurity. The film stars Brooke Adams as a recently divorced mother who re-evaluates her own self-image after her daughter gives her a make-over.
Though the mockumentary narrative device and a subplot about the film finding distribution distract more than enhance, Made-Up is genuine, funny and contains Adam’s best turn since Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
Turning Edgar Allen Poe, he of the dark and brooding stories of the macabre, into camp every bit on the level of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is no easy task, but director Gil Cates, Jr. pulls it off effortlessly. The film is an adaptation of Poe’s The Strange Case of Dr. Valdemar (played for scares and to a much lesser degree of success by George A. Romero in Two Evil Eyes), about a dying man who gets trapped between the land of the living and the dead.
The tongue-in-cheek performances are perfect, especially Neil Patrick Harris, proving he is capable of more than TV Movies of the Week. Also on hand for the stuck-in-limbo horror is George Wyner as the family doctor and Jason Carter as the gleefully over-the-top mad scientist Dr. Pretory. How can you not love a movie in which someone exclaims they can do battle with evil because “Science has big balls.”
Master of the Game
Shot at Austin Studios, this box drama probably would’ve fared better on the stage. Nonetheless, this talky psychological thriller is well acted and its premise is intriguing enough to warrant a look. Uygar Aktan (who also wrote the screenplay and produced) plays a Jewish American soldier captured behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany during WWII. He escapes from a prison convoy and seeks shelter in a desolate cabin, however, he isn’t the cabin’s only occupant. He discovers four German soldiers, cut off from radio contact by a storm, waiting for their relief to arrive.
Trying to delay his execution, Aktan challenges the Nazi’s to a bizarre game were the stakes are life and death. Though both the plot twists and the character’s actions strain suspension of disbelief, Aktan and Steven Chester Prince, as one of the soldiers, are excellent and the film shows what good dialogue, without the aid of camera virtuosity, a searing score or a single special effect, can do for a film.
The Cats Meow
If any contemporary director is suited for the famed tale of the mysterious death of silent-film producer Thomas Inge, it’s Peter Bogdanovich. No stranger to Hollywood legends (he was very close to Orson Welles and John Ford) or the center of scandal (he started an affair with his leading lady Cybil Sheppard while on the set of The Last Picture Show, on which his wife at the time worked), one-time Hollywood big-shot Bogdanovich makes a welcome return to the big screen after wasting away on TV movies for far too long.
Edward Hermann stars as William Randolph Hearst, newspaper and film magnate, and the host of the weekend getaway aboard his luxurious yacht. Among the guests for the infamous jaunt are silent film star and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Kristen Dunst), Hearst news writer Luella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), film producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) and the little tramp himself, Charley Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Deception and jealousy result in tragedy, something Bogdanovich must know all too well.
Get Well Soon
In a scene from Get Well Soon Tate Donovan dances around his apartment singing into a giant black dildo, garbed in black nylon panties and make-up. He is the most normal character in this movie.
All quirk and no depth, Get Well Soon manages to mask it’s a portion of its paper thin story and underdeveloped characters with some deftly played comic edges from Vincent Gallo and Jeffrey Tambor. Gallo plays a late-night talk show host who flips out on the air (telling a supermodel he wants to have sex with her), then heads to New York to find the long lost love of his life, played rather blandly by Courtney Cox.
What’s being marketed as a behind the scenes look at the recording of Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts latest album is actually an extended concert film. Which kind of sinks the effort considering they aren’t very good.
Don’t get my wrong, the band isn’t bad either. They’re a much better listen than Bruce Willis wailing away on a harmonica, but they are merely a glorified bar band who plays tight but non-descript music. So why do they have a documentary screening at South by Southwest? Because the bands lead singer and chief songwriter happens to be a Mr. Russell Crowe.
When the film sticks to the behind the scene antics of the band, Texas is passably interesting and mildly entertaining. But when the films final hour descends into concert footage, it’s like watching a bar band that’s merely there to provide background music for drinking and trying to get laid.
The Scoundrel’s Wife
Tatum O’ Neal, in a solid turn, plays the widowed social pariah of a small Louisiana town during WWII. German subs are sinking ships right off Louisiana’s coast, and the town folk are in a panic trying to prevent the local fisherman that drive the economy from selling supplies to America’s enemies. O’ Neal and immigrant doctor Julian Sands are the top suspects.
Director Glen Pitrie captures the period amazingly well, and the film is beautiful for its budget, but a few bad directorial choices doom the enterprise. To begin with, the acting is extremely uneven. Eion Bailey’s Louisiana accent comes and goes, which is all the more obvious when he emphasizes words like “Guarantee” in an exaggerated Cajun drawl. Tim Curry’s town priest adds inappropriate comic relief, spitting out unfunny one-liners during what should be heartfelt moments of introspection.
But the films melodramatic finale is its biggest disappointment, putting the final nail in the coffin of the film’s promising premise.
Kwik Stop begins as a road movie, with James Dean wannabe Mike (Michael Gilio, who also wrote and directed) meeting Didi (Laura Phillips) at a convenient store. She catches Mike shoplifting and blackmails him for a ride to California, though they never get anywhere close to that destination.
The duos initial pop-culture infused conversations, set off by a rearview mirror picture of Harvey Keitel, are the only part of the film that is bearable. It almost feels as if that segment was originally conceived as a short film, with the remainder added on later. There is no more film lingo, there is no more anything. Like the film’s characters, Kwik Stop goes nowhere and takes its sweet ass time getting there.
Big-budget Hollywood studio films are like huge piñatas for critic-bashing, but as much as I hate to admit it this is true: I’d rather watch a bland, regurgitated, formulamatic Hollywood film than a completely pretentious, overly arty, incoherent, pointless independent film like Chelsea Walls.
Rambling and random, the directorial debut of Ethan Hawke (a wonderful actor who’s never appeared in a film this bad) takes place at the famed New York City home of poets, artists and dreamers. Once the tortured stomping ground of Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, the present residents aren’t that interesting. In fact, they’re deathly boring. Only Robert Sean Leanard as a lonely, lost singer/songwriter has any resonance, as the rest of the film is made up almost entirely of random conversations between characters that don’t amount to anything.
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originally posted: 05/21/02 16:17:30
last updated: 05/21/02 16:19:50