|2003 South by Southwest Film Festival: Midnight Movies mark indie festival's 10-year anniversary
|by Matt Mulcahey
While 2002's South By Southwest Film Festival was dominated by a host of excellent documentaries, this year's fest unleashed a handful of instant cult classics that prove maybe the great American B-movie is not dead afterall. In celebration of a decade of showcasing independent film, South by Southwest 2003 also hosted a retrospective of past festival favorites, along with the usual collection of panels, which witnessed Joel Schumacher all but say Val Kilmer is really the devil and Peter Fonda detail how he stole one of his director's wives. As always, there were too many good flicks to see. Here's the rundown of one film lovers SXSW experience: 25 films, 7 days and 16 metric tons of Alamo Draft House chicken potato skins.
A leisurely-paced character study that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, EvenHand follows a year in the lives of a pair of Texas beat cops (the newly transferred, naively idealistic Bill Dawes and resident loose cannon Bill Sage, turning in an incredibly complex performance) for an episodic journey through both the bizarre and the mundane.
As the philosophies of the two newly-partnered officers clash, so do the film’s wildly divergent and quickly shifting tones, changing in the blink of an eye from smirkingly amusing to emotionally resonant and capturing the jarring shifts that are part of a cop’s daily existence. Which is exactly what makes EvenHand such a rarity, it’s one of the few films to ever give a true representation of what it is like to be an everyday, average police officer.
A car full of attractive, horny college students heads to a remote, backwoods cabin for a weekend of sex, drugs and debauchery. Think you’ve seen this scenario enough times to know what comes next? Well think again, because writer/director Eli Roth has seen the same movies and he has no intention of staying within the lines.
Stirring up a concoction that is equal parts Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with a little Deliverance thrown in for good measure), Roth twists, subverts and defies all that has come before him. Dripping with gory excess and a wickedly deviant sense of humor, Cabin Fever is smart enough to realize that there is one horror rule that must be abided: Secluded cabin plus sex-starved teens equals carnage. And carnage is exactly what Cabin Fever provides.
Melvin Goes to Dinner
A lot of independent films purport to be “character studies,” but there aren’t many that take the time to show the consequences of conversations. Melvin Goes to Dinner is about a conversation, a sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable but always interesting dinner chat between a foursome of Los Angeles residents.
Over the course of the discussion, all four reveal intimate secrets about themselves as the topic bounces from everything from ghosts to anal sex. Exquisitely performed (all four of the leads starred in the play the film is based on) and constantly surprising, first time director Bob Odenkirk (making a gigantic leap from his Mr. Show persona) refuses to allow his characters simple resolutions or swift dramatic arcs, and it is his refusal to compromise the script’s integrity for easy answers that makes Melvin Goes to Dinner such a unique film.
Springing from the furtive imaginations of writer Joe Lansdale and director Don Coscarelli, Bubba Ho-Tep is an instant cult classic, an energetic, insanely funny piece of alternative cinema. Opening with an aged Elvis Presley in a Mud Creek, Texas rest home bemoaning an infected growth on his penis, the movie only gets more outrageous.
After switching places with an impersonator in the mid-70s, a tragic accident landed The King in his current abode, but Big E (cult icon Bruce Campbell, imbuing his character with an underlying loneliness among all the campy one liners) finds a chance at redemption when he discovers an ancient mummy has been using his rest home as a smorgasbord of elderly souls. Teaming up with a black resident who thinks he’s JFK (Ossie Davis), Elvis sets out to save the souls and asses (don’t ask) of Mud Creek.
How do you lampoon a genre so filled with violent and stylistic excess that it already skirts dangerously close to the line of parody? For the directing team of Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai the answer is simple: Grab every crane and dolly you can find, then cram in every Hong Kong action cliché imaginable, exaggerating each element just enough to go over-the-top but short of camp.
The result is ceaselessly energetic and mercilessly stylish. The plot and the characters are intentionally familiar (a veteran assassin and a young upstart battle for supremacy), and Fulltime Killer takes great pleasure in paying homage to its predecessors. But when it comes time to create its adrenalized set pieces, the movie shows an imagination all of its own, conjuring up a vibrant display of visual decadence and contagious energy.
Worth a Look
The Hired Hand (1971) (Special screening of a restored print)
Peter Fonda used his Easy Rider clout to direct and star in this meandering, contemplative, allegorical art western about a quiet, ambiguous man’s search for his place in the world. Tired of wandering the country, Fonda (along with riding partner Warren Oates) returns home to the wife and child he abandoned, but his past eventually catches up to him.
While the photography (courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond) is picturesque and the performances excellent, Bruce Langhorne’s minimalist score and Fonda’s use of 70s visual quirks make The Hired Hand extremely dated, though you have to admire the eternal iconoclast for trying to transcend the genre with this existential western.
The Target Shoots First (2000) (Documentray) (Screened as part of the 10-year retrospective)
This funny and insightful documentary chronicles the transformation of the punk-rock generation of rebels into spoon-fed consumers, told through the eyes of a recently-graduated NYU philosophy student (Christopher Wilcha) who goes to work as a production manager for the sleaziest of corporate pop-culture whores: Columbia House.
More than just an expose of how a corporation like Columbia House works (and how the hell they afford to give people 11 CD’s for a penny), The Target Shoots First is a look at the identity crisis of a generation as it stares into the glaring eyes of adulthood.
A timid, socially inept man (Adrien Brody) still living at home with his parents decides to pursue a childhood dream of becoming a ventriloquist. A dissident in a genre of conformity, this romantic comedy skates by mostly on quirk, though Brody’s romance with his unemployment counselor (Vera Farmiga) adds just the right amount of sweetness.
Using his wiry physique to convey his character’s sense of awkwardness and even performing his own ventriloquism, Brody is the standout in a film full of detailed performances. Milla Jovovich also shines in her most off-beat characterization to date as Brody’s profane, unpredictable friend, while Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter and the criminally underappreciated Illeana Douglas play suburban neurosis to perfection as members of Brody’s highly dysfunctional family.
Sex: Female (Documentary)
Skirting around every remotely serious issue (STD’s, unwanted pregnancy, etc.), Sex:Female is a lightweight but continually funny look into the equally depraved sexual secrets of the farer gender.
Bridging its interviews with old film clips, the movie is entirely made up of sexual conversations with women from all walks of life. Gay, straight, black, white, single, married, mother and daughter, all share the current state of their love lives and let a few ghosts of sex past out of their closets. Frivolous, but how can you not like a movie in which a horrified mother learns that her daughter knew when she used her vibrator because the television reception would go bad.
The Journey (2001) (Documentary) (Screened as part of the 10-year retrospective)
The Journey sets out to discover the differences between generations, the things that keep the old and young from relating to each other, and while director/producer Eric Saperston failed to come up with much in the way of profundity on that subject his film captures a wonderful voyage of self-discovery on the part of the filmmakers themselves.
The premise is simple enough: Saperston, a skeleton crew and a dog criss cross the nation in a beat up van trying to land interview’s with America’s elder statesman to see what seeds of wisdom they wish to plant with our nation’s youth. While the crew gets quite a few interesting chats (including Henry Winkler, who becomes the film’s unlikely patron saint), in the end it’s not the destination these young filmmakers arrive at but the journey that gets them there that make the movie captivating.
Last Night of the Alamo (1984) (Screened as part of the 10-year retrospective)
A collection of Houston losers spend one last night drowning in whiskey and stories before the Alamo Bar meets with a wrecking ball in the name of condominiums and other bastions of progress.
Despite the low-budget production values, uneven acting and stage-bound setting, with its lonely Texas setting and longing for a passing way of life, this important piece of 80s independent cinema serves as a more fitting companion piece to Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant The Last Picture Show than that film’s own sequel. Full of quiet desperation and thundering bravado, the Alamo’s inhabitants could very well be the adult versions of Picture Show’s disenfranchised youths, particularly Sonny Carl Davis’ smooth talking Cowboy, who, despite his exterior, knows deep down he can’t stop the Texas he loves from withering away into dust.
A Brooklyn hitman (writer/director/star Robert Duvall) travels to Argentina for a job and becomes immersed in the vibrant Beunos Aires tango culture, attracted first by a beautiful dancer (Duvall’s real-life romantic interest Luciana Pedraza) and then by the passion of the dance itself.
While Duvall gives a typically solid performance and captures the beauty and intricacy of the tango, it is in his role as writer that Duvall falters, failing to adequately deal with the duality of his character’s life and the conflict between his roles as paid assassin and father and lover. The lone connection is between the balletic movements of the dance itself and the ritualistic fluidity with which Duvall carries out his executions, but in the end that connection isn’t enough, leaving a collection of fascination parts that never form a cohesive whole.
Girl Wrestler (Documentary)
Following a 13-year old wrestler named Tara as she battles not only her opponents but Texas small-mindedness and her impossible to please father, Girl Wrestler is a documentary full of inherent drama and missed opportunities.
After routinely besting her male counterparts in the past, the new season finds Tara’s rivals bigger, stronger and quicker while her own physical attributes have remained the same. As a result, the eighth-grader must come to terms with losing and a Texas law that forbids inter-gender wrestling in high school.
There are moments of poignancy, such as Tara finally meeting her Olympic wrestler hero only to have him tell her he disagrees with what she’s doing, but for the most part the filmmakers seem to be content to repeatedly show Tara lose a match then break down into tears rather than explore Title IX issues and Tara’s increasingly volatile relationship with her father.
The Hard Word
Neither dark enough to classify as noir or lighthearted enough to qualify as crime caper, Australian import The Hard Word ends up somewhere in between, drifting uneasily between the two genres. Guy Pearce stars as the smartest (which isn’t saying much) of a trio of recently incarcerated brothers who are double-crossed by their slick lawyer (Robert Taylor) and Pearce’s gold-digging wife (Rachel Griffith) after a botched race track heist.
Taylor plays his role with slimy glee and Joel Edgerton makes an impression as the shortest-tempered of the clan, but Pearce is merely adequate, the normally reliable Griffith makes a rather dull femme fetale and the movie has a few twist endings too many.
Music video director Jonas Akerlund makes his directorial debut with this empty exercise in style over substance. Mixing the hyper kinetic editing of Darren Aronofsky and latter day Oliver Stone with the shock value of early John Waters, the narrative follows three drug-fueled days in the life of meth addict Jason Schwartzman and the various low-lives who inhabit LA’s seedy drug culture.
The posturing Schwartzman never quite fits into his role, and like his young co-stars (an acne covered Patrick Fugit, a mossy-toothed Mena Suvari and a Lolita-like Brittany Murphy), seems to searching for indi credibility by appearing in something audacious. Only the hard-living Mickey Rourke, as The Cook who creates the meth concoctions, seems to fit his role, though Peter Stormare and Alexis Arquette have a funny bit as a pair of dirty cops.
Ambitious, morally-deficient talent agent Farrell answers a pay phone in Times Square and ends up in battle for his life when the self-righteous sniper (Sutherland) on the other end promises to shoot him if the leaves the phone booth. Despite its 12 day shooting schedule, limited budget and independent film pretensions, the movie is really nothing more than Speed in a phone booth.
Even with the claustrophobic setting and abbreviated running time, Schumacher fails to create tension as Phone Booth’s predictability eventually turns an intriguing premise into one extended cliche. The wonderful Tigerland aside, Schumacher simply isn’t the right director to helm a gritty psychological study. He’s a proficient studio journeyman who specializes in gloss and artifice, which is exactly what Phone Booth didn’t need.
After years of being pillaged and plundered by Hollywood, the Honk Kong film industry does a little “borrowing” of its own as the Pang Brothers lift from, among others, The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes and Blink for this story of an eye-transplant recipient (Lee Sin-Je) whose new peepers begin to show her unsettling images.
The Pang Brothers know how to deliver the appropriate atmospherics, with the wonderfully creepy score from Orange Music and Decha Srimantra’s spectral cinematography eerily setting the mood, but the story leaves much to be desired in terms of originality and pacing, with an unintentionally humorous romance between Sin-Je and her doctor (Lawrence Chou) not helping matters.
A Mighty Wind
A musical re-teaming of the members of Spinal Tap, the trio of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are the Folksmen, a 60s folk group who re-unites, along with two other popular folk acts of the era, to play a New York City tribute concert to a recently deceased promoter.
While A Mighty Wind has more than its share of the sharp improv that Guest’s films are known for (with the best lines coming from Bob Balaban and Michael Hitchcock instead of usual scene-stealer Fred Willard), this latest exploration of American’s sometimes delusional ambition fails to reach below the surface of its characters. The movie ends up being more a collection of comedic bits than a collection of detailed characters as it fails to capture the sad undercurrent of longing of Waiting for Guffman or the sharp social commentary of Best in Show.
At some point the thought “Am I pissing away my life watching all these movies?” creeps into every film buffs mind. After watching Cinemania, film fans will certainly feel better about their own existences. Which is really the only service Cinemania renders, because the five New York City residents who form the basis of this documentary aren’t film buffs, they’re lunatics.
Either through disability, unemployment or inheritance none of the five (including an elderly woman who once attacked a young usher for ripping her ticket and a younger man obsessed with moving to France) hold down any sort of job, they merely go to movies around the Big Apple all day everyday. Though it purports to be a celebration of film lovers, Cinemania is a condescending glimpse into the sad lives of a group of people with crippling neurosis.
Where’s the Party, Yaar?
Full of broad stereotypes, Where’s the Party, Yaar?, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, begs the question “Why is it acceptable to make a movie full of cultural clichés just because you’re a member of that culture?” Though it never even comes close to its goal of capturing the young Indian-American experience, it’s pointless to raise such lofty questions during this fluffy romantic comedy with light-hearted good intentions.
The film stars Sunil Malhortra as a college student who comes to America, complete with a witch doctor prophecy about finding his true love, and tries to fit in just like his fully assimilated cousin Kal Penn. But Penn and his frat pals don’t like FOB’s (Fresh off the Boat) cramping their style as Malhorta tries desperately to get into a party at which he’s convinced he’ll find the foretold girl.
Directed by former Wings handyman Thomas Haden Church, Rolling Kansas mistakenly operates under the assumption that any movie involving marijuana will be funny simply because stoners will laugh at anything. But even a doobie the size of Gregory Hines’ super-joint in History of the World Part I won’t disguise the familiar plot and disregard for pacing in this mildly diverting, sporadically funny road trip movie.
The odyssey in question finds a trio of Texas brothers following a map, left to them by their hippie parents, that leads to a magical field of marijuana in Kansas. The films biggest laughs are its cheapest, despite relying on easy comic crutches like narcolepsy, wheel chairs and rednecks, but any time the story turn’s to sentiment or seriousness its an immediate buzz kill.
Avoid like the Plague
It’s Impossible to Learn How to Plow by Reading Books (1988) (Screened as part of the 10-year retrospective)
Take a collection of life’s most excruciatingly boring activities, everything from shaving to riding on a train, and now imagine watching someone else do them for 90 minutes. With little dialogue, less plot and no music, this first low-budget effort from Richard Linklater (the 28-year old shot it on Super 8 for $3,000) might just be the most mercilessly dull film ever made.
Linklater’s attempt to craft an antidote to the soulless slick of the 1980’s is an interesting experiment, but he simply goes too far in this ode to the mundane. The small actions that make up everyday life, the brushing of your teeth, the pumping of gas, are boring. That’s why we go to the movies in the first place. A noble gesture and an early glance into Linklater’s iconoclastic spirit, but it’s impossible to watch this movie without falling asleep.
You’ll Never Weisz in This Town Again
Pauly Shore called in a lot of favors to get this film made, and it’s safe to say those who participated are now even with Pauly. Though Shore’s MTV weasel persona always grated, he’s become such an underdog you almost have to root for this glorified home movie to be good. But it isn’t, and not just because of the less-than-amateur production values.
Shore plays himself and the film’s first few minutes, which chart the actor’s real life fall from glory, are very funny. As soon as the narrative turns to fiction it’s a massive train wreck as Shore pretends to kill himself in hopes that his premature death will enhance his comedic legacy. The film’s only real curio comes from its gaggle of celebrity camoes, some funny (Ben Stiller, Ja Rule and a running joke between Tom Sizemore and Michael Madsen) and some not (Snoop Dogg, Fred Durst and Sean Penn).
A Midsummer Night’s Rave
After twisting Edgar Allen Poe’s The Facts in the Case of Dr. Valdermar into the slyly satiric The Mesmerist, Gil Cates Jr. returns to South by Southwest with yet another literary adaptation. This time it’s a rave version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Ectasy taking the place of fairy potions and sweaty freak dancing standing in for poetic verse.
Though the modernized premise itself has potential, the dialogue is flat, the story unrecognizable and the performances uneven (Lauren German’s unlucky in love Elena is the film’s only heartfelt turn, while Glenn Madyna’s over-the-top, stereotypically gay Puck continuously annoys). Even taking a few hits of the so-called “love drug” probably won’t make this misfire worth sitting through.
Happy Here and Now
Halfway through the odd and aimless Happy Here and Now a character tells a story and follows it with explanation “If there was a point, there wouldn’t be a story.” Which turns out to be rather telling, since this latest effort from cerebral writer/director Michael Almereyda has several points to make yet no story to enable them to be made. But that paradox may very well be what’s at the heart of this art film posing as a noir mystery.
Slow, cryptic and opaque, the story unfurls on the streets of New Orleans in a dream-like, David Lynch universe as a woman searches for her missing sister in The Big Easy. While Almereyda’s attempt to make a movie that provokes an intellectual response is commendable, the irony is that, in a film about the lack of human connections and the alienation that results, he only succeeds in alienating his audience.
Photo - Bruce campbell and Bubba Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli, from wireimage.com
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originally posted: 03/29/03 06:59:17
last updated: 01/01/04 14:41:13