Pick of the Litter

Recommended at SXSW Film 2002

We know what you're thinking. "SXSW shows 187 films, and you've only got something to say about 30 of them! Surely you jest!" Well, of course there's more to the SXSW lineup than meets the eye; that's because, after weeks of chaining ourselves to the VCR, there's only so much that could meet our weary eyes. Sometimes we couldn't get our hands on a preview tape; sometimes the tapes we saw didn't do the films justice, hampered by a rough cut or a dubious dub; sometimes a film just didn't strike our fancy ... which doesn't mean it won't strike yours. So don't just take our word for it. Consider this the proverbial big toe dipping in, testing the waters, getting a feel for the climate. Surf around the SXSW Web site (www.sxsw.com/films) or check out the insert in this week's issue and see what looks good. We probably think it looks good, too.

Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (Alamo)-- 409 Colorado

Austin Convention Center Theatre (CC) -- Cesar Chavez & Red River

Arbor 7 Theatre -- 10000 Research

The Hideout -- 617 Congress

Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex (MYEC) -- 1156 Hargrave

Paramount Theatre -- 713 Congress


D: Tamara Katepoo.

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

Bang the Machine is an entertaining, zits-and-all look into the behind-the-scenes drama and button-mashing mayhem of the first Street Fighter video arcade game world championship. The clichés associated with the arcade enthusiast are all here -- all male, a steady diet of junk food, calculator watches, a general lack of girlfriends -- but Katepoo does an excellent job of showing what's behind her subjects' glazed-over eyes as they strive to be the world's best. (Alamo, 3/8, 5:30pm; Hideout, 3/10, midnight; CC, 3/15, 10pm) -- Mark Fagan

<i>Bike Like U Mean It</i>
Bike Like U Mean It


D: Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere

Local filmmakers Rusty Martin and Susan Kirr's documentary is a thorough, even touching, study of Austin's vibrant bicycle community. "Bike Like U Mean It" covers the entire cycling scene, including the successful Yellow Bike Project, APD's attempted crackdown on Critical Mass, Amy Babich's incessant, anti-car letter-writing campaign, and the inherent hazards of sharing the road with cars. This short film will likely succeed in making viewers question their transportation choices and consider the environmental and personal consequences thereof. Martin and Kirr have made this doc like they mean it, making "Bike" a must-see for anyone remotely interested in local bike culture. (CC, 3/8, 10:30pm; Hideout, 3/10, 8:45pm; Hideout, 3/13, 2pm) -- Mark Fagan


D: Judith Helfand, Daniel B. Gold.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

If you think studying the dangers inherent in the manufacture and disposal of polyvinyl chloride is about as dull as watching paint dry, then you obviously haven't seen Blue Vinyl. This entertaining and personally fashioned documentary takes a deadly serious subject matter and pursues it with a doggedness that takes us from Long Island to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Venice, Italy. Using delightful animation by Emily Hubley and passionate yet funny narration by filmmaker Helfand, Blue Vinyl pierces the PVC problem like the hot potato it is. (Paramount, 3/9, 11am; Paramount, 3/12, noon; Paramount, 3/16, 2:30pm) -- Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Jesse Peretz; with Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Sylvie Testud.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

This shot-on-DV sophomore effort from the director of First Love, Last Rites plays fast and loose with the French sex comedy format, with adopted brothers Rudd and Malco inheriting from their long-lost uncle a sprawling French chateau, replete with a crusty butler and saucy if demure wench du scullerie (Testud). It's part poisson-out-of-water, part frothy romance, and, believe it or not, a whole lot of improv. Much is made of the two-tone siblings -- one black, one white, all fun -- and their syntactical manhandling of the language of love (not to mention the emotion itself), while Rudd and Malco's zippy repartee smacks of spur-of-the-moment goofiness. Le comedie, c'est bon. (Arbor, 3/9, 6pm; Arbor 3/10, 9pm; Myec, 3/16, 7pm) -- Marc Savlov


D: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Kofman; with Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Derrida.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

This Sundance-screened effort amuses, not because it profiles the titular philosopher but because it doesn't. He keeps confounding the documentary process, deconstructing Kofman's interview scenario, refusing to provide "quick answers," and turning questions about love and marriage into answers about ontology and the impossibility of improvisation within the context of stereotypical discourse. There are moments of first-rate head candy, along with the expected quirky shots of Derrida looking for his keys and getting a haircut in slow motion. (Alamo, 3/12, 2pm) -- Marrit Ingman


D: A.J. Schnack.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

"Memo to myself: Do the dumb things I gotta do. Touch the puppet head." Brooklyn-based bandmates John Linnell and John Flansburgh of the endearingly goofy They Might Be Giants have been writing surrealist odes like the above for going on two decades now, but this ain't no Bretonian mindbomb. It's band as documentary as performance schtick, chock-full of live performances and seriously overdue explanations of the TMBG universe, with insights from indie luminaries Frank Black, Mark Hoppus, and This American Life's Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass. Rock & roll accordianistas never sounded so, um, odd. (CC, 3/10, 9:45pm; Paramount, 3/12, 4:15pm; Paramount, 3/16, 9:45pm) -- Marc Savlov


D: Chris Smith.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

Home Movie doesn't merely provide a definitive rebuttal to all accusations that American Movie director Chris Smith is solely interested in playing his chosen subjects for cheap laughs; it's also one of the warmest and most thought-provoking documentaries in years, recalling the more recent work of Errol Morris and even the Grey-Gardens-era Maysles Brothers. Built around a series of interviews with the eccentric inhabitants of various unconventional homes, Smith's newest offering is a gentle and wide-ranging meditation on what it means to occupy space: a body, a house, and a planet. (Paramount, 3/9, 9:45pm; Arbor, 3/12, 4:30pm; Paramount, 3/14, 10pm) -- Will Robinson Sheff



D: Sean Garrity; with Jonas Chernik, Sarah Constible, Gordon Tanner.

Narrative Feature First Films, Regional Premiere

Winner of the Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, Inertia slyboots dissection of relationship hell in writer/director Garrity's native Winnipeg, making Sex and the City look like the pay-cable romantic Nerf Ball that it is. Garrity's characters behave way too realistically for HBO (or the gang from Friends, for that matter), at first intersecting and then colliding in romantic unions and recriminatory wipeouts that resemble nothing so much as your own personal relationship history. Spot-on dialogue and unique editing elevate this above the usual lovers' spat, and, in the end, nothing seems as pat as you'd like. Just like life, only more so. (Myec, 3/9, 5:15pm; Alamo, 3/11, 11am; Myec, 3/14, 10pm) -- Marc Savlov


D: Greg Ross; with Benny Mardones, Roy Orbison, Wayne Newton.

Documentary Feature Competition

The beauty of this straightforward account of the life of Benny Mardones -- who scored a huge 1980 hit with the titular song, skidded out for the rest of the decade, and resurfaced to build a loyal fan base largely limited to Syracuse, N.Y. -- is that it can be read as either unadulterated nostalgia or the anthropology of an exotic, dimly remembered species, depending on your age. Regardless, it's a classic, vivid tale of that most American of phenomena, the bizarre and vaguely self-parodying comeback. (Hideout, 3/8, 8:30pm; Hideout, 3/14, 11:45am; Hideout, 3/14, 3:45pm) -- Cindy Widner


D: Matthew Buzzell; with Jimmy Scott.

Documentary Feature First Films, World Premiere Now 76 and still making music, "Little" Jimmy Scott will always be known for the voice -- terrifyingly high and emotive, razor-thin but as heavy as gold. The singer's singer. "That's the voice God gave him," Scott's sister says in Buzzell's directorial debut, a frank and semi-stylized documentary on the jazz legend's life, times, and recent tour of Japan. But God also gave him quite a lot of shit to deal with -- broken family, disease, a career hobbled by label games -- and If You Only Knew, in addition to its ample performance footage and well-annotated photo album, nails that note with intelligence and empathy. (Alamo, 3/10, 5:15pm; CC, 3/14, 10pm; Hideout, 3/16, 12:30pm) -- Shawn Badgley


D: Simone de Vries; with Kinky Friedman.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings

"He's not what you think he is," says Willie Nelson of Texas troubadour and wisecracking author Friedman, and de Vries' documentary on the man and his cult following is nothing if not completist. From Lyle Lovett to Bill Clinton, the documentary follows Friedman's outrageous trajectory from his first stage show at the age of 13 to the L.A. years (with pals Tom Waits and Iggy Pop) to his current station as mystery writer and pure-bred Texas bon vivant. "Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Jesus Christ, Lenny Bruce -- those are the people I identify with," says Friedman, and by the end of de Vries' doc, you realize this crazy Jew fits right in among those other iconoclastic luminaries. (Hideout, 3/12, 8:15pm; Alamo, 3/14, 10:15pm) -- Marc Savlov


D: Michael Gilio; with Gilio, Lara Phillips, Karin Anglin, Rich Komenich.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

A quirky, fool-for-love road trip romance that is more trip and less road. Mike is an aspiring actor headed to L.A. with dreams of the big time; Didi is a bored suburban teen with dreams of busting out. But hitting the highways gets tough when you mix up love and sex and the fuzz, plus Mike's still-attached ex-girlfriend. Writer/director/star Michael Gilio was nominated for the "Someone to Watch" award at this year's Independent Spirit Awards for this charming debut. (Arbor, 3/10, noon; Arbor, 3/12, 8pm; Myec, 3/13, 7:15pm) -- Sarah Hepola


D: T. Patrick Murray, Alex Weinress.

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

High school football is a deadly serious proposition in the small township of Doylestown, Pa., and coach Mike Pettine is "the winningest coach" in the history of Pennsylvania varsity football, with no less than 15 undefeated seasons behind him. Now, however, he's up against his toughest rival ever, No. 2-ranked North Penn, coached by none other than his own son, Mike Pettine Jr. Shot on DV and scored with the likes of Limp Bizkit and other nü-metal crunchers, The Last Game has more familial irony, hair-raising plot turns, and heart-swelling emotional clusterbombs than a dozen Lucasfilms put together, and amazingly, it's all true. (CC, 3/11, 4pm; Hideout, 3/12, 1:30pm; Hideout, 3/15, 10am) -- Marc Savlov


D: Donovan Leitch, Rebecca Chaiklin; with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere

Character actor extraordinaire Philip Seymour Hoffman finally plays himself as the host of Last Party 2000, a documentary that goes backstage for America's wackiest election to date. Hoffman bounces from party to protest to poll booth, interviewing figures from all sides -- Michael Moore, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Reed, and others -- and proving in the world of politics, truth is stranger than fiction and far, far harder to find. (CC, 3/9, 5:15pm; Paramount, 3/12, 2:15pm; Paramount, 3/13, 5:15pm) -- Sarah Hepola


D: Lisa Udelson; with Phranc.

Documentary Feature First Films, Regional Premiere

Crew cutted, suit-wearing, surfboardin' "Jewish Lesbian Folksinger" Phranc is the subject of this engaging documentary about life after indie-rock semi-stardom as a top-grossing Tupperware® Lady, selling the world's most famous food containers. (She also supplies the film's soundtrack.) Follow Phranc from party to party, and eventually to the National Tupperware Conference in Orlando, Fla., to see if she can keep her integrity flavor-fresh without "burping" too much on that delicately tasty line between (he)art and commerce. (CC, 3/10, 11:30am; CC, 3/13, 10:15pm; Alamo, 3/14, 8:30pm) -- Kate X Messer

<i>Mai's America</i>
Mai's America


D: Marlo Poras.

Documentary Feature Competition, Regional Premiere

This documentary about an awkward but resilient young Vietnamese woman who moves from Hanoi to small-town Mississippi as an exchange student is intimately fixated on its subject. Homesick and often baffled by the low-rent Southern culture she now occupies, Mai nonetheless tries to get into an American university while befriending a swishy transvestite and conferring with an eerily accurate palm reader. The riveting, tiny episodes of Mai's American life ultimately become a quite majestic, beautiful, and tragic film. (CC, 3/8, 8:45pm; Paramount, 3/11, 11:30am; Paramount, 3/13, 1:30pm) -- Clay Smith



D: Eric Eason; with Franky G., Leo Minaya, Manuel Cabral.

Narrative Feature Competition, Regional Premiere

Violence is an epidemic cycle and way of life in New York City's former crack cocaine capital of Washington Heights. However, high school salutatorian Manny has found a way out with a scholarship to Syracuse University and the help of his supportive ex-con brother. Manny is the pride of this largely Latino immigrant community and embodies its precarious hopes for the future. The film's gritty but powerfully effective visual style beautifully mirrors the energy of the community it depicts. (Myec, 3/9, 10:15pm; Myec, 3/11, 9:30pm; Myec, 3/14, 5:30pm) -- Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Sandra Goldbacher; with Michelle Williams, Anna Friel, Kyle MacLachlan, Oliver Milburn, Trudie Styler

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

Growing up from grade-school confidantes into half-ass punks in Thatcher-era London and then finally into semi-lost twentysomethings, best friends Holly (Williams) and Marina (Friel) survive two decades of codependency, but just barely. With an ethereal palette and lyrical score cut from the same cloth as Sofia Coppola's Virgin Suicides, Goldbacher's BAFTA-nominated film is a melancholy, (uncomfortably) funny look at what happens when best friends break up. Friel and Williams (of Dawson's Creek) are exceptional as the two girls struggling to nail down an identity independent of the other. (Arbor, 3/8, 10pm; Arbor, 3/10, 2:30pm) -- Kimberley Jones


D: Charles Adler; with Adler, Tess Harper, Estelle Harris, Henry Gibson.

Narrative Short Competition

Gender issues run amok in this bizarre and hilarious short that answers the burning question "Can a shy young girl who's really an older gay man find love amid the emotional battleground that is high school?" The answer will surprise you, but what's more surprising is the skill of Adler (until now primarily a voice actor on such animated fare as Rugrats) both behind and in front of the camera. With his graying buzzcut and tattooed biceps, he resembles a sailor on leave, but he's got the fluttery disposition of a pubescent teen down pat. Rod Serling probably would have blushed, but this surreal short borders on a comic Twilight Zone. (As part of "Narrative Shorts 1" program: Alamo, 3/9, 4:45pm; Hideout, 3/16, 4pm) -- Marc Savlov


D: Jamie Catto, Duncan Bridgeman; with Michael Stipe, Dennis Hopper, Neneh Cherry, Whiri Mako Black.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere

Narrated by Kurt Vonnegut, Ram Dass, Dennis Hopper, and many, many others, One Giant Leap is a star-studded megamix of a film that's valuable insofar as it's ludicrously ambitious. This film has the gall to attempt a celluloid shotgun wedding between Eastern philosophy, culture-jamming politics, technophiliac aesthetics, sex-positive post-feminism, and a good dose of Rousseuvian noble-savage-worship and then set the wedding party to a series of world-music jams featuring such luminaries as Brian Eno, Baaba Maal, Michael Stipe, and Asha Bhosle. It's a sermon tailor-made for the choir, but it hits some inspiring notes. (Alamo, 3/11, 7pm; CC, 3/13, 6:30pm; Alamo, 3/15, 5pm) -- Will Robinson Sheff


D: Scott Hamilton Kennedy.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere When the students of Dominguez High in the embattled town of Compton, Calif., are told they're going to be staging a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the initial reaction is somewhat less jubilant than perhaps their teachers had hoped for. But over the course of rehearsals and through to the jittery, triumphant end, these tough and immensely talented kids learn not only who this guy Wilder was, but what they're capable of and what it means to be young in the most infamous town in America. With a soundtrack featuring everyone from David Holmes to Fatboy Slim, OT is an amazing and moving collision of the old and new schools. (Hideout, 3/9, 1pm; Hideout, 3/12, 6:15pm) -- Marc Savlov

<i>The Search for John Gissing</i>
The Search for John Gissing


D: Mike Binder; with Binder, Janeane Garofalo, Alan Rickman.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

Binder plays a young exec who, with wife (Garofalo) in tow, gets sent to London to see an acquisition through. His company rival, the titular Gissing (Rickman), does everything he can to sabotage his efforts. Rickman steals the show in this comedy from the director/producer of HBO's Mind of the Married Man, especially in his scenes with Garofalo, who mainly plays exasperated straight (wo)man to Binder. Overall, it plays like Sixties Neil Simon or Blake Edwards, even down to the trumpet-dominated score. (Arbor, 3/8, 7:45pm; Myec, 3/12, 9:30pm, Arbor, 3/15, 3:30pm) -- Jerry Renshaw


D: Alex Smith, Andrew Smith; with Ryan Gosling, David Morse, Clea Duvall, Kelly Lynch.Narrative Feature First Films The writing and directing team of twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith have made an astonishingly good first feature. Set in rural Montana, the movie's spare, rugged landscape reflects the story's stripped-down study of male bonding and camaraderie. This strong sense of place lends an honesty to this story about the scrappy six-man football leagues that rule the open plains, and also of one fatherless young man and another rudderless older man whose relationship is clouded by testosterone, rumor, and contradictions. (Arbor, 3/8, 5:15pm; MYEC, 3/10, 5pm; MYEC, 3/16, 9pm) -- Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Jeff Blitz.

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere Spellbound follows eight kids from various parts of the country to Washington for the national Scripps-Howard spelling bee. In the days leading up to the event, the pressure builds as the kids drill endlessly on impossibly obscure words; the bee itself is sheer nerve-racking tension. The kids are all engagingly dorky and super-intelligent, as the camera offers a generous insight into them and their families. It's one age-old American tradition that not only hasn't faded away, but is covered on ESPN now. (CC, 3/10, 1pm; Hideout, 3/12, 9:45pm; Alamo, 3/14, 11am) -- Jerry Renshaw


D: Whitney Dow, Marco Williams.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere The brutal murder of African-American James Byrd Jr. by three white men in Jasper, Texas, appalled the nation. Was it an unfortunate aberration in an otherwise decent town? Two camera crews -- one white, one black -- interviewed Jasper residents to find out. The result is Two Towns of Jasper, a sobering study of race relations through the lens of a small East Texas town and the unfathomable pain endured by the families of Byrd and his assailants. (Paramount, 3/9, 1:30pm; CC, 3/11, noon; Paramount, 3/13, 10pm) -- Belinda Acosta

Pick of the Litter: 'Chelsea Walls'

Ghost World: 'Chelsea Walls'

If the walls of the Chelsea Hotel could talk, they might sound depressed, or drunk, or creatively inflamed, or burnt by love, or any other number of conditions common to artists and junkies and bohemians, the likes of which -- Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious -- made those very walls so famous. They might sound like Nicole Burdette, the playwright of Chelsea Walls, the work on which actor/novelist Ethan Hawke based his feature directorial debut of the same name. Or, those walls might sound like Dylan Thomas, another famously drunk Chelsea resident. It was Thomas' Under Milk Wood that Burdette based her own play upon, and it is Thomas' legacy that inspires Hawke: "[The film] is about people who have that dream of wanting to be Dylan Thomas and go chasing that ghost."

A moody, sometimes mesmerizing look at the titular hotel and its damaged residents, Chelsea Walls benefits from the intimacy inherent to digital video. "With digital, the aesthetic is never going to be your strongest suit," says Hawke. "So your strongest suit is going to be what you have to say: the performance and the writing."

The performances here, uniformly stirring, come from Hawke's friends and colleagues: Steve Zahn, Robert Sean Leonard, wife Uma Thurman, Kevin Corrigan, Kris Kristofferson, even a cameo from Richard Linklater. Their stories range from the mundane (fractured love from the luminous Rosario Dawson) to the surreal (legendary jazz singer Jimmy Scott incoherently riffing on gambling). They work not so much a cohesive narrative but rather as a triumph of moments -- lyrical, angsty, haunted.

Chelsea Walls screens Monday, March 11, 5:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre; Tuesday, March 12, 9:30pm, at the Convention Center; and Friday, March 15, 10pm, at the Arbor Theatre. Director Ethan Hawke will be in attendance at the Tuesday night screening.

Pick of the Litter: 'By Hook or By Crook'

A Codependent Independent: 'By Hook or By Crook'

In the great tradition of Hope & Crosby, Wayne & Garth, and Thelma & Louise come Shy & Valentine, two hapless hunks trying to make their way in the world. By Hook or by Crook, a first film for directors/actors Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, is a buddy movie in the classic sense, except that Shy & Valentine are bad-ass butch lesbians. "In our film, the world accepts who they are. We didn't want to have neon signs around them," Howard says of the film's engaging lead characters, adding that, ideally, they could be played by any gender/sex/orientation. Dodge and Howard are both veterans of performance -- Howard is better known as Flipper in the San Francisco dyke punk band Tribe 8, and Dodge appeared in John Waters' Cecil B. Demented. "Neither of us had actually made a movie or had film training, but we really wanted to collaborate." And what they lack in formal training is made up by the richness of their achingly charming characters. "We wrote two prior scripts, trying to be all plot-twisty and clever," says Howard. "But the characters were flat. So we decided instead to write what we know." Good move. Like character Shy, Howard was raised by her dad, and "the adoption stuff about Harry is true," she says, referring to Dodge's off-kilter Val and her search for her birth mom: "Instead of filling out forms, she made a movie." The buddy thread extended as well to the actual production of the film. The title proved to be telling, as the two filmmakers relied on the grace and sweat of others to complete an 11th-hour remix and edit. "There's nothing 'independent' about low-budget filmmaking," Howard laughs. "That's Harry's quote -- 'independent filmmaking is totally codependent!'"

By Hook or by Crook will screen at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown March 8, 9:30pm; March 12, 11:45am; and March 15, 9:30pm. "Lesbianfilm," a short mockumentary about the travails of making a lesbian movie (made by the Lesbianfilm Collective, including local professor and filmmaker Mocha Jean Herrup, with Dan Janos, Evie Leder, and Gretchen Lee), precedes all screenings. The filmmakers will be in attendance.

Pick of the Litter: 'Nothing So Strange'

True or False?: 'Nothing So Strange'

Filmmaker Brian Flemming first popped into my consciousness during the winter of 1997, when I was judging films for Slamdance, the upstart film festival organized in response to Sundance. Flemming had just instigated Slumdance -- a friendly alternative to the alternative -- right across the street. As much an overall concept as a film festival (the space was like an underground fallout shelter for the sprocketed homeless, complete with soup kitchen and graffitied walls), Flemming's brainchild won raves for its originality, humor, and added showcase opportunities.

Since then, I've noticed Flemming's name attached to some unusual segments produced for IFC's Split Screen TV show hosted by John Pierson, and listed as one of the co-writers of last year's off-Broadway show Bat Boy: The Musical. Clearly, the guy has a special feel for the odd and unusual, which extends to urban myths, pop-culture spoofs, and the tenuous boundaries between fact and fiction.

Now, Flemming comes to South by Southwest with his new movie Nothing So Strange, which documents the aftermath of the assassination of Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates on December 2, 1999. (No, you haven't missed any news bulletins.) Set in the present day, the movie's focus is not on the tragedy of the fictional assassination, but on the mystery that surrounds the full disclosure of the facts of the event. Many citizens smell a cover-up hidden in the official police version of a disgruntled lone assassin. A group called the Citizens for Truth demands an independent investigation but, like most coalitions of conspiracy theorists, splinters into warring sub-factions.

The goal while shooting this documentary-like fiction was "100% veracity," according to Flemming. The result is a genre-bending experience that lives up to Daniel Webster's quote: "There is nothing so powerful as truth, and often nothing so strange."

Nothing So Strange screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown on March 8, 7:15pm; March 14, 3:30pm; and March 16, 2:15pm.

Pick of the Litter: 'Hell House'

Here is the House, Here is the Steeple: 'Hell House'

Near the beginning of George Ratliff's new documentary, Hell House, a group of volunteers at a Pentecostal church in Cedar Hill, just south of Dallas, are having a meeting to discuss the haunted house the church will put on in several months. Standing before the volunteers, Tim Ferguson, the director of "Hell House X: The Walking Dead," asks them if fear is a part of their ministry. This is a rhetorical question. "A part of salvation is being afraid of going to hell," he reminds them. Hell House X will raise substantial funds for the church, and, its leaders hope, convert spiritually uncommitted teenagers into born-again Christians. But the process church leaders employ to speed the great unwashed on the road to salvation is a matter of some controversy. There are no white-sheeted ghosts or grapes masquerading as eyeballs in this haunted house. Take the hospital scene: A woman is bleeding to death from a botched abortion while a man suffering from AIDS is on a stretcher next to her. She asks Jesus for forgiveness; he curses the day he was born. Guess who gets to go to heaven? Another room in Hell House X features a wife who is cast out of her family after initiating an adulterous affair over the Internet. At a rave, a woman uses drugs, then kills herself. After this grisly cavalcade of sin, everyone making the Hell House tour is led to a room and asked whether they want to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

In 1999, Trinity Church made national news because its haunted house featured a scene straight out of the massacre at Columbine, and the media coverage tended to portray Hell House as a flagrantly insensitive production. That's when Ratliff, who lives in New York but is from Amarillo, called the church. After six calls, he convinced church leaders that they should let him make a documentary about their haunted house. "After being beaten around by the press so much, they liked the idea that I was doing something that was more about the process of what they were doing," recalls Ratliff, whose documentary about his hometown, Plutonium Circus, won Best Documentary Feature at SXSW in 1995, and whose first feature film, Purgatory County, received honorable mention at SXSW in 1997.

Hell House is a documentary in the most absolute sense of the word: It records the phenomenon, but doesn't exactly editorialize about it. "It's as close to vérité as I could come," Ratliff says. "Some people think it's propaganda for the church, some people think it's making fun of them. People take it absolutely differently everywhere. I love that."

Hell House screens Sunday, March 10, at 7:15pm; Tuesday, March 12, at 4:15pm; and Thursday, March 14, at 1:15pm. All screenings take place at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. The filmmakers will be in attendance.

Pick of the Litter: 'Sean Connery Golf Project'

Script Rustlers or Audience Hustlers?: 'Sean Connery Golf Project'

Two kids infiltrate Sony Pictures' studio, steal a screenplay, rewrite it, and return it as a better movie. Is it legit, or one of those complex, Blair Witch-style hoaxes? The concept behind "Sean Connery Golf Project," a short doc from two Austinites, seems suspect, but co-director (co-conspirator?) Rhys Southan assures me that he did in fact take the law into his hands. Videotaping the escapade just made it art.

Southan, a film student at UT, spent last summer as an intern in Los Angeles. In his time off, he attended screenings at the studios. "All the advance screenings I saw that summer were really bad," says Southan. Failing to make it into the focus group of a particularly bad movie at Sony, Southan elected to explore the lot rather than leave right away. He found the story department, where he stole as many scripts as would fit in his totebag -- including the titular screenplay. "It didn't occur to me to have a moral problem with it. I just walked past the guard and rollerbladed back to my apartment." When he told his co-worker, UT grad Sara Rimensnyder, about his adventure, she pressured him into returning the scripts and suggested turning the escapade into a documentary. Reading the loot convinced them that, first, the scripts needed improvement. "That's what made it acceptable to Sara. That we were going to return them in better condition."

So it isn't a hoax. But how about a callous attempt to gain notoriety? "I don't think it's callous," denies Southan. "I think it's pretty original and inspiring. Sort of an anarchist thing. Most people have really been into it." The movie they rewrote is reputedly in pre-production, although it's unclear if anyone ever saw the altered script. "If we saw a clip that has something we wrote in it, it would be the best day of our life."

"The Sean Connery Golf Project" screens Friday, March 8, 10:30pm, at the Convention Center; Sunday, March 10, 8:45pm, at the Hideout; and Wednesday, March 13, 2pm, at the Hideout. The filmmakers will be in attendance.

Keeping the Dream Alive: 'Tribute'

Without giving too much away, let's just say the makers of Tribute show us their chops right off the bat. In a few skillfully edited shots of Journey cover artists Escape, rockumentarians Kris Curry and Rich Fox sum up the sublime ridiculousness of bands who imitate bands who haven't existed in any meaningful way since at least 1982: the irreconcilable juxtaposition of sincere dedication, talent, and desire with what is an undeniably absurd pursuit. A nuanced and frequently hilarious first feature, Tribute follows devoted emulators of Kiss, Judas Priest, Queen, Journey, and the Monkees deep into a parallel universe where they bicker, mope, and suffer "creative differences" in equal measure with "real" bands. And while an amazing variety of dramatic and silly situations unfold -- strip club gigs, various incidents involving fire, periodic abandonment for the greener pastures of German musical theatre -- Curry and Fox quite steadily walk that fine fine line between mockery and adulation. "The longer we spent with [the bands]," says Curry, "the more we realized that the space between who they are and who we are is really not that big. We all have dreams we become invested in that may or may not pan out. ... And it would be sort of an easy, cheap shot to make fun of them and it wouldn't acknowledge the same quality that's in all of our lives." Indeed, for all its hilarity, Tribute is full of poignant moments that attest to the filmmakers' empathy, such as when a Queen fan believes Freddie Mercury is talking to him through a skywriter, or a member of the Judas Priest tribute band explains that he tries to take a Buddhist approach to the day job he hates, repairing tires. Holding out hope for those who don't stop believin', Tribute winds around to the Cinderella story at the heart of the film, which Fox says was one of their initial incentives to pursue the project: the true legend of Tim "Ripper" Owens, the Priest tribute singer who was drafted for the real deal after Rob Halford left the band and whose story was told (sort of, and rather poorly) in the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Rock Star. While Fox and Curry (a married couple) claim to be relatively talent-free musically, both know what kind of tribute band they'd be in. "Björk," Curry pipes up right off. "Definitely the Go-Go's," says Fox. "An all-male Go-Go's."

Tribute screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown on March 12 at 9pm; March 14 at 6pm; and March 16 at 4:45pm. Filmmakers Rich Fox and Kris Curry will be in attendance at all screenings.

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