Pick of the Litter

What to see, when to see it, at SXSW Film 2003

AMERICAN DANCER

D: Adam Ballachey.

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

Welcome to the strange and depressing world of male stripping -- the shaved chests and stabbed backs, the G-strings stuffed with, uh, cash -- where we meet four dancers thrusting and butt-jiggling through various stages of their career. For sheer delusionary grandeur, few documentary subjects match Tarzan Tarantino, the aging stripper gone soft in the belly and, apparently, the head. Tarantino is a true American idealist who spies fame in every endeavor. He quotes Rocky, he yearns to be a pro wrestler, but he belly flops at everything he tries -- except his day job (ah, the irony) selling meat door-to-door. You can't make this stuff up. (CC, 3/9, 10pm; CC, 3/10, 3pm; Paramount, 3/14, 2:30pm) - Sarah Hepola

<i>A Certain Kind of Death</i>
A Certain Kind of Death

A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH

D: Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh.

Documentary Feature First Films, Regional Premiere

Fans of HBO's Six Feet Under should get a kick out of this thorough and engrossing look at all the folks who don't end up at Chez Fisher. Specifically, Babcock and Hadaegh's film follows the circuitous route taken by a handful of homeless, indigent, and off-the-grid decedents on their way to their final reward (in this case as likely a crematorium furnace as a plot in Potter's Field). On the way, we're introduced to the efficient bureaucracy staffed by professional people who do their best to track down missing or nonexistent relatives, seek out wills, or just plain try and figure out John Doe #13's real name. Warning: Dead people abound. But then so do the living. It's a fair trade. (Paramount, 3/8, 11am; Paramount, 3/13, 5pm; CC, 3/15, 10:15pm) - Marc Savlov

DUMMY

D: Greg Pritikin; with Adrien Brody, Milla Jovovich, Illeana Douglas, Vera Farmiga.

Narrative Feature Competition, Regional Premiere

Ventriloquists and their dummies usually go together like nubile young hitchhikers and sociopathic loners, but Pritikin's film thankfully dispenses with the horror movie clichés and instead offers a glorious and daffy serio-comic romance. Oscar nominee Adrien Brody (The Pianist) is flat-out fantastic as social misfit Steven, who blossoms when he buys a dummy and uses it to speak for his heart. Jovovich, as his Hesher-punk pal, and Farmiga, as the unemployment officer of his dreams, round out an impressive cast which also boasts a terrific soundtrack from Mike Reukberg. (Paramount, 3/10, 2:15pm; Alamo, 3/12, 11am; Westgate, 3/15, 6pm) - Marc Savlov

EVENHAND

D: Joseph Pierson; with Bill Sage, Bill Dawes.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings

EvenHand explores a side of police work rarely seen in movies: the prosaic day-to-day nature of the job. Unlike the pyrotechnic shoot-'em-ups we've become accustomed to viewing, EvenHand delivers the real skinny on what's involved in the daily tasks of "protecting and serving." Set in the fictional town of San Lovisa, Texas, the movie is a realistic character study of two contrasting patrol officers -- one recently divorced and a newcomer to town, the other a gregarious old hand who plays by his own rules. Both men strive to be individuals in a world where preconceptions -- their own included -- reign. (Alamo, 3/9, 2pm; Millennium, 3/12, 7:30pm; Millennium, 3/13, 8pm) - Marjorie Baumgarten

THE EYE

D: The Pang Brothers; with Lee Sin-Je, Lawrence Chou, Chutcha Rujinanon, Candy Lo.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, U.S. Premiere

"The world is really beautiful," a young girl promises Mun, who has been blind since the age of 2. But not all is rainbows when a cornea transplant restores her sight. Sure, she can fix her fetchingly bewildered gaze upon her hunky therapist, but that's not all she sees. The Eye is an impressionistic, almost gentle, ghost story whose chilly moments are but ice cubes in a sweet cocktail for the eyes; a movie where every perfectly lit, gloriously composed shot is a love letter to film as a visual medium. (Westgate, 3/8, 10pm; Alamo, 3/11, 12mid; Westgate, 3/15, 8pm) - Rachel Proctor

FLOWERS

D: Kirven Blount; with Justin Hagan, Ralph McCain, Daniel Dresner, Mary Catherine Garrison, Piper Perabo.

Narrative Feature First Films, World Premiere

Set amid the cracked shadows of the NYC after-hours scene, Flowers follows the night-tripping adventures of aspiring actor Bill Potter (Hagan). Recruited off the street by a charismatic mobster (McCain), the once straight-and-narrow Potter suddenly finds himself inhaling a crooked landscape of cocaine, prostitution, and police corruption. Caught somewhere between Goodfellas and The Freshman, writer/director (and onetime Chronicle contributor) Blount's screenplay weaves together a complex ménage of underworld characters that whirl about Potter like a magnificent storm. But the physical demons destroying this anti-hero's body are far outstripped by those destroying his soul; even the blind love of a compassionate woman (Perabo) may fall short of his salvation. (CC, 3/10, 9:30pm; Hideout, 3/11, 2:30pm; Hideout, 3/13, 1pm) - Marcel Meyer

HAPPY HERE AND NOW

D: Michael Almereyda; with Karl Geary, Shalom Harlow, Ally Sheedy, Liane Balaban.

Narrative Feature Competition, Regional Premiere

There's always more to Michael Almereyda's films (Hamlet, Nadja) than meets the eye, and Happy Here and Now (in which no one seems to be) continues his elliptical streak. Balaban is Amelia, who sojourns to the Big Easy searching for her missing sister Muriel (Harlow) and winds up exploring the shadowy, dehumanizing world of online life via firefighting avatar o' love Geary. Mixed media + matching monitors = romance gone awry, again, but this time with a distinctly edgy twist. (Paramount, 3/8, 4:15pm; Millennium, 3/11, 6:30pm; Westgate, 3/15, 4pm) - Marc Savlov

LUBBOCK LIGHTS

D: Amy Maner.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere

Lubbock light and local filmmaker Amy Maner says she shot enough footage for Lubbock Lights to make a Lone Star Decalogue, so this 60-minute rough cut concentrates on what one assumes will eventually be the centerpiece to this documentary: the music. As the opening inclement weather shots suggest, there's more to Lubbock than just Tommy X Hancock, Terry Allen, and the Flatlanders. A whole X-file's worth, doubtlessly. But mythology takes a back seat to the likes of Jesse Taylor, and in doing so, makes the case for a Burnsian PBS (or is that Benson-esque CMT?) series on Texas music. (Paramount, 3/11, 4:30pm; CC, 3/12, 4:30pm; Paramount, 3/15, 7pm) - Raoul Hernandez

MELVIN GOES TO DINNER

D: Bob Odenkirk; with Michael Blieden, Stephanie Courtney, Matt Price, Annabelle Gurwitch, Maura Tierney, David Cross, Jack Black.

Narrative Feature First Films, Regional Premiere

Rarely is dinner with acquaintances all that cathartic, but toss in a half-dozen bottles of vino, some kooky coincidences, alarming revelations, and much talk of chance vs. fate and late-night porn, and you'll have something akin to what happens when Melvin (Blieden, who also scripted the film) goes to dinner. Melvin is the directorial debut from Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk, and a smashing time to boot -- witty and windy, terrifically acted, and shot through with a bitter romanticism (or is it romantic bitterness?) that goes down easy on the eyes, the ears, and, yes, even the gullet. (Paramount, 3/10, 9:30pm; Paramount, 3/12, 2pm; CC, 3/15, 8:15pm) - Kimberley Jones

Screens Strung

A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS RAVE

D: Gil Cates Jr.; with Andrew Keegan, Lauren German, Glenn Badyna, Sunny Mabrey, Corey Pearson.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere.

To paraphrase the Bard, "All the world's a rave, and all the men and women merely ravers." Wrong play, I know, but this romantic and humorous look at love and light sticks in the age of electronica transposes Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to the thumping and giddy rave community, complete with Glenn Badyna's wily Puck and a bevy of fanciful characters that -- let's face it -- wouldn't look at all out of place liquid dancing in front of Paul Oakenfold. With a soundtrack from a clutch of heavy-hitter DJs and an overriding philosophy in the best PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) tradition, this is the best take on rave since Greg Harrison's Groove. (Paramount, 3/9, 9:30pm; Alamo, 3/12, 4:30pm; Millennium, 3/15, 10:30pm) - Marc Savlov

Screens Strung

MY FLESH AND BLOOD

D: Jonathan Karsh.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings

The sheer human suffering in Jonathan Karsh's award-winning documentary is simply unspeakable. Covering a year in the lives of Bay area mother Susan Tom and her adopted family of 11 special-needs children, the film examines the household's struggles to cope with each other and the outside world. There is Xenia, for one, a legless teenager who experiences her first crush and gets stood up at the Valentine Dance. Then there's Faith, who has sustained horrible burns as a baby and mistakenly believes she'll recover her looks by the time she grows up. Though unexpected events severely test the family's resolve, Susan and her children soldier on through their undeniable pain. (CC, 3/10, 1pm) - David Garza

THE NATURE OF NICHOLAS

D: Jeffrey Erbach; with Jeff Sutton, David Turnbull, Ardith Boxall, Tom McCamus, Bob Huculak, Katherine Lee Raymond.

Narrative Feature Competition, U.S. Premiere

Is it the nature of Nicholas or the nurture of Nicholas? That's the question at hand in this slow and surreal tale of a 12-year-old boy coming to terms with his attraction to his scrappy best friend. Played to creepy perfection by young Jeff Sutton, the titular character begs for love and attention -- even if it's only in whispers. When his schoolboy desire goes sadly unrequited, Nicholas enters an imagined world of talking cadavers, false conversations, and terrible fears. Though a bit thick in parts, the film offers a brave take on the quiet budding of loneliness and desire. (Alamo, 3/7, 9:15pm; Millennium, 3/9, 6:30pm; Millennium, 3/14, 5:30pm) - David Garza

Screens Strung

NOSEY PARKER

D: John O'Brien; with George Lyford, Natalie Picoe, Richard Snee.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere

Vermont and comedy are not usually attributes paired in the same sentence, no less the same movie. But intrepid filmmaker John O'Brien perfects the feat in Nosey Parker, a film about a New York couple who move to Vermont to get back "in touch" and the reserved locals who act as though an alien spaceship has just landed. Never crossing the line that separates humor from condescension, the fish-out-of-water couple and their old-timer handyman George tiptoe around each other until curiosity finally gets the better of everyone. The largely improvised dialogue makes fantastic use of the actual residents of Tunbridge, Vt. -- O'Brien's hometown. (Paramount, 3/11, 2pm; Millennium, 3/13, 5:30pm; Millennium, 3/14, 7:30pm)- Marjorie Baumgarten

<i>Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story</i>
Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story

OFF THE CHARTS: THE SONG-POEM STORY

D: Jamie Meltzer.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings

Off the Charts offers an intimate look into one of the most fabulous exploitations of the American dream, the song-poem. These sonic train wrecks are what happens when amateur lyricists contact the vanity presses of the record industry in hopes of finding a back-door route to stardom. The documentary introduces us to the song-poets responsible for "Aliens Ate My Dog" and "Blind Man's Penis," as well as the musicians and producers who can turn a tune around in under an hour. Particularly admirable is the film's utter lack of condescension toward the eccentrics that thrive in this dark corner of the music business. (Alamo, 3/11, 7:30pm; Hideout, 3/12, 1:15pm; Alamo, 3/13, 10:15pm) - Michael May

<i>Robot Stories</i>
Robot Stories

ROBOT STORIES

D: Greg Pak; with Tamlyn Tomita, Wai Ching Ho, Glenn Kubota, James Saito, Cindy Cheung.

Narrative Feature First Films, Regional Premiere

The four technology-themed shorts comprising this DV anthology film are a little peculiar but emotionally honest and winning nonetheless. "My Robot Baby," which stars Tamlyn Tomita as the ambivalent mother to a ridiculously ovoid mechanical infant, gets the feeling of new motherhood exactly right. Its corollary, "The Robot Fixer," features a pitch-perfect, beautifully understated performance by Wai Ching Ho as a mother determined to complete her comatose son's collection of toy robots. "Machine Love," starring director Greg Pak as an android, is a bit self-consciously wacky but will ring true to office drones. "Clay" is a slower and more obviously philosophical meditation on death. (Paramount, 3/10, 7pm; Westgate, 3/13, 10:15pm; Millennium, 3/15, 6:30pm) - Marrit Ingman

7TH STREET

D: Josh Pais.

Documentary Feature First Films, Regional Premiere

Inspired by writer/director Josh Pais' rearing on 7th Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, 7th Street thrives as a dynamic time capsule for the past, present, and future observers of this unique, citizen-rich neighborhood. Filled with, in Pais' words, "the people who taught me about life and the people who became my family," 7th Street deconstructs this fascinating, historic environ from its pre-developed beginnings as a salt marsh to its early industrialization by Hungarian Jews to its ghetto status of the 1960s and beyond. Assembled as a meld of hand-held street interviews, black-and-white footage, and historic photographs, Pais offers friends, family, and strangers a platform from which to exorcise demons and stories from an unsung street long desperate for a voice. (Hideout, 3/7, 7pm; Hideout, 3/9, 4pm; Hideout, 3/14, 2:30pm) - Marcel Meyer

<i>Sexless</i>
Sexless

SEXLESS

D: Alex Holdridge; with Holdridge, Brian McGuire, Kelly Dealyn, Camille Chen, Michelle Fairbanks, Sara Simmonds, Scoot McNairy, Kierstin Cunnington.

Narrative Feature Competition, World Premiere

Austin transplant Alex Holdridge's first film, Wrong Numbers (which won the Austin Film Festival's Audience Award two years ago), was about two underage college kids trying to score some beer; his second, the wry romantic comedy Sexless, ups the age (midtwenties) and tweaks the object of desire (affection, connection, contact), but the gist is the same: wistful longing bookended by some very funny stuff. The look of the thing has changed dramatically, however: Shot on high-def, Sexless looks like a million bucks (as does Town Lake, lensed in the late-evening warm melt of sundown). Locals Okkervil River, Shearwater, and Daniel Johnston supply some of the (very good) tunage, and Austinites can make a game out of spotting hometown landmarks throughout. (Paramount, 3/9, 7pm; CC, 3/10, 5pm; Paramount, 3/15, 2pm) - Kimberley Jones

SPEEDO

D: Jesse Moss.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, World Premiere

Finding sympathy in a man whose passion for building cars meant only to destroy other cars supercedes his passion for his wife and children, who has slept on the couch for the past decade, and calls his teenage son "faggy" after he dyes his hair pink for a punk show, and who shouts things like "Smash and pass! Boom-boom-boom-boom!" in a twangy Long Island accent even as others label him a "legend in his own mind" (or, as his estranged wife says, "a sick fuck") is no easy feat. But Moss has done just that with Ed "Speedo" Jager, a veteran demolition-derby driver who counters every triumph on the track with heartbreaking insolence off of it. This colorfully assured video vérité absorbs it all quite admirably, without mockery and with a ton of style. (Hideout, 3/8, 7pm; Hideout, 3/10, 8pm; Hideout, 3/14, 12:30pm) - Shawn Badgley

SPUN

D: Jonas Akerlund; with Jason Schwartzman, John Leguizamo, Mena Suvari, Patrick Fugit, Brittany Murphy, Mickey Rourke.

Narrative Feature Midnighter, Regional Premiere

Drive. Wait. Score. Pop. Repeat. Being a speed freak is hard work. Repetitive, and endless, and tiring. And funny? Spun takes everything about this extreme state of being, cranks it into overdrive, and lets the pieces fall where they may. In addition to director Akerlund's creative nerve and a zesty score by Billy Corgan, Spun also features the adrenalized dramatic stylings of an oddball group of actors. The dank odor of the speed oozing out their pores can practically be detected in the back row. Ugliness takes an equal place to the humor in Spun -- but when you do things like cast Deborah Harry as the nosy butch next door, it's sometimes hard to tell which is which. (Alamo, 3/10, 12mid; Alamo, 3/13, 12mid; Westgate, 3/15, 10pm) - Marjorie Baumgarten

STEVIE

D: Steve James.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

From Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, comes another searing portrait of American life. After a decade, James returns to find Stevie, the troubled boy he once mentored as a Big Brother. Abused and abandoned by his mother, brutalized by the foster-care system, Stevie has grown into a mess of a man -- misguided, drunk, and dangerous. Director James places himself in the drama, struggling to help Stevie at the same time he fears exploiting him, trying to love Stevie at the same time he seems most unlovable. Theirs is a deeply troubling, important story. (Westgate, 3/10, 7pm; Westgate, 3/12, 4:30pm) - Sarah Hepola

THREE AND A HALF

D: Boris Mojsovski; with Kim Huffman, Don Allison, Santino Buda, Valerie Buhagiar.

Narrative Feature Competition, U.S. Premiere

With a contemplative pace and an eye for the dramatic, Three and a Half shows us the lives of three lonely people as imagined by three artists riding a subway. The painter sees a beautiful immigrant isolated by her inability to speak the language. The filmmaker tells of an actor whose repressed homosexuality threatens to upset his world. And through the novelist's eyes, we see a widowed academic grappling with grief. Three and a Half is an aching, elliptical film, a curious series of human studies that may beg more questions than it answers. (Alamo, 3/9, 4:30pm; Westgate, 3/12, 10:30pm; Westgate, 3/14, 1pm) - Sarah Hepola

TOM DOWD & THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC

D: Mark Moormann.

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

The correlation between music and math, if not explicit, is seldom documented with as much panache as Tom Dowd & the Language of Music. Dowd was one of the Atlantic 3; while Ertegun and Wexler scouted talent, Dowd, a young physics student straight out of the university, recorded it, engineered it. Recorded, engineered Bird, Diz, Prez. Otis and Aretha. Coltrane. Skynyrd. Introduced Allman to Clapton. Standardized 8-track recording. Helped make the atomic bomb. Dowd, who died last October, was a similar force in modern music, and producer/director Mark Moormann preserves ground zero with jaw-dropping archival footage, music, and mathematical precision. (CC, 3/8, 4:15pm; CC, 3/12, noon; CC, 3/14, noon) - Raoul Hernandez

<i>The Weather Underground</i>
The Weather Underground

THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND

D: Sam Green and Bill Seigel

Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

We already know what war is good for, but what about violent anti-war protest? More than 30 years after the impassioned SDS offshoot the Weathermen turned the especially truculent Weather Underground, some of its members ask that same question of themselves. An engrossing documentary, The Weather Underground lays out the history, sometimes hysteria, of the Underground protesters capably and with an even hand -- inspiring some (but not too much) sympathy for those hairy, wild-eyed kids who put it all out on the line in protest of a wrongheaded war ... even if their own methods were likewise ill-advised. (CC, 3/9, noon; CC, 3/12, 8:45pm; CC, 3/15, noon) - Kimberley Jones

WHERE'S THE PARTY YAAR?

D: Benny Matthews; with Kal Penn, Sunil Malhotra, Prem Shah, Tina Cherian, Serena Verghese, Mousami Dave.

Narrative Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere

A witty assimilation comedy that trucks in neither grotesque caricature nor syrupy platitude, Where's the Party Yaar? follows Indian transplant Hari (Malhotra) as he finds his way around the New World (Houston, Texas) and his U.S.-born hipster cousin Mohan (Penn) as he finds his way around his own mild snobbery. Hari's convinced he'll find his true love at a South Asian-centric campus party; Mohan's fratty buddies are determined to keep the goofy F.O.B.s away, convinced they'll scare off the ladies. Antics ensue; Indian and American stereotypes are skewered; amends are made. It's your basic college comedy, but better, fueled as it is by a stellar soundtrack, a whip-smart script, and Penn's (Van Wilder, American Desi) considerable charisma. (Westgate, 3/12, 7:30pm; Westgate, 3/13, 7:30pm) - Cindy Widner

Sex & Death in 3/4 Time: 'Assassination Tango'

"If I was a younger man, do you think I'd have a chance?" an aging hitman asks a beautiful young tango dancer four decades his junior in Assassination Tango. "Well, you have it now," she laughs. "Welcome to Argentina, my friend." But this is Robert Duvall we're talking about, not just any old trigger-happy gringo. Of course he has a chance. And the beautiful young tango dancer? That's Luciana Pedraza, Duvall's real-life partner, stately, poised, and no doubt destined to end up in her leading man's arms by the end of the picture.

For Woody Allen, it was the blues. Clint Eastwood's got jazz, and Warren Beatty has hip-hop. Ever noticed how, as Hollywood's top-class actor-directors grow older, the style and substance of their films come to resemble their musical passions? Duvall's love has always been tango, and his latest film mirrors the art form itself to the extent that it tantalizes us with the promise of imminent sexuality and possible danger, but respectfully refrains from satisfying its almost carnal potential. Duvall and Pedraza share a far more sensual intimacy on the dance floor than your average screen couple find cavorting on that bearskin rug.

It's something of a treat to watch as Duvall combines all the loves of his life into one heightened romantic ballad of a movie, a torrid and emotional journey that steps gracefully and still manages to reveal a new side of its romantic anti-hero with every turn. Here is a contract killer who acts guiltlessly, and yet appreciates life as few of us truly do. Like a dancer, his moves are so perfect, so elegant, that he can slip in, sting a man with a single shot, then disappear unnoticed before the unlucky corpse even hits the ground. It all makes for a sexy screen profession, to be sure, and it looks damn good on one of the most respected thespians in the business. The irony, then, is that it ultimately makes no difference whether Duvall's character is a killer in the movie. In fact, Assassination Tango might work just as well if he were a Bible salesman or computer programmer instead, sent on business to Buenos Aires, only to be distracted from his task by tango.

But this isn't a movie about plot, but rather a cultural seduction of sorts. Buenos Aires truly comes alive in the side streets and back rooms Duvall shows us. Watch carefully and you'll notice how Duvall doesn't seem to mind cutting away from certain expositional scenes before they've entirely played out, sometimes even midsentence, to indulge in other minor interpersonal moments. Consider a scene near the end in which a character insists on introducing his sleeping mother before letting Duvall make his escape. The fact that Duvall leaves room for such personal asides reinforces the message that it isn't so much a film about assassins and adultery as it is a collection of tiny life lessons. Taken as a whole, Duvall's South American obsession is a vicariously invigorating experience.

Assassination Tango screens Saturday, March 8, 6:30pm, at the Paramount.

On the Mats: 'Girl Wrestler'

It would be hard to think of a more perfect visual metaphor for the feminist struggle to overcome gender stereotypes than a co-ed wrestling match. In her first feature-length film, documentary-maker and UT lecturer Diane Zander follows the upstream swim of a 12-year-old Austin middle-schooler to become a competitive wrestler. Tara Neal has to make the most of her middle-school years -- going to the mat as often as she can -- because when she enters high school, the state's University Inter-scholastic League rules will permit only same-sex wrestling, and there simply aren't that many girl wrestlers out there to wrestle with.

Opposite-sex wrestling (along with marathon running) is one of the oldest sports, dating back to the Greeks. Still, as one watches the sure-footed but articulate and soft-spoken redhead go mano a mano with some like-weighted guy in this ultimate contact sport, one's mind cycles through every knee-jerk sexist reaction: Won't she get hurt? Isn't this a sexual thing? Even if it isn't, isn't all that rough lunging and grabbing in awkward places, well, awkward?

"All nonissues for the athletes," says Zander, "and, as Tara pointed out, that's actually a very heterosexist point of view. If you see boy-girl wrestling as sexual, why isn't boy-boy wrestling or girl-girl wrestling sexual? In reality, the athletes never see it that way. This just happens to be a contact sport with all the awkwardness and sensitivity about the body drained out of it -- for them it's just another wrestler." That's not to say, she adds, that the guys are happy about wrestling a girl: "It's a double-edged sword for boys: If they win, well, what's the big deal, it was just a girl, and if they lose to a girl, well, that is a real problem. Interestingly enough, a lot of the boys are pushed by their parents to choose to lose the match by default rather than wrestle with a girl." Equally interesting, Zander found, is that the girls' parents tended to be supportive of their daughters' wrestling; they don't worry about them getting hurt, taking that in stride, much like the boys' parents do, as simply part of the territory of the sport.

Girl Wrestler is not a sports movie, and it's not a feminist film. Nor -- though it touches on the current controversy surrounding the uncertain future of girls' sport under Title IX, and the fairness, given its disparate impact, of the UIL's "separate but equal" rule for competitive wrestling -- is the film a polemic. In the end, it's an unobtrusively observed environmental portrait of a conventional teenage girl with an unconventional goal. A large part of what makes the film so fascinating is that each issue confronted in pursuit of that unconventional goal -- from her approach-avoidance reaction to her father's competitive pressure and her unique weight gain/loss and body-image issues to her relationships with her fellow competitors, male and female -- resonate on so many conventional levels.

Girl Wrestler screens Sunday, March 9, 11am, at the Paramount; Wednesday, March 12, 7pm, at the Paramount; and Saturday, March 15, 4pm, at the Convention Center.

A Dead President, a Dead King, and One Pissed-off (Dead) Mummy: 'Bubba Ho-Tep'

Film is a collaborative medium. Myriad disparate elements must come together to create the final result, and nowhere is this more apparent -- or more bizarre -- than in filmmaker Don Coscarelli's adaptation of Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale's short story "Bubba Ho-Tep," which takes place in a sleepy, East Texas old folk's home and features Elvis Presley, JFK, and a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy with a taste for, um, ass. Did we mention that genre favorite Bruce Campbell plays the Fat Elvis, and film legend and civil rights activist Ossie Davis (Do the Right Thing, Night Gallery) plays JFK? Hey -- we told you it was bizarre.

Coscarelli is best known as the man behind the Phantasm cult-horror franchise, but his interest in Lansdale's work goes back a ways: "I had developed an interest in Joe in the early Nineties when I was in a little genre bookstore out here in California. I asked the guy behind the counter what was new and happening in horror, and he said, 'You gotta read Joe Lansdale -- he always has a high body count!'

"I thought that was a pretty good recommendation so I picked up a couple of his books and for the next three or four years I worked with Joe to try to set up films from a couple of his novels, but nothing really panned out. Eventually he got around to writing this short story, 'Bubba Ho-Tep,' and when I read it I thought it was so wonderful and so crazy that I talked to Joe about filming it. He was really surprised that anyone would be interested in adapting that particular story into a film, but we worked out an arrangement and eventually we had a finished film. It took a while, though."

That Bruce Campbell (best known as the wiseacre Ash in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy) would hitch his wagon to the Coscarelli/Lansdale Hellbent Express is no surprise. That Ossie Davis -- a frequent Emmy and Golden Globe nominee/winner and respected African-American activist -- would do the same is a bit of head-scratcher.

"It was Ossie from the beginning and always," says Coscarelli. "I just didn't think there was anyone else who could play that role. He and Bruce developed a really close relationship on set, too. Almost every day Bruce would turn to Ossie and say, you know, 'Ossie, what are you doing in this film?'"

"You know," continues Coscarelli, "it's not your typical Ossie Davis film, but I think he really liked the humor in the script. He turned to me one day on set and said, 'You know, I actually knew President Kennedy, we used to socialize," and I guess he had fraternized with a number of presidents going back to Roosevelt because he was involved in civil rights. He told me he'd never imagined that anyone would ever ask him to play JFK, but there we were, and, let's face it, he makes a damn good Jack Kennedy."

Bubba Ho-Tep screens Friday, March 7, midnight, at the Alamo; Sunday, March 9, 9:15pm, at Millennium; and Wednesday, March 12, midnight, at the Alamo.

Let's Talk About ...'Sex: Female'

"Sex hasn't been the same since women started enjoying it." -- Lewis Grizzard

Now, women talk about sex in this surprising and funny documentary. The surprise is not that woman will talk, but in the range of women -- none of which look like the cast of Sex and the City -- who provoke an "I can't believe she said that" response.

"I credit [HBO] with raising the level of discussion of sexuality on TV," says Louis Alvarez who, with filmmaking partner Andrew Kolker, created Sex: Female. "What I don't like is this idea that everybody is having great, raunchy sex -- except you. We wanted to do a film that was candid, with real people, who had never been on TV."

But how did two middle-aged guys with cameras get women to speak to them about one of the most intimate of human activities? First, they approached their friends.

"We didn't actually interview our friends, because that would be too weird, but they would say, 'My college roommate was such a slut. Go talk to her,'" Alvarez explains. Before long, the team met several sex-positive women who suggested others they could talk to. For added support, the team used their 1999 film, Moms as their calling card with the request to participate.

"Anybody with children said, 'I'm yours.' They knew they were going to get a sensitive treatment and that we weren't out to do something sleazy," Alvarez says. Advice from female friends and production personnel on how and what to ask, helped gather interviews with nearly 100 women and couples (straight and gay), middle-aged, teen-aged, elderly, across race and class.

Like other Center for New American Media projects, Sex: Female makes smart use of humor while approaching difficult subjects. Remarks by some of the women may cause eye-popping guffaws, but interspersed with old love songs and black-and-white images of idyllic lovers go far to reveal some of the fictitious ideas that still permeate modern culture.

"Initially, we thought it was going to be a romp. We could have had an hour of one-liners, but then we found there was a kind of a poignancy, something deeper we wanted to capture," Alvarez says. While sexual pleasure is discussed with abandon ("There are a lot more vibrators out there then I thought"), the burn of infidelity, unpleasant first-time experiences, and the mournful sense of fading sexual attraction are revealed in compelling moments that elicit a reconsideration of sex and sexuality, aging, beauty, and commitment.

"[Andy and I] came of age as filmmakers in the Seventies, when documentaries were very earnest," Alvarez says. "When we started, we were based in Louisiana surrounded by this 'Let the good times roll' culture that didn't take itself too seriously. We wanted to be like that. We wanted to watch a group of people erupt in laughter, but also talk about stuff that was important. So far, it's worked for us."

Sex: Female screens Sunday, March 9, 8pm, at the Convention Center; Tuesday, March 11, noon, at the Paramount; and Thursday, March 13, 4pm, at the Convention Center.

Phone Booth

Long shelved due to the Washington-area sniper attacks, Phone Booth is finally getting a release April 4. But catch it first at SXSW, where director Joel Schumacher will be in attendance at the Paramount on Tuesday, March 11, 7pm, to screen the Colin Farrell action pic, which largely confines its action to -- you got it -- a phone booth. Earlier in the day, Schumacher will take part in the film conference with "Conversation With Joel Schumacher" (3:30-5pm), in which Joel Schumacher converses with ... aw, forget it.

How often does a Texan who used to review Hong Kong movies actually get to come back to Texas and watch a Hong Kong movie he helped make? Joey O'Bryan, a film reviewer for The Austin Chronicle in the early to mid-Nineties who specialized in the Hong Kong film industry, returns to SXSW this year with Fulltime Killer, a Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai movie that O'Bryan co-wrote with Wai. The movie is a wild and stylish ride through the nether world of two dueling assassins who toy with each other for occupational supremacy. One is a reclusive legend, the other a rising hotshot -- and of course there's a girl who's involved with them both.

O'Bryan left Austin for Los Angeles in 1996, but first detoured through Bracketville, Texas, to beg for a job on the sixth installment of Once Upon a Time in China, which was shooting there. It was directed by Sammo Hung. O'Bryan spent the next four months "fetching coffee, pumping smoke, and doing whatever else for some of the most distinguished filmmakers in Hong Kong. Seventeen hour days were the norm."

Cut to the future. "One day I'm walking out of a Sammo Hung movie," says O'Bryan, "and who should be walking in but Sammo Hung. He actually remembered me, so we exchanged numbers, and I wound up spending the next two years as his personal assistant on Martial Law."

When Hung's TV show was canceled two years later, O'Bryan took the time to finally sit down and write some of the scripts that had been his intention to do when he first left Austin. He found representation, took a lot of meetings, and basically found out that everyone at the studios is essentially looking for the next Lethal Weapon script.

Chance came his way again when "a friend called from one of those industry parties I can never work up the energy to go to and said, 'Johnnie fuckin' To is here!' I'd been a fan for many years so I was pretty stoked. I got over there and found a chance to talk to the man. Turns out we liked a lot of the same movies. I sent a script his way, and he thought enough of it to put me to work. I couldn't believe it, the proverbial dream come true.

"We had just over a month to turn in a shootable draft," O'Bryan explains. "We worked separately then met to discuss likes and dislikes. Ka-Fai is the man, a mad genius. He doesn't speak much English, and I can do little more than curse in Cantonese. We communicated through a translator, with a lot of arm waving thrown in for punctuation. I'd gotten used to that working for Sammo."

Fulltime Killer became the fifth highest-grossing film in Hong Kong in 2001, as well as Hong Kong's official nomination for Academy Awards consideration last year and No. 4 on the Hong Kong Film Critics Association list of the Top 10 Chinese films of 2001. O'Bryan is sufficiently jazzed by the kudos the film has received, but it's this screening back home, where he hopes to return one day, that has him most excited.

Fulltime Killer screens Saturday, March 8, 12:15am, at the Alamo; Monday, March 10, 2pm, at Westgate; and Saturday, March 15, midnight, at the Alamo.

Alamo Drafthouse Downtown
409 Colorado

Austin Convention Center Theater (CC)
Cesar Chavez & Red River

Westgate 11
4477 S. Lamar

The Hideout
617 Congress

Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex
1156 Hargrave

Paramount Theatre
713 Congress

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Assassination Tango, Girl Wrestler, Sex: Female, Bubba Ho-Tep, American Dancer, A Certain Kind of Death, Dummy, EvenHand, The Eye, Flowers, Happy Here and Now, Lubbock Lights, Melvin Goes to Dinner, A Midsummer Night's Rave, My Flesh and Blood, The Nature of Nicho

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