Big Fat Independent Movies
SXSW Film 04 reviews
Death & TexasD: Kevin DiNovis; with Charles Durning, Steve Harris, Corbin Bernsen, Mary Kay Place, Jello Biafra, Andy Richter
Narrative Feature Special Screenings
Texas smells. DiNovis prefaced his regional premiere by recounting the nostalgic whiff he got at the airport. Funny, then, that the former Houstonite's film critiques without nostalgia all things Texas: the death penalty and football. Barefoot Bobby Briggs, the Austin Steers' celebrated running back, is on death row for murdering a kitten-loving clerk. The governor wants to see him fry, but he also wants to see his team win the Mega Bowl. Should he let Bobby out to play? What'll it be "justice" or the championship? Texans are divided, but the intent of the film is far from ambiguous. Teeming with celebrities and mockumentary-style comical performances, this is not simple comedy. It's the kind of satire Swift uses to make baby-eating fun yet thought-provoking. DiNovis has an agenda: If we're all complicit killers, why are we such hypocrites about it? Still, this movie won't convert anyone. Execution tailgaters wouldn't get the joke anyway. The rest remain on the sidelines, strangely chuckling at the stink. Courtney Fitzgerald
Falling AngelsD: Scott Smith; with Miranda Richardson, Callum Keith Rennie, Katharine Isabelle, Kristin Adams, Monté Gagné
Narrative Feature Special Screenings, U.S. Premiere Canada, 1969. Three teenage girls care for their mother, sick with alcoholism. Their father comes home from his car-sales job every day and immediately inspects their fingernails for cleanliness before he, too, begins drinking. Norma, Lou, and Sandy are as different as they are close: Norma is nurturing and aims to please, Lou is independent to the point of defiance, and Sandy yearns for attention from older men. The Field family from Barbara Gowdy's eponymous novel is brought to life spectacularly by director Smith (Roller Coaster). Opening on the funeral of mother Mary Field eerily portrayed by Richardson Falling Angels turns inward to divulge the events leading up to the destruction of the family core. Bit by bit, family secrets are revealed to finish a puzzle of dysfunction. Yet, despite what obstacles are thrown at them, the young women learn to stand without leaning on anything but each other. A Canadian Ice Storm for tyrant fathers, alcoholic mothers, lesbian daughters, and everyone in between. Darcie Stevens
GozuD: Takashi Miike; with Hideki Sone, Sho Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Shohei Hino, Keiko Tomita, Harumi Sone
Narrative Feature 'Round Midnight, Regional Premiere
Director Takashi Miike is to Japan the kind of nuisance that John Waters once was for Baltimore. They're both troublemakers who get off on lobbing cinematic stink bombs before an audience and hoping for the most offensive possible impact. Miike's Audition features scenes of such graphic torture that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ pales by comparison, and it would take two volumes of Kill Bill to match the bloodletting in Miike's Ichi the Killer. So why does the director's Gozu waste nearly two hours in surreal body fluid-fueled free-association? (An old woman lactates into milk bottles, a minotaur drools rivers of snot, and blood and what we'll euphemistically call "seed" make extended cameos.) But the gross-out tedium is worth the payoff: It's not until the last 10 minutes that Miike finally offers a climax to top everything he's done before as a woman gives birth to a full-grown man on camera! Peter Debruge
Hollywood BuddhaD: Philippe Caland; with Philippe Caland, Theo Cardan, Betsy Clark, Martine Malle, Jim Stewart
Narrative Feature Special Screenings
Philippe Caland (writer/producer of Boxing Helena) is a glistening, bare-chested Frenchman living in a tent in the Hollywood Hills who just wants to sell his friggin' movie. The man needs money: He owes his own brother so much dough, the guy won't talk to him; the mortgage on his unfinished house is months overdue, and he can't even afford to build the thing. Caland tries everything from Buddhism to blackmail to try and sell a 5-year-old movie about a man who fucks a dead girl, and yet somehow he comes through it all a sweet, charming guy who just wants to do the right thing in the end. With a cast made up almost entirely of friends and family, Hollywood Buddha is a surprisingly funny, intelligent movie about a somewhat tired subject: how to find wealth, happiness, and spiritual contentment in a town with no soul. Diana Welch
Napoleon DynamiteD: Jared Hess; with Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Aaron Ruell, Tina Majorino, Haylie Duff, Diedrich Bader
Narrative Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere
Until the time-honored caste system of high school ceases to exist, there will always be an audience for films that champion the bottom of the teen feeding chain: the Loser. Think Welcome to the Dollhouse, Freaks and Geeks, and Rushmore all obvious influences on this very funny feature debut from 24-year-old Jared Hess. The overwhelmingly doofy Napoleon (Heder, in a pitch-perfect performance) must contend with frequent head locks, a cyber-junkie brother, an herbal-supplement selling uncle hellbent on cramping his style, and a race to elect his best friend, the equally dorked-out Pedro, school president ... but that's just the plot, and the plot, to be honest, is a second thought (and by third act devolves into a non sequitur). The appeal of Napoleon Dynamite is in its mercilessly authentic detailing of Midwestern high school hell: doing time with the ASL kids (the Happy Hands Club, signing a gutbusting rendition of "The Rose"), forever pining for the popular girl, and making a career out of solo tetherball. Kimberley Jones
UndeadD: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig; with Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Emma Randall, Dirk Hunter
Narrative Feature Discoveries From Down Under, Regional Premiere
Aussie Catch of the Day Rene is out of sorts, not from her likeness being spread across her fish trap township, hawking tackle and camo for the discerning urban survivalist. No, as shotgun-hoisting fish abductee Marion clarifies, more pressing matters are afoot: "Are you a fighter, Fish Queen, or are you zombie food?" The Spierig brothers' Undead is an awesome achievement, cribbing the genre's tenets and clubbing them upside the head. As meteorites pummel the outback, choking the surroundings with celestial zombie dust, Rene aligns with a band of survivors, battling brain-eaters and infighting betwixt Marion and a salivating cop. As the body count rises, action ascends to the sky, where humanity hangs in the balance like so many abductees. Incredible effects, copious bloodletting, and the requisite bra-and-panties shot make Undead not so much a formal exercise as an homage. Wells Dunbar
A Day at the PanelsSaturday, March 14
Schmoozing. A day at the panels includes a lot of it. Name-dropping toadies have always made me itchy. But suddenly this Saturday, I found myself wanting to share a cigar with Elvis Mitchell or skip the unadvertised Gary Ross mini-meeting for someone "better." But how do you top Gary Ross, one of the most prolific people in Hollywood? What a hobnobbing hypocrite I've become.
Saturday's schmooze highlights:
My pauper ticket-buying days are over. Even without the preferred badge color, I can glide into the Austin Convention Center and out of the rain while the "passes people" wait in hopeless, serpentine lines to be entertained by films and films alone. If you're on the relatively good side of discrimination, it doesn't hurt. Appreciate your gold badge, dammit! You're just a freelancer.
But. Why, oh why, can't I be platinum?
Sitting in on the 1:30 Conversation With Jonathan Demme soothed the identity crisis. Even the big hotshots with the big names need big validation dangling from their necks. Demme, the mega cinema superhero, opened his panel with a story about his "special all-access" badge. "Don't you wish you had one?" he asked us. Then he got humble. Turns out that Mr. Demme mistook his Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards badge for a nonexistent VIP SXSW one and embarrassed himself a bit at an event. After sharing his humiliation, he related a Haiti history lesson, including his friendship with Jean Dominique, the journalist subject of his film The Agronomist. Then he mentioned going "back into suspense mode" with his Manchurian Candidate remake. Next: a comparison of Meryl Streep to Ann Richards. I bet this man gets a lot of handshakes.
Thirty minutes to kill before the next panel. There's a dreadlocked man smoking a fat stogie on the patio. Elvis Mitchell isn't wearing a badge. Apparently, that's what beats platinum: no badge needed. Mitchell talks about the quintessential panel experience. "People actually come to the panels for information. They're not just trying to meet stars or sell their scripts. There's a genuine enthusiasm about what information is to be gotten from the panels," he says. "People are incredibly accessible here." SXSW schmooze isn't the false, egotistical kind. Elvis Mitchell says so.
It's 3:30. Time for Sets, Lies, and Videotape a meeting of the independent teamsters. Big wigs Michael Barker (Sony Pictures Classics), Bob Berney (Newmarket Films president), Larry Meistrich (Film Movement CEO), Bingham Ray (former United Artists president), and Eamonn Bowles (Magnolia Pictures president) were there. John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes, was also a knowledgeable presence. Berney is a head honcho partly responsible for The Passion of the Christ. Needless to say, things got heated and interesting. Where is independent film going anyway? "There's a huge audience out there that's not being served by the films being made," Barker said. All agreed that movies take money, effort, and thick skin. "It's not a good investment either. ... It's like going to Vegas. ... You're gonna lose your money," Meistrich warned. "I'll say this: You really need a good lawyer." Inspiring realism? Now, that's the good schmooze. Courtney Fitzgerald