MARCH 22, 1999: Included here are reviews of some of the films showing in the SXSW '99 Film Festival. More reviews will be included in next week's Chronicle and even more can be found online at http://www.auschron.com. The symbols (RP), (WP), and (USP) indicate regional premiere, world premiere, and U.S. premiere.
"You won't be gone long; a bad check always returns," Bass Bowling says to his young grandson Clint as he's about to get the hell out of Mudlick hollow, somewhere in distant Kentucky. He turns out to be right, but in Rory Kennedy's multi-layered and heartbreaking American Hollow, there's no reason to applaud his mean foresight. For seven generations the Bowlings have lived in Mudlick hollow, and one gets the distinct impression that things have always been the same there, though Iree Bowling, matriarch and wife of Bass, says with satisfaction that one of the things she loves about Bass is that he doesn't hit her, and that's a far step above her father's treatment of her mother. American Hollow tracks one year in the life of the Bowling clan. Most striking is Kennedy's thoroughly comprehensive treatment of the Bowlings -- there's much sadness here but there's also proof of the Bowlings' earnest affection for one another and their knack for sticking by their own through thick and thin. As one of them says, "We are hillbillies and proud to be hillbillies." -- Clay Smith
Big Monday follows Michael Rehfield -- in one continuous shot -- as he leaves the Manhattan apartment he shares with his fiancée for his first interview for a "real job." He meets a talkative acquaintance on the street, has breakfast with a friend for last-minute advice, and flirts with a tart coquette on the subway while she eats a banana in a rather telling fashion. In other words, not muchhappens, but for anyone approaching this filmaware of the technical challenges of shooting over one hour of activity -- in Manhattan -- in one shot, without cleverly disguised breaks à la Hitchcock's Rope, the thrill of seeing it done supersedes any lack of narrative activity. The obvious gusto of the actors and the fact that the camera is a character in its own right make Big Monday more than a mere technical cinematic exercise in the long take.
Debra Eisenstadt's short "The Guest," which precedes Big Monday, is a vivid, almost surreal imagining of one woman's descent into temporary madness at a party -- blame it on a malfunctioning toilet. -- Clay Smith
Black newspapers in the United States have always been a press born of advocacy. Literacy among African-Americans made great gains after the Civil War and many of those gains are directly attributable to black newspapers. The Black Press traces the story of African-American journalism from its earliest days in the 1820s through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the post-WWI exodus of blacks to Northern cities, and all the way up to its decline during the Sixties. One of the highest callings of documentary film is to point up aspects of society or pieces of the past that the history books have ignored. Through grainy still photos, washed-out archival footage, and interviews with black journalists of the day, this film provides a fascinating glimpse at an institution that was sometimes controversial (prompting such reactions as J. Edgar Hoover's scrutiny during WWII), sometimes polemical, but always a voice for a community that, for years, had no other voice. Ironically, the gains of the civil rights movement and the riots of the Sixties made the black papers less relevant as black journalists and the black community's issues were increasingly absorbed into the mainstream press. Still, the rhetoric of those pages is fresh and stirring to this day. -- Jerry Renshaw
Absolutely, joyously bizarre, director Chris Grismer has fashioned a magical love story from the slimmest of conceits and then thrown in a heaping helping of criminal action just to keep us on our toes. David Hewlett plays Martyn, a bewildered thief who accidentally kills the mysterious Brit from whom he's been trying to steal a rare book. The tome in question, replete with iron hasps and yellowed pages, acts as the McGuffin, much like that strange glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction. As Martyn struggles to dispose of this sudden corpse, he runs afoul of Tanya Allen's sexy, antisocial greasemonkey, who's more interested in repairing his car than making eyes at him. Actually, they're both off in their own little worlds, and that's the message of Grismer's film: Love will keep us together. (It's either that or "magical books will get you killed." It's hard to be sure, really.) Either way, Grismer's bold direction and the cunning narrative twists and turns of his story make Clutch an engagingly oddball feature film debut.
Sunny Lee's short, "Chinese Food and Donuts," offers a sly take on love, life, and cop food, and makes you think twice about cracking open those fortune cookies you're always so eager to read. -- Marc Savlov
The world's largest ice cream cone, a hubcap collection, a bottle cap collection, and a ball of twine. A half-completed water park in the middle of the desert. Welcome to Baxter, California, a desolate cluster of ramshackle buildings and trailers, where local teens amuse themselves down by the aqueduct chuffing beer bongs by the barrelful, playing l983-era video games, tearing around on quad cycles, and blowing things up. Enter father (John Heard) and TV-star daughter Skye (Kate Hudson), who are trapped in the town when a truck en route to a cola plant overturns and spills the mystery ingredient. When the goo-covered driver dies soon after, Feds move in and seal off the town, quarantining all the characters and promoting their interaction. Desert Blue's strength lies in its characterizations and script (by Hurricane Streets' writer-director Morgan J. Freeman). Indie workaholic Christina Ricci plays the sheriff's daughter and tater-mortar expert; Hurricane Streets' Brendan Sexton III again stars as a compelling young man with a troubled past; Casey Affleck plays Pete, the party-hardy quad cycle racer; Sara Gilbert the disaffected ice-cream-stand girl. No overarching meaning here, no greater significance than a solid character-driven ensemble dark comedy, and that's not so bad. -- Jerry Renshaw
The very best lunatics are those who retain all the mannered civility we are taught to trust and respect, who say the most appalling things with a sincere, scary, prosaic inanity. Vincent, the genteel patriarch of the Speck clan and a master of dumbfounding segues, is just such a lunatic. The Speck manor, with its curved walls, odd door ornaments, and decaying elegance likewise masks a murky family history and provides the perfect setting for this black comedy filled with terrific performances, stunningly risky dialogue, and morbid whimsy. When Vincent calls his children together for a weekend of familial enlightenment, things get very dark very fast. It's a tale of love and death and sex and kinship. In his first feature, writer-director Mark Edlitz proves himself to be quite a snake charmer, weaving a weirdly enthralling movie that combines mystery, farce, and psychological horror, as well as a moody, evocative score by Philip Glass. The Eden Myth rises up off the screen like a dancing cobra, a thing that reason tells us shouldn't be tamed. Venomously dangerous, mesmerizingly entertaining, and disturbingly comical, we can't stop watching. Even after seeing it safely back into its basket, you will continue to catch glimpses of its slithering tail out of the corner of your eye. -- Hollis Chacona
David Riker's story moves us inside the poorest sections of New York City to find the poignant tales of survival among the Latino immigrants hidden there. Through four episodes, Riker summons the history, sadness, and hope that rumble around inside the men stooped over on run-down storefronts, the women whose livelihood is stamped out by oppressive factory hours, and the ghosts of the families they left behind. These are not the drug- and crime-infested streets of television, but a place brimming with men and women full of hope that is systematically sucked from them bit by bit. A young, wide-eyed boy looks on as a worker is crushed to death by a fallen load of bricks. Music lures a newly arrived immigrant into a quinceñera, where he finds a beautiful companion, only to lose her in the endless, faceless rows of tenement housing. A nomadic father struggles for an education for his daughter. A woman desperately searches for money to save her sick baby. Set to a mournful, expressive adagio, Riker's tales are shot in a lustrous black-and-white that smoothes out the jagged landscape, finds beauty in even the workers' old, wrinkled hands, and adds a certain timelessness to their plight. Riker tugs on every heartstring, inching up close to the immigrants' faces to show us the poverty carved in the folds of their skin, but the sparkle that remains undulled in their eyes. As things in their life go from bad to worse, he homes in on the acute pain with these close-ups, then promptly pans away to suggest just how many broken dreams litter the streets. Like John Steinbeck, whose work this continually echoes, Riker's storytelling at times seems obvious and overly sentimental. But it is nonetheless deeply affecting. -- Sarah Hepola
Hard to imagine, for a young filmmaker, the fortuity of discovering in an attic a trove of film shot by her German grandmother -- who died before she was born -- chronicling her father's early family life in Berlin in the Thirties. Lisa Lewenz was 13 when she discovered that her father was Jewish and had converted to the Episcopal Church when he emigrated to this country to escape the Nazi regime. The film diary shot by her grandmother allows Lewenz to finally learn of the rich cultural heritage and family history that her father had kept from her and to connect, belatedly, with a grandmother whom she finds she resembles on many levels, not least of which is the attraction to the medium of film. Beyond a warm, affecting personal journey, this documentary provides an amazing, candid look at what the rise of Hitler meant to prominent, civic-proud Jewish families who considered themselves Germans first. -- Anne S. Lewis
Probably the only one with any reservations about young Hank Greenberg's decision to pursue a career as a professional baseball player was his mom: Jewish boys were supposed to become doctors or lawyers, not athletes. But tall, dark, and handsome Hank, at 6'4", was too good a batter and first-baseman to be anything else. Luckily, his illustrious career with the Detroit Tigers (during the 1938 season, Greenberg came within two home runs of Babe Ruth's then-record) captured the fancy of director-fan Aviva Kempner. In this truly terrific documentary, Kempner shows us from every conceivable angle both what it was like for Greenberg to be a Jewish baseball star and, for American Jews, to have, in Greenberg, their own baseball hero. The film includes great archival footage and "what did it all mean?" punditry regarding such questions as: Would it have been a good or bad thing for a Jewish batter to break the Babe's record? The film's popular SXSW response shows that you obviously don't have to be either Jewish or a baseball fan to be swept away by Kempner's fun, quick-paced, film -- but it helps. -- Anne S. Lewis
Boy meets girl, romances girl, gets girl pregnant, marries girl. Visualize a nature documentary narrated by an extraterrestrial Marlon Perkins, with earthlings as its subject. Mackenzie Astin plays The Male, a nice guy who, though besotted with The Female (Carmen Electra), knows she's a bit out of his league. Frasier's David Hyde Pierce intones the story's voiceover with his most supercilious inflections. Never mind his alien ignorance; as narrator, he is the self-assured authority on all matters related to humans and sex. The end result is a charming and often hilariously clinical examination of the dance between the sexes. As struggling lower-middle-class Los Angelenos, The Male and The Female live in apartments sparsely furnished by IKEA and Target, and run the gamut of dating faux pas. The scenes in which they meet each other's parents are especially comical. Things gallop along with sitcom pacing, not surprising considering Abugov's TV résumé. Preceding the feature was Vanessa Parise's short "Lo and Jo," a wry Nineties Hollywood hustle on the old "emperor has no clothes" fable. -- Jerry Renshaw
Mute Love is a simple and effective character saga about three generations of black women. The voiceover by the youngest is used as background music to tie together the two movements of the film. Mavis (Nicole Parker of 200 Cigarettes and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love) lives in the slums of New York City in a one-room shed converted into an apartment. She is dying of AIDS yet desperately continues to raise and feed her daughter Lisa (Teja Frank), often by begging. In her moment of need, she travels from the darkly shot streets to the wide-open countryside where her mother lives, in order to give her daughter to the estranged grandmother she has never met. The simple acts of cooking, Lisa playing, a woman's nonjudgmental embrace of her prodigal daughter, or an ordinary conversation on the porch show how these two women reconcile. Patrice Mallard celebrates the mundaneness of life with uncomplicated camera angles and realistic dialogue. The film is a slowly paced and amazingly unsentimental study of women coping with life's joys and pains. -- Matt Williams
Austinite Stephen Mims examines the mating rituals of the American teenager and comes away laughing. It's no laughing matter, though, for Barry, who just wants to make it alive through his senior prom. With date Julie on his arm and her father on his case (he hires a shady team to surveil the couple throughout the night), Barry finds everything going wrong, but still the couple manages to have at least a modicum of fun. Jeremy Fox is excellent as the timid, tuxedo-clad Barry and Alicia Corbett is luminous as Julie, who somehow manages to take it all in stride. Even more notable is Mims' brilliant use of music throughout, from Austin staples such as Café Noir and the Naughty Ones. A surreal, magical trip through one bizarre night, The Perfect Specimen is Mims' indie vision distilled to its purest form.
The short film "Peep Show" takes a skewed, hilarious look at gender in the Nineties via that age-old male stalwart, live porno. -- Marc Savlov
One of the most original films about the music biz this reviewer has ever seen, Radiation follows the non-exploits of scheming promoter Unai (Unai Fresnedo), who sees his musical ambitions turn to dust as he screws up a European tour for indie darlings Come and then hopelessly tries to set things straight by halfheartedly screwing over everyone within three feet. An American movie, though filmed in Madrid and sporadically subtitled as the conversations go back and forth between English and Spanish, Radiation hits the nail on the head when it comes to its portrayal of the lower echelons of the indie music world. Fresnedo, who in real life is -- surprise! -- an indie music promoter, is amazing in his role. Is he live or Memorex? This blurring of the line between artistic fiction and reality is disquieting to say the least, and directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky clearly know whereof they film. -- Marc Savlov
An absolutely riveting documentary about 462 American pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam in the mid-Sixties and held in captivity until 1973, Return With Honor offers an amazing glimpse into the harsh, dark void that passed for life in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. With amazing candor and calm, these former pilots relate the horrors of captivity, their various methods of physical, emotional, and spiritual survival, and finally, the journey of their emotional and miraculous return home. The Academy Award-winning directors, Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, effectively intercut these interviews with those of the wives left behind, American news footage, and footage never seen before from the archives of North Vietnam. The best thing about this film is its optimistic outlook. In spite of the tragedies the men go through, the film seems to focus on the soldiers' abilities to overcome catastrophe, as opposed to focusing on the political and social injustices of the time. Return With Honor is a heartwarming story of personal resilience and it is told with a remarkably focused storytelling ability. -- Alex Holdridge
The first of four shorts programs is an interesting mix of documentaries and narratives. The films can be tied together with the common theme of humanity's reaction to oppression, even though such a categorization is a bit of an overgeneralization.
Easily the gem of the bunch is Sarah Jane Lapp and Jenny Perlin's "Happy Are the Happy: Your Best Joke, Please." This movie intercuts interviews with survivors of various instances of inhumanity with images of dancing gypsy children, themselves heirs to a horrible history of prejudice and hatred. Shot in the Czech Republic while the directors were working in a Bosnian refugee camp, "Happy" interviewees include a Bosnian refugee who shared a joint with a Rwandan from Paris, several survivors of Auschwitz, and many other victims of the region's decades of conflict. The common thread is the humor that humans find in the light of even the most terrible of situations.
Erik Paesel's "Zoltar From Zoron" is his graduate thesis which uses local young actors to play schoolchildren. The center of the story is a young boy who has withdrawn into a make-believe world because of the cruelty of other children and a home environment that's unstable and empty. An Irish film by Brian Kirk titled "Baby Doll" closes the program, and is a coming-of-age story in which a young Irish girl, too eager to grow up, gets a glimpse at the frightening world of adult sexuality. It's a very simple film that works well thanks to the performance of young Jeni Courtney. It hooks the eye with the almost automatically gracious Irish terrain and its crisp, clean, open feel.
"Gofer" by Joe Hamersky is a story about a Lenny/Charley hybrid who gains acceptance into a clique of construction workers by getting coffee and doughnuts every morning. There's just a shade of the absurd, keyed mostly by the gofer's (Aasif Mandvi) inane attention to detail. Visually appealing and quite funny, "Gofer" differs from Brian Ford's "Love Handles," which might have been better served by placement in the Experimental Shorts program. The film plays like a cross between a Beck video and a half-melted Super-8 home video.
I'd never expected to see the director's cut of a National Geographic documentary, but that's exactly what "Chimp Rescue" is. The filmmaker, Richard Lewis, attended the screening, and provided a horrible glimpse into the machinations of Hollywood when he described pitching the film as "The Schindler of Chimps" and how well-received that approach was. -- Matt Williams
Gregg Araki introduced his vibrant new film Splendor by saying it was his first screwball comedy, or at least his first overt screwball comedy. He said Splendor represents an "unexpected evolution" in his filmmaking; that much is evident. Sly but vulnerable Veronica (Robertson), Splendor's narrator, is a struggling actress who works for a temp agency in Araki's hyper-modern L.A. Raised to be "shy and reserved," Veronica inexplicably finds herself attracted to two men on the very same night: Zed, a blond drummer whose steely exterior masks a sweet and sensitive nature, and swarthy Abel, the type of person who has a tortured artist's soul but does nothing about it. So what does any shy and reserved girl do in that situation? She takes up with both of them, dating them separately for a while then later convincing them both to move into her apartment and conjoin in a threesome. But Splendor doesn't take the awkwardness of that decision for granted -- in fact, the situation's permutations continue -- and thus the film reaps rich comedic rewards. If Splendor is a screwball comedy, it has moments that are far more dire and full of pathos than anything ever seen in Bringing Up Baby, Araki's favorite film, or in any screwball comedy, for that matter. -- Clay Smith
Terror and tragedy onscreen can frequently cause the audience to detach emotionally and view the suffering characters as two-dimensional objects. Preventing this detachment is the primary role of a filmmaker who attempts to create films about subjects like the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, or Salvadoran death squads, and Lindy Laub does so admirably with her first feature film, They Come at Night. Laub's technique is to anchor the terror experienced by survivor Maria (Elpidia Carillo) through the more conventional life of Sarah (Barbara Williams), Maria's therapist. Interweaving stark black-and-white flashbacks of Maria's terror with Sarah's daily struggle to juggle her career and home life, Laub ties the viewer so deeply into the story that emotional detachment is impossible. Carillo's performance aids this effort superbly; she speaks volumes with little more than facial expressions, posture and bearing, and simple breathing patterns. Such visible aspects of Maria's suffering keep the viewer engaged, cheering internally as Carillo's eyes reflect Maria's transition from her suicidal state to her embrace of the desire to live. -- Matt Williams
Neil Turitz's Two Ninas is a well-scripted romantic comedy that has more wit and verve than most offerings in the genre. Marty (Ron Livingston, who recently starred in Office Space) is one of the eight million unsuccessful novelists in New York City, working a day job to pay for drinking with friend Dave (Bray Poor). Dave is our Horatio, and the story, a traditional two-timing-dirtbag plot with shades of the Madonna/whore conundrum, is told primarily through flashbacks, which are interspersed with Dave's conversational monologue. Normally, plots like this leave the viewer despising the Don Juan, but Livingston's portrayal of Marty, along with the funny-thing-happened-to-me-today circumstances surrounding the relationships, allows viewers to maintain empathy for the character. This, combined with Turitz's snappy dialogue and some extremely clever scenes (watch for a brilliant sequence involving a spat, a dinner table, and a double date) makes Two Ninas an enjoyable and engaging film. -- Matt Williams
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