Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Further Reflections

MARCH 29, 1999:  Included here are reviews of some of the films that played during the SXSW '99 Film Festival. Other reviews were included in lastweek's Chronicle; additional reviews can be found on our webcoverage of SXSW. The symbols (RP), (WP), and (USP) indicate regional premiere, world premiere, and U.S. premiere.



ABILENE


Elizabeth Hurley at the EDtv priemere at the Paramount Theatre.
photograph by John Anderson
Dir/scr: Joe Camp III; Prod: Tom Gamble; DP: Rob Sweeney; Ed: Olof Kallstrom; Music: Charles Engstrom; Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Kim Hunter, James Morrison, Wendell Pierce, Park Overall.

35mm, 103 min., 1999 (WP)

Sometimes, when people say that a movie is strong on characterization, they also mean that its plot moves along at less than lightning speed. In the case of Abilene, the plot moves at about the same speed as the tractor that aging, peppery Hotis (Ernest Borgnine) uses to visit his dying, estranged, jackass of a brother who lives 100 miles away, and since it takes Hotis three days to arrive there, Abilene is pretty slow going. Which is not to say that the journey isn't worth it: Abilene isn't really about Abilene at all, but about some semblance of a village near Abilene whose inhabitants depend on one another's company just to make it through their days there. The actors take advantage of this gorgeously filmed setting to craft performances that are subtly interwoven and distinct. Now, as any of the characters in Abilene might say, if we could just light a match under this thing we might could make it hop-to. --Clay Smith



THE ACCIDENT

Dir/prod: Joseph Lovett; DP: Bill Charette; Ed: Douglas O'Connor.

16mm, 98 min., 1998 (WP)

A life-altering moment, crystalized in time, serves as the fulcrum for Joe Lovett's cinematic exploration of his family and the dynamics that fashioned very different childhood experiences for Lovett and his older siblings. Using a visually arresting mélange of old 8mm home movie footage, still photos, and video interviews, Lovett pieces together a complex, embattled family past that presents a new question for every answer it uncovers. The centerpiece, however, is Lovett's exacting re-creation of the freak car accident that claimed his mother's life. Shown throughout the documentary in brief, grainy, slow-motion fragments, we get an intimate sense of the images that haunt Joe and cause him to relive the experience 40 years later. As we come to know Joe's mother throughout this 98-minute documentary, the images begin to haunt us, too, and we end up sharing Joe's catharsis -- an experience that is both poignant and discomfiting. --Hollis Chacona



AMERIKAN PASSPORT

Dir/prod: Reed Paget; Co-prod: Michael Palmerio, Tom Pastorelle; Ed: Kate McDonald.

16mm, 82 min., 1999 (RP)

Imagine being invited over to look at vacation videos by a lanky neighbor. He's Reed Paget, just back from a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World, and he took his movie camera on the journey and titled his work Amerikan Passport. The trip started in China just before troops headed into Tiananmen Square, and the footage encompasses an around-the-world journey to some of the most dangerous war zones on earth. The driving techno drumbeat of the soundtrack, along with Paget's voiceover, tie together the images of chaos and terror. Paget's camerawork is significantly better than his interviewing technique and voiceover thoughts, which loosely relate his observations about the ground-zero cultural unities among international war machines. The weakness is minor, as the strengths of Amerikan Passport are in the images of conflict and moral ambiguity, as well as Paget's micro-budget ability to get almost anywhere. With witty and humorous (if slightly preachy) narration, the film is a worthy time capsule of the tumultuous times between 1989 and 1992. --Matt Williams




Matthew McConaughey and Wood Harrleson at the Edtv Premiere
photograph by John Anderson

THE BOOK OF STARS

Dir: Michael Miner; Scr: Tasca Shadix; Prod: Scott Rosenfelt & Marie Cantin; Exec Prod: David Skinner & Larry Estes; Co-Prod: Roger Baerwolf & A.J. Cohen; DP: Jim Whitaker; Ed: Brian Beardan; Composer: Richard Gibbs; Cast: Mary Stuart Masterson, Jena Malone, Delroy Lindo, Karl Geary, D.B. Sweeney.

35mm, 110 min., 1998 (WP)

Pale and luminescent, Mary basks in light, absorbs it, reflects it, generates it. Penny, hard and glittery, winces in its bright glare, her harsh angles refract it, distort it, shatter it into a thousand brittle shards. This tale of two orphaned sisters, the younger stricken with illness, the older diseased with grief and responsibility and loss, is a dance in several movements, and light is its constant partner. Beautifully shot and exquisitely performed, The Book of Stars is an exploration of the evanescence of life and the indelibility of love. Jena Malone's Mary is positively incandescent, her presence a radiant gift. Mary's illness and isolation has imbued her with precocious wisdom and uninhibited naïveté. The edges of her grim reality are softened with a dreamy optimism for both the yesterdays and the tomorrows she depicts in the scrapbook of the film's title. Penny, played with fragile defiance by Masterson, has a gentle and poetic core but sharp and hardened edges. Her darkness harbors nightmares that daylight cannot threaten. Unfortunately, the sisters' moments of shining fancy and rushes of dark despair are muddied by emotional detritus. The professor's tiresome lectures, the Hungarian refugee's stunning but superfluous visions, and beautiful but indulgent shots impede the course of The Book of Stars. Its arrow still finds the heart, but somehow it feels like overkill. --Hollis Chacona



BRAKHAGE

Dir/Scr: Jim Shedden; Prod: Alexa-Frances Shaw; Exec. Prod: Ron Mann; DP: Gerald Packer, Alexa-Frances Shaw.

16mm, 75 min., 1998 (RP)

Jim Shedden's film is an engrossing, reverential documentary look at the life and works of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Much of the film is shot in Brakhage's expressionistic visual style but with the addition of sound -- Brakhage's films were mostly silent. Lots of adoring talking heads attest to Brakhage's status in the pantheon of significant filmmakers. If there are those out there who disagree, we don't hear from them in this film. The oeuvre and the self-possessed man behind it are accessibly presented both for Brakhage aficionados and those unfamiliar with his work. --Anne S. Lewis



A DAY IN BLACK AND WHITE

Dir/scr: Desmond Hall; Prod: Jon Gold; DP: Peter Konczal; Ed: Colby Parker; Music: Loris Holland; Cast: Harold Perrineau, Anthony Desando, Francie Swift.

35mm, 85 min., 1998 (WP)

A young black speechwriter grapples with what to include in a speech on race relations, so he recruits a white friend for his input. Their discussion grows more and more heated as they turn their observations toward each other while trying to steer clear of the usual clichés. The thread of race relations is woven into their conversation and makes its influence felt during the discussion of such diverse topics as conspiracy theories; the rock vs. disco controversy: Which sucks more?; the mysterious disappearance of MC Hammer, affirmative action, and white cab drivers; "the black quarterback issue"; and The Cosby Show's Dr. Huxtable. By keeping the debate grounded in such terms, A Day in Black and White manages to find fresh approaches to a very serious subject, never dipping into obviousness or shopworn rhetoric. Only on occasion does the script begin to sound a bit contrived, and those instances are compensated by intelligent characterizations and dead-on direction. It's a rare film that can take such an overheated subject and treat it in a witty, entertaining way, thought-provoking without being inflammatory. --Jerry Renshaw



DILL SCALLION

Dir/scr: Jordan Brady; Prod: Joe Blake, Kimberly Jacobs, Jennifer Amerine; Cast: Billy Burke, David Koechner, Lauren Graham, Kathy Griffin, Jason Priestley, Peter Berg, Henry Winkler, Dana Gould, Robert Wagner.

35mm, 92 min., 1998 (RP)

There's an old cowboy saying: "Any cowboy can carry a tune. The trouble comes when he tries to unload it." Truer words couldn't be spoken for Dill Scallion, a young CMT wannabe who uses heartbreak and lucky boots to help him get to Nashville, where he finds heartbreak and an unlucky belt buckle the size of a hubcap. Fortunately for Dill, his Muleshoe girlfriend is a slut and thus the inspiration for his overnight hit, "You Shared You." He leaves her behind and soon finds himself in a cushy, custom-painted bus with a new Nashville gal named Kristi Sue and thousands of adoring fans doing his odd little Scallion Shuffle. Dill Scallion is chock-full of generous cameos (Priestly, Berg, and Wagner all provide delicious, bite-size chunks of cheesy characters) and Henry Winkler is remarkably restrained as the smarmy producer. Burke's Dill is engaging, but Graham steals the picture. Her Kristi Sue is a big ol' piece of pie -- sugary, light-as-air meringue with plenty of tart filling and boot-leather-tough crust at the bottom. As freshly scrubbed and neatly slicked and boyishly silly as a cowboy on a Saturday date, Dill Scallion makes for a great night out. --Hollis Chacona



DRYLONGSO

Dir/prod/ed: Cauleen Smith; Co-scr: Cauleen Smith, Salim Akil; Cast: Toby Smith, April Barnett, Will Power.

16mm, 85 min., 1998 (RP)

Pica is a young black woman living in Oakland, California who can see the value of everyone's life except her own. She shares a house with her mother despite the invasion of her rented bedroom by her mother's constant partyers. She has a nighttime wall-postering job that puts her in the line of perpetual street danger. The class she's taking in 35mm photography isn't going well because she defiantly shoots only Polaroid snapshots of young black men whom she views as an endangered species. Pica's life crosses paths with another young black woman who at first disguises herself as a man to escape an abusive boyfriend but soon finds herself empowered by her adopted male identity. As their friendship grows, the film begins implicitly questioning what it means for a woman to camouflage herself as a member of an "endangered species" in order to make any real progress in her own life. "Drylongso" is an old African-American term that means "ordinary" or "just the same old thing." Cauleen Smith has created a movie that is both enmeshed in the "same-old, same-old" of urban black culture while simultaneously unearthing unique dimensions and insights. Effective and engaging performances, penetrating subject matter, and a simple but thoughtful shooting style make Drylongso a movie that is truly extraordinary.

"The Last Guy to Let You Down," Rolf Gibbs' short film that plays before Drylongso, is a droll profile of a funeral-home director. As playful and provocative as its amusing title, the brief film probes its subject matter with the sharp skill of a forensic pathologist, all while laughing in the face of death. --Marjorie Baumgarten



FOOLS GOLD

Dir/scr: Jeffrey Janger; Prod: Lane Janger, James Crowley, Brunson Green; DP : Michael Saint Hilaire; Ed: Joe D'Augustine; Composer: Double Naught Spy Car; Cast: Blair Singer, Billy Gallo, J.E. Freeman, Camryn Manheim, Tonie Perensky, Bruce Weitz, Alexis Arquette, Victor Slezak.

35mm, 95 min., 1998 (RP)

Flimp wears gold chains and his jeans are rolled up to midcalf in order to show off his handsomely tooled and dyed cowboy boots. Still, to Sam, who sports madras shirts and poplin jackets, Flimp is halfway to the Coolsville side of Heaven. The boys make an unlikely duo, one a swaggering Latino, the other a nebbishy Jew. But in Oiltown, Oklahoma, they're each the best the other's got. One night, when the thrill of drinking beer and shooting at the cans wears off, the two hit town to investigate its newest arrival, a reputedly rich man who is actually a drug lord installed in a safe house. Things get out of hand and the boys find themselves on the run with a Buddha and some bars of gold in the back of the truck and a road-weary but stubborn lawman on their tails. They pick up a Cadillac, then a couple of girls (Perenskie and Manheim, donned in amazing green and purple Dallas Cowboy cheerleader-like costumes) and the road race is on. Skillfully shot and nicely performed, the picture hits a few landmark moments, but the long, dry stretches in between make this trip a bit long.

Donning a ski mask, a man enters a bank in "H@," Jason Reitman's short film that precedes Fools Gold, but while trying to rob it, encounters endless rounds of red tape and polite but unhelpful bank employees. Meanwhile, outside, life goes on. Voiceovers and a nearly static camera underscore the difficulty of getting anything, even armed robbery, accomplished in an increasingly detached world. --Hollis Chacona



Grace Quek and Justin Hall
at the "Real Life tp Reel Documentaries" panel.

photograph by John Anderson

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY

Dir: Scott Spiegel; Scr: Scott Spiegel & Duane Whitaker; Story: Scott Spiegel & Boaz Yakin; Exec prod: Laurence Bender, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez; Prod: Michael Murphey, Meir Teper, Gianni Nunnari; Ed: Bob Murawski; Cast: Robert Patrick, Bo Hopkins, Duane Whitaker, Muse Watson, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Raymond Cruz, Brett Harrelson, Bruce Campbell.

35mm, 1999 (WP)

Scott Spiegel takes up this franchise's directing duties from Austinite Robert Rodriguez and comes up with a mixed bag of body parts; wild, fantastic flights of fantasy; and dialogue ripped from the pages of today's phone book. Okay, it's not that bad, really, but anyone expecting the razor-sharp wordplay or the lightning pacing and crackling direction of the first is apt to be disappointed. Robert Patrick and Bo Hopkins fill in for Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney and the shoes prove to be just too big. Still, Spiegel makes much of his and co-writer Duane Whittaker's script, which tosses in everything from anthropomorphic bats to a return to the legendary Titty Twister bar, the home to the vampiric antiheroes who populate the film like roaches in a West Campus walkup. Genre veteran Bruce Campbell makes a welcome appearance in an otherwise vapid opening sequence, while Tiffany-Amber Thiessen essays the role of hootchiemama to the damned (and you thought Beverly Hills, 90210 was scary). Ultimately suffering from a titanic lack of smarts, this sequel in a projected trilogy falls far short of the mark in every category except gore. And dead bats. --Marc Savlov



GET REAL

Dir: Simon Shore; Prod: Stephen Taylor; Scr: Patrick Wide; Exec Prod: Anant Singh, Helena Spring; Co-prod: Patricia Carr; DP: Alan Almond; Ed: Barrie Vince; Music: John Lunn; Cast: Ben Silverstone, Brad Gorton, Charlotte Brittain.

35mm, 110 min., 1998 (RP)

Almost everything is right about Get Real. Despite the slightly medicinal feeling one gets watching it, as if Get Real were an after-school special -- it's good for you! -- the story of Steven, a sensitive, intellectual gay teen who falls in love with studly, athletic John, who also happens to be gay, rings true. That's partially because Get Real is about more than the awkward fumblings two gay teens have to make before attaining even a modicum of success at a relationship. Steven and John's relationship is placed within a larger context -- what it's like to be a teenager and desperately in love, and in the case of Steven and John, it's across class barriers -- that brings to life the trials of other characters in Get Real, notably Linda (Brittain), the funniest fag hag to hit the screen in a long time. Thoroughly realized characters, impeccable comic timing, and credible plot twists make up for the fact that Get Real borders on hitting viewers over the head with its message: that life is hard if you're young and gay, and perhaps just as hard if you're young, gay, and in love. --Clay Smith




The Q&A session after the EDtv premiere
with the cast adn director (l-r):
Vivika Davis, Director Ron Howard, Martin Landau, Sally Kirkland, Clint Howard, Elizabeth Hurley, Matthew McConaughey, and Ellen DeGeneres.

photograph by Mark Gates

HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL

Dir/prod/ed: Bob Mugge; Exec. Prod: Jeff Sanders, Julie Goldman; DP: Lawrence McConkey; Performers: Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Keb' Mo', Chris Whitley, Marcia Ball, Roy Rogers.

16mm, 95 min., 1999 (WP)

The legend goes something like this: Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the king of the Delta blues. Whether you believe that or not, the king he is, and when Johnson met with the crossroads over 60 years ago, he scorched a legacy in the earth that made him one of the most beloved -- and mysterious -- bluesmen of all time. In lieu of answers about the musician himself (which, presumably, are few), Mugge's film focuses primarily on Johnson's influence on modern music, using as the film's centerpiece his recent induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Interspersing covers of Johnson's music with interviews of industry experts, journalists, and musicians, Mugge takes an unexpectedly cerebral approach to a man whose lifework was all about heart and soul. In a second-half journey into Mississippi, Mugge finds his most compelling subject in a childhood friend of Johnson's. Missing teeth and leathery with age, his eyes twinkle when he thinks back to the ol' days, and he flashes a sweetheart of a smile when he talks about the musician's version of "Sweet Home Chicago." But just when you're captivated, the film cuts back to the Hall of Fame, where white men sit in filled auditoriums trying to parse the meaning of the blues. Perhaps the real question here is not "Who was Robert Johnson?" but "Who owns him now?," and in answering the latter, the film finds some disquieting answers. But in not answering the former, Mugge's documentary can't help but disappoint. --Sarah Hepola



HILL STOMP HOLLAR

Dir: Bradley Beesley; Prod: Andrew Mayer, Bradley Beesley.

Video, 60 min., 1999 (WP)

The subjects of Hill Stomp Hollar are Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside and the record label for which he records, Fat Possum Records. The resonances in the film extend beyond the simple twang of the guitar strings as the gritty struggle for survival of Burnside and the other Mississippi Hill Country bluesmen profiled in this film, Cedell Davis and T-Model Ford, is given equal footing with the financial and creative difficulties experienced by the tiny upstart label Fat Possum. The label, with support from heavy-hitters Epitaph Records, has released a number of these blues albums to a largely appreciative -- and young -- audience. But then in shades of what occurred in the aftermath of folkster Bob Dylan strumming his first electric notes back in the mid-Sixties, support among fans and critics faltered when the label teamed up Burnside with the modern punk rock sounds of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It's a classic blues story full of ups and downs, triumphs and trials, poetry and pittances, melody and dissonance. Hill Stomp Hollar captures the unexpected grace notes that accompany the day-to-day realities. --Marjorie Baumgarten



IN MY CORNER

Dir: Ricki Stern; Prod: Anne C. Sundberg, Ricki Stern, William Rexer II; DP: William Rexer II; Ed: Stacia Thompson.

16mm, 59 min., 1998

Ricki Stern's documentary follows the volatile career and emotional development of streetwise young boxers Joey and Jose, as well as Angel and Luis Camacho, the men in their corner -- not only in the ring, but also in life, where they have devoted their time, energy, and most crucially, heart to bringing kids off the street and redirecting their fury and competitiveness toward winning bouts. Stern depicts the men less as mentors per se, and more as surrogate fathers to boys who desperately need that grounding. And as in real families, we find father and son frequently at odds. For charismatic Joey, the struggle is for what he truly wants, a question few adolescents can answer, and so we watch him develop from an 11-year-old with national titles on his mind to a teen tired of sacrificing time with friends and girls to spar at the gym. For quiet, explosive Jose, the battle is a darker one, as he struggles daily to transcend the brutality of his past and in himself. Although these men and their struggles are painted as heroic, Stern weaves in enough ambivalence about the characters and the role of the gym to make the documentary inspirational yet at times frustrating and disappointing, a story which, in the end, can only offer what the gym itself can: the possibility of hope. --Sarah Hepola



KEEPERS OF THE FRAME

Dir: Mark McLaughlin; Prod: Randy Gitsch; Scr: Mark McLaughlin, Randy Gitsch; DP: Rich Lerner, David McLaughlin; Ed: Roderick Kent; Cast: Alan Alda, Leonard Maltin, Roddy McDowall, Debbie Reynolds, Forrest J. Ackerman. 16mm, 70 min., 1998 (WP)

Keepers of the Frame is a perfect film festival documentary: a cautionary tale about the infirmities of the celluloid itself. All this time we thought that what we had safely in the can -- from silent films, historic newsreels, and a succession of state-of-the-art film advances -- was truly preserved for posterity. Wrong. The history of film technology is the history of the medium's chemical instability: Ninety percent of silent films -- filmed on unstable nitrate film -- have disintegrated, for example. The film explains what has happened and what, if anything, can and is being done to save our film archives. A really terrific ending, with credits rolling, includes the film soundtrack of a gala celebrating, with Al Jolson, the "miracle" of the addition of sound to the motion picture. Then we are informed that the sound is all that remains of this film; the image has since self-destructed. --Anne S. Lewis



THE LAST DAYS OF MAY

Dir/scr/ed: George Spyros; Prod: Jonathan Shoemaker & George Spyros; Co-prod: Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof, Derrick Tseng; DP: Matthew Mindlin; Cast: Dahlia Mindlin, Leslie Lyles, Neil Pepe.

35mm, 93 min., 1998 (RP)

May is a young woman in her early 20s who is a tangled mass of neuroses and complexes. Her various disorders make it impossible for her to function in society; the only place where she's in her element is when she's working with kids at her job, connecting with them through her own childlike nature. Her mom's loutish coworkers prey on her, and a drunken backseat grapple leads to sex. Her mother is hardly better off than she is, but has appointed herself as May's guardian angel in a sick variant of the mother-daughter relationship. As the disintegrating May, Dahlia Mindlin calls to mind a young Mia Farrow in her harrowing portrayal of the fragile Rosemary. Filled with wobbly hand-held camerawork and abrupt edits, comparisons to John Cassavetes are also inevitable, as the story advances more through characters than plot. All in all, it adds up to an increasingly uncomfortable and agonizing viewing experience that leaves the audience like rubberneckers at a highway pileup, horrified but unable to look away. Eventually, the root cause of the family's problems is made abundantly clear, but by that time it's too late for May or the audience to turn away. --Jerry Renshaw



LUMINARIAS

Dir: Jose Luis Valenzuela; Prod: Sal Lopez; Scr: Evelina Fernandez; DP: Alex Phillips, Jr; Cast: Evelina Fernandez, Scott Bakula, Marta DuBois, Angela Moya, Dyana Ortelli.

35mm, 100 min., 1998 (WP)

Watching Luminarias is like going to a really great party. With wonderful music, interesting characters, and lots of laughter, this picture feels much bigger than it really is. Noisy and colorful and warm and funny, it's the story of four Latina friends who are struggling with love, sex, divorce, success, and a lifetime of anger and resentment from growing up brown in a white world. Rage is acknowledged and expressed, but love and acceptance is palpable and overpowering. Solid performances (Marin is especially unforgettable as the irascible but sagacious uncle), arresting art direction (two words: blue truck), and outrageous costuming (Irene's way-over-the-top miniature sombrero couture is absolutely worth the price of admission) bring this vivid and voluptuous mural to life. There are some unlikely plot developments and an often uneasy mix of social commentary and melodrama, but its very imperfections seem to work for the picture. A big, living, breathing film with a loud and steady heartbeat, Luminarias wouldn't be nearly as human or as much fun if it were perfect. That perfection would seem an artifice masking the story's human touch. --Hollis Chacona



MACBETH IN MANHATTAN

Dir: Greg Lombardo; Scr: Joe Gagen, Greg Lombardo; Prod: Victoria Lang, Pier Paolo Piccoli, Joe Gagen; Exec Prod: Richard Hegner, Betty Hegner; DP: Leland Krane; Ed: Donna Stern; Music: John Hegner; Cast: Gloria Reuben, David Lansbury, Nick Gregory, John Glover.

35mm, 97 min., 1999 (WP)

A beloved leader; a scheming, jealous second-in-command; an ambitious wife pushed to mental collapse; a trio of gossiping harpies ... the characters in a famous tragedy or the real-life cast of a Broadway play? In Greg Lombardo's crafty, enjoyable comedy, life imitates art when things offstage during the rehearsal of the famously cursed "Scottish play" start looking suspiciously like the show itself. Theatre lovers will delight in the production details Lombardo so cleverly imitates, from the interaction among the catty cast to the floppy, finger-combed hair of the director. Even the dark, Peter Hall-ish production of Macbeth mounted by the cast is surprisingly sharp. As in the similarly premised Shakespeare in Love, a good knowledge of the script on which the film is based will enhance the viewing experience but is probably not necessary for enjoying the film. Although paralleling the play's narrative structure leads the film to a fairly unbelievable ending, Lombardo has nevertheless pulled off the unlikely by digging inside perhaps the bleakest of all of Shakespeare's plays and not only making us think, but also making us laugh. --Sarah Hepola



MAN OF THE CENTURY

Dir: Adam Abraham; Prod/scr: Adam Abraham & Gibson Frazier; DP: Matthew Jensen; Ed: Frank Reynolds; Music: Michael Weiner; Cast: Cara Buono, Brian Davies, Susan Egan, Dwight Ewell, Gibson Frazier, Frank Gorshin, David Margulies, Anthony Rapp, Marisa Ryan, Bobby Short.

35mm, 80 min., 1999 (RP)

The smashing, dangerously charming Man of the Century follows Johnny Twennies, a fast-talking, stogie-chomping Depression-era newspaperman out of time, strangely (and brilliantly) oblivious to the modern world of sex, television, and other late-20th-century amenities swirling all around him. Played to the nines by the wondrously physical Gibson Frazier (who also co-wrote and co-produced with Abraham), Johnny whisks around the city, rescuing the occasional damsel in distress, cleft chin jutting out, wide eyes brimming with glass-half-full enthusiasms, caring not a flip for all our dour-faced, existential Nineties cynicism. Don't think such a gimmicky premise could possibly sustain a full-length narrative? Banana oil! It does, and from the first few frames to the classic, big-band finale and in between, Man of the Century had me aching with laughter and quite simply in love with our dashing hero, a charming amalgam of Twenties sensibilities and the razor-tongued wiseguys of Thirties' studio films. Although reminiscent of the silver-screen homages of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and even Mike Meyers as shagadelic out-of-timer Austin Powers, Abraham and Frazier's film still feels totally fresh and original. Man of the Century is an unforgettable movie experience, a remarkable debut just brimming with unforgettable characters and moments -- and that, my friends, is a real-life happy ending. --Sarah Hepola



MY FRIEND PAUL

Dir/prod: Jonathan Berman; Cam: David Leitner, Arlene Sandler, Ben Speth; Ed: David Tedeschi.

16mm, 57 min.,1998 (RP)

When filmmaker Alan Berman found himself adrift without a compelling project, a film about his wild-card childhood friend, Paul, who was just finishing 10 years in the big house for bank robbery, seemed just the engaging ticket for two old friends, both at loose ends, but for different reasons. The film would not only explore the question of where Paul's indomitable drive and creativity took a wrong turn from promising to drugs, crime, and mental illness but also, and not so incidentally, cast some light on Alan as well. The project turned out to be fairly bumpy, fraught with unforeseeable obstacles, not least of which was the serious mental illness that lay just beneath the surface of Paul's seeming lucidity and self-possession. As he struggles to find his film in Paul's story, Alan finds himself diverted by extraneous issues having more to do with the obligations and limits of their friendship than with the film itself. The result is fairly unfocused, more of a personal documentary, which unfolds in fits and starts but, oddly enough, becomes all the more interesting because of its lack of direction. --Anne S. Lewis



ON THE ROPES

Dir/prod: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen; DP: Brett Morgan; Ed: Nancy Baker, Nanette Burstein.

Video, 90 min., 1998 (RP)

On the Ropes focuses on boxing as a dream-bearer, a beacon of hope harbored by ghetto dwellers who want to escape their situation through athletic achievement. The film uses the stories of three fighters who train in the same Bed-Stuy neighborhood gym, uniting their stories through the echoing sounds of punches and jump ropes and their interactions with their trainer Harry. George Walton is a successful boxer who wins the Golden Gloves boxing tournament at the beginning of the film, and the cameras follow his transition from amateur boxing to the ugly world of professional boxing. The documentary has no narration, and uses excellent expository camerawork to say things that no narrator could equal. A scene in the midst of Walton's training for his first pro bout, during which Harry is across the gym working with another fighter, is an excellent example of this. The camera pans from Don King wannabes schmoozing with their new fighter to the excluded and soon-to-be ostracized trainer who helped Walton reach his current heights. Simply holding the camera on Harry's aged face conveys an entire wave of emotion to the audience, and is just one example of the subtle camerawork that makes On the Ropes so enjoyable. --Matt Williams



RABBIT IN THE MOON

Dir: Emiko Omori; Prod: Emiko Omori, Chizuko Omori DP: Emiko Omori, Witt Monts; Ed: Emiko Omori, Patricia Jackson.

Video, 87 min., 1998 (RP)

Proving yet again that documentary filmmaking is a paramount attraction of film festivals these days, Emiko Omori's brilliant, affecting, though occasionally dry recounting of the travails of Japanese-Americans during WWII uses survivors of the forced relocation camps to tell the story of the hidden outrage of American history. In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, thousands of naturalized and second-generation Japanese-Americans (Nisei) were shunted off to internment camps spread across the U.S., from Arkansas to Idaho. With families split up and their constitutional rights trampled, they were forced to exist apart in a country into which they, ironically, only wished to assimilate. Omori, herself a survivor of the camps, paints a grim picture of hovels and horrors, rioting at Manzanar and food shortages, untethered racism, and broken spirits that clearly echoes the plight of Native Americans 100 years before. --Marc Savlov



RADIOHEAD: MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY

Dir: Grant Gee; Prod: Dilly Gant.

16mm, 95 min., 1998 (WP)

Grant Gee's dreamy, hallucinogenic profile of the life and tour-times of Britain's phenomenal popsmiths plays like a loose cog in scarecrow-thin singer Thom Yorke's fevered brain. Radiohead has always been a band capable of rewriting its way across an emotional landscape peopled with broken hearts and broken minds, yet Gee focuses on the minutiae of touring with the single most critically examined rock band since Pink Floyd first let loose that giant, floating pig. Endless trips through bus stations, airports, sound checks, and encounters with the insatiable music press and even more rabid fans plunge the viewer into Radiohead's direct experience. Forsaking traditional filmmaking techniques, Gee instead utilizes shaky Super-8 footage combined with specially treated and abused stock to create one of the most visually stunning (and stimulating) rock & roll documentaries ever seen. --Marc Savlov



REGRET TO INFORM

Dir/prod/scr: Barbara Sonneborn; Exec. prod: Janet Cole; DP: Emiko Omori, Nancy Scheisari, Daniel Reeves.

Video, 72 min., 1998 (RP)

Filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn takes a unique and personal tack in this examination of the Vietnam conflict and the national scars that still fester. While still in her 20s, she received that dreaded knock on the door with the grim news that her husband, a U.S. serviceman stationed in Que Sanh, was dead. Twenty-five years after her life was shattered by an armed conflict never even fully recognized as an official American war, Sonneborn travels to the killing fields with a film crew (including Emiko Omori, director of fest entry Rabbit in the Moon, and Nancy Scheisari, director of fest entry Loaves and Fishes) and retraces her husband's final days. What she finds is a beautiful land still throbbing with unresolved issues of war, terror, and hopelessness. Including archival footage and copious interview footage with war widows on both sides of the conflict, Sonneborn crafts a scathing antiwar diatribe that is as shocking as it is visually engrossing. Alongside the tearful widows, she paints a picture of Vietnam as a hallowed battleground, the victim of 500 years of war and occupation, a place of lush jungles and amazingly green vegetation fed by rivers of blood and suffering. Wrenching in an intensely personal way, this is documentary filmmaking at its spellbinding best. --Marc Savlov



ROCK OPERA

Dir/scr/ed: Bob Ray; Prod: Barna Kantor; Exec Prod: Nicole Ray, Bob Ray; Co-exec Prod: Tamas Kovacs, Victor Soares, Kurtis Machler; DP: Jackson Saunders; Cast: Jerry Don Clark, Ted Jarrell, Russel Porter, Chad Holt, Paul Wright, Louis Olmeda, Rob Gasper, Steve Gervitch, Kurtis Machler.

Video, 97 min., 1999

PigPoke needs to go on tour. As long as pot smokers are around, it shouldn't be a problem to raise money, $25 at a time, right? It would seem easy, but head PigPoker Toe gets too far into debt to his dealer and things get more complicated. After a bout with a dart-administered big-game tranquilizer that leaves him prostrate in the gravel with an empty wallet, he's sent to Del Rio on an errand to settle things up. From there, of course, things only get much, much worse for the unfortunate bagman. Rock Opera turns into a hysterically funny slacker caper movie filled with a stale-beer Austin-underbelly ambianceof pawnshops, shabby apartments, and punk rock bars (trombone slingers the Fuckemos do a song of which Sousa would not have approved), all traveled by our hapless reefer-befogged hero Toe. Like Slacker, its locations and attitude are all very familiar to us Austin denizens, but its plot twists, characters, and direction should carry it well past the Travis County line. --Jerry Renshaw



SECRET PEOPLE

Dir: John Anderson; Prod: John Anderson, Laura E. Harrison; DP: Ferne Pearlstein; Ed: Laura Harrison.

16mm, 58 min., 1998 (WP)

Secret People is about the efforts of nearly 300 Americans to "find a place of comfort" when the world offered them no comfort whatsoever. The subjects of Secret People are victims of Hansen's Disease, better known as leprosy, and in the first half of this century and into the second, any American diagnosed with Hansen's Disease was sent to Carville, Louisiana to live -- for good -- in a government-run institution. Anderson questions whether Carville really was a place of comfort for its virtual inmates: Barbed wire fences ringed Carville and any patient who needed to leave had to be transported out on a special train whose only endpoint was Carville. Moments of levity are interspersed with the pathos, however, and Anderson eventually makes it clear that though Carville's residents may have been prisoners, most of them were able to forge their own lives.

The short film playing before Secret People, "Destroying Angel," is also about illness: Documentarian Wayne Salazar deals with his HIV-positive status as it relates to his relationships with family members and friends in a meandering but revealing manner. --Clay Smith



SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY

Dir: Gough Lewis; Prod: Hugh F. Curry, David Whitten, Gough Lewis; Exec. Prod: Kathleen Curry, Suzanne Bowers Whitten.

35mm, 86 min., 1998

Best known as the adult film actress who in 1995 gleefully submitted herself to "the world's largest gang-bang" when she had sex with 251 men in a 10-hour period, the Taiwan-born Chong comes across as a porn star conundrum in Lewis' film, half an intelligent gender theorist and half an incomprehensible nymphomaniac. Ultimately as disturbing as it is entertaining, Lewis follows Chong (real name: Grace Quek) from her classes as a gender studies student at USC (from which she now has her degree) to the palatial estates of L.A.'s notoriously shady porn barons and from there to Taiwan, where Chong reveals to her horrified mother what, exactly, she's been doing in America all these years. Clearly, Quek is an anomaly in the industry, a well-spoken, forthright young woman with a clearly defined and sexually politicized agenda. Her alter-ego, Chong, is merely a muddled, dull-witted, and pathetic figure in need of some serious therapy sessions. It's where these two personalities intersect that Lewis finds the fascinating duality inherent in the porn business, leaving the viewer wondering who, indeed, is being exploited here. --Marc Savlov



SHORTS 4

Leading off with Austinites Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallotta's digitally animated road movie "Roadhead," this collection of all-documentary, all-comedy shorts is crammed with stylistic flourishes and outrageous, inspired comic touches. Sabiston's piece chronicling the duo's trip from New York, down the East Coast, and finally home to Austin, mixes cinema-vérité-styled animation with the ramblings of those met along the way. Todd Korgan's "Johnny Bagpipes" -- a mockumentary featuring a rock & roll bagpiper -- is essentially a one-note gag that continues far too long. AC/DC and Metallica squeaking amelodically from a bagpipe only goes so far, and even the charismatic John Johnston can't keep this from sagging under the increasing weight of a bad joke. Likewise Rafe Greenlee's "Cormac's Trash," a 17-minute odyssey in search of reclusive El Paso resident and famed author Cormac McCarthy, which sidesteps the essential question: Why plunder another man's garbage? Sheral Churchill and Thad Wadleigh's "The Music Supervisors" follows the recreated antics of a pair of desperate-for-work shmoes who attempt to make it in the shady world of film soundtracks. Despite a pair of winning leads and a so-ridiculous-it-must-be-true storyline (as well as some snappy editing), at 18 minutes the film is just too long for its short subject. --Marc Savlov



THE SKY IS FALLING

Dir/scr: Florrie Laurence; Prod: Brad Hall & David Parks; DP: David Parks; Exec Prod: Howard Kazanjian; Ed: Peggy Davis; Cast: DeDee Pfeiffer, Teri Garr, Howard Hesseman, Laura Leighton.

35mm, 105 min., 1999 (WP)

Emily Hall is going through a Chicken Little kind of phase. Over 50 rejection letters from publishing companies, a series of disastrous temp jobs, a father she thought was dead, a long-term boyfriend who suddenly needs "a little time apart," and an imminent high school reunion add up to thoughts of ending it all in a pre-emptive strike. But how? As Emily copes with her crumbling life and considers various forms of suicide, she finds herself roped into working as a Ruff volunteer in a local hospital, taking her terrier Sammy (the only solace in her life) to visit terminally ill patients. It doesn't take long for Emily to discover that everything, including misery, is relative. A charming performance by DeDee Pfeiffer, solid turns by Howard Hesseman and Teri Garr, and an amusing transition gimmick make The Sky Is Falling a pleasantly diverting picture. Don't expect any surprises, but then, it wouldn't be much of a fairy tale if you did. --Hollis Chacona



A SLIPPING-DOWN LIFE

Dir/scr: Toni Kalem; Prod: Richard Raddon; Exec Prod: Derinda Dallas & Robin Lieberman; Co-prod: Steven Brown; DP: Michael Barrow; Ed: Hughes Winborne; Cast: Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, John Hawkes, Sarah Rue, Tom Bower, Bruno Kirby, Irma P. Hall, Veronica Cartwright.

35mm, 105 min., 1999 (RP)

There are certain houses that feel and smell and sound familiar and comfortable the minute you step into them. In A Slipping-Down Life, writer-director Toni Kalem has built (or renovated) such a house from Anne Tyler's novel of the same title. Spare and creaky, small and intimate, but with an amicable, roomy spirit, A Slipping-Down Life is filled with lovely, memorable moments and heartbreakingly familiar characters. Evie Decker, nondescript and inert, finds her life catalyst in Drumstrings Casey, a small-time rock star and abstruse guest on the Sweetheart Time radio program. Inspired by the musician's odd "speaking out," Evie performs a remarkable and irrevocable act that gains her immediate notoriety (at least in Pulqua, North Carolina) and the attention of Drumstrings himself. What follows is an improbable and beguiling romance full of warmth and compassion and eccentricity and wit. Lili Taylor's remarkable abilities shine again as she instills the seemingly plain and foolish Evie with depth and dignity and passion and beauty. Actor-turned-director Toni Kalem wisely avoids any gussying up, instead she keeps the movie spare and idiosyncratic. It's the nooks and crannies rather than the decor that make A Slipping-Down Life so interesting. Funny and warm and extraordinarily romantic, you'll want to go there again and again. --Hollis Chacona



SPENT

Dir/scr: Gil Cates, Jr.; Prod: Rana Joy Glickman, Jordan Summers, Gil Cates, Jr.; Co-Prod: Deborah Henderson; Exec Prod: Joe Cates, Jordan Zevon; DP: Robert D. Tomer; Ed: Jonathan Cates; Music: Stan Ridgway; Cast: Jason London, Charlie Spradling, Phill Lewis, Erin Beaux, James Parks, Richmond Arquette, Barbara Barrie, Rain Phoenix, Margaret Cho, Jonah Ethan Blechman.

35mm, 91 min., 1999

In Gil Cates Jr.'s exploration of consumption and denial, Max Kaplan is a compulsive gambler, a reasonably rational fellow who nonetheless can neither alter nor afford his extravagant betting habits. This causes tension with his girlfriend, herself in the grips of a (woefully unconvincing) alcohol problem, and his roommate, a reserved and accommodating fellow internally seething with repressed sexuality. Cates deserves points for attempting to strike at the heart of these profound problems, but he's merely shadowboxing, and a superficial performance by Dazed and Confused's Jason London as the man behaving badly doesn't help. Presumably, these characters are so mired in denial that it destroys them, and yet we never sense the urgency of that situation, and therefore, the tragic climax rings false. A comic sideplot involving Max's two best friends and a woman with huge nipples doesn't help anything. The film's predictable resolution, which attempts to find some hope in the situation, can't make much of an impression at all; by that time, our patience is spent. --Sarah Hepola



STANDING ON FISHES

Dir: Meredith Scott Lynn & Bradford Tatum; Scr: Bradford Tatum; Prod: Meredith Scott Lynn & Alan Welchl; Exec Prod: Sheilah Goldman; DP: Mark Mervis; Ed: Skip Spiro; Music: Juliet Prater; Cast: Bradford Tatum, Meredith Scott Lynn, Jason Priestley, Lauren Fox, Pamela Reed, Kelsey Grammer.

35mm, 89 min., 1998 (WP)

Without question, there is a rich vein of humor, tragedy, and pathos running through the stratum of self-help, self-realization, and self-actualization that seems to be burying our society. But mining it comes with its own set of difficulties and dangers. Standing on Fishes gives it a go, but neither the script nor the performances can overcomethe pitfalls of irritation and boredom inherent in the subject matter. While there may be comic depths to Caleb's and Erika's ongoing verbal battles about communication and acknowledgment and equal relationships, they were not plumbed here. I found the rapid-fire dialogue more trying than trenchant, the story more frustrating than funny. Kelsey Grammer's bizarre buffoon of a filmmaker is silly and amusing and the prosthetic pussy quite the novelty but, as most novelty acts go, this goes, too.

Meredith Scott Lynn's short film, "Demo Reel: A Tragedy in 10 Minutes," proves it may be lonely at the top, but at the bottom you have lots of company. Nora Dunn plays a smarmy agent who charges a $75-a-month "maintenance fee," recommends all new head shots and haircuts ("available at these numbers, tell them I sent you"), and emphasizes the necessity for any aspiring actor to have a really good demo reel. Dunn is funny and "Demo Reel" not quite tragically amusing. --Hollis Chacona



THE STORY OF A BAD BOY

Dir/scr: Tom Donaghy; Prod: Jean Doumanian; Exec Prod: J.E. Beaucaire; Co-exec Prod: Letty Aronson; Co-Prod: Patricia Wolff; DP: Garrett Fisher; Ed: Barbara Tulliver; Cast: Jeremy Hollingworth, Julie Kavner, Christian Camargo, Stephen Lang.

35mm, 93 min., 1998 (WP)

The Story of a Bad Boy aims to reveal the tribulations of Pauly (Hollingworth), a high-school student in Washakie, New Jersey in 1982 who openly falls in love with his drama teacher Noel (Camargo). To his credit, Donaghy homes in on characterization without sacrificing action. In fact, the hallmarks of this somewhat incohesive film are the foibles and quirks of Noel, who decides to stage The Scarlet Letter as a sort of avant-garde musical for an extremely unappreciative audience. Pauly, of course, tries out for the musical, becomes a chorus boy, and the initially uneasy relationship between Pauly and Noel commences. Whether due to Hollingworth's almost muted, stilted performance or the equally stilted nature of the narrative and the subsequent hasty resolutions, The Story of a Bad Boy fails to come up with anything conclusive.

More cohesive (and not just because it's four minutes long) is Walter Williams' "Solid Action Love Partner," a hilarious, stylish riff on silent film aesthetics in which a bullied housewife finds contentment with a robot instead of her husband. --Clay Smith



THERE'S NO FISH FOOD IN HEAVEN

Dir/scr: Eleanor Gaver; Prod: Jane Reardon, Allan Mindel, Terrence Michael; Exec Prod: Michael Heuser, Tea Leoni; DP: Pascal Le Begue; Ed: Barbara Geis; Cast: Noah Taylor, Fairuza Balk, Tea Leoni, Debi Mazar, James LeGros.

35mm, 92 min., 1998 (WP)

Sexy and somewhat surreal, There's No Fish Food in Heaven is a romantic comedy in which all of the real romance comes after the female lead stabs the male lead in the head. The plot, despite such auspicious beginnings, is relatively weak, but the true strength of this film lies elsewhere. Following the stabber Mona (Fairuza Balk), the film leads us through a bizarre trail of paintings that foreshadow events, a brief sexual affair with the devil, Mona's quest for the body of the stabbing victim (Noah Taylor), and past a series of characters obviously created in a story conference by Quentin Tarantino, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Dickens. The true brilliance of the film rests with these characters, who range from pregnant cousin Rosie (Debi Mazar) and Mona's decoupaging mother to a musically inclined minister Pete and a carjacking poet -- a character who needs to recur in every one of director Eleanor Gaver's films. These cleverly constructed characters, captured in Gaver's sunnily decrepit Los Angeles, make Fish Food excellent escapist fare. --Matt Williams



TREASURE ISLAND

Dir/scr: Scott King; Prod: Adrienne Gruben; Ed: Dody Dorn; DP: Jonathan Sanford; Cast: Lance Baker, Nick Offerman, Jonah Ethan, Pat Healy, Suzy Aiko Nakamura, Rachel Singer, Stephanie Ittleson, Daisy Hall, Becket Cook, Guinevere Turner, J.P. Manoux, Paul Gutrecht.

35mm, 86 min., 1999

During WWII, a corpse was dressed in a British uniform and thrown off a boat with a briefcase full of disinformation handcuffed to its wrist. Treasure Island uses that counterintelligence ploy as a jumping-off point for a story of psychosexual tension and swirling weirdness that escalates to surreal proportions. Two cryptographers become obsessed with the corpse that won't stay dead as it bedevils them during their off hours and taunts their sex lives with its androgynous appeal. With meticulous attention to period detail and crisp black-and-white cinematography, it sometimes calls to mind a somewhat more artful version of a low-budget Republic Studios film from the Forties. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the way through the film, the story gets even more convoluted, the characters more twisted, and the film sags and ultimately collapses under the weight of its own pretensions. --Jerry Renshaw



WADD: THE LIFE & TIMES OF JOHN C. HOLMES

Dir: Cass Paley; Prod: Cass Paley, Christopher Rowland; Exec. Prod: Russ Hampshire; DP: Willie Boudevin; Cast: Bill Amerson, Cicciolina, Paul Thomas Anderson, Larry Flynt, Ron Jeremy, Al Goldstein, Sharon Holmes.

Video, 120 min., 1998 (WP)

Born a country boy in rural Pickaway County, Ohio, John Holmes would grow up to become America's premier male porn star during a time when the industry was flourishing, thanks in part to the birth of the home video machine and to the as-yet-undiscovered horror of HIV and AIDS. That all changed in March of 1988 when Holmes passed away from the disease at the age of 44, broke, tired, and the butt of endless jokes from the mainstream he so badly wanted to embrace. WADD follows the garish, shocking trajectory of Holmes' career, from his stint in the army to his entry into the fledgling adult film arena, enlisting those who knew the semi-legend best, among them Holmes' wife Laurie and various industry hangers-on. While a mid-Seventies interest in the pharmacological side of the industry rendered the enormously endowed actor more or less impotent, it was his 1981 incarceration in connection with a grisly quadruple murder in Los Angeles that sealed his fate. Still, Paley makes it clear that the tragic arc of Holmes' life was that of a true American original, doomed by both his voracious appetites and a desperate need for acceptance. --Marc Savlov



WITH OR WITHOUT YOU

Dir/scr: Wendell Jon Andersson; Prod: Robert Schwartz; Exec Prod: Karla Ekdahl & Frances Wilkinson; DP: Gregory M. Cummins; Ed: Laura K. Stokes; Cast: Kristoffer Ryan Winters, Marisa Ryan, Rachel True, Steven Roy.

35mm, 102 min., 1998 (RP)

Alex looks, and pretty much acts, like an engineering major and the lead singer in a Baptist church choir, even though he's screwing Zoe every chance he gets. To Alex, sex actually means sex/relationship/love, the whole package deal. To disenchanted, monochromatic Zoe, it means something to keep herself occupied while James (her rock-singer boyfriend) is in Europe. When Zoe breaks things off with Alex due to James' return, Alex is devastated and mercilessly grinds his own pride into the ground in desperate attempts to win her back. With or Without You is not a particularly original story, but the telling of it is warm, genuine, and poignant. As the orbit-crossed lovers, Winters and Ryan have a lovely oil-and-vinegar chemistry. They don't mix, but they still go well together. Alex's friend Harold is a clichéd geek, but his Trekkie patter is hilarious and his trenchant observations are delivered with the smoothly snide superiority I remember in all the smart geeks in the Latin Club. With or Without You teeters dangerously on the brink of being an R-rated afterschool special, but engaging characters, entertaining dialogue, and tight direction prove that decency doesn't have to be preachy. --Hollis Chacona


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