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Austin Chronicle Sidebar: Festival Reviews

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Twenty-four people congregate at a Longview car dealership with the same goal: winning a new, option-packed Nissan Hardbody pickup. To do so, they must keep their hands constantly on the vehicle, minus brief scheduled breaks, until all their competitors drop out from pain or fatigue. A bunch of people standing around for nearly four days may not sound like the most compelling subject matter for a documentary, but S.R. Bindler's masterful film easily kept a packed Texas Union audience riveted (and laughing hysterically) for a full 96 minutes. By letting the contestants tell their own stories before and during the event, Bindler transcended its inherent visual monotony with a steady focus on personalities. And what personalities they are! Some Hollywood casting agency needs to sign these people up en masse, everyone from the endearingly goofy teenage boy to the middle-aged Jesus freak to the cocky former champ -- a sort of peckerwood Zen master whose alternately lucid and addlepated commentary made him a crowd favorite. Hard Body is low-budget film whose technical limitations are immediately obvious, but the accumulating power of the story renders them irrelevant. As the aforementioned former champ drawled more than once, "This is a human drama thang." In a Q&A session after the screening, Bindler spoke optimistically of getting the film into limited national distribution. Let's hope he succeeds. Hands on a Hard Body is one of those blessed and all-too-rare movies which conclusively proves that, compared to talent and resourcefulness, big budgets and megastar packages really don't mean shit. It's a thought I'm counting on to sustain me through Speed 3 when it inevitably lumbers into local theatres. -- Russell Smith


D: Gary Leva; with Jon Cryer, Lance Guest, Lisa Darr.

Plan B's director, Gary Leva, is gifted with a keenly observant mind and eye. Unfortunately, the University of Texas alumnus seems to have used these sensitive instruments mainly to observe television sitcoms, not real life. His well-crafted but glib and uneven ensemble comedy includes far too many one-note characters, stock situations, and arbitrary plot developments to distinguish itself from the myriad other films and TV series about youngish people working out the kinks in their personal and professional lives. To its credit, Plan B does have a talented cast, headed by Jon Cryer as an aspiring author trying to make the transition from grad-school phenom to working novelist. And Leva's script bears the unmistakable marks of intelligence, soul, and a precocious -- though often lazy -- wit. It's safe to say that, in the years to come, Gary Leva will make far better films than Plan B. In the meantime, he'd be well served by heeding the advice one of his own characters receives at one point: Write stories that reflect what you know and care about, not what you believe the market is looking for. -- Russell Smith


D: David Zellner; with David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Jennifer Claycombe.

One assumes that commercial exigencies will someday force David Zellner to tone down his deranged comic vision a notch or two. That'll be a shame, because the anarchic weirdness of Zellner's work is a key element of its appeal. Zellner stars in his own feature as a cranky, sniveling street mime named James Mirthstein, whose muse leads him to create violent and off-putting routines that alienate the already meager fan base for mime. This rejection deepens his depression and increases his envy of his roommate Frank, a poet/thug/cocksman extraordinaire who effortlessly commands the fame and adoration James craves for himself. Many of the elements in this film are familiar in the indie comedy arena, in particular the profusion of retro kitsch artifacts and the ironic appreciation of trash culture touchstones such as putt-putt golf courses and Seventies clothing. But simply by daring to push his story to the brink of dadaism (characters include an order of nomadic, pemmican-eating nuns and a garbage scavenger called Corduroy Boy, who wears a superhero outfit made from his namesake fabric), Zellner creates something undeniably fresh, distinctive, and memorable. -- Russell Smith


Dyslexic Love, a 12-minute black-and-white film by Sashy Bogdanovich, wordlessly tells the story of a young woman facing a choice between leaving for college and staying home to care for her frowzy alcoholic mother. While the subject matter seems to call for a longer treatment, the artlessly expressive performances of the two actresses helps viewers grasp the essence of the simple, emotionally charged tale.

Don Reed's Lucky the Irish Pimp is perhaps better in concept than execution. Reed, decked out in a green suede leprechaun outfit, patrols his ghetto street corner, dodging The Man and shaking down his hoes for his administrative fees -- including, in one scene, the proverbial pot o' gold. Basically pretty silly, but does boast a tuff, subwoofer-maxing hip hop soundtrack.

Eric Kripke's Truly Committed loosely adapts a Richard Matheson short story about a disgustingly lovey-dovey couple who go to outlandish lengths in the name of togetherness. As amusing as the story is, the real star of Kripke's film is the surrealistic, primary color-drenched production design that salutes John Waters but goes the master one farther. -- Russell Smith

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