Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Film Fever

By Marjorie Baumgarten

Amanda Plummer during the American Perfekt Q&A

photograph by MInh

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Want a good example of irony? It's possible that the best film screened in the Austin Film Festival component of the Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference was the one feature documentary in the program, Hands on a Hard Body, directed by S.R. Bindler. Certainly to judge by the enthusiastic audience reaction to this unscripted slice of Longview, Texas life, Hands on a Hard Body is the festival's runaway hit. The film documents an annual competition held at a Longview Nissan dealership in which the contestant who holds his or her hand on a hardbody truck for the longest period of time (generally three to four days) wins the vehicle. Though technically rough in places, mostly due to the project's low-budget constraints, the film's even-handed portrait of the dreams and strategies of the contest's "driven" reminds us that "found" stories are every bit as valid and original as those spun by screenwriters, and that good storytelling is the heart of every successful documentary. Two U.S. premieres came to Austin via debuts earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. Writer-director Paul Chart's debut film American Perfekt stars his wife Amanda Plummer, Robert Forster (best known for his Sixties work in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Medium Cool but soon to graduate from the Quentin Tarantino School of Revived Acting Careers in the latter's Christmastime release Jackie Brown), Fairuza Balk, David Thewlis, and Paul Sorvino. The low-budget story of a twisted serial killer loose in the California desert covers largely familiar turf, although the players add a welcome degree of zest to their characters. Notorious filmmaker Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) was represented by his new film The Blackout, about which the kindest thing that can be said is that the film is aptly named. The pointlessly squalid and dangerously thin story about an alcoholic actor (Matthew Modine) and the people he consorts with and abuses (Dennis Hopper and Claudia Schiffer, among others) will leave even Ferrara's most ardent fans (of which I am one) in a stupor.

Another hot picture of the fest was Hijacking Hollywood, a debut film by co-writer/director Neil Mandt (who also co-stars). Essentially, it's a funny but one-joke movie about a college grad from Detroit who gets a Hollywood production-assistant job on a big-budget spectacle, Moby Dick 2: Ahab's Revenge, and concocts a plot with his roommate to hold some reels hostage in order to win the funds to make his own painfully arty epic, Three Days in the Salt Mines. Henry Thomas turns in a winning performance as the Hollywood novice; however, Scott Thompson's impromptu wisecracks during the Q&A following the screening outshone any of the schtick he did onscreen.

One of the festival's real treats was Spaceman by Scott Dikkers (who also edits the hilarious print and onscreen satire publication, The Onion -- http://www.theonion.com). This unapologetically low-budget space comedy wastes no time trying to half-heartedly disguise its technical limitations. Instead, the film puts all its considerable energy into doing what it's able to do best -- that is, in delivering a sharp and funny script through excellent acting, a miraculously textured music score, and a kind of hellbent, show-must-go-on narrative fervor. Dikkers' Spaceman is pure anti-gravity.

On the other hand, writer-director Dan Zukovic's The Last Big Thing (in which he also co-stars) carries the weight of the world on its shoulders. In this caustic Gen-X tale, Zukovic plays a character named Simon Geist, who interviews and skewers cusping celebs for an imaginary magazine called The Last Big Thing. Geist's zeit seems to be all about holding society up to his vicious approbation and ridicule, a calling that also dominates the life of his girlfriend (Susan Heimbinder). The exaggerated extremism of the acting styles makes it virtually impossible to find any irony, humor, compassion, or balance in these self-appointed social irritants or to figure out the real or intended targets of their venomous spew.

Another film that has a tough road ahead of it is the local production Plastic Utopia, filmed by David and Nathan Zellner. This spotty story about a whiny mime is one that, subject-wise, is inherently doomed to have a tough time finding receptive audiences. One hopes that the $1,000 distribution grant the filmmakers received from the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund this year will help them "mime" new territories.

Colin Fitz, winner of the feature film competition.

Lewis & Clark & George from writer-director Rod McCall is the story of a greedy threesome in the Southwest desert on the run from the law and each other. We've seen this mind-games-and-gunplay adventure often enough before, although the pivotal performance by indie film star Rose McGowan (and a cameo by director Paul Bartel) ups the movie's curiosity quotient by several degrees. Colin Fitz, the feature competition winner of the festival, is a likable film whose premise, however, is better than its execution. The movie, which is directed by Robert Bella and written by Tom Morrissey, revolves around the events that befall two security guards during the long night they spend on the anniversary of a rock idol's death while tending his grave. The possibilities of what might occur from this provocative set-up end up being much more intriguing than the events that ultimately do unfold in the movie.

Plan B, by writer-director (and UT alum) Gary Leva, finds Jon Cryer trying out his best Steve Buscemi impression in this pleasant comic study of a longtime group of friends discovering that life doesn't always work out as planned. Though predictable and schematic, the film nevertheless sustains a kind of Big Chill-ish charm. Lovelife, by writer-director Jon Harmon Feldman and produced in association with local company D.V. Capital Entertainment, is a romantic roundelay that takes place among some graduate students in a small college town. The film won the screenplay award at last spring's Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and features an ensemble group that includes Saffron Burrows, Sherilyn Fenn, Jon Tenney, Bruce Davison, and several others. Sharp dialogue contrasts with shallow character development as these mismatched couples constantly reconfigure and realign their love interests.

Several films screened during the festival will open for regular theatrical runs in the coming weeks and months. Some of these include the Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman sci-fi thriller, Gattaca; the twisted family dysfunction tale, The House of Yes; the haunting Sundance dramatic prize winner, Sunday; the fascinating, vérité, war-zone drama, Welcome to Sarajevo; the provocative Robert Downey Jr. dazzler, Two Girls and a Guy; and two that open this week in Austin and are reviewed in the current film listings section -- I Know What You Did Last Summer and Breaking Up.

Regrets? Many. Film festivals are always like that. I wish I could have seen every film, particularly all the competition films. I'll always wonder about what I've missed.

One of my favorite films of the year so far also played at the festival: U-Turn. I find Oliver Stone's new film to be an absolute blast to watch. The director seems to have finally figured out how to make a movie for little reason other than the sheer delight of making a movie, and in so doing has parked all his familiar big themes and windy bombast at the door. The downward spiral of bad luck -- and nothing but -- is the only thing on U-Turn's mind. Interestingly, this is also the first film that Stone has directed from a script written by someone other than himself (U-Turn is scripted by John Ridley), proving that the heart of film is indeed capable of surviving transplant surgery.

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