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South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal: Day Two: Hype vs. Buzz

Tobias Peterson and Terry Sawyer

Day Two of our daily coverage of SXSW 2003 looks at the buzz-worthy film highlights, the Robert Duvall vehicle Assassination Tango and an Australian caper film entitled The Hard Word.

Today's report by Tobias Peterson

Day Two: Hype vs. Buzz

Camera people clustered in a tight circle in front of the brightly lit marquee of the Paramount Theater. Despite that the theater is located just a few blocks south of Texas' state capitol building, the man of the hour was no politician. The focus of the cameras' attention and the attention of the many fans standing on line at the theater was cinematic icon Robert Duvall, in attendance to promote the SXSW showcase of Assassination Tango. Duvall, along with his co-star Lucinana Pedraza, were delivered curbside by a stretch limo and briefly took questions from a cluster of reporters before heading in to introduce the film.

This kind of scene, common to Hollywood premieres, is a novelty at SXSW. The festival's focus on independent film generally means that the stars and directors can walk the streets unnoticed, driving themselves to screenings in rented compact cars and even doing their own promotional work, handing out flyers and hanging posters to generate more interest. The presence of a "major star" in Duvall, however, generated a buzz all its own for the film, drawing crowds far greater than the festival's premiere of Go Further, shown the day before. Unfortunately, the on-screen action fell far short of these curbside excitement, proving that even SXSW is not immune from big time, Hollywood hype, promising much but delivering little to no payoff.

Assassination Tango

Written, directed, co-produced (with Francis Ford Coppola), and featuring Duvall, Assassination Tango is clearly a pet project for the star, who has been a part of such cinematic masterpieces as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and, of late, The Apostle. And while Duvall's tremendous track record would seem to justify the degree of control he had over the project, the final product that results provides a good argument for the benefits of creative collaboration, which would at the very least provide for constructive criticism and a critical distance that might prevent the self-indulgent meditation that dominates Duvall's latest work.

The film tells the story of a hit man for hire named John J. (Duvall), who, despite his violent work and dispassionate temperament toward his victims, is shown to be completely enamored with the young daughter of his live-in girlfriend Maggie (Kathy Baker). John is shown dancing with Maggie's daughter Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), buying her horse riding lessons, and secretly following her to school to make sure she arrives safely. When John is hired to travel to Argentina for a hit (a "security job" he tells Maggie), he promises to return in time for Jenny's upcoming birthday.

The bulk of the film takes place in Buenos Aires, where Duvall's character prepares to kill an ex-Army general who was involved in the murder of a local family's young son during his time in the military. John tells his local contact (played by Ruben Blades), that there are always two sides to a story and that he's not interested in the reasons why the general has to die. He tears up a picture of the murdered son given to him by the son's mother, and goes about planning the hit.

The target, however, winds up in hospital, and John's intended brief visit becomes a long, drawn-out affair. Unfortunately, so does the film. While waiting for the general to recover and leave the hospital, Duvall's character bides his time visiting tango bars and consorting with a beautiful dancer named Manuela (Pedraza), who teaches him about tango and exposes him to local Argentine culture.

The majority of the film is comprised of scenes in which Duvall contemplates tango dancers at various Buenos Aires bars. While he touches base from time to time with his employers, he's shown frequently to fantasize about dancing with Manuela in languid, softly lit dissolves. Like the tango, the film moves in fits and starts, alternating brief bursts of action (John's murderous preparations) with long, drawn out pauses (his growing fascination with the dance and Manuela). Unlike the dance, however, which is unified by lilting musical accompaniment and the grace of the dancers themselves, Assassination Tango is disjointed, awkward, and stiff.

It's clear that Duvall's homage to Argentina and its dance culture is sincere in its appreciation. What's not clear, however, is why he chose to marry this idea with a hit man movie. The two plots are forced awkwardly together, and rather than providing an interesting juxtaposition or any kind of cinematic tension, the tango scenes are an anchor on the film's pacing. I and audience members around me found ourselves wanting something, anything to happen, but was instead rewarded with more scenes of dancers in dark bars, John J./ Duvall looking gleefully on.

The distinction is blurred in these scenes because, as he commented in the post-film Q & A, Duvall himself is a huge fan of the dance and of the country and its culture. Assassination Tango, then, is really just a cinematic extension of Duvall's personal interests, draped loosely over a tangential and ill-fitting murder-for-hire story. During the film's introduction, Lucinana Pedraza revealed that four edits were needed for the final product. This should have been a warning to the audience about the disjointed nature of the film. In the end, a fifth -- possibly a sixth -- was needed to streamline its troubled pace.

While Duvall's presence gave industry weight and a Hollywood buzz to SXSW, Assassination Tango surely disappointed all but the staunchest Duvall fans. While no-name crews, writers, and actors screened under-funded and under-represented projects of quality around town, the biggest show of the festival's second day was a bust, reminding viewers of an important adage when it comes to film: what you see isn't always what you get.

The Hard Word

Those who sat through the torpid Assassination Tango were in for a much needed change of pace as they left the Paramount theater only to get back into line for the next film on the bill: an Australian caper film entitled The Hard Word. Starring a stringy haired, pasty skinned, and prosthetically-nosed Guy Pierce as the leader of a bank-robbing trio of brothers, the film delivered gritty action where Tango had offered only elegant, but detached, meditation.

The story focuses on Dale (Pierce) and his two brothers, Mal (Damien Richardson) and Shane (Joel Edgerton), all serving time in the same Australian jail for bank robbery. As thieves, the three are so adept that they are "contracted" by the local, corrupt police; the brothers are given temporary furloughs by the authorities with assignments to knock over armored cars. The arrangement also includes the brothers' shady lawyer Frank (played by Robert Taylor), who cuts himself in on the profits while carrying on an affair with Dale's wife, Carol (Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths).

Dale, Mal, and Shane are strung along by Frank and company with the false hope of early release if they cooperate by pulling off the robberies. Though Dale ("the smart one") recognizes Frank for the cuckolding worm that he is, the trio has little choice but to comply. When Frank proposes a million-dollar heist, however, the brothers plot to keep the money for themselves and escape, while Frank plots to have them killed in the process to cover his tracks.

As the plot might suggest, The Hard Word is charged with action as well as a heavy dose of testosterone. From the opening scene showing sweaty male prisoners in a brutal game of basketball, to the predominantly male cast, to Shane's tattoo sporting Henry V's male-bonding credo ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/ For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother;"), there's little room for the soft or feminine in The Hard Word. Even Griffiths' Carol is a brutally pragmatic, independent, self-proclaimed "tart" that oscillates between Frank and Dale seemingly as it suits her best interests.

While the The Hard Word's world may be dog-eat-dog and exclusionary, the film is first and foremost a comedy. Nearly all of the characters are unlikable in some aspect or action, but the film places them within a comic framework that makes their cutthroat behavior bearable, even interesting. One example of this is a scene in which Frank pays a visit to Carol, who he thinks is sleeping in bed. He snuggles up to her, caressing her hair, until the lights snap on and a policeman jumps out of bed wearing a wig and see-though teddy, brandishing a gun. The cop and his partner interrogate Frank about money he's supposed to hand over, shooting him in each foot to loosen his lips. The violence, however, is undercut by the specter of the transvestite cop, and is undercut even further when Frank retaliates, jamming a lava lamp into the partner's mouth and through the back of his head. Blood, a ridiculous, over the top amount, flies all over the room, getting laughs from the audience rather than horrified gasps.

Comic scenes like this make the film a goofy kind of fun in spite of its ruthless characters. The Hard Word's comedy is further combined with solid performances and a stylish soundtrack, all of which seemed to be warmly received at this, its North American premiere. Rather than a pre-show buzz that deflated during the screening, the comparatively obscure Hard Word sent audience members out into the night with a buzz of their own.

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