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Film: Days 1 and 2

Terry Sawyer and Anita Schillhorn

In Day 1 and 2 of our SXSW coverage, PopMatters dives deep into the film festival, fraternizing with zombies, dissing deep on mindless Michael Moore attacks, and rocking a little Bible study with the folks from The State.

When you run into someone you haven't seen in awhile, you get that strange feeling that comes with coincidence. But, when you meet someone you used to work a retail job with in Philly at the South by Southwest Film Festival, it's got to be something more. After all, everyone who's anyone (on the arty edges at least) attends, and there's more than a little movie magic in the air.

Besides surprise reunions, PopMatters' SXSW crew has already enjoyed countless conversations with total strangers, plenty of overpriced coffee, and lots of waiting. Of course, that's a good thing: chance encounters, surprising coincidences, and fleeting conversations are what make film festivals more than just a bunch of movies that you wouldn't get to see otherwise. Of course, there's also the movies....

Austin Film Society Shorts, Big Rig, Elvis and Anabelle, Manufacturing Dissent, Sisters, The Ten


Easing audiences into the onslaught that is SXSW, the Austin Film Society showed a series of shorts by local filmmakers in the tiny screening room of a coffee shop. Like most groupings of unrelated shorts, some pieces jumped out, some stayed low, and some gave us a chance to catch a quick cat nap.

A definite highlight, MFA UT Austin student Chris McInroy's Recently Deceased offered an impressive addition to the growing genre of zombie comedy. The zom-com short stars Jim, a recent lotto winner killed by his friend Reggie while writing a to-do list. He rises from the dead to finish his chores and to figure out the cause of his death. Luckily, Jim's revivification occurs on Halloween, so his parents think his gray pallor and rotting body are part of a particularly realistic costume.

Though the recent glut of quirky comedies has left many jaded, there's something refreshing about Recently Deceased's unexplained absurdity. Jim's oddball nemesis Reggie lives in a black-and-white world where everything is labeled; even his Halloween costume is a t-shirt that says "costume." Jim's parents are equally well-drawn gems, and this little comedy offers a pleasantly absurd vision of the world (and its many misunderstood ghouls and goblins). (AS)


Directed by Doug Pray

"Fairy tales start with 'once upon a time,' but truckers' stories start with 'this ain't no bullshit.'" Thus claims an authority on the matter -- an unidentified, disembodied voice speaking over a crackly CB at the beginning of Big Rig.

Director Doug Pray and producer Brad Blondheim -- who last collaborated on Scratch -- claim they started out to make a kitschy "lot-lizards-and-speed" documentary about truckers, but they uncovered such a fierce and proud humanity that they were quickly forced to switch gears (no pun intended). While the resulting film is flawed, overly long, and tinged with a patriotism that borders on the saccharine, it still manages to impart a complex and touching understanding of a little-respected profession.

As the comedy and tragedy of trucker's lives unfold, we witness toughness and vulnerability. We are introduced to people who transcend and challenge our expectations. We enter the homes of truck drivers and meet spouses, children, and pets. One woman tells us that she became a truck driver to gain financial independence after leaving an abusive husband. Another, Native American truck driver talks about how the profession offers the opportunity to see his homeland. The owner of a truck stop, meanwhile, preaches about fuel prices and the dangers of the corporate world. The political views expressed resonate with the liberal ideology of many in the SXSW audience -- anger with the administration, the war, the spike in oil prices, the profits reaped by oil companies, and more.

Another character in the film is the American landscape -- urban, rural, natural, endless stretches of nothing, bridges and skyscrapers of cities, and clouds trapped between mountains. "This is my office," one trucker says about her truck. The view is impeccable.

Unfortunately, at its worst, Big Rig elides the pepper of voices into a Norman Rockwell painting of America. In spite of their dissatisfaction with the direction that America is going, most truckers interviewed are proud patriots. Many articulate the parallel between the freedom of trucking and the American spirit. But their relationship with the nation is more complex; not only do they present their doubts about present-day American values, but there is a strong feeling that they are unsung and underappreciated heroes of America. "This country would stop in three days without truckers," two weathered men claim proudly and resentfully over a coffee at a truck stop.

It may be true, but for all of this complexity to be summed up in a montage of truckers to the tune of "This land is your land, this land is my land," is an insult to the intelligence of the audience, and the truckers themselves. (AS)

Big Rig [MySpace]

Big Rig [MPEG trailer]

Big Rig - Trailer


Directed by Will Geiger

As genres, romance movies and romantic comedies are prone to bad fantasy. American romantic comedies especially tend to encourage a stock version of love: after a Romeo & Juliet-style balcony scene, the leads retire for some acrobatic badger sex and then live happily ever after.

It took awhile for my resistance to Elvis and Anabelle to melt because, at first glance, the film embraces similar cliché. The boy from the wrong side of the tracks or, in this case, the inside of a mortuary, falls in love with the seemingly unattainable pageant queen. Throw in a dead mother (one of Disney's favorite tricks) and a hunchbacked father who has been mentally handicapped by a redneck hitting him in the head with a beer bottle, and you can begin to see why this film could easily take a quick and furious dive. Worse still, the mentally challenged hunchback dad (Christ, why not make him blind too?) dribbles wise bon mots in moments when the characters need the kind of moral direction that only the brain damaged can give (the subtext of insanity/retardation in film is always that it's just deeper form of sanity).

But then, the actual movie that emerges from this hobbling plot has such magical, disarming charm and beauty that I almost feel guilty for doubting it. Part of Geiger's directorial expertise comes from his playful revisions of Romeo & Juliet (in its entirety) mixed with a contemporary, comedy of errors-type re-reading of Sleeping Beauty.

Filmed in the lush landscapes surrounding Austin, this is a slow-walking picture that takes its time navigating the tensions and barriers of the love story at its core. Perhaps that's one of the major reasons the story works -- it plays such a subtly serpentine game, resisting and indulging the viewer's natural impulses, that, by the movie's end, we're all in love with ourselves.

Fresh off a disturbingly complicated and supremely gifted performance in Art School Confidential, Max Minghella (Elvis in the movie) lovingly tweezes out the nuance in a lead character that's bitter, slightly creepy, prone to fits of self-sabotage, and pretty much the Sour-Patch kid of romantic leads. By the end of the film, Minghella breaks Elvis' exterior like a spiderwebbed crack on a frozen pond. The long connection of events that lead to his character's epiphany is stunning. Both Minghella's and Blake Lively (Anabele) build complex characters, and the film develops them with plenty of pauses, silences, secrets, and deception.

Elvis and Anabelle's sliver of magic realism is the film's most seductive triumph. It's so slight, so readily explicable by the forces of rationalization and sensationalism that it threatens to tear the two apart. If you want to believe that there's magic in love, this movie is a lyrically rendered argument in that direction. (TS)

Elvis and Anabelle [MySpace]

Elvis and Anabelle [MPEG trailer]

Elvis and Anabelle - Trailer


Directed by Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine

I should probably say at the outset that I'm not a huge Michael Moore enthusiast. Still, I don't harbor any ill will either, which is significant considering the number of people on my ill-will list.

I do think his long-documented history of fast-and-loose film ethics and his tendency toward simplistic conspiracy theory make him an unreliable political narrator. And I recoil at his anti-intellectual populism. Coming from a poor, working family myself, my parents would have probably beaten me if I had walked around beaming with pride about how I didn't need none of them fancy college words (this was back when being educated wasn't the kind of thing that would prevent you from becoming president). And yet, for all the reservations I have about Michael Moore, the hackwork of Manufacturing Dissent renders every single one of his errors of judgment and morality in such bloated proportions, that I left the theater enraged that the person introducing the film had the Orwellian gall to describe it as a movie for "open-minded" people. Open-skewered, maybe.

From start to finish, the film is slashing vandalism. Talking heads suggest everything from Moore as a cutthroat, egomaniacal, paranoid, schizophrenic ideologue to the idea that he actually supported Nader because he felt like a Bush presidency would provide an easier means of making money. Ends-justify-the-means sociopath or simply a fatcat who refuses to spend a dime on a tailor? That the competing psychological narratives seem wholly at odds with one another matters little when the ultimate objective is just rote, wholly common "contrarianism." We're shown the Traverse City home that filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine claim Moore calls a log cabin as a way of implying that if you support the working class you should apparently be homeless.

In cadence and cut, this film rants and whines as the filmmakers, who've several times suggested through their collection of disgruntled ax-grinders that Moore is clinically insane, complain that they're never been given an interview with the man himself. You've never in your life seen so much bitching without structure, consistent theme, or even the mercy of a comma: there's even someone from decades ago complaining that Moore's old magazine owes him 10-20 bucks.

Why not discuss how Moore's narration in Fahrenheit 9/11 and consequent popularization of the documentary have created unacceptable tensions between true and true enough? How much objectivity, in the uncomfortable way that word is imported from the natural sciences, can a discussion of highly contested issues possibly have? I could go on endlessly with the kinds of questions that occurred to me as a means of entertaining myself during Manufacturing Dissent, but suffice it is to say it is a film that stares important questions in the eyes only to see if there's enough of a reflection to fix its hair.

Perhaps Moore is a demagogue. I'm not saying that an argument couldn't be made, just that asking questions like "What does he actually stand for?" would have made a better film. And with people like Ann Coulter suggesting on Bill Maher's show that it could be acceptable to burn homosexuals alive and Michelle Malkin suggesting Muslims might be better corralled in prison camps, you'd think they'd have better candidates for Mission: Fact Checkable. But then, the exact date that Autoworld was built and whether or not Davison is a suburb of Flint or a separate city seem like much more pressing questions.

Melnyk and Caine are guerilla tabloid opportunists on a shoestring. This is not a film about the danger of ideas or the ethics of art. It's a petty, tiny snit of a flick that asks the grand and crucial question: Is Michael Moore kind of an asshole? Maybe, but who cares? (TS)

Manufacturing Dissent [MySpace]

Manufacturing Dissent - Trailer


Directed by Douglas Buck

Stepping into Brian De Palma's shoes is a pretty brave thing to do. Part of the lurid violence and gritty realism that defined ‘70s and early '80s cinema, De Palma brought us Blow-out, Carrie, and Body Double before getting into the gangster genre with The Untouchables and Carlito's Way. But, when Douglas Buck -- who garnered attention for his set of shorts, Family Portraits (2004) -- heard that a remake of De Palma's 1973 Sisters was in the works, he decided to try it on for size.

I spoke with Buck and co-writer John Freitas about their remake. The two met at the New School, where Freitas taught Sisters in a film course. Steeped in passion for the glory days of ‘60s and ‘70s American cinema, Buck and Freitas pepper Sisters with film references and in-jokes. Buck's version was produced by Edward Pressman, the same man who produced the original, but Buck claims he had plenty of freedom to make the film his way. While the remake keeps many of De Palma's favorite themes -- like sexualized violence, traps of surveillance, and the double -- Buck and Freitas add a nod to French theory with a malevolent doctor named Lacan.

The film introduces its main characters at a sinister party in a children's hospital outside of Vancouver. Dr. Lacan (Stephen Rea of The Crying Game) conducts magic tricks for children in wheelchairs while his assistant, Angelique Tristiana (model/actress Lou Doillon), dutifully looks on. Investigative reporter Grace Collier (Chloe Sevigny), suspecting Dr. Lacan of experimenting on children, watches suspiciously from under a rainbow clown wig while good-guy Dr. Dylan Wallace (Dallas Watson) volunteers his time at the children's party by... dressing up as a doctor. The mysterious Angelique woos Dr. Wallace into a world of dual personalities driven by a dark past that involves a twin sister and a lost mother. When he brings her a birthday cake after a ferocious one-night stand, his good intentions turn on him, and his gift becomes an instrument of his own murder. Death by chocolate indeed.

The first third of the film benefits from a tongue-in-cheek sense of the sinister: The mysterious French woman, the dark doctor, are knowing nods to genres, and the instruments of death -- ice-cream cake, knitting needles -- twist the meanings of things considered domestic and safe. But the tight and spare reconstruction of De Palma-esque suspense unravels as the plot succumbs to pure violence without that crucial wink to the audience. (AS)


Directed by David Wain

Can you name your Ten Commandments? Neither can I. But David Wain can! "We got them off of Google," the director claims when asked about researching his new film, The Ten.

The skits about, yes, the Ten Commandments revive the circular sketch humor of Wain's tv show, The State, and a familiar crew of actors portray a cast of characters that appear and reappear in each of the ten sketches. But these aren't Bible School renditions of good and evil. From the difficulties of breaking up with your prison "boyfriend" to a suburban competition to find out which dad can amass the most cat-scan machines, The Ten shows that sinning has gotten a bit more complex since Moses first graced the mountain.

Ingeniously casting Winona Ryder in the "Thou shalt not steal" sketch, Wain and Co. move in and out of screen reality. Paul Rudd, narrator, plays out his domestic strife under the commandments etched in stone tablets as he introduces each of the skits, a premise that is the least comic of all the absurd premises in the film. More successful are the hilarious musical numbers, courtesy of former XTC member David Gregory and former Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren.

Back in the early days of Hollywood, bad guys had to be punished in order for the film to pass the censors, but luckily for Wain's characters -- and for us -- those rules are in the distant past. (AS)


Directed by David Wain

With a cast comprised of the members of MTV's The State, The Ten offers satirical chaos of the highest caliber and jokes with such hard, unexpected turns that they nearly flip over on themselves. Winona Ryder rides a ventriloquist dummy in a cheap motel; Liev Schreiber gets into a competition with his neighbor to see who can own the most medical machines. And a segment where Adam Brody goes through the entire five-minute cycle of news-celebrity industrial complex over being "man stuck in ground" is one of the most painfully spot on dissections of American culture I've ever seen.

As a film, The Ten is rather artless, but, then, there's really no room for a long shots of babbling brooks and muted facial expressions. Of course, because I never stopped laughing, it feels like a cheap shot to mention that it doesn't exactly hang together as a film with characters that have lives outside their punchlines.

The Ten races along on manic comic energy of the kind that the viewer imagines happening in a living room electric with one-liner chemistry, one mad narrative riff sparking another comic to add in their non-sequitur swerve. I could expend some more time and energy wondering why male-on-male ass sex seems to be such an infinite source of nervous laughter comedy for everyone from the makers of this film to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but I'd rather just say that The Ten succeeds in making you completely forget yourself in 90 minutes of chain-reacting, gloriously exhausting laughter. (TS)

The Ten - Trailer

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