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Film: Day 4

Terry Sawyer and Anita Schillhorn

The gloves come off as PopMatters' SXSW Film crew digs into a drug-addled drama, takes on the terminator, and goes to blows over the mirth of marijuana.

An untold amount of film criticism comes down to the reviewer's subjective likes and dislikes. Critics often attach themselves to films that snyc with a certain vision of the world and, conversely, spurn those with which they simply cannot connect. There's plenty of room for research and educated opinion of course, but, at the end of the day there are some things you dig and some things you just don't.

As the SXSW film festival rolls on, positive buzz begins to build around movies, even as a series of equally energetic outcries emerge. There's room for disagreement, and even derision, but, at some point, it's important to remember that everyone is an artist (with the possible exception of those out to slander), and, as with any art, there's room for different opinions. That said, we saw some stinkers today (one, especially, was the cause of serious dissent), and the first rule of film criticism is that you tell it like you see it -- even if someone else sees it differently.

Blackbird, Cat Dancers, Running with Arnold, Smiley Face


BLACKBIRD

Directed by Adam Rapp

The story of a sensitive stripper-prostitute who falls for one of her regular-joe clients, junkie-drama Blackbird is burdened by immature nihilism and a suffocating sense of shock. Though the kindly young director introduced the film with the hopes that we'd see it as "just a little love story," the viewer is never given much reason to understand what draws a much older man to a teenage girl, and vice versa -- other than the same sorts of pop-cultural impulses that help Britney Spears' pigtails sell records and Warrant's "Cherry Pie" make grown men cry.

Playing Froggy, the stripper opposite Paul Sparks' junkie Bayliss, Gillian Jacobs gives her character an admirable layer of steel and worldliness despite the fact that the role itself is a creepy cliché. Though they're intimate, Bayliss and Froggy's relationship is hardly healthy: the film positions its female protagonist as an object simultaneously desired and deplored. This duality is most heinously exposed when Bayliss bets sex with Froggy in a poker game, then hurtles abuse at her when he loses the hand.

If that bit of the plot makes you queasy, the rest of Blackbird may require a puke pail. Though writer/director Adam Rapp is clearly gifted, his way of moving the movie forward -- by searching for an even lower narrative rock bottom -- has a sadistic, nearly unwatchable effect. Worse than Leaving Las Vegas, Blackbird turns the junkie's life into a ceaseless sinkhole of tragedy. I have no doubt from my own fieldwork in the world of drugs that this is true, but, here, the layer cake of abject pain is simply too blackly comedic

(Plot spoilers follow)

To create a character that's both a coke whore and incest victim is an uncompromising move, but to pile on a back-alley abortion with a hammer and a bucket conflates tragedy with depth. By the time Froggy's junkie boyfriend has a back injury that requires changing diapers and scraping his feces with Handiwipes, Froggy has caught Hep C, has pregnancy complications, and is too fevered to help change the disabled vet. I was also overwhelmed to watch. Why would I want to watch this? That kernel of "just a little love story" had long since dissolved in the squalor.

With so little of the film spent constructing a plausible love story, the viewer might be more rationally inclined to see the protagonists' relationship as just one more bad choice in lives covered with pustules. It's as if someone took the Book of Job, revised it so that God never relented, and then gave Job a stripper girlfriend.

Still, there's no reason to dismiss the film outright: there are certainly several things it does well. It boasts a couple of great laughs (sorely needed reprieves in claustrophobic misery) and dialogue that's both cannily timed and gritty -- even if it does read the way a sheltered college student would imagine the lives of a junkie and stripper in love. And although there are clearly some cheap and exploitive indie archetypes being employed, Blackbird does avoid some of the junkie glamour of Requiem for a Dream and the rock-video, find-a-vein ride of Trainspotting.

In the end, Blackbird is a case of good writing with nowhere to go. Just as the film's mysterious poker party full of intellectuals, aesthetes, and down-and-outers has the feel of "parts I wrote for college friends," the atmosphere of the movie struggles too hard with issues of authenticity and not enough with the characters themselves. (TS)

CAT DANCERS

Directed by Harris Fishman

In the '60s and early '70s, Ron Holliday helped was one of the driving forces behind Cat Dancers -- a performance group that also included his wife, their lover, and a wide array of tigers, jaguars, and other felines. Together they wowed Vegas, Radio City, and the rest of the world with tame jungle cats and a truck full of glitter.

Spotlighting Holliday, the last surviving member -- human or animal -- of the group, Harris Fishman's Cat Dancers documentary paints an engaging portrait of the performer as he fills the screen with schmaltz, frankness, and extraordinary compassion. We listen as he reminisces to the filmmaker, to young students learning about jungle cats or learning ballet, and to the cats themselves.

Holliday's life has been one lived unapologetically outside of convention, and his loves -- his wife, the young man that became their partner and then their lover, and the cats -- are painted as beautiful, warm memories. Old films of performances -- which also integrated dance and other, almost vaudevillian antics -- and their private lives illustrate the bright lights of the mid-century stage acts and the tenderness of their relationships. In spite of the kitsch that the Siegfriend-and-Roy-esque subject inevitably invokes, Cat Dancers is well-paced and human, transforming Holliday from someone you'd gladly watch on stage to a person you truly care about. (AS)

RUNNING WITH ARNOLD

Directed by Dan Cox

Running with Arnold traces the rise of political and movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, following his life from childhood all the way through to the early days of his governorship. Directed by Variety writer Dan Cox, the film is a Hard Copy-style expose, complete with ominous sound effects, bad translations, heavy narration, and expanding-text effects that reveal shocking facts. But, for all its glitz, the director's insinuations of connections to the Nazi party, unsubstantiated claims about corporate payrolls, and the liberal use of old footage of Schwarzenegger with women give the doc the muddy aura of bad journalism.

Many of the film's authorities are comedians, and several of the stars listed as "interviews" are actually speaking at fundraising events. Their expertise is certainly up for debate -- after all, an opinion with a punchline isn't the same as well-researched argument. And the occasional fact that does surface lacks citation, a basic requirement of research that even political ads follow. What's worse, Alec Baldwin's narration is overly wordy and barely allows the audience a minute reprieve (there's rumors that the star himself is actually downplaying and even denouncing his involvement in the picture).

First-time filmmaker Cox said that when he started the project, he thought, making a documentary would be as easy as writing an article -- maybe easier. Clearly it is, if you don't fact-check, get interviews with experts, or follow the basic standards of fair reporting. (AS)

SMILEY FACE

Directed by Gregg Araki

I couldn't have picked two more opposing movies to see in an evening. After junkie drama Blackbird, Smiley Face was like being given a pony and a giant banana-split for your fifth birthday. Gregg Araki is one of the few directors who has never disappointed, even when his films are totally befuddling (Doom Generation) or burrow uncomfortably into your head (Mysterious Skin). From his work, it's easy to get the sense that he has and will always do exactly the movies that he wants to do -- there's certainly no blockbuster comic-book movie in his future. And, as his career has progressed, Araki's films have made no march toward accessibility or polite movie-going society. Of course, to be fair, Smiley Face does have the potential to bring in a flood of new fans.

This is a pot-smoker movie, pure and simple. Well, maybe not simple: it's the first marijuana movie I've ever seen with a female lead. Compellingly carried by Anna Faris, the film follows her character, Jane, through a series of drug-related misadventures. One of the most gifted comedic actresses out there, Faris may have an unfortunate resume, but here she proves that she's one of those preternaturally gifted individuals who have made their way up until now by sneaking contraband depth into otherwise thoughtless movies. Since Araki is no stranger to the joke with the hidden compartment, the pairing works seamlessly. And, for my buck, not having to deal with macho bathroom humor makes trailing through a stoned-consciousness narrative a lot more tolerable.

Speaking of which, you have to know going in that you're going to get pummeled with weed jokes. This means the film requires a certain patience for a pot smoker's repetitive, wandering, daisy-chain, derailed train of abstractions.

Faris helps by energetically animating Jane's character with Tex Avery-style pratfall antics and silly-putty facial expressions. The script, written by Dylan Haggerty, has the same absurdist chain-of-events feel as Bubble Boy, with Jane getting in totally harebrained entanglements concerning the law, union activism, and rare manuscripts. Araki elevates this above a Gen-X Cheech & Chong revision by developing a poetry-in-motion appreciation for the crazy collisions that make up the moments of our lives. Of course, that's just for those who need that other level, not those too stoned and flush with giggling to remember what the first part of this sentence said. (TS)

SMILEY FACE

Directed by Gregg Araki

I don't get That '70s Show. It's not that I hate it, not that I can't stand it -- I just don't understand why other people find it funny. The humor in that show is as mysterious to me as string theory or the origins of the universe.

Gregg Araki's Smiley Face, a comedy about a stoned girl's day, had a similar effect on me. I sat in a huge theater full of hundreds of people as they laughed, clapped, and knee-slapped to things I just didn't find funny. I'm no stranger to stoner movies, but it seemed like the audience had smoked a whole different brand of weed.

Although the film was introduced as the product of a supposedly great script by Austin writer Dylan Haggerty, the dialogue lumbers along from one unfunny situation to the next. And despite Araki's repeated insistence on Anna Faris's "nuanced" performance as the main character Jane during the post-screening Q&A, the profound layers of her open-mouthed stoned-face eluded me. The other characters in the ensemble cast -- including Jane's sci-fi roommate, played by Danny Masterson of That '70s Show fame -- are occasionally interesting, but do not have enough screen time to flesh out even as bit parts. But hey. Everyone else got it. Maybe you just have to spend more time in the circle. (AS)

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