Just as some towns deserve two major league baseball teams, cinema-savvy Austin, TX deservedly hosts two rising stars on the film festival circuit: SXSW in the spring and the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriter’s Conference in the fall. With the AFF devoted to that infrastructure of film the screenplay, it seemed apropos that the elegant Driskill Hotel, once again the AFF’s headquarters, has been stripped down to its infrastructure while undergoing major renovations. One glance at the Driskill Lounge’s bare sheet-rocked walls, cleverly plastered over with oversized screenplay pages, and the “Brazil”-like steel beams and duct work exposed in the ceilings unfortunately also symbolized the tattered and bleeding condition of several film prints after encountering the most voraciously sadistic projectors I’ve ever seen.
Yes, the AFF attracted big names deep to the heart of Texas – the Coen brothers, John Landis, Jon Cryer, Bryan Singer (Sandra Bullock doesn’t count ’cause she lives here now) and many others. Yes, this year’s films were a solid crop. And yes the festival turned its usual welcome spotlight on the forgotten screenwriter. But what this year’s festival may mostly be remembered for is more technical snafus, delays, and foul-ups at normally four-star screening venues than even last year’s 30th Parallel Film Fest.
Patient audiences endured, for instance, at least three breakdowns during the World Premiere of Gary Ross’ excellent “Pleasantville” and an impressive on-screen frozen frame melt during “Went to Coney Island On A Mission From God… Be Back By Five” the likes of which I haven’t seen since my Super 8 days as a kid.
These were just the proverbial tip of the iceberg as horror stories abounded. Here’s hoping that next year’s AFF uses projectors that aren’t held together with baling wire and bubble gum and hires projectionists that know where to find the Dust-Off can and Focus and Frame Line knobs. Many more instances of a director having to act out a “missing” scene during the Q&A, and this’ll quickly be a one festival town again. Enough griping. Let’s get to the good stuff…
WESTERN (NR) ^ * * ^ (* * * 1/2 until the last scene) ^ This movie pissed me off! It was so good right up until the last shot. Then it blew it. Screwed up. Dropped the ball. Choked. Tanked. Gee, ya suppose I didn’t like the ending? ^
Paco’s a hunky – or at least what those kooky French consider
“hunky” – shoe salesman who picks up Nino, a diminutive hitchhiker and
full-time wanderer. When Nino, who resembles a “Route 66”-era Bob Dylan,
steals Paco’s car, the downcast salesman hitches a ride with the beautiful
Marinette. It’s the start of the proverbial beautiful relationship. When Paco (too-coincidentally) later spots Nino, he beats him up, but then feels bad about it and visits him in the hospital where they strike up a friendship. Marinette then asks Paco for three weeks apart to “make sure their relationship is for real,” (women!) so Nino convinces Paco to join him on the road.
Here, the film drifts into an aimless Gallic buddy/road movie, with most of that travel time spent trying to get the romantically-challenged Nino laid. Our pal Paco doesn’t have this problem, however, because while he swears he loves Marinette, he just can’t help “screwing up” whenever a fair damsel’s bosoms beckon.
Director Manuel Poirier’s ’97 Cannes Grand Jury winner is a charming and – dare I use this word in a FT review? – delightful road movie. In fact, the breathtaking French vistas seen from those roads are one of this film’s highlights.
But I’m still ticked. The luckless Nino finally finds his dream woman and we’re breathlessly wondering what will become of the philandering Paco and his beloved Marinette. What we get is a glib cop-out ending and a sickening “That’s it?” reaction when the credits roll.
Go see “Western” because the first 98% is sly, endearing, and clever fun. As for the ending, do what you did for “Aliens III and/or IV”: just pretend it never happened.
PLEASANTVILLE (PG-13) ^ ( ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ Every now and then, a movie comes along that does the motion picture industry proud. No, I’m not talking about “Saving Private Ryan,” but rather “Pleasantville,” Gary Ross’ sly and provocative directorial debut. ^
Antagonistic twin teenagers from a typically broken 90’s home are having a dragout over the TV remote. One, an expert on “Pleasantville”, a 1950’s “Father Knows Best-ish” sitcom is hoping to win $1,000 in a “Pleasantville” TV marathon contest. His sister, a snobby flirt on the
verge of becoming “popular,” has invited the school hunk over to watch a
concert on MTV.
When they finally break the remote, a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts in a sweet nod to the icon of Mayberry) shows up with an odd-looking replacement that transports the squabbling sibs INTO Pleasantville, a black
and white TV town where the sun always shines, the home team always wins, and firemen make house calls to rescue cats stuck in trees.
Of course, the world ends at Main Street, sex means holding hands and books only contain blank pages, but you can’t have everything. Transformed into the show’s “Bud” and “Mary Sue” characters, the twins struggle mightily to adapt to their strange old world.
What seems at first to be a gently satiric nostalgia piece gradually turns serious when the twins introduce spontaneity and a dose of 90’s reality to Pleasantville’s pre-programmed denizens. This reality virus, manifesting as color, gradually spreads through the town.
While this awakening adds color, knowledge and diversity to their previously rote existence, the unprepared citizens must also come to grips with such decidedly unpleasant scourges as intolerance, violence and racism. When that once-charming black and white 1950’s Main Street view transforms into B&W newsreel-like footage of a book burning, hatred-spewing mob chanting “No Coloreds,” the film certainly tempers our nostalgia – and cleverly fires its warning shots right across our bow. Sure times are tough in the 90’s, but it ain’t all bad and the “good old days” weren’t always all that good. This is an exquisite, timely film. It’s nice to know that occasionally, even Hollywood does something right.
CHOCOLATE FOR BREAKFAST ^ * * ^ There’s lots of snappy, engaging, witty dialogue in “Chocolate for Breakfast.” Lots and lots of snappy, engaging, witty dialogue. In fact, so much of the film is devoted to snappy, engaging, witty dialogue that everything else, namely the story, becomes subservient to the writing. ^
Writer (with Brooke Hailey)/director Emily Baer lets us in on the lives of four cardboard cutout characters, er, attractive young women who are out of college and struggling to gain traction in their respective lives. One’s, a – say it with me now – Wall Street up and comer throwing it all away to become a single mom. Another’s a slacker with a knack for mural painting. The third’s a paralegal with law school ambitions and the fourth can’t buy either a boyfriend or an orgasm. Four “threads,” no plot.
Someone during the post-screening Q&A gushed that the film was like a “Friends” episode. That was in my notes, too, but I didn’t necessarily
mean it as a compliment. Movies, unlike TV sitcoms, need to hold your interest for longer than 26 minutes and it takes more than this film’s
admittedly good dialogue to do that.
Just like chocolate for breakfast, this film was primarily just empty calories.
WENT TO CONEY ISLAND ON A MISSION FROM GOD… BE BACK BY FIVE( ^ * * * * ^ Not only does this film, FT’s pick as Best Competition Feature, have the coolest title ever, but this bittersweet, multi-layered comparison of life’s realities versus life’s potential is as compelling as it is deeply resonant. ^
When lifelong buddies Daniel (Jon Cryer) and Stanley (Rick Stear) hear that Richie, their one-time third musketeer, had been seen wandering around Coney Island homeless and deranged, they set out on their mission to find him. As they traipse around the nearly deserted amusement park on a blustery winter day, they encounter a collection of motley park groupies. As they interact with these odd folks, they gradually become aware of the drifting stagnation in their own lives while we observe, through intermittent flashbacks, the moments that brought them to their current state of entrenched ruttedness.
Though it sounds ponderous and preachy, it’s actually quite funny and thought provoking. Co-writer (with Cryer)/director Richard Schenkman tugs a heartstring or two, particularly when the guys find Richie, a manic depressive scrounging around in the garbage, and we learn what drove him there. But he mostly just lets us enjoy hanging out with these two guys
for the day. The film is a little slow, but that’s more than balanced out by its resonance. Anyone who’s the same age as these guys and who sees
everyone around them but themselves getting a picket fence and a piece of
American Dream pie will identify with their frustrations.
Cryer, to his credit, seems determined to do his own thing; this being his second notable off-Hollywood turn with Schenkman (“Pompatus of Love”.) Not only that, the guy’s just fun to watch; a sort of overlooked Bob Newhart of the 90’s. Would somebody please put him and the oft-confused Matthew Broderick in the same film so that Cryer could get the recognition he deserves?
It may not necessarily be a mission from the Big Guy, but do yourself a favor and check out this film.
CHOW BELLA ^ * * ^ It’s a fun concept: A substitute food critic writes a scathing review of a mob-owned restaurant and, as a result, gets abducted to be “taken care of.” (Gee, wonder if any of these films are… nah.) It may
even have made a fun movie, given the proper time and care. Instead Gavin
Grazer’s rushed and sloppy would-be farce has all the pizzazz of cold macaroni and cheese. ^
With Arye Gross and Paul Provenza starring as the critic and the thug with culinary leanings respectively, the film actually gets out of the blocks fairly quickly. But then, like bread that refuses to rise, it goes nowhere fast. Instead, we’re stuck in the kitchen with these clowns for an hour or so of claustrophobic hand-held psychoanalysis of their respective families and “Do what you really want to do!” pep talks. Before long, I’d developed a touch of indigestion myself. Check, please!
MY MOTHER’S EARLY LOVERS ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Maple and her sisters are helping their crotchety old dad pack up and move out of the family home after their mother’s death. When she finds a trunk containing her mother’s diaries and some old photos, Maple obsessively reaches back in time to better get to know a mother she’d had only a distant, troubled relationship with in life. As she does, she learns a bit more than she really wanted to about her mother’s sexual proclivities and her parents’ complex courtship. ^
Complicating things is her alcoholic brother Calvin, a devilish ne’er-do-good charmer who continues to desperately reach out to his son in spite of his ex’s restraining order. At the same time Maple’s bonding with her departed mother, she’s also trying to help her father and Calvin come to terms with their own stormy relationship.
Some nice juxtapositions and intermingling of past and present imagery and sound here. It’s not much of a leap to realize that just like father, like son, so too, is Maple a great deal like her late mother.
Nora Jacobson’s film is one of those made-for-festival films where you just know tragedy is coming up in the 6th reel. You just don’t know which specific tragedy it will be. Because of that sense of impending doom, I can’t really say that I “enjoyed” this film, but it was well-acted and written full of believable people. A very solid effort.
SHOW AND TELL ^ * * 1/2 ^ Babe Mahler is a typically desperate young actress willing to do just about anything to get some exposure, including going on “Hooked Up,” a sleazy “Dating Game” knock-off that fixes up actors and sends them out on a date. When Babe claims she was date-raped by her “Hooked Up” co-star, she decides to approach the “Show and Tell” show, a Sally Jessie-ish white trash fest, to bring her story to the people and, not incidentally, gain a little TV exposure for herself. ^
This was actually a very good film for awhile. Director Dean Pollack’s set-up is handled well, giving us a comprehensive look at both tabloid TV’s cynical and devious manipulations as well as the anxiety Babe’s decision to go public causes those around her.
It’s the conclusion that falters. You can feel the attempt to build chaos and tension but the sparks never quite ignite. Worse yet, everyone, from the scummy TV producers and the entire tabloid TV industry, to Babe herself, gets let off the hook far too easily.
At least those trashy programs, for better or for worse, deliver what they promised. Unfortunately, “Show and Tell” ultimately bails out and plays “Peekaboo” instead.
THE BIG EMPTY ^ * * * 1/2 ^ When Lloyd Matthews sees a long lost friend with unfulfilled dreams die right before his eyes while stocking shelves at a drug store, he decides to get his own act together. So, he trades in his waiter’s name tag for a PI license and enters the adrenaline-charged world of the private dick. ^
‘Course, that mostly means cases like his current one in which Jane, (a suddenly everywhere Ellen “Show and Tell” Goldwasser) suspects her beatific husband of having an affair. Lloyd (writer Jim McManus dolled up to look like Dick York with a Ray Davies haircut) sets off in pursuit of Jane’s husband Peter, a too-good-to-be-true social worker, and finds out that, sure enough, the bastard’s cheating on her, uh, sorta.
Before the screening, McManus indicated the film was popular with European audiences and I see why. Despite Lloyd’s gloomy, brooding nature and the noirish overtones, this is a very funny film… but you gotta wait for it. Director Jack Perez lets us languish in these desperate, sordid lives for a long, slow while before he lets Lloyd and Jane’s twisted relationship evolve. When it does, the resulting twists and turns as he practically kidnaps her, then takes pity on Peter, a broken man starving himself out of grief, are as compelling as they are puzzling.
“The Big Empty” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it weird having such a good time around such depressing people.
LA CUCARACHA ^ * * * 1/2 ^ This is an oddity, indeed. Two films by the same writer/director team (Jim McManus and Jack Perez of “The Big Empty”) appearing in the same festival. It’s a testament to both that the two films are as different – and as good – as they are. ^
Eric Roberts turns in a career performance as Walter Pool, a drunken gringo who’s fled to Mexico to escape from himself as much as from his job as an office drone in New York City. When he foolishly agrees to be a hit man, he becomes the doomed expendable pawn of a local bigshot.
Fortunately, he’s also a survivor, if a pathetic one, and embarks on a quest both for revenge against his would-be assassins and for the possibly unattainable love of an impossibly lovely seniorita.
As good as the writing is in this film – and it’s very good, if overwritten in parts – Roberts IS this movie. He displays a remarkable sense of comic timing and does a frightening job of making being a loser seem damn funny. His tear-drenched diatribe against life is an amazing juxtaposition of a man overcome with angst saying pathetic, yet hysterically funny things.
And then there’s the infamous Cockroach Scene…
“La Cucaracha” won this year’s festival and, though I’m going with “Coney Island…” in a close call, I can’t really argue with the selection. With any luck at all, this film will be a survivor like its namesake insect and emerge from distribution purgatory to find an audience.
SPIN THE BOTTLE ^ * * * ^ “Not another one,” I groaned as the first few minutes of “Spin the Bottle” unspooled before my eyes. But for the first 3/4 of this film, it sure seemed a lot like yet another talky reunion movie. You know, the kind where old friends get together for a reunion then sit around for the next ninety minutes discussing the meaning of life, relationships and philosophy while speaking in the kind of overly-intellectual dialogue found only in a film festival movie. That’s exactly what this film was and my mind started churning up snide comparisons to “The Big Chill” and formulating scathing commentary about how this kind of stuff was cool in the embryonic “Brothers McMullen” days of the modern independent film movement but that everyone who could hold a camcorder was trying to make movies like this now. ^
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Turns out, the innocent reunion weekend wasn’t so innocent after all; that Jonah, the then-geeky, now studly-but-reclusive friend, has organized the whole weekend for a very specific – and surprising – purpose. His connivings serve two purposes. Not only do they set in motion profound, life altering events for the reunion group, but they save this film from being a complete exercise in redundancy.
Too bad it took 3/4 of the film to finally find some fresh air. By then, it was almost, but not quite, too late.
TEMPORARY GIRL ^ * * * * ^ Easily the most stylistically original and distinctive film on the competition side of the aisle, Johnny White’s “Temporary Girl” is a goofy and refreshing comedy that not only asks if there’s a Statute of Limitations on dreams, but examines the occasional incompatibility of those dreams with the lives of those who hold them dear.
All this in a film about Jeanette, a fourteen year “temporary” worker who spends her days on the job dodging the boss and her annoying co-workers long enough to xerox head shots, sweeten her acting resume on the company computer, make tape dubs in the basement A/V center, etc. So intent is Jeanette on pushing her struggling performance career, that she’s jeopardizing her marriage to a husband who’s already realized he’s never going to “make it” as a rock star. While hubby has settled into a managerial job at a record store and now desperately wants kids, Jeanette
still stubbornly and obsessively chases her big break. ^
Writer Lisa Kotin was born, it seems, to play the harried and frazzled Jeanette, while the film, with several undercranked scenes and gaudy, in-your-face art direction, is a visual treat from the brilliantly animated opening credits on.
“Temporary Girl” is definitely on the raw side with a slightly amateurish feel and Jeanette’s co-workers are all merely one dimensional caricatures. But it is good fun and the ironic “careful what you wish for” ending was a perfect finale.
APT PUPIL (R) ^ * * 1/2 ^ It must be frustrating to direct an okay new film then hear nothing but let-down comparisons to your previous outing. Yet, that’s precisely the scenario I’m afraid Bryan “The Usual Suspects” Singer faces with “Apt Pupil.” ^
Based on a Stephen King novella, Todd, a high school honor student, tracks down a Nazi war criminal who’s been living in Todd’s hometown since the end of the war. Armed with photographs and incriminating fingerprints, Todd threatens to turn in the old man unless he tells the teenager what it was like in the concentration camps. As the man recounts his horrific crimes over the course of several weeks, Todd begins to come under the influence of the old Nazi’s latent evil, rekindled despite having lain dormant for nearly half a century. The monster swiftly turns the tables on Todd, entrapping him in a neat blackmail scheme of his own, so that Master and understudy are locked in a dark twisted cycle of mutual dependency.
The problem is, Todd’s stalked this guy and compiled a dossier complete with photographs and fingerprints. But we have no idea what’s fueling Todd’s morbid interest, so we’re constantly distracted by wondering, “Why?”, the first question people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil.
Then, after jumping right into this nightmare, the film muddles through an unfocused second act as if even it couldn’t face the evil leaping off the screen. Several times I rubbed my hands in “Okay, here we go!” anticipation but the film again settles back on its haunches.
There are a handful of chilling individual scenes, however. When Todd commands the old Nazi, dressed up in the trademark black leather SS uniform, to march, we voyeuristically look in as if spying on some kinky S&M parlor game. Stiff as a marionette at first, the old man revs up into a momentarily rejuvenated, goose-stepping storm trooper, briefly and dangerously beyond Todd’s control.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these signature scenes to sustain the film. Even Ian McKellen’s awesome performance as a pitiable old man in one instant, an unreconstructed monster the next, is a double-edged sword. He’s so good, he simply overpowers Brad Renfro’s Todd. And the montage device that Singer used to such devastating effect in “The Usual Suspects” climax is just beat into the ground here. See, there it is again. Another, inevitable comparison to “The Usual Suspects.”
Oh, why fight it? “Apt Pupil” is a creepy, if disjointed exploration of the nature of evil. But compared to its predecessor, it’s also a bit of a disappointment.

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