Central High School in Clifton, Illinois always had two school plays. One English teacher, who’d been teaching at the school since Napoleonic times, directed The fall play. The other English teacher, who’d been there since somewhere around the fall of the Roman Empire, directed the bigger and more ambitious spring play. It’s an analogy that aptly describes the difference between the up and coming Austin Film Festival in the fall and its spring counterpart, the immense juggernaut that is SXSW. This year’s 6th Annual Austin Film Festival screened a mixed bag of films ranging all across the production spectrum that pretty well covered the Bell Curve of quality; i.e. lots of mediocre films bookended by a handful of gems and clunkers. The festival isn’t as big or as powerful as SXSW and the films don’t screen as often. Still, just as CHS’ Fall Play provided a welcome second chance for its students to hit the stage, so does this unique festival, which honors the contributions of the largely unsung screenwriter, give filmmakers a second opportunity to play the River City. Here, then, is what they showed us:
BLUE RIDGE FALL ^ * * * * ^ Someone once told me that the first thing you should do when you’re trying to get out of a hole is stop digging. That’s advice the four young protagonists in James Rowe’s gripping “Blue Ridge Fall” should have taken to heart. Instead, when Aaron, a mentally-challenged high school student, deals with his abusive, alcoholic, fire and brimstone spewing father the only way he knows how, his three friends go to criminal lengths to try to protect their troubled friend. Every move they make, however, only makes things worse not only for themselves but for other innocents around them. Soon, the well-intentioned young men find themselves holed up in a cabin on the wrong end of a very real and potentially lethal stand-off with the law. Talk about reinforcing the old notion that two wrongs don’t make a right. With a fine cast of young actors supported by an exceptional Tom Arnold and Amy Irving as Aaron’s troubled parents, “Blue Ridge Falls” is a solid, intensely dramatic companion to such lighter-hearted high school buddy movies as “Dazed and Confused” and its especially close cousin “Dancer, TX.” That’s not to say that it’s quite at the level of those films, however. Rowe’s script takes a little too long to complete the set-up and briefly loses its way in the middle with the guys’ aborted attempt to cover their tracks in such a way so as to get everyone off the hook. Also, although the ending itself was a fairly unpredictable, nicely balanced bittersweet mix, I never bought the weakly explained rationalization for the law’s heavy-handed tactics. The film takes place in the kind of small town, after all, where the sheriff’s (Chris Issak) kid sister is dating the ringleader of Aaron’s protective posse. Still, “Blue Ridge Fall” hits the mark most of the time. With the caveat that I never saw festival winner “Wednesday’s Child” due to technical problems with the print, this taut drama extolling the bonds of friendship as well as the fragility and vulnerability of futures we wrongly assume are set in stone, stood out above the rest.
THE CORNDOG MAN ^ * * * ^ Ace (Noble C. Willingham) is a consummate redneck boat salesman in Bougherville, SC. A boisterous, back-slappin’ good ol’ boy fond of such folksy nuggets as, “You ain’t got enough sense to pour piss out of a boot!” Ace is the top salesman at Triple K Marine. (Think about it.) Or at least he was until an anonymous prank phone caller mercilessly subjects the feisty but hopelessly overmatched huckster to a series of antagonistic phone calls. Playful at first, then growing increasingly obnoxious and finally darkly threatening, the caller (excellently voiced by Jim Holmes) slowly forces Ace to own up to a brutal, long-repressed episode from his past. Director Andrew Shea must be familiar with the infamous “Red” audio tapes, (or Chris Gore’s short film of the same name,) as “The Corndog Man” is essentially the Red tapes with a moral. Noble Willingham occasionally even resembles Lawrence Tierney’s portrayal of the cantankerous Boston bartender driven to sputtering bouts of profanity by his unknown telephone tormentor in those tapes. The difference here is that whereas we never know who Red’s tormentor is, “The Corndog Man” eventually reveals the chilling identity of Ace’s nemesis, providing a logical downward spiral for Willingham’s character. Working as a boat salesman all day and coming home to a houseboat on a swamp for an evening drinking beer and watching fishing shows on TV with your pet guinea pig may not sound like much of a life, but it’s paradise compared to what Ace has in store for him. Though it’s at times as heavy-handed as a corndog’s batter, “The Corndog Man” nonetheless manages to be both amusing and deadly serious at the same time.
TIARA TANGO ^ * 1/2 ^ That old saying “It’s better to be seen than heard” applies double to the stereotypical beauty pageant contestant. Capture them on film and these incredibly beautiful women are flawless examples of feminine perfection. And then, during every pageant’s obligatory question and answer session, they go and open their mouths. In less time than it takes to twirl a baton, their giggly, vacuous babblings transform them from perfect goddesses into air headed twits. Now imagine being stuck in a movie theater for ninety minutes listening to four of these bowheaded geniuses squealing and squawking in thick southern accents and you begin to get a feel for the irritating raw nerve that is “Tiara Tango.” Ostracized Miss Texas Gal 1968 Laura Lee Dailie (Jean Smart from TV’s “Designing Women”) receives an invitation to coach a pageant in her home state of Texas. Worn down by the insistent badgering of her smarmy but devoted boyfriend Lyle (an embarrassing Robert Wagner), she and Lyle pack themselves into his RV and head to the Lone Star State with her cute but dumb as facial mud daughter Corinne and two of her daughter’s friends in tow. After enduring this grating and phenomenally unfunny road movie, I can say without hesitation that we’d have all been far better off if the RV had plunged off the side of a cliff. What a mess. Writer/director Werner Molinksy has a much better sense of fashion than sense of rhythm, humor or direction. He completely undercuts his one and only attempt at high drama – revealing the circumstances which drove Laura out of Texas – with a handful of clumsy surrounding scenes played for laughs. About the only thing more obnoxious than the big-haired, bigger-mouthed women and their fake drawls was Wagner. He mugs for the camera incessantly and overacts even more than his female co-stars and that’s saying something. Worse, he actually seems to be enjoying himself. The only thing that could have saved “Tiara Tango” would have been a swimsuit competition. That, or the sound cutting out. Since neither thing happened and I had to suffer through it as a result, I hereby award “Tiara Tango” the Torn Sprocket Hole Tiara as worst film of the festival.
THE BOOK THAT WROTE ITSELF ^ * * * ^ www.thebookthatwroteitself.com ^ Vincent Macken (Liam O Mochain) fancies himself to be a world class novelist but he can’t get anyone in the publishing industry to agree. Venting his frustrations with his friends at a pub, Vincent hits upon a unique marketing scheme. He’ll find modern day substitutes for the various quests his book’s medieval hero undertakes, and he’ll have himself videotaped completing these quests to prove the relevance of his work to the unenlightened publishers. Enlisting the aid of the attractive Ashley (Antoinette Guiney) to capture his exploits on tape, the determined novelist fast talks his way through an ever more challenging treasure hunt, culminating with his posing as a TV reporter to surreptitiously audition Hollywood stars for the screenplay version of his novel at a Venice Film Festival press conference. With its audacious and cleverly executed set-up, writer/director O Mochain has concocted an oddly engaging little film. The thick accents require a bit of work at first until your ears adapt and there’s a fair amount of traveling through the Irish countryside going on to pad it out to feature length. Still, this wasn’t too bad. If “The Book That Wrote Itself” were actually, a book I’d recommend it…but I’d wait for the paperback to come out.
POST CONCUSSION ^ * * * 1/2 ^ “Just two little words,” warns this film’s understated movie poster. “Serious brain damage.” Such is the twisted, offbeat humor of Daniel Yoon’s clever quasi-autobiographical comic satire “Post Concussion.” Matthew (Yoon) is a sharp as a shark, pragmatically ruthless workaholic management consultant at a Fortune 1000 firm. For his considerable skills at paring down corporate workforces, and thus laying off thousands of employees, he’s paid a handsome salary that almost compensates for his Spartan existence and the complete lack of meaning to his life. Enter the car, which strikes the distracted suit and sends him flying through the air, his head thwacking the concrete like a melon on the “Late Show.” Weeks later, unable to work due to the splitting headaches, lack of concentration and memory loss associated with severe concussions, Matthew goes on disability. As he seeks out a bewildering and amusing variety of New Age cures and therapists, he takes advantage of the downtime to take stock of and ultimately redirect his life. “Post Concussion” is a charming and disarming winner, primarily due to Yoon’s relaxed and natural portrayal of Matthew. It lingers too long in a few spots, namely scenes of the recovering patient’s endless channel surfing and the falling in love scenes between Matthew and his (former) East German neighbor Monica (Jennifer Welch), but that’s okay. Why a pleasant, otherwise intelligent fellow like Yoon, still suffering from debilitating headaches on occasion some five years after his real life accident/career change, would take on the horrid hassles of making a movie is anyone’s guess. Lucky for us, he did just that. And if “Post Concussion” doesn’t get picked up, it proves that distributors are suffering from some serious brain damage of their own.
LET THE DEVIL WEAR BLACK ^ * * * ^ If the Devil did wear black, he’d sure stand out in this crowd, as director Stacy Title paints virtually every character in this whodunit thriller some shade of gray. If Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” were in a movie today, he’d probably be just like Jack (Jonathan Penner.) A detached grad student with a murky history of mental illness who can’t seem to get over his idolized father’s sudden death, Jack has begun taking an interest in his late father’s business for the first time. He discovers that that business was primarily snatching up sleazy businesses such as bars and strip clubs on prime real estate and holding onto them until he could sell the land for a fortune. Which, as it turns out, he hardly ever did much to the consternation of his brother and his lawyer. After receiving an anonymous tip in a tavern toilet that his father was actually murdered, Jack slowly begins piecing together the murder scheme. Soon, his greasy playboy Uncle Carl emerges as the prime suspect at just about the same time Jack realizes his own life is in serious danger. With its threadbare and disjointed plotline, it’s the collection of greedy, seedy characters who keeps “Devil” afloat. Penner’s Jack swings from affable charisma to hard-bitten schmuck with ease while the shifting perceptions and alliances of the supporting characters drives the film as much if not more so than the plot. With a feeling much closer to a serious and sexy “B” movie than an edgy indie film, “Let the Devil Wear Black” should make a comfortable landing in a video store near you.
AFRAID OF EVERYTHING ^ * * 1/2 ^ Anne (Nathalie Richard) hasn’t been out of her house in a year; ever since the accident which claimed part of her leg. Not coincidentally, it’s also been about a year since she and her stick-in-the-mud husband Donnie (Daniel Aukin) have made love. When Iris (Sarah Adler), Anne’s half sister arrives for an extended visit, she’s not so much a breath of fresh air as a gust who does her best to blow out the repressed and gloomy atmosphere suffocating her beloved sister. I’m always suspicious of films with a running time of under 80 minutes because most usually feel padded to stretch long enough to qualify as a feature. “Afraid of Everything” is no exception, although it’s nonetheless a decent exercise in minimalist filmmaking. Probably 90% of David Barker’s simmering black and white film takes place in Anne and Donnie’s apartment with only some combination of the three principles on screen. This leads to a nicely appropriate touch of claustrophobia as well as ratchets up the repressed sexual tension between Donnie and a subtly but mercilessly flirtatious Iris. With the proverbial lid clamped down on this primed for drama threesome, “Afraid of Everything” could have built to a powerful and explosive conclusion. You keep waiting for the pot to boil over, but it never does. Instead, Barker lets the steam vent out all too easily and the film falls flat in the end as a result.
LE NEW YORKER ^ * * * ^ This sounds like something I would pull. Love stricken Alfred (Matthieu Demy) flies from Paris to New York City to track down Alice (Grace Phillips,) an attractive woman he met when she was on vacation in the City of Love. He now finds himself freezing on her doorstep listening to her tell him to get lost. Disappointed but not distraught – he’s sure she’ll eventually come around – Alfred finds work dog sitting for an ominous, filthy rich businessman named Farrakhan. He also sets about finding his luggage which had been lost on the flight over. A string of bad things, some of them not even Alfred’s fault, strike the determined Lothario and soon, right about the time the luggage shows up, he’s either gonna get his girl…or wind up as the unwitting star of a snuff film. This oddball black comedy starts out quickly but slowly sinks in an uncertain, awkwardly executed chronological mire. There was something, either in Benoit Graffin’s direction or in the script by Graffin and David Bock, that kept confusing me as to when everything was happening. How much time passes, for instance, between the moment Alfred accidentally lets the dog out and when Farrakhan’s bitchy, spoiled daughter comes home? How soon after he’s brutalized by the daughter does Alice, apparently won over at last, come looking for him. It could very well have been me just being incredibly dense, but distractions such as these kept taking me out of what was an otherwise sweet, if odd, love story.
CHARADES ^ * * ^ Laura and Quinn, on the surface the paragon of squeaky clean, yuppie Stepford couple-dom, are hosting another barbecue. Their friends Evan and Monica are in attendance as are the recently widowed Jude (Karen Black) and Barry (Jack Scalia), a rowdy, hunky new guy from the shipping department. But what seems an ordinary suburban weekend cookout soon turns into anything but. Jude’s wealthy late husband was kidnapped and murdered and she’s got a theory as to who did it. When Barry, an obnoxiously hyperactive lout, breaks in on a nosy neighbor, it sets a chain of events in motion which ultimately reveals who the killer was. Like we care. Here’s a movie that isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is. While exploring the seamy secrets of society’s suburban ciphers, “Charades” doesn’t lay its cards out on the table and invite you to play along like a good mystery should. There’s no flowing, cohesive story for us to unwrap. Instead, “Charades” essentially cheats. It either subjects us to Black’s incessant jabbering, which tells us all the important plot points rather than letting the movie show us, thus violating the first rule of good screen writing, or we see crappy, bonk-on-the-head flashback sequences which spoon feed us mindless sloths just enough strategically pre-selected tidbits to tie up the loose ends. “Charades” has all the prerequisites for a straight to video release. Lots of gun play. Abundant boobage. B Movie staples Black, Scalia, C. Thomas Howell and “Baywatch”‘s Erika Elenick in the cast. Even a laughable attempt at a one-line catch-phrase. But that’s it. Director Stephen Eckleberry should just get busy calling video distributors and leave unsuspecting festival folk alone.
ROCKFORD ^ * * 1/2 ^ On first glance, this should have been a fine film. Chronicling thirteen year old Rajesh Nadu’s turbulent and eventful first year at Rockford High School, a Catholic boy’s boarding school in India, writer/director Nagesh Kukunoor’s “Rockford” instead sputters along with as many scenes that don’t work as do. While the film does a good job showing Rajesh’s coming of age and dealing with such universal constants as school bullies, obnoxious, loutish coaches, and pedophiliac priests, it comes up short in exploring the culture clash Rajesh should experience between Indian society and the Western world. Other than a quick scene with several boys mocking a teacher who demands that the Indian youths speak only English, you get virtually no sense of the enduring mistrust and resentment between the former colony and its former colonizer. Beyond all that geopolitical over-intellectualizing, however, lies the cold, cruel fact that “Rockford” displays a subtle yet omnipresent amateurish feel throughout. While Rohan Dey’s ebullient portrayal of the bright and popular, if initially athletically challenged Rajesh keeps “Rockford” entertaining, neither his performance nor the other fine performances around him are enough to save a script that’s virtually devoid of any intensity or major conflict. Further, as Kukunoor goes to great pains to quickly and almost effortlessly resolve what few conflicts he managed to sneak in, you wonder why he even bothered to put them there in the first place. The result is a surprisingly bland and emotionless coming of age story that could just as easily have taken place in Rockford, Illinois as in India.
THE HI-LINE ^ * * * 1/2 (not counting the last two shots) * * (with the last two shot) ^ Damn it, damn it, damn it! As this year’s festival has featured one film with a perfect ending, (David Lynch’s “The Straight Story”), it only makes sense then that it should also feature a film with the most needlessly screwed up ending I’ve seen in a long time. Well, at least since the last shot of “Pleasantville.” A brooding and mysterious Sam Polivino (Ryan Alosio) calls young and impressionable Vera Johnson (Rachael Leigh Cook) and sets up an appointment for a job interview the next day. Apparently the hopeful young woman, desperate for any meal ticket out of Montana, never stops to question why someone from Chicago would track her down in the middle of that vast state for a retail job interview. But Sam, as Vera is the last to figure out, isn’t really there to hire her. The job interview is merely a front. He’s really there to deliver news which blindsides the young woman and strikes at the very core of who she is. It also launches Vera and Sam on a road trip to further explore Vera’s suddenly murky past; a road trip which will bind the two of them together forever. Maybe. Damn those last two shots! This is a solid, well-crafted film that’s obviously designed to tug at the heart strings and usually succeeds. The first thirty minutes or so are especially intriguing as we’re trying to figure out just what, exactly, Sam is up to. Though the film bogs down somewhat during the road trip portion, Alosio and Cook both do a fine job of struggling – and failing – to repress the growing feelings they develop for one another throughout the course of their journey. I just wish writer/director Ronald Judkins had known when to quit. Sometimes, as a good friend of mine once so astutely observed, ya just want a Twinkie. At the end of his engaging set-up and the ensuing emotional roller coaster ride he gives Vera, Judkins has all the pieces in place for what would have been a satisfying, if admittedly conventional ending. Instead, he appears to give us the Twinkie we’re slavering for, only to snatch it away with those last two ill-advised shots. “The Hi-Line” ends with a low blow and as a result, we leave the theater unsatisfied.
JUNKED ^ * 1/2 ^ Nikki, a prostitute as well as a junkie, shoots up and flashes back to a happier time; a time when she was just a prostitute, subjected to being beaten for money by her johns and beaten just for the hell of it by her loose cannon boyfriend Jimmie. Ah, those were the days. Jimmie is hanging out with Crow, a maniacal loser fresh out of jail for a crime committed by Nikki’s brother, Switch. When Crow kills a black man for no apparent reason, it puts Switch, Jimmie and Nikki in grave danger. When Switch hits the streets, desperate to get enough money to allow them to escape, he orders a panicked Jimmie to keep an eye on his sister. Instead, Jimmie loses his temper and kicks her in the head, leaving a noticeable bruise. Crow, a sadistic mother, seizes the opportunity to blackmail Jimmie. He’ll keep quiet about the abuse if Jimmie will force Nikki to have sex with him. With friends like these, it’s no wonder she hit the needle. As the police and the slain man’s buddies both close in, Switch races to rescue his dysfunctional family and move them out of harm’s way. If only “Junked” were even one tenth as good as that synopsis makes it sound. In truth, this lame and sloppy mess is a grating waste of time. Wildly bumpy handheld camera work masquerades as “edgy” and this film measures youthful street angst by the amount of profanity-laced yelling it contains. In fact, “Junked” is an utter embarrassment for a festival that prides itself on celebrating the screen writer. Unless the Heart of Texas Screenwriter’s Conference gives out a special award for the most uses of the words “f**k,” “f*g,” and “w***e,” this film makes a travesty of the festival’s main claim to fame. Featuring a scummy landscape populated by utterly despicable human-shaped vermin, there’s absolutely nothing to like about “Junked.” In fact, the film’s title best describes what should be done to each and every print.
WINDING ROADS ^ * * * * ^ Here’s one that just screamed “Chick Flick.” It is. But it’s a pretty damned good one that guys should be able to tolerate, even if it makes us squirm in our seats from time to time. That’s not because “Winding Roads” resorts to that old male-bashing trick to make the women look good, but because it takes an unflinching, hyper-realistic look at the ever-changing dynamics of relationships. As we guys don’t necessarily like being reminded how much work relationships are and how fragile and volatile they can be, this powerful film by Ted Melfi has the potential to rock a lot of previously complacent boats. It’s a simple premise. Best friends Renee, Samantha and Kelly are all at drastically different points in their respective relationships. On the surface, Renee seems to have the best of it. Billy, Renee’s boyfriend of nearly four years, proposes to her shortly after she discovers she’s pregnant. He gets her a diamond to make it official, only to then watch the relationship slowly disintegrate under the burden of legitimacy. While Renee and Billy struggle to regroup, Samantha, who’d had her heart broken when her beau Brian left to go study architecture, is trying to make a new beginning of a different kind. Repentant and earnest, Brian has returned, claiming he’s back for good. Sam must now decide whether to risk another heartbreak and let him back into her life. Finally, there’s Kelly and Mick, who are only signed paperwork away from divorcing after a tragedy that’s seemingly too much for their marriage to overcome. If “Winding Roads” at times plays more like a nighttime soap opera than a feature film, its saving grace is its utterly believability. Filled with fine performances, this is one poignant, thought provoking look at love and relationships that I highly recommend.