By Merle Bertrand | April 13, 1998

Between SXSW and the 30P, filmgoers had over 100 features to choose from at over a dozen different venues, not to mention countless short films, music videos, and private screenings running throughout. Here then, is a post-mortem Tale of the Tape, if you will, of a wild and wacky week in Austin, Texas:
[ DAYS ] ^ SXSW: 9 days ^ 30P: 6 days
[ NUMBER OF FILMS SCREENED ] ^ SXSW: 60 features, 80 shorts and music videos ^ 30P: 20 features, 30 shorts
[ STAFF ] ^ SXSW: 42 staff, 10 theater management, 46 crew chiefs, about 300 volunteers ^ 30P: 2 staff, 1 assistant, approx. 3 volunteers
[ AVERAGE ATTENDANCE ] ^ SXSW: 200/screening (estimate) ^ 30P: 50/screening (estimate)
[ ON SITE HQ ] ^ SXSW: Austin Convention Center (44,100 sq. ft.) ^ 30P: Sidewalk in front of Ritz Lounge (approx. 20 sq. ft.)
[ PASS COST ] ^ SXSW: Film Badge $225 ^ 30P: Festival Pass $35
[ MAJOR ADVERTISERS/SPONSORS ] ^ SXSW: Sundance Channel, Independent Film Channel, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, DGA, SAG, AIVF, many, many others ^ 30P: Sponsors? Ha, ha, ha, ha!
[ FT’S PICK BEST FILM ] ^ SXSW: “Frat House” ^ 30P: “Plastic Utopia”
[ FT’S PICK WORST FILM ] ^ SXSW: “Central Standard Time” ^ 30P: “Sick Bastard: Working for the Man”
[ BEST LINES OVERHEARD AT THE DUELING FILM FESTIVALS: ] ^ “I saw what’s been going on here, so I brought it in Beta, 3/4″ and VHS. I thought that would cover it.” ^ – A 30P filmmaker lamenting the lengthy delay of his screening due to technical problems with the video projector.
“She came up to me and said, ‘How dare you promote your unregistered film at my festival? Your film is a joke and your festival is a joke!'” ^ – 30P filmmaker Jose Quiroz relating his version of SXSW’s actions in the “Flyer-gate” scandal.
“This story has grown and grown. What happened was a festival coordinator asked him to leave and he left.” ^ – SXSW Director Nancy Schafer’s version of the same incident.
“Dude, they booted my car!” ^ – 30P co-founder and parking scofflaw Carbon Reynolds.
DETENTION ^ (dir. Andy Anderson) ^ * * * * ^ Bill Walmsley (a superb John Davies) hasn’t taught school in over twenty years. When he’s summoned in desperation to substitute at Donner High School, he quickly realizes just how much things have changed.
With text books held hostage by religious zealots, teachers unable to discipline students for fear of lawsuits, and an administration with all the spine of a jellyfish, Walmsley and attractive art teacher Louise have to be more concerned with not getting shot or raped than actually teaching anything.
That’s when Walmsley concocts a fiendishly deranged plan to salvage some of the brighter kids, and that’s where “Detention” sets off on a harrowing but often hilarious look at just what it might take to teach today’s kids anything.
Writer/director Andy Anderson weaves an unflinching, strikingly original and highly provocative black comedy here. “Detention” could be the secret wet dream of teachers across the country.
THE FARMHOUSE ^ (dir. Marcus Spiegel) ^ * * * ^ Ho hum. Another psychodrama about people with something to hide, revealed to us via that most tediously overused technique in indie film; the quick-cut, strobey flashback sequence.
During an intense midwestern thunderstorm, a mentally disturbed Irma loses her marbles and blows away her daughter Sally with a shotgun. So her only slightly less insane husband and son do the most logical thing they can think of. They bury Sally in the woods, drive her car into a swamp, and go on as if nothing ever happened.
The plan unravels when Jenny, an attractive college student from California allegedly doing research on the “typical American family,” comes calling. When a tornado forces her to spend the night, she’s soon coerced into pretending to be Sally for Irma’s benefit. When a geeky local Sheriff’s Deputy starts snooping around the place asking about both Sally and warning of a murder suspect who fits Jenny’s description, it provides added incentive for Jenny to play along with the cover-up. With neither Jenny nor the family quite trusting the other, the lines nonetheless become quickly blurred between reality and the multiple charades everyone plays, until everyone’s past and present collide.
At a too-long 100 minutes, “The Farmhouse” plods along like the talky play it originally was. Still, aside from a slow start and the plausibility challenges set up by the premise, Marcus Spiegal’s drama gathers steam and saves itself with a taut, suspense-filled ending.
FINDING NORTH ^ (dir. Tanya Wexler) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Rhonda, a 30 year old Jewish American Princess, sees a naked man about to jump off a Manhattan bridge and leaps out of the car. While she bickers with her friends in the car, the man changes his mind and disappears, only to show up rather conveniently at her bank the next day. She obsessively stalks the man, following him all the way to Texas where he’s been sent on a scavenger hunt by the tape recorded voice of his lover, recently deceased from AIDS.
No sooner does he finally rid himself of Rhonda, than he realizes that he can’t face up to his quest, a trip to his late lover’s home town, alone. He enlists Rhonda for emotional support and the duo set out to complete his mission while in the process forging an unlikely, if complicated friendship.
This was a surprisingly good film, covering the requisite emotional range without being overly manipulative or maudlin. I found myself in the schizophrenic position of rooting for these two lonely souls to somehow take their relationship to another level while simultaneously fearing exactly the same thing, which would have felt like a complete sell-out.
Though I’m not sure how real small-town Texans would react to such a visit by a JAP and a gay guy from New York City, it’s hard not to like these two Yankee fish out of water.
LOVE AND FATE ^ (dir. Kenneth Jones) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Even though, as a white guy, it’s all too easy to forget that African-Americans have prejudices as well, Kenneth Jones’ fine “Love and Fate” does an excellent job of reminding us of that. In this case, a young black man forced to place his elderly father in a mental institution, even though he despises “those people,” vows to get his dad out of the home as soon as possible. Then he meets and falls in love with an attractive woman he assumes is a nurse at the home but who is, in actuality, herself one of “those people.”
Terrified of another rejection – being dumped by a former lover prompted the suicide attempt that led to her being in the home in the first place – she enlists the engaging, diverse, and refreshingly non-exploitative other residents to help her extend her charade. Of course, the ruse can’t continue forever and the man must confront his prejudices or lose the woman of his dreams.
If you believed Hollywood, you’d swear that all African-Americans live in the ‘hood. Thus, it was great to see a “black” film shattering Hollywood’s one-dimensional stereotypes. In fact, “Love and Fate’s” loving depiction of small town black southern life was one of the more compelling features of Jones’ film; a mature and honest piece of work.
CONNECT FIVE ^ (dir. John Bryant, L. Jay Duplass, and Andy Fisher) ^ * * * * ^ The surprise “find” of the festival, this no-budget, B&W affair uses an anthology structure to blend several separate storylines together into a cohesive, interconnected whole. We meet, among others, Capslock (Scott McKinstry) – as in the computer key “Caps Lock” – a bizarrely introverted genius loner who receives a random obscene phone call and obsessively tries to track down the mystery caller. We follow the antics of the lamest street gang in history, willing to rumble over a lost pet chicken. Then there’s Jamie (Alex Hudgins) the twelve year kid who charms a lovely tanning salon employee (Amber Lea Voiles) almost past the point of innocence. Finally, there’s the best on-screen personification of Evil since “Time Bandits,” courtesy of Joseph Langham’s maniacal performance.
Writer/directors John Bryant, L. Jay Duplass, and Andy Fisher have weaved an outrageously funny and offbeat collection of tales that somehow almost manage to be warm and fuzzy at the same time. Are you listening C.U.F.F. and New York Underground?
LABOR PAINS ^ * * * ^ Amy is going into labor and she piles into her brother-in-law’s van with him, her sister and her husband for a trip to the hospital. They’re unexpectedly joined by Cody, a deranged, gun-wielding psycho fleeing the murder of his abusive aunt, who leaps into the departing van, takes the entire family hostage, and refuses to let them stop, even to drop off the young mother-to-be at a hospital. I bet next time, hubby uses that condom!
The tension rises as Amy’s labor progresses and her increasingly frightened, frustrated and desperate family plots their escape.
The Grand Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock always took it as a challenge to scare the bejeezus out of people in broad daylight, and that’s precisely what drives “Labor Pains.” The hostages can see the unsuspecting world going on about its business right outside the van’s windows, and yet they’re captive to the whims of a gun-toting maniac.
Ultimately suffering a bit from a linear, subplot-less storyline, the limited visuals offered by the film’s primary location – the interior of a grungy old VW van – and an abrupt, relatively predictable, and anti-climactic ending, this slow-burning nail-biter still takes you along for the ride and forces you to wonder what you’d do if faced with a similar situation. That much, at least, would satisfy ol’ Uncle Al.
THE SCHEDULE ^ * * 1/2 ^ Jacob takes a job in Death’s Collections Department, working for old Mr. Grim himself. His duties include collecting the souls of the world’s dying based on the all-important titular Schedule, the list of appointments he and his fellow reapers must keep, not to mention filling out and filing all the paperwork involved. Trained by Dexter, an old hand who, though he looks Jacob’s age, has been with the company since an ill-advised drinking and driving episode back in the 50’s, Jacob catches on in a hurry. Things are going pretty well until he meets and falls in love with the granddaughter of one of his appointments. Thrown off-center by this new relationship, he foolishly starts becoming emotionally involved with his appointments, taking the soul of a vicious wife-beater, for instance, instead of the wife’s, his intended appointment. This sets in motion a chain of events whereby he’s ultimately charged with collecting the soul of his beloved to balance the books.
“The Schedule” is a near miss; a clever premise with a few good bits but ultimately undermined by inconsistencies within its internal logic. Stuff like how it’s left a little hazy as to when mortals see Jacob as just a regular guy as opposed to when they see him as a reaper. In a perfect world, these guys would tighten up the script and remake “The Schedule” again after gaining a few years worth of experience.
17 & UNDER ^ (dir. Gregg Morgan) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Juan (an impressive Cesar Herrera) is a young convicted gang member sent as part of his sentence to live with a Romero family still grieving over the death of their murdered son David. Complicating things is Kate, the Romero’s “I’m-going-to-Hell-for-thinking-such-thoughts” daughter, a sadistically flirtatious little wench whose merciless teasings understandably drive Juan to distraction. Eventually, hormones and nature override Mr. Romero’s strict rules and warnings and Juan and Kate do what attractive teens are wont to do.
Up until that point, “17 & Under” plays a bit like an after school special. But when Kate takes the usual post-sex afterglow to an unexpectedly demented level and heads for the Land of Delusions, the film spirals off into eerie and truly compelling weirdness. A solid piece of work.
SICK BASTARD: WORKING FOR THE MAN ^ (dir. Kevin Nukem and Taylor Heydman) ^ * 1/2 ^ The most obnoxious, irritating film at the 30P. Drake, Nate, Scott, and Tim are a group of slackers who lose their cable when they can’t come up with the cash to pay the bill. They send the hunkiest of the bunch to distract their gay landlord while the rest of them embark on an elaborate commando raid to pirate the landlord’s cable. In the process, they discover a box of cash in the landlord’s attic. So, they go in again and steal the dough. When the landlord discovers the missing money and traces the suspicious new cable line back to his tenants’ pad, the foursome kidnap him and… what?
Here’s where the film either lost me completely or I just tuned it out. Honestly, from this point on, I felt like I was watching about an hour’s worth of headache-inducing filler because nothing happens! Loud and obnoxious – yeah, I’ll use that adjective again – and as stupid as its main characters, “Sick Bastard…” was an ultra waste of time.

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