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By KJ Doughton | June 25, 2008

Like a post-war battlefield strewn with bloody bodies, the Puget Sound area is slowly recovering from 2008’s Seattle International Film Festival. Scattered about theaters and press offices, aluminum canisters of film and DVD screeners have piled up like dirty dishes in a sink. Coffee and popcorn butter stains have fused together on cinema upholstery, creating hideous new patterns.

Hordes of celluloid addicts have delighted in celebrity sightings. Reeking of suave decadence, John Waters’ pencil moustache quivered atop thin, talkative lips as the skeletal Sultan of Sleaze hosted a screening of his subversive 2000 film “Cecil B. Demented.”

Once the onscreen definition of noble decency with earlier, “good guy” roles like Ghandi and Itzahk Stern, Sir Ben Kingsley accepted a Golden Space Needle Award at SIFF 2008 for his dynamic career achievements, and sat with audiences through “Sexy Beast” (2000). Kingsley’s uncharacteristically mean, mesmerizing turn in that film – plus current SIFF appearances playing morally ambiguous characters in “Transsiberian,” “The Wackness,” and “Elegy” – show the Oscar winner continuing to evolve, branch out, and take chances. In typical, trend-bucking Film Threat style, I missed out on both Waters and Kingsley.

Yours truly did catch up with Colin Hanks (son of Tom), who chuckled while reflecting back on his camaraderie with “King Kong” and “Orange County” co-star (and omnipresent media whirlwind) Jack Black. Hanks also spoke in length about “The Great Buck Howard,” his sweet-tempered comedy about a supremely washed-up, out-of-touch pseudo-celebrity (John Malkovich) grasping for fame well beyond his prime. Alan Ball, who racked up an Oscar for his American Beauty (1999) screenplay, and an Emmy for directing the HBO Series “Six Feet Under,” talked with Film Threat about “Towelhead.” Certain to be controversial upon its fall release, this emotionally staggering, darkly funny movie is Ball’s feature film debut.

During the festival’s final days, SIFF volunteers looked haggard from passing out ballots and encouraging viewers to vote for fave films. The weather outside turned to s**t. Was SIFF waning during its last weekend? Was America’s biggest festival starting to crap out? Not on your bleary-eyed, numb-butted, pass-wearing life. Sifting through SIFF screenings as a Film Threat scout, yours truly reached an inspiring revelation: nearly every film I had laid eyes on was pretty damn good. Yeah, there were a few underachievers – but nearly every two-hour morsel of onscreen visual storytelling had something to recommend.

Here’s a final slew of SIFF capsule reviews, chronicling the (mostly) good, the (rarely) bad, and the ugly (heroin needles and used tampons).

What happens when 15 Minutes of Fame turns into a lifetime of shame? The moldy, fermented melting pot of show biz is overflowing with one-hit wonders and sitcom icons biting, scratching, and clawing for a second wind of success. SIFF 2008 featured two films – one a live-action drama, the other a louder-than-life music doc – that examined has-been heroes doggedly pursuing childhood dreams into the sunset of late-adulthood.

Produced by Tom Hanks, “The Great Buck Howard” tours musty, dilapidated, second-string theatres with its hero, a “mentalist” played with self-important, comic intensity by John Malkovich. His Buck Howard was once a regular guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. You know guys like this. He’s the campy, glorified hypnotist who – like television preacher Benny Hinn – can supposedly lull people into deep sleep on command. He’s the smarmy lounge lizard serenading audiences with Burt Bacharach piano tunes. He’s the type of magician who doesn’t like being called a magician. Favoring loud, orange sportjackets and tweed ties, Buck Howard’s hair is as slick and gray as a puddle of melted, silver Crayolas.

Buck Howard needs a road manager. Meanwhile, law school dropout Troy (Hanks) needs work. Young, green Troy becomes Buck’s fledgling flunky, tending to his every eccentric need (“I want color promo photos – not black and whites!”).

“The Great Buck Howard” is lightweight, but in a charming, Capraesque kind of way. What does Troy learn from Buck Howard? The importance of doing what you love – and having the insight to know when you’re already doing it.

He-man headbangers beware: “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” will make you weep like a little girl… or at least tear up like some sissy, emo-band singer. Sacha Gervasi’s amazing film follows Anvil, the criminally overlooked, undersold fire-forgers from Toronto, Canada. Ultimately, the movie emerges as a tearjerker about enduring friendships and male bonding. In addition to having all of its audio amps cranked to eleven, “Anvil” is charged by some serious emotional wattage as well. It’s tragic, joyful, sad, and hopeful – possibly the most stirring look at this misunderstood genre ever made.

When we first meet Steve Kudlow, he’s onstage in Japan, decked out in so many leather straps and steel links he looks caught in a crab pot. It’s 1984. Metal and big hair are king, and Kudlow’s band, Anvil, provides both. We watch the quartet playing one of those ridiculously massive neo-Woodstock fests with mile-long crowds that coat the surrounding landscape like some apocalyptic infection. As “Lips,” Kudlow’s id-powered, onstage alter ego, the theatrical frontman is brandishing a white dildo, using the spongy sex toy to pluck his guitar. “Metal on metal,” snarls Lips between bouts of marital-aid musicianship. “It’s the only way!” Behind him, drummer Robb Reiner brutalizes a double-bass trapset, while other band members lift and drop their guitars in carefully choreographed, twin-axe-attack synch.

Cranking out riffs at festivals with Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi! Laying down a brain-impaling collection of albums, including “Hard ‘n Heavy,” “Metal on Metal,” and “Strength of Steel”! Winning the adulation of cutting-edge peers like Anthrax, Metallica, and Slayer! Anvil was going places.

Or were they? Flash-forward to the present. Something’s not right. While power-chord peers Metallica have racked up nearly a hundred million records sold, Kudlow and Reiner still struggle. Day jobs include delivering coolers of food for a catering service, and demolishing construction sites. Fame never came.

“There’s all this horrible s**t,” Kudlow laments while loading a van with orders from Choice Children’s Catering. After work, however, he still has music to give him “the joy and pleasure you need to get through life.” Gervasi’s film gives us a vivid look at blue-collar lifestyles in Toronto. Kudlow celebrates his 50th birthday in a cozy tavern, with fanatical Anvil fans like Mad Dog and Cut Loose. Another guest inhales a beer through his nose. A spouse presents the metal muso with a cake inscribed, “Happy F*****g Fifty.” Yeah, it’s a far cry from penthouse suites and limousines, but there’s a joyful sense of warmth and family in these early scenes.

Later, Anvil endures a horrifically jinxed European tour, in which non-paying venue owners, missed trains, and disappointing crowds spell out certain doom. At a Transylvanian metalfest booked into a 10,000-capacity venue, only 174 attendees show up. “How much more love could one person put into something?” asks a despairing Kudlow, to someone, somewhere. It’s like a plea to the Almighty for vindication after thirty years of relentless hard work.

Sound depressing? Well, here’s the extraordinary thing about “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” Even though the band endures a hell of humiliations that would make Spinal Tap wince, they doggedly continue to wave the Anvil flag. While the assumed stereotype is that most groups with their experience and histories make tons of dough, Kudlow and Reiner are painfully aware of the reality that “99.9% of bands never get paid.” They treat playing as a privilege. “When we’re on tour,” proclaims Kudlow, “we’re on vacation.”

In an age of cynical self-consciousness among rock bands and fans, these guys unconditionally, unquestionably eat, sleep, and breathe metal. In it for the money? F**k, no – they have no money (Kudlow’s repeated mantra is, “We aren’t getting paid!”). In it for the chicks? Are you kidding? Kudlow and Reiner might be the h***y lyrical scribes behind “Motormount,” and “Butter Bust Jerky,” but both are now married with children. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is inspiring because its heroes wholeheartedly believe in what they do, even after enduring a million reasons to lose faith.

Sadly, “Anvil” also suggests the reason for their debt-ridden obscurity. Kudlow and Reiner are too damn decent for fame. One scene shows Kudlow trying his hand at a telemarketing job, but he’s too honest to hard-sell customers during cold calls. Meanwhile, Reiner’s ironclad allegiance to his emotional, sometimes-infuriating comrade is a far cry from the legions of musicians willing to cut-and-run following the lure of a higher-paying gig.

In the end, we’re left staring with admiration and awe at these two amazingly persistent, longhaired dudes. If ever there was a band deserving of an honorary lifetime achievement in metallurgy award, Anvil is it. Meanwhile, screw Robert Downey Jr. Kudlow and Reiner are true Iron Men, and their friendship is forged in fire.

“The Bluetooth Virgin” explores every writer’s worst nightmare. Or maybe it’s every writer’s friend’s nightmare. Well, hell – let’s also include spouses, script doctors, and anyone else infected by the film’s dreaded premise. What if you were the dead-serious scribe behind an arty, surreal screenplay? Let’s say you pass the Lynchian tome to a magazine-editor buddy for his opinion. The buddy honestly confirms that he can’t stand it.

You’re left in a dilemma. The buddy has provided an honest opinion, but it’s not a flattering one. Do you terminate the friendship with a defensive “screw you” and a defiant middle finger? Do you applaud the critic’s sincerity, and apply his suggestions for improvement? Do you whine to other confidantes, only to find that they share your friend’s “thumbs-down” opinion of the script?

Russell Brown’s film is an ambitious, well-shot gabfest – “My Dinner With Andre” meets “The Player” – without the satisfying, full-circle coherence of either. There’s a smorgasbord of valid ideas here, many explored with an enthusiasm that suggest Brown is talent to be reckoned with. What’s better? Commercial, common-denominator high-concepts, or obscure, personal vision? Can lovers of one hybrid have any hope of understanding the other? Is a script that sells “better” than one that never finds a producer? Is sincere criticism worth undoing a long-term friendship?

Ultimately, however, I was left admiring the ideas more than I connected with the characters, including Karen Black as an eccentric writing consultant, Bryce Johnson as the bearer of bad news, and Austin Peck as the movie’s sensitive, self-important screenwriter. Taken as mini-movies, many of the film’s wordplay-fueled sketches are fun. As a full-length film, however, “Bluetooth…” eventually felt like a redeye flight.

Denis (Maxim Matveev, wearing the disheveled slacker stubble of a Russian Ethan Hawke), the young, record-spinning DJ from “Vice,” is so decision-impaired, he can’t even make up his mind whether to accept an offer of a cup of coffee. Soon, Denis will have more crucial choices to make.

When two lunkheaded buddies involve him in a botched drug deal, Denis becomes an indentured servant to Verner, the neighborhood’s beefy, intimidating drug lord. Per crime genre formula, Denis sinks into a quicksand of felony dope slinging, pulled far beneath his previous happy-go-lucky routine. Verner’s unrepentant drug network prompts young addicts to sell themselves for a fix. All the same, this complicated smack dealer is also a paternal support to Denis, waving both promises of his own nightclub – and a sexy sister – in front of the impressionable apprentice.

Before long, the strong arm of the law comes down on Denis. The Major is a gaunt, zombie-like cop with piercing eyes and an utter contempt for Verner, forcing Denis to act as a police informant.

This story isn’t new, but “Vice” maintains viewers’ interests through a unique editing style. Intentionally choppy, sloppy cuts are slapped together, giving the appearance of some tattered, forgotten film spool buried in a police evidence locker. Adding to its gamey grittiness are plentiful scenes of scruffy, sweaty bodies shot in rigor mortis blue, corpse green, and jaundiced yellow.

Every county needs a crime genre franchise. In recent years, Brazil gave us “City of God,” and Denmark spawned the “Pusher” trilogy. Add Russia to the list with “Vice,” a familiar yet compelling foray into guns ‘n needles depravity.

Sam Raimi’s “Spiderman” films taught us that super powers don’t always guarantee respect. Now comes “Mirageman,” a no-budget charmer from Chile, to further confirm this reality.

A buff strip-club bouncer (Marko Zaror) is still smarting from a brutal home invasion that left both parents dead and his younger brother in a mental hospital. During obsessive after-work weightlifting and defense training, he perfects his mixed martial arts savvy to emerge a real-life superhero – Mirageman.

Without Tony Stark’s stratospheric IQ, Superman’s gravity-impervious flight finesse, or Neo’s slo-mo bullet dodging mojo, Mirageman gives us a truly mortal superhero. Complications pile up like bricks of kryptonite. Without Superman’s slick phone-booth transformation capabilities, Mirageman has one helluva time punctually donning his costume at the scene of a crime.

Much of the film’s appeal is generated from this super-dude’s mundane, ordinary-guy existence. He’s not that bright. A no-dough mo-fo, he lives in a dive, without Bruce Wayne’s bottomless bank balance. A romantic and not a realist, he has the hots for a self-centered, opportunistic female reporter. Despite her willingness to exploit and screw Mirageman over at every opportunity, he repeatedly stumbles into her black-widow traps like the gonad-driven horndog that he is.

In the end, however, Mirageman both punts rump and receives redemption. His heart is in the right place, a virtue that this sweetly kick-a*s film honors it its smile-inducing final scene. Looking for the next “El Mariachi”? It’s right here, in Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s irresistible actioner.

Alan Ball is one of the most fearless and thought-provoking talents in contemporary cinema. His “American Beauty” cut through the bullshit artificiality of suburbia, USA, and “Six Feet Under” unearthed complicated life forms working amongst death. As his debut feature, Ball has tackled an onscreen adaptation of “Towelhead,” Alicia Erian’s 2005 novel about a 13-year old Lebanese-American girl navigating through a fog of cultural and sexual confusion. Ball’s hot-button movie will be debated, misunderstood, and challenged upon its Fall release through Warner Independent Features. But ultimately, I predict that “Towelhead” will be embraced. Through its first reel, I recoiled in squeamish horror at its audacious take on teenaged coming-of-age. During its final redemptive scene, however, my eyes welled up. “Towelhead” was the best film I screened at SIFF 2008.

“Towelhead” traces a young girl’s emotional journey from victim to survivor. It deals with prickly adolescent themes in a way that is shockingly honest. It tackles taboos with brave insight, but never condones the abusive, boundary-crossing behaviors of its messed up characters. It’s also pretty funny.

Jasira (Summer Bishil) lives a life of pure teenage hell, walking on eggshells through the culturally volatile minefields of a sterile cul de sac and prison-like high school. At home, she’s a scapegoat for every conflict created by her sensationally pompous father (Peter Macdissi) – a racist hypocrite with Madonna-W***e attitudes towards women. Complicating matters further, Jasira is the target of desire for both a misguided, impulsive Army Reservist neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) and a hormone-driven, African-American classmate (Eugene Jones).

Jasira endures both physical and sexual abuse, while acknowledging burgeoning womanhood with both fear and anticipation. Strong stuff? Sure. But Ball never exploits his actress or subject matter for cheap thrills. “Towelhead” isn’t so much about Jasira’s abuse as about how she overcomes it. Ball is clearly in her corner, empathic to the racial and sexual tensions she must negotiate.

“Towelhead” emphasizes Jasira’s survival and rebirth through one of the most emotionally satisfying final scenes I’ve ever experienced. Boasting ten-dimensional characters and the sophisticated juggling of difficult themes, Ball’s powerful, complex movie is a must-see.

Other onscreen titles worth looking out for include Natasha Arthy’s “Fighter,” about a Turkish girl living in Denmark and impassioned with the desire to learn kung fu. What risks being another feel-good, underdog “Rocky” spin-off becomes a complex, unpredictable story about how culture and upbringing influence one’s personal ambitions.

“Young People F*****g” (which will probably take on the title “YPF” for its U.S. release through THINKFilm) takes Judd Apatow raunch to previously uncharted levels of frank sexual humor. Following amorous couples in different (yet common) situations (the player and the flirt, the recently separated duo, the best friends-come-lovers) through foreplay, coitus, and afterglow, Martin Gero’s Canuck comedy is pretty f*****g funny, indeed. Best bit: a love-starved wife trapped in a sexually humdrum relationship morphs into a strap-on brandishing dominatrix. After persuading her nerdy husband to turn the tables and let her “do him,” she starts feeling a bit guilty about her newfound assertiveness. “Shouldn’t we start this out with some hugging and kissing?” she suggests. “I have a feeling it’s not gonna get me any wetter,” confirms her nervously compliant, prone-positioned spouse.

There you have it. Pseudo-celebrities, heavy metallized will power, pathological behavior in the suburbs, Chilean-style butt-kicking, and Russian narcs. Not a bad way to send out the largest, most highly attended, and longest running film festival in the United States.

Check out SIFF’s 2008 award-winners at

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