In the Screening Room

For the Deep Ellum Film Festival, the third time's the charm

Two years ago, a colleague of Michael Cain's asked the founder and director of the Deep Ellum Film Festival just why the hell he named his fledgling fest after a part of town in which there were, ahem, no movie theaters. "There will be," Cain insisted, like a W.P. Kinsella character pining for a ballpark in a cornfield. And danged if there doesn't exist such an entity today: Matthew Posey's Bijou Theater, a 100-seat black-box cinema deep in the bowels of Deep Ellum that will host only a fraction of the more than 100 features and shorts screening during the fest, which runs November 14-18. If indeed Cain is a prophet of moving pictures, one can only await, anxiously, the fruition of future endeavors and notions, among them a Dallas Film Society, a locally based film school and a coalition made up of allthe local film fests, of which there seem to be more every day.

"Dad was always like, 'You gotta think big. Play to win and plan to lose,'" says Cain, who founded the fest in 1999 as a cancer-fighting fund-raiser after his father was diagnosed with the illness. "I just never got that last part down."

This year's fest, which has linked arms with this weekend's North Texas New Music Festival, boasts yet another impressive lineup of features, any one of which would make such an event: In the Bedroom, Lantana, The Business of Strangersand The Devil's Backbone are among the few notable releases of this abysmal year in film. But, as Cain reminds, almost half of the 110 films in the fest have Texas and Dallas connections, including Ramzi Abed's short The Tunnel(starring, among others, B-film auteur Lloyd Kaufman and American Movie's Mark Borchardt), Sean Gallagher's F.U.C.K., Robert Hannant's Bad Headed Girlie Boy and Frailty, directed by Fort Worth-born actor Bill Paxton and starring Uvalde native Matthew McConaughey. (The movie is set for release next year.)

The fest has also rounded up a nice collection of film pros for local would-bes and wannabes to hound at various parties and lunches around downtown this week: director Reginald Hudlin (here for screenings of Boomerangand House Party), cinematographer Bill Butler (Jaws, The Conversation, Stripes, Grease), longtime Alan Rudolph producer David Blocker (son of Bonanza's Dan Blocker) and director Penelope Spheeris, recipient of this year's Pioneer Filmmaker Award. Spheeris ought to love Dallas film fests: She was here only last spring as a guest of the USA Film Festival, which debuted her OZZfest rockumentary We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll.

"When I looked at the fact that she produced a lot of the early short films on Saturday Night Live and Albert Brooks' first film [1979's Real Life] and was responsible for the three Decline of Western Civilizationdocumentaries, I realized she's the very definition of 'pioneer,'" Cain says. "She is someone who motivated someone else's career...And this by no means is a dis to the USA Film Festival, because this will happen, but two of my crew went to her screening during the festival, and it wasn't full. You had Gary Oldman and all these other people that crowd was into seeing, but they weren't looking at Penelope. No one was saying, 'You know what she's done?'"

What follows are just a few of the highlights and notable releases playing the fest, at least those available for previewing. For a complete schedule of screenings (which will take place at the Angelika Film Center, the Lakewood Theater, the Bijou Theater, Expo Lounge and other eclectic locales), parties and meet-and-greets, go to www.def2.org. -- Robert Wilonsky

Deep Ellum Film Festival

Addicted Filmmaker Alan Berg plows familiar ground with yet another look at smack in the suburbs in his hour-long documentary about the '90s epidemic of heroin addiction and death in Plano. What new is left to say after countless TV, magazine and newspaper articles about heroin use among Plano teens? Not much, apparently. In its early scenes, Addicted hints at some provocative new themes as it traces the drug back to Mexico and notes the sentences doled out to Plano's Mexican suppliers. But Addicted quickly shifts back to retelling the history of the epidemic and interviews with former teen addicts and their parents. That's compelling stuff, as always, but haven't we heard this before? (Patrick Williams) Screens at 2:45 p.m. November 18 at the Angelika Film Center 2.

Avalon On the surface, one could easily dismiss this as the art-house Matrix: In a bleak, sepia-saturated near-future (where everything looks at once novel and antiquated), players of a virtual-reality battle simulation lose themselves in the game, unable to distinguish the Real World from the computer-generated. Sounds familiar, even looks familiar: Players, stripped down to their undies, enter the game through VR helmets. But The Matrix owes much of its existence to Avalon's visionary director Mamoru Oshii and screenwriter Kazunori ItÔ, whose 1995 anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell offered the Wachowski brothers a template. And in the end, all three films are about the very same thing: how we create, accept and protect our own reality at any price. Polish actress Malgorzata Foremniak (a Madonna-Kristin Scott Thomas hybrid, about to make her English-language bow in Edges of the Lord opposite Haley Joel Osment) stars as Ash, a top-notch warrior gone solo after the dissolution of her once-indomitable team; she's in search of the hidden section of the game, a promised land where players go but never return from (in the "real world," the so-called "unreturned" are little more than vegetables). The film plays like a languid daydream, a poem with an overwrought, operatic score and all-Polish dialogue; the effects are dazzling (the dead "crumble" into tiny digital pieces), even if the landscape is bleak. It's less a narrative than a riddle, and it'll make the D&D set wet its pants, but despite its slack pacing and hunh? finale that allows the film to pretend its aspirations are more serious than silly, Avalon is a revelation. (RW) Screens at 9:45 p.m. November 17 at the Bijou Theater.

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