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 all the 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 Strangers and 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.)

Nick Stahl and Sissy Spacek give remarkable performances in the grief-stricken In the Bedroom.
Nick Stahl and Sissy Spacek give remarkable performances in the grief-stricken In the Bedroom.
Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong are—and get?—busy in Lantana.
Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong are—and get?—busy in Lantana.
Beloved Austin country-music institution Don Walser’s life is celebrated in Pavarotti of the Plains.
Beloved Austin country-music institution Don Walser’s life is celebrated in Pavarotti of the Plains.

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 Boomerang and 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 Civilization documentaries, 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.

Battle Royale Something of a coup for the DEFF, Kinji Fukasaku's 2000 film will not receive any mass distribution in the United States; indeed, it's accrued something of a prized rep among underground collectors who shell out $30 and up for a bootleg video of questionable quality. At issue is the film's depiction of graphic violence perpetrated by young children, sentenced to duke it out on a deserted island with only the strongest or smartest standing at battle's end; the movie's horrifying to watch, more so, perhaps, in a post-Columbine (and, now, post-September 11) environment in which such gore feels more palpable and less entertaining. The whole thing's intended as social critique--in the near-future, the Battle Royale Act is passed by the Japanese government after schoolchildren become unruly and, ultimately, unteachable--and as youth-in-revolt cinema goes, it's far more compelling than the recent O; indeed, it's horrific precisely because it feels so honest, so authentic. It's funny, in a nervous-laughter sort of way (perhaps skittish giggles deflect the gore), but it's also a damning commentary on video games, pop-culture violence and the manga animation that infect the film like a virus. Hard to watch, harder still to stop watching. (RW) Screens at 9:30 p.m. November 16 at Expo Lounge.

The Business of Strangers In writer-director Patrick Stettner's captivating first feature, a middle-aged business executive (Stockard Channing) and her mysterious young assistant (O's Julie Stiles) vie for power in the course of a long night at a soulless airport hotel. United by their gender but divided by clashing values, the two women go round and round in a tense psychodrama made even more explosive by the presence of a slick headhunter (Frederick Weller) who may harbor a nasty secret. The film's biz-world manipulations and ruthless con games sometimes play like reheated David Mamet, but in the end New Yorker Stettner finds a voice and a style all his own--wary, smart, occasionally very funny. As for the actresses, it's a pleasure to watch them circle and attack, conspire and conflict in the shark tank of American corporate culture. (Bill Gallo) Screens at 1 p.m. November 16 at the Angelika Film Center.

The Devil's Backbone Finally living up to the often excessive hype that's surrounded him since his debut film Cronos, Guillermo del Toro delivers a tale that's clearly very personal to him, about a haunted boys' boarding school caught up in the Spanish Civil War. We enter the story through young newcomer Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who must deal with bullies, harsh punishments, lack of food, uppity caretakers looking for gold and "the one who sighs," an asthmatic-sounding apparition that wanders the halls and warns of impending doom. When the ghost finally appears, it's quite a sight, one of the more memorable onscreen phantoms ever created. The movie's not overwhelmingly a horror film, though; some scenes are horror, others social statement, but never the two at once until the end of the film. The climax is shockingly sadistic, which is kind of the point (what are war and boarding school if not sadistic?), but the sensitive viewer should be forewarned: Del Toro is not above letting children die onscreen or making gross-out jokes about fetuses. (Luke Y. Thompson) Screens at 3:30 p.m. November 18 at the Angelika Film Center.

Dinner Rush Bob Giraldi, director of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video and co-director (with Henry Jaglom) of 1981's National Lampoon Goes to the Movies, launches into a promising second phase of his career with this ensemble piece set in a restaurant over the course of one busy night. A restaurateur himself, Giraldi is in his element telling the story of Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello), a bookmaker and former chef trying to go straight while feuding with prima donna son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) and two thugs named Black (Alex Corrado) and Blue (Mike McGlone) trying to muscle in on the business and rub out the sous chef (Kirk Acevedo) with a gambling compulsion. Other storylines converge and diverge during the course of the evening, with fine supporting performances from Vivian Wu, Sandra Bernhard, John Corbett, Jamie Harris and Mike Margolis. They're all so natural you'd think the film might have been improvised, but, no, it's more coherent than that. Like the best cooks, Giraldi manages to make a film that appears deceptively simple even as it contains many different ingredients to savor. (LYT) Screens at 4:30 p.m. November 17 at the Angelika Film Center.

Drive-In Movie Memories Actor John Corbin's prediction of a drive-in movie renaissance near the end of Drive-In Movie Memories, phrased as "build it and they will come," comes off even more stale and cheesy than a plate of concession-stand nachos, even when compared to the documentary's earlier scenes of beach-blanket blunders and karate-chopping stewardesses. But during this 57-minute-long homage to the outdoor movie palaces of yesteryear (and tomorrow, if Corbin is right), the words and images fly past so quickly--sometimes fading into one other before a succinct point is made--that before Corbin can laugh at himself, the film has already moved onto someone else waxing nostalgic. However, it makes perfect sense that Drive-In Movie Memories shifts gears so quickly. Local writers and drive-in enthusiasts Don and Susan Sanders have crammed about 80 years of history and the utter basics of their two full-length books on the subject into this candy-coated documentary. After crossing 40 states to visit drive-ins and dig through memorabilia, the couple has amassed quite a bit of paraphernalia. We only wish we got to spend more time with some of it, such as those laughable snack-bar ads and the concept of big-screen porn (hello, Midnight Plowboy), and fewer moments listening to Leonard Maltin, John Bloom, elderly theater owners and a handful of B-movie actors talk about popcorn. (Shannon Sutlief) Screens at 5:15 p.m. November 17 at the Angelika Film Center 2.

Helicopter Though the notion of a film made specifically to help its director deal with grief over a lost loved one doesn't sound like a pleasant experience for an audience to watch, Ari Gold's 20-minute film about the death of his mother, Melissa, is never mawkish and often quite innovative. Melissa was the girlfriend of rock promoter Bill Graham and died alongside him in a helicopter crash, which we see rendered in animation as a flashback. Answering machine messages back and forth between Ari and his mom (voiced by Ari's sister Nina) serve as the framing device, while Ari, Ethan and Nina (as portrayed by actors, though Ari himself does the voiceover) are shown attending the Graham tribute concert and searching for signs of mom's reincarnation afterward. "Long shots" like their limo arriving at the concert are cleverly rendered with toys. The mix of animation, toy manipulation, visual collage and dramatic scenes keeps things lively, and the viewer comes away hoping that it won't take another major trauma to persuade Ari to pick up the camera again. (LYT) Screens at 7:15 p.m. November 17 at the Angelika Film Center 2.

In the Bedroom There is a palpable torment that fills every square inch of this film, the first by actor-turned-filmmaker Todd Field (he was Tom Cruise's piano-playing pal in Eyes Wide Shut). You can do little more than grieve with Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), a Camden, Maine, couple who suffer a couple's worst nightmare when their son Frank (Bully's Nick Stahl), a would-be college kid with an architect's ambitions, is slain by his lover's jealous ex-husband, a greasy son of a bitch named Richard Strout (William Mapother). Matt, a doctor, and Ruth, a teacher, are at once in love and in denial: They're as frisky as new lovers at film's beginning, but cold and incommunicative after the tragedy--as though they blame themselves and each other with equal ferocity. And their misery is inescapable, literally. Through the blank stares of anguish, they see Strout everywhere--on the seafood trucks that bear the family name, in the streets he strides as though he owns them (because his family does, more or less), even in the lit windows of the Strout-owned cannery that sits in the middle of the bay. The film, based on an Andre Dubus story, is as powerful as it is subtle--a gnawing feeling that builds slowly into rage, an anger that gives way to rationalized acts of madness. And the performances, especially from Wilkinson and Spacey and Marisa Tomei, as Frank's lover, are astonishing--so real they hurt long after film's end. (RW) Screens at 7:30 p.m. November 16 at the Angelika Film Center.

Karaoke Fever Oh, the humanity. If you're not scared off by the title or the haphazard DV shooting, there's an impassioned subculture here to peruse, as hopeful crooners gear up for their shot at fame and fortune at Southern California's Karaoke Fest. Documentarians Arthur Borman and Steve Danielson deliver their subjects with the expected cheekiness--inevitable, given songs from the Blues Brothers and Wild Cherry--but also take us behind the Muzak to explore the ambition and heartache fueling the performers. Among the dozen portraits is zany Eric Draven (no, not The Crow), who discovers his partner's criminal record while singing Will Smith's "Wild Wild West" en route to the top, and Dui, a mature woman who belts Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart" following a string of bad karaoke relationships. Some strange semi-pros also work their way into the mix, including a spot-on Sinatra impersonator and a sword-obsessed young opera singer, proving--after Duets and Jackpot--that karaoke truth is much stranger than fiction. Fast, funny and winningly human, the project is as much about therapy as singing. You'll definitely depart believing that music truly makes the world--and occasionally the stomach--turn. (Gregory Weinkauf) Screens at 8 p.m. November 17 at Shadow Lounge.

Lantana Australian director Ray Lawrence (best known here for the quirky 1985 comedy Bliss) provides some high-toned soap opera nicely flavored with a touch of suspense and some well-timed jolts of humor. Playwright Andrew Bovell's busy, busy screenplay is crammed with philandering police detectives, grief-stricken psychoanalysts, traumatized gay men, gloomy husbands and alienated teen-agers, but the filmmakers manage to bind their untidy package of seemingly unrelated characters and boiling subplots together through the mystery of one woman's disappearance. The talented ensemble cast includes veteran tough guy Anthony LaPaglia, Aussie superstar Geoffrey Rush, re-emergent Barbara Hershey and Kerry Armstrong, among others. From many telling moments Lawrence constructs a teeming pastiche of human foibles that proves terrifically entertaining by the end. (BG) Screens at 7:30 p.m. November 15 at the Lakewood Theater.

La Mancha Blanca White spot (mancha blanca) is a viral disease that attacks shrimp, devastating harvests at commercial fisheries worldwide. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew used by South American shamans to achieve an altered state of consciousness. What does one have to do with the other? Well, there's this film, which tracks the efforts of a Peruvian psychologist and expert in traditional medicine to find new ways to deal with the scourge destroying his nation's coastal shrimp farms. The result is a narrative-less, confusing and downright boring mishmash of disjointed interviews that tells little about traditional shamanism or modern aquaculture other than to hint that some sort of new-age environmental law has been violated, bringing white spot down upon the heads of Peruvian farmers. Think Carlos Castaneda meets the USDA. Roughly shot, filled with distorted colors, images and sounds and long stretches of nearly static images, in parts La Mancha Blanca obviously intends to suggest a psychedelic trip. In fact, the film comes across more like a film student's bad vacation video from a magical mystery tour of the Peruvian coast. (PW) Screens at 11:59 a.m. November 16 at Expo Lounge.

Pavarotti of the Plains T.J. Morehouse's documentary about Don Walser, the Lamesa-born yodeler well into his second act, is as touching as it is rudimentary; the thing plays almost like an 80-minute home movie, something to be shown at family gatherings. You wish there were more music: When Walser lands his dream of playing the Grand Ole Opry, the moment flies by as though it were incidental, and there's too much talking over the performance itself. (Had, say, DA Pennebaker made Pavarotti, likely it would have dealt entirely with the Opry gig, from prep to performance, with his life story told in flashback.) But how can one not love a film about Walser, whose giggle is as infectious as his music, a mélange of old-timey country, Western swing and honky-tonk? He's among the most compelling figures in modern country music, borne out by the testimonials from the likes of Willie Nelson and Alejandro Escovedo. (RW) Screens at 11:59 p.m. November 16 at the Angelika Film Center 2.

Pendulum Hard to fathom why the DEFF folk chose this direct-to-Beta bummer, save for the fact it was shot in Dallas. Hell, that's all the more reason not to show it: If you're trying to play up this town's vibrant film scene, what purpose is served by screening James B. Deck's grade-Z thriller starring former model Rachel Hunter? Hunter plays (hah!) Amanda Reeve, a Dallas cop yanked off one murder case (some psycho's slashing up this city's top-notch hookers, and where do they work?) to solve another, involving a law professor with serious ties to the Dallas County District Attorney (James Russo, who looks more like a suspect than a prosecutor). Pendulum plays like Skinemax-After-Dark fodder, complete with lascivious lesbians and enough faux blood and even faux-er acting to fill an entire shelf at Blockbuster. Note: Without the gratuitous slow-mo, the film would run 30 minutes, which is still a half-hour too long. (RW) Screens at 2 p.m. November 17 at the Angelika Film Center.

Various shorts Indefinitely begins with the analogy that marriage is like a fireworks display: wonderful, magical and something no one wants to end. The sentiment also applies to the locally produced short starring Jeffrey Schmidt (Theatre Three and Moonwater Theater Company vet) as Riley, a down-on-his-luck film editor paying the bills with a gig as a wedding videographer who falls for the bride. The fast-moving film's quirky and charming without veering into Matthew Perry territory and ends when you least (and most) want it to. A group of students from Raul Quintanilla Middle School made Black Lipstick, the story of a girl who goes Goth when she feels kinship toward a group of "freaks" her friends are harassing and wonders whether they would treat a buddy the same way just for dressing differently. It turns out they would. In Untimely, which features the restored conquistador mural and lounge of Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater, two old people hook up because of a westbound broken-hearted girl, the quest for an undiscovered comet and a story about tequila being the real fountain of youth. Allen Falkner is a normal guy. He works too hard, has a girlfriend and a degree in computer engineering and plays with children in the park. In The Marionette, he shows how he also likes to have 22 hooks pushed through his skin so his 135-pound frame can be suspended--for fun. In Trailer: The Movie, two filmmakers edit their movie down to only the best scenes (about two minutes' worth), which will make the perfect trailer and a movie for anyone who dreams of screwing people out of $8 ($10.50 in New York City). (SS)

We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll Director Penelope Spheeris goes to OZZfest so you don't have to, and bless her for that. The director of the three Decline of Western Civilization docs, not to mention Wayne´s World and The Beverly Hillbillies, turns her camera on Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne's love child and comes back covered in muck; such is to be expected when you swim in a sea of metal and misfits, booze and cooz and big tits, middle fingers and nipple rings, cocks and bullshit, fake music and real blood and gene-pool castoffs who get fucked up when they can't get fucked at all. Think of this as a sequel to the second Decline film (The Metal Years, starring KISS and Lizzy Borden and the Blizzard of Oz himself), only without the profundity and surprise; the biggest revelation comes late in the movie, when Ozzy, fronting the reunited Black Sabbath, is seen reading the lyrics off a TelePrompTer, bringing to mind the sad last days of Frank Sinatra. Other than that, We Sold plays a little too much like an industrial film, a label-funded electronic press kit for, oh, Static-X or System of a Down or Deftones or Primus; it's heavy on the heavy rock, light on what goes on once the gobos go off. Shockingly, it's Rob Zombie who provides the best insight when he says, rightly so, that every band on the bill's just doing Sabbath songs--some faster, some slower, but with little else changed. "Thanks for not suing us," Zombie says to the camera with the knowing look of the con artist who's just pulled a fast one and gotten away with it. The kids'll love this movie (more nipples than a nursery); their parents will be appalled (the audience looks like it's made up of teen-agers and the hillbilly family from The Simpsons); and the rest of us will go back, watch Decline I and laugh about the good ol' days when John Doe and Exene Cervenka seemed, ah, dangerous? (RW) Screens at 10 p.m. November 16 at the Angelika Film Center.

Welcome to Death Row The tale of Death Row Records is perhaps the most laughable and tragic in the history of the music business: Its boss and principle financier landed their asses in prison; its greatest star, in a coffin; its mastermind, in a studio isolated from his former running mates. Leigh Savidge's downer documentary, a narrative told by its key participants and buoyed by filched footage from news reports and home video, is unflinching and unforgiving; only Dr. Dre, the architect of West Coast hip-hop, emerges a hero. Everyone else, from just-released-from-the-joint Marion "Suge" Knight to the late Tupac Shakur to icky Death Row attorney David Kenner on down the food chain, is covered in the muck and mire of treachery amid so much ambition and genius. These guys were talented at making music and mischief, and they paid the price more than they got paid. Welcome to Death Row is compelling and complete, detailing every lawsuit, every betrayal, every dis, every death. At film's end, you wonder only what might have happened had the fellas laid down the chronic and Glocks and stayed in the studio and the hell off the streets. (RW) Screens at 7 p.m. November 17 at the Bijou Theater.

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