Rarely does a theme unify a film festival; such gatherings, for the most part, are glued together only by movies few have seen and movies few will ever see, the unwanted or misunderstood offspring of would-be artists and could-be visionaries, kooky veterans who long ago ditched the mainstream for the mental, half-cocked newbies raised on IFC bedtime stories or merely those with a digital movie camera and enough scratch to put on a show. Around these parts, especially, we are presented every few months with festivals screening the latest in Sundance-approved offerings, or other refugees from the film-fest circuit that begins each January in Utah and culminates each September in Toronto, where critics congregate like sheep in a pen to consider the studios' year-end bests, or not.
The scheduling of a film fest relies on too many variables to allow for consistency of thesis or quality. Organizers are subject to the whims of filmmakers' calendars or availability of prints; they're forever caught between booking movies made popular on the circuit and the orphans that remain unloved. But look closely at the Deep Ellum Film Festival schedule, the most impressive in the short lifetime of this upstart fest, and, indeed, a small pattern begins to emerge--if not a theme, exactly, then perhaps the first few bars of a melody. From a handful of screenings, perhaps, a small segment of the audience will emerge wondering whether they've just seen something that actually happened or something sprung out of whole cloth from the imagination of a filmmaker. They so blur the chalk line keeping apart fact from fiction they erase it altogether, though not in the service of exploitation or manipulation; we're not talking Blair Witch here, the fake-out without purpose other than fooling people into handing over cash to fund a false franchise.
Ben Coccio and Neil Burger bring with them films that play like documentaries but are, in fact, only inspired by real events: Coccio seeks to make sense of the Columbine massacre in Zero Day; Burger pokes sly fun at conspiracy theorists with Interview with the Assassin, about the man who claims to have killed John Kennedy. Both movies are witnessed through the lens of a video camera, which the subjects address--meaning, they are always talking to us, drawing the audience into their sad and horrific stories without leaving us much room in which to maneuver. They're make-believe features but feel awfully corporeal: We know the kids in Zero Day, even if we don't want to; we believe Walter Ohlinger, Kennedy's would-be killer, even though we know he is full of shit.
Deep Ellum film fest
Jordan Melamed's shot-on-digital-video Manic, about teen-agers locked away inside a mental hospital and themselves, doesn't pretend to be a documentary (it has too many movie stars, among them Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel), but that doesn't temper its power; we're trapped in the nuthouse, getting angry, going crazy. And in Night of the Golden Eagle, Adam Rifkin uses a real ex-con to play one on-screen. When you're watching it, keep in mind that Vinny Argiro, the film's lead, is in prison at this very moment.
Then there are the documentaries consisting of people and predicaments no one could dream up: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's hysterical and heartbreaking Lost in La Mancha, about filmmaker Terry Gilliam's doomed attempts to make his Don Quixote picture; Jeffrey Blitz's thrilling Spellbound, in which eight children compete in the National Spelling Bee; Paul Justman's galvanizing Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which rescues from oblivion the men who built the funky foundation upon which Hitsville, U.S.A., stood during the 1960s. It speaks well of a film festival put on by filmmakers that its three best offerings are about real things--and, too often, real bad things--happening to real people. It's as though fest founder and director Michael Cain is telling his audience to get their heads out of the clouds or the computer monitor, or elsewhere, and to look around them; there's a double feature playing just around the corner, not in a theater but in the home of a neighbor.
"Because the stories that have been going on in our world are so impactful lately, filmmakers are turning back toward their lives, toward real life," says an exhausted Cain, operating on moments of sleep in the days before the fest opens. "Most of what we have this year are artists' interpretations of what's going on around them, and when we look at these things 10 years from now, they will maintain."
Now in its fourth year, the Deep Ellum Film Festival distinguishes itself from other local fests by positioning itself as an event for filmmakers and about filmmaking. There will be weekend panels with industry folks, a 90-minute presentation of short films made by Arts Magnet students ("You're ready to make a movie as soon as you can hold a camera," Cain says), discussions with visiting writers and directors and producers after screenings (and, more likely, during the copious parties thrown during fest week). With the move to the Magnolia Theater, the fest has expanded by four days, which has allowed for more locally made films (35 shorts and features) and more room for risk.
Someone like editor Frank Mazzola can tell you all about the dangers of personal filmmaking: Two years ago, he rescued from the bargain-video bins a film called Wild Side, written and directed by his friend and colleague Donald Cammell, whose tiny filmography also includes 1970's Performance. With Wild Side, which stars Anne Heche as a whore pingponging between people she's screwing and screwing over, among them Christopher Walken and Joan Chen, Cammell was never allowed to make the movie he wanted; those who financed it took it from him and, in 1996, released something so tragically awful Cammell shot himself in the head. What Mazzola has constructed--an intentionally overwrought psychosexual drama, played for small and sick laughs--bears no relationship to the released version; to watch them side by side is to be struck by how men with wallets should never be allowed near the editing bay.
The festival will also celebrate the movies of Alan Rudolph, a maker of oddball films about everyday eccentrics: Willie Nelson's songwriter, Bruce Willis' suicidal car dealer, Jennifer Jason Leigh's dour Dorothy Parker, Emily Watson's daffy private eye. Rudolph will be here for a screening of films old (Choose Me, Breakfast of Champions) and recent (last year's Investigating Sex, with a cast of all-stars talking about talking about sex). "Alan is accessible; he will inspire people," Cain says. "He's the kind of person you have a beer with."
What follows is a scant selection of highlights from this year's fest--all features, given the limitations of space. Go to www.def2.org for a complete schedule of films, which will screen at the Magnolia Theater and, in some cases, the Lakewood Theater or Xpo Lounge.
American Gun Writer-director Alan Jacobs' film would make for a devastating double feature with Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine; guns don't kill people, turns out, but movies about guns who kill people may drive you suicidal. James Coburn, withered by age but no less sturdy than a hundred-year-old oak, plays a distant but loving father whose daughter (Virginia Madsen) is gunned down just upon her long-awaited return to the family farm. Coburn spends the rest of the film tracking down not his girl's murderer, but the maker of the gun used to end her life; he won't find answers, only ambivalence and antipathy from those for whom such violence has become mundane. The weapon itself becomes a character; we're privvy to its past "adventures," presented in black-and-white flashbacks. You know what Jacobs is saying--and, for God's sake, NRA cardholders were advisers on the movie--but you're nonetheless shaken by the way one man's horror is treated as, well, inevitable if not routine by everyone else. Ultimately, what Coburn seeks is always in the palm of his hand: not a weapon, but the decision to use it. November 19, 7:30 p.m., Magnolia. Alan Jacobs will attend. (RW)
Intacto Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's complex meditation on luck, fate and the torments of memory is a multilayered wonder that engages the intellect and stirs the senses. In his first feature film, the Spanish writer-director throws together a gambler obsessed with Dame Fortune, the sole survivor of a plane crash whose luck may be even more extraordinary, a curious police detective and a mysterious Holocaust victim whose guilt compels him to constantly test fate. Remarkable for its inventive visual style and its bold imaginative leaps, Fresnadillo's dazzling cinematic puzzle signals the arrival of a fine new talent on the international film scene. With Eusebio Poncela, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Monica Lopez and, as the shadowy linchpin of the piece, the great Max Von Sydow. November 19, 7 p.m., Magnolia. (Bill Gallo)
Interview with the Assassin Meet the man who really killed John Kennedy: Walter Ohlinger, a former Marine sniper who insists he was the grassy knoll gunman. "Killing someone's easy," Ohlinger says, "the trick is getting away," which he did until Ohlinger, dying of cancer, took his story to an out-of-work TV cameraman and spilled his guts. "You kill the most powerful man in the world, I'd say that makes you the most powerful, don't you think?" he offers by way of explanation. "I was ready for that." Ohlinger spends the entirety of Interview with the Assassin trying to prove to Ron Kobeleski he pulled the trigger, and by film's end we're not quite sure whether Ohlinger killed Kennedy, only that he's a bad mother capable of murder; if he didn't kill Kennedy, he killed someone. Or, you see, not. The feature-film debut of writer-director Neil Burger makes a rather lurid fiction feel like tangible fact; you're sucked into Ohlinger's tale, told through a shaky handheld lens that makes palpable and tangible the otherwise ludicrous story you've heard a dozen times before if you've ever spent time loitering outside the Sixth Floor Museum. Shot in L.A., Washington, D.C., and Dealey Plaza and starring Raymond Barry (The Ref, Training Day) as Ohlinger, Burger's movie plays like thrilling satire; either he's goofing on conspiracy theorists or handing them more ammo. Guess it depends on how much you wanna be suckered; there are, ya know, still people out there looking for the Blair Witch, too. November 15, 10 p.m., Magnolia. Director Neil Burger will attend. (RW)
Last Party 2000 One of two DEFF entries to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman (see Love Liza, below), this doc from Rebecca Chaiklin and model-actor-son-of-a-singer Donovan Leitch plays like an exercise in nostalgia--in other words, it was made way back before the Democratic Party turned itself into a moot point. It's still fun as hell to watch Hoffman play curious and indignant while acting as narrator and guide through the electoral process; he's aghast at the vehemence and violence at protests outside both the Democratic and Republican conventions and almost bemused when it turns out the old folks in Florida didn't know how to read a ballot. But Hoffman and the filmmakers, who round up the likes of Michael Moore and Bill Maher and Willie Nelson and Eddie Vedder to up the celeb ante, are preaching to the preachers; there ain't nothing more liberal than a film-fest crowd, right? Funny thing is, the filmmakers were worried about screening this movie in a post-9/11 environment; didn't wanna piss off the flag-wavers, I guess, or those supermodels sporting "NYPD" tees on the runways. Can't wait to see how it plays post-11/5/2002. Party? More like a funeral. Side note: On November 5, 2002, Last Party 2000 was picked up for distribution by Film Movement, which will release the film in theaters next summer; see it now, before people forget what a Democrat looks like. November 20, 9:30 p.m., Magnolia. (RW)
Lost in La Mancha "Fuckfuckfuck," mutters Terry Gilliam as pieces of a dream run down a thunderstorm-soaked mountainside; the downpour, sudden and vengeful, will not be his biggest problem during the making (and, finally, unmaking) of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, just another one that hints at the ruin only hours away. Ultimately, it will not be bad weather or shortage of production funds or the damage done to equipment or badly constructed props that will kill Gilliam's movie, but the forced sidelining of star Jean Rochefort, who's sent back to France less than a week into shooting because of a hernia. Yet you can't help but feel that long before this movie was conceived, it was doomed: Anything Gilliam wants this badly, and he has been wanting to make a Quixote movie for decades, is bound to end in devastation. Directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who were around throughout pre-production and during the abbreviated shooting of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (even the title sounds like an omen), throw back the curtain to reveal a dreamer who too often sees his works become gargantuan nightmares. Gilliam's so haunted by the disastrous shooting of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (and, though he never says so, his aborted efforts to shoot such films as Tale of Two Cities and The Defective Detective, among other unrealized projects) even he seems to know nothing will come of this project. What few glimpses we're given of the project--dailies with Rochefort and Johnny Depp, who was to play a time-traveling Sancho Panza, and animated sequences constructed from Gilliam's storyboards--hint at a remarkable movie, but, alas, all we're allowed is a tiny peek inside the mind of a visionary undone by his own genius. All we're left with is a brilliant film about a broken one. November 7, 4:30 p.m., Magnolia. (RW)
Love Liza Philip Seymour Hoffman, among the handful of Great American Actors, carries his grief in his gut, on his slumped shoulders, behind his dead-to-the-world eyes; his is the limping strut of a man walking to the gallows of his own volition. Such is the performance he brings to Love Liza, written by his brother Gordy and directed by Todd Louiso (Jack Black's pal, or not, in High Fidelity), in which Hoffman plays Wilson Joel, a Web site designer whose wife committed suicide (before the film opens) and left behind a note he refuses to open, either because he doesn't want to know why she permanently parked in the garage or because he knows it will be the last time they'll, you know, communicate. Wilson takes to sleeping on the floor, he ignores his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates), starts huffing gasoline for the dizzying escape and begins tinkering with remote-control planes to mask his addiction; by film's end, he's left with nothing, where once, a bitter Bates reminds, "you had everything!" Louiso wrings all he can from performers and audience alike; your reward for suffering alongside Wilson, affable even in his self-destruction, is complete devastation. The movie doesn't end; it, like Wilson, just gives up, and you're wrecked by the hopelessness. Not a happy ending, just a very real one. November 21, 7 p.m., Magnolia. Director Todd Louiso will attend. (RW)
Manic The unforgiving will dismiss this as Boy, Interrupted, or at the very least a showcase for young actors (among them Almost Famous' Zooey Deschanel and Third Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) out to prove themselves worthy of bigger parts in bigger films; if nothing else, playing mental gives you a chance to stretch--and scream and tear shit up. But Jordan Melamed's film, about teens stuck in the nuthouse to overcome their suicidal tendencies and anger-management issues, doesn't glisten with the soft sheen of soap opera; it's nasty, desperate, jittery, pitiless, unconcerned with feel-good finales. Gordon-Levitt plays Lyle, whose mother admits him to the Northwood Mental Institution after he busts open another kid's skull with a baseball bat; he had his reasons, good ones, but Lyle possesses no control over his emotions. He's a shotgun waiting for someone to pick him up and pull his trigger, as are most of the other patients, among them Deschanel as a manic depressive without self-esteem and co-writer Michael Becall as a kid who gruesomely sabotages his own chances at freedom. Don Cheadle's the doc who's going crazy himself, convinced he's done more harm than good; his soft voice and compassionate demeanor mask his own bottled-up rage. November 20, 7 p.m., Magnolia. (RW)
May The problem with most contemporary horror movies is that they've forgotten what once made the genre great: using real fears to exacerbate the creepiness onscreen, whether it be fear of out-of-control children (Village of the Damned), nuclear power (giant bug movies), alcoholic parents (The Shining) and so forth. Writer-director Lucky McKee knows this and has successfully crafted a grimly amusing and twisted allegory for the contemporary dating scene, especially those pretty people who always claim they want someone different, then balk at the truly different. May (a revelatory Angela Bettis) isn't used to being social, but when a hot stud (Jeremy Sisto, channeling a young Travolta) catches her eye, it looks as if she might finally come out of her shell. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. With a level of dark humor akin to the screenplays of Todd Solondz, and a visual style reminiscent of Dario Argento, May is one of the funniest, most disturbing, yet strangely touching movies of the year. And major props for letting Anna Faris shine in a genuine scary movie. November 16, 9:30 p.m., Magnolia. (Luke Y. Thompson)
Night at the Golden Eagle Two senior scammers, Mic (Vinny Argiro) and Tommy (Donnie Montemarano), stride into the titular L.A. flophouse--far grittier than Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel or even Alex Winter's Fever. With cunning assists from editor Peter Schink and DP Checco Varese, writer-director Adam Rifkin (The Dark Backward) emphasizes dank atmosphere over everything. There's a game supporting cast (James Caan in a cameo as a prison warden, Natasha Lyonne and Ann Magnuson as feisty whores), but, of course, the hotel itself is the main character. As the buddies prime themselves for escape to the promised land of Vegas, nastiness ensues, and we're drenched with that slummy early Tom Waits magic, leading to a suitably bittersweet ending. Vinnie Jones is excellent as a predatory pimp called Rodan ("I'm what you might call a humanitarian," he tells his starry-eyed young prey), and Supervixen Kitten Natividad returns as a stripper called Ruby. It's Tommy's job to clean the peep booths surrounding her, and after viewing this one, you'll feel like mopping up, too. November 15, 7:30 p.m., Magnolia. Adam Rifkin will attend. (Gregory Weinkauf)
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Spellbound A favorite on the film-fest circuit for almost a year, Jeffrey Blitz's documentary about eight kids who competed in the 1999 National Spelling Bee plays like a Chris Guest film with a heart; it's as touching as it is amusing, as unfathomable as it is real. There's the girl from the Panhandle whose father and mother illegally crossed the Rio Grande for a better life; her dad raises cattle for an elderly white couple who like Mexicans, since "there's some good mixed up in 'em." There are the children of Indian immigrants for whom being the best speller in the United States is the ultimate goal. There's Ted Brigham, a hulking and quiet boy whose dad teaches special education students; April DeGideo, who has worn out dozens of dictionaries in her quest for letter-perfect glory; Ashley White, the girl from the inner city who imagines her humdrum life as a movie. Each child here is an outsider in his or her everyday existence, but a star on the Washington, D.C., stage upon which some 250 kids competed three years ago; Blitz acutely makes the point that these boys and girls are special, not different. When it gets to the competition, in its second half, the film sweats and cries with tension; you want them all to go home with the trophy, but instead watch as, one by one, they're escorted off the stage to the sound of a ringing bell. Who knew--the best film you will see all year is a documentary about a spelling bee. November 16, 4 p.m., Magnolia. Producer Sean Welch will attend. (RW)
Standing in the Shadows of Motown Their names--among them bassist James Jamerson, keyboardists Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith and Earl Van Dyke, drummers Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and Uriel Jones, guitarists Robert White and Joe Messina, though that's but a partial roster--never vanished from the history books, only because they never landed there to begin with. These musicians, these Funk Brothers, who played on every Motown release of the '60s, weren't merely Standing in the Shadows of Motown; they were swallowed whole by it. Were it not for Alan Slutsky, whose 1989 book and accompanying CDs provide the title for director Paul Justman's documentary, they might have slipped through the cracks and into their graves. But, blessedly, these pioneers have been rescued from the dustbin of myth and history and given their own film, in which they play starring roles twice over--once when recounting their tales for the camera, and again when the band gets back together to recapitulate history using new voices (among them, Joan Osborne and Meshell Ndegeocello and Ben Harper) to show off old songs. Justman, wisely, points the camera at the Brothers and a handful of acolytes and lets them talk with each other, to us and for their departed comrades (including Jamerson and Johnny Griffith, who died just last Sunday). They share stories about how they met Motown founder Berry Gordy and each other, how they shaped "The Sound of Young America," how they were brought to Hitsville, U.S.A., at all hours by the likes of Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to slather grease all over a smoky studio. Justman doesn't trust his narrators enough; too often he'll stage a re-enactment while someone's talking, as if he's afraid the mere tales themselves won't hold our interest. But they will, as long as there's a kid slapping a bass, a sampler swiping a groove or some middle-aged couple slow dancing to Marvin Gaye or the Miracles. November 14, 7:30 p.m., the Lakewood Theatre, 1825 Abrams Blvd. Director Paul Justman and Funk Brothers Jack Ashford and Joe Hunter will attend. (RW)
XX/XY Young Austin Chick's directorial debut is full of dramatic rough spots, and his confused twentysomethings are awfully fond of whining and whimpering. But this unstinting look at growing up in the 1990s never pulls its punches. Bridging the angst of Generation X and the uncertainties of Generation Y, Chick reveals the romantic traumas, career screw-ups and self-absorbed fantasies of a group of eastern college grads sailing without much navigation into the whirlpools of middle age. Mark Ruffalo (the Oscar-nominated star of You Can Count on Me) heads up a spirited ensemble cast including Kathleen Robertson, Maya Stange, Petra Wright and David Thornton. November 17, 9:30 p.m., Magnolia. (BG)
Zero Day No one in Zero Day appears to be acting, and many of them aren't; the families of Calvin Robertson (blond, angelic Cal Gabriel) and Andre Kreuk (bitter, bullet-crazed Andre Kriegman) play themselves, and everyone uses his real first name. So until the final credits roll, it's hard not to buy into the idea that director Ben Coccio's mesmerizing film was culled from the videotapes Cal and Andre left behind when they shot and killed a dozen or so students at Iroquois High School on May 1, 2001. (And the film's Web site, www.officialreport.org, plays along as well, Blair Witch-style.) Those tapes follow Andre and Cal (or "the army of two," as they prefer) as they prepare for Zero Day, their "final big-ass mission," but they start almost innocently. Early on, they inventory one of their "supply depots"--Andre's bedroom closet, with a Star Wars poster on the door--and in it are BB guns and bottle rockets, fake IDs and Peruvian currency; the most dangerous item is a box of shotgun shells. Their first mission is just as innocuous: pelting the home of Brad Huff with 6-week-old eggs. Huff, never seen on camera, represents everything they hate. He's the "biggest shithead motherfuck-o," captain of the wrestling team, drinking and driving in his Range Rover. (If this were a teen movie, he'd likely be the villain.) But the covert ops soon escalate: Before long, Andre and Cal are making bombs and showing how to add an illegal pistol grip to a shotgun, making final preparations for Zero Day. (In the film's one moment of levity, Cal explains that the attack was supposed to happen on the first day of the school year when it was zero degrees outside, hence the name. But, thanks to the unusually warm winter, it was only zero degrees once, and that day Andre had diarrhea.) When the moment arrives, Coccio's film never breaks character: Andre and Cal leave the video camera in the car, and Zero Day's chilling climax is rendered in grainy security camera footage and 911 tapes. But before Andre and Cal get there, they provide the answers that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, whose similar killing spree at Columbine High School in 1999 is the inspiration, did not: This wasn't because of Mortal Kombat, not because of books or CDs or anything else. "This was our idea," Cal says, as he and Andre burn all of those things, just so no one else will take the blame. That two seemingly normal teen-agers--with loving parents and summer homes and sitars (in one memorable scene, Cal explains his motives while strumming along)--would choose to declare war on their high school is more frightening than any script Hollywood could ever produce. November 20, 9:30 p.m., Magnolia. Ben Coccio will attend. (Zac Crain)