Everything's going to be all right. If there's a theme to this year's Deep Ellum Film Festival, perhaps it's that single, simple sentence of reassurance, repeated in a handful of movies screening this week and suggested in several others. A dying artist says it to an immigrant family that's suffered its own unimaginable loss; a lifelong loser says it to a Vegas hooker who's been battered and bloodied; a spacecraft's sole survivor says it to her kitty cat just before all hell breaks loose; and a dead bluesman sings it in the opening credits of a movie about a man suffering from testicular cancer. Even if it's not said, it's certainly implied in many of the movies on the schedule, the strongest lineup in the brief history of the 5-year-old Deep Ellum Film Festival. And it's certainly a theme that resonates with the Deep Ellum Film Festival, founded by Michael Cain as a fund-raiser for cancer research shortly after his father succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
What seemed like a noble idea in 1999--and an inevitable one, given the plethora of film fests that sprang up around then--has turned into an event burdened by expectation, a bellwether of success. Its early schedules were filled with old films and little-seen offerings already weary after making the festival rounds; the DEFF was better known for its parties than screenings. That changed in 2001, when In the Bedroom, The Devil's Backbone and Bill Paxton's directorial debut, Frailty, premiered at Deep Ellum; tomorrow's hangover was forced to take a back seat to tonight's screening. "That was the first time the distributions company took us seriously," Cain says. "But in 2000, Sandra Bullock was here."
In its fifth year, the festival is a serious comer now, with a lineup of movies that rivals most fests across the state and around the country; South by Southwest had nothing this year as provocative as Errol Morris' The Fog of War, as moving as Jim Sheridan's In America or as enchanting as Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville. Some of this has to do with the DEFF's having taken over the Santa Monica Film Festival, with its estimable Left Coast connections; it's easier to spread the gospel with a revival tent erected on an L.A. beach. DEFF at 5 is a child who's learned not only to read but write books. And some of this has to do with just sticking around, proving you're no pretender.
Deep Ellum Film Festival
"The fifth anniversary of a film festival is a unique milestone," Cain says. "In many people's eyes it is either now valid and has created a vital place in the film community with ties both within the local film community and the world, or it has shown its worth and become relegated to being a nice local film festival that will entertain those that attend but not really make a difference."
This year, Cain and DEFF organizers have scheduled fewer screenings but chosen more wisely; there are still copious locally made films and documentaries of varying quality, from brilliant to sketchy, but the result is the strongest lineup any local film festival has offered in recent memory. And this year's fest just feels special, with the use of the Majestic Theater for the opening-night screening of Alien: The Director's Cut; Cain promises it's the beginning of year-round screenings at the once-and-future cinema, though that remains to be seen since the theater doesn't actually have a 35mm projector in full-time use, which means DEFF had to rent one. "You have to think bigger," Cain says. "To be taken seriously, a film festival needs at least one theater that holds more than 1,000 people. That's how distributors take you seriously."
There will also be outdoor "drive-in" screenings at Mockingbird Station's DART stop, a few industry-insider panels and several swanky parties at Blue and the former Copper Tank space on Main Street, including awards ceremonies with such guests as Gary Busey, Tess Harper, Secondhand Lions writer-director Tim McCanlies, producer Ed Pressman and Inwood Theatre-boss-turned-indie-film-distributor Bob Berney. (Berney's behind such films as Y Tu Mamá También and Whale Rider, which is why they're being screened.) There will also be an exhibition of artwork done by Timothy Leary during the final year of his life.
"Our motto for this year's festival is stolen from a saying by Timothy Leary: 'You get the Deep Ellum Film Festival you deserve,'" Cain says. "For those who want to show up at a film and see something new, that is what they deserve. Nothing wrong with that. For those who want to immerse themselves in the almost 100 shorts, features, art shows, music acts, panels and parties, that is what they deserve. Our belief is that the festival has a responsibility to be dangerous, to take chances, to try new things, some of which will fail and some of which will succeed and allow us to grow towards being one of the top festivals in the world...It would be easy to show a bunch of indie films at a theater and say, 'Good night,' but that has never been our way."
What follows is a look at the highlights of this year's Deep Ellum Film Festival--no completist's guide, but a few of our picks for the best and most intriguing offerings on the schedule. Most screenings will take place at the Angelika Film Center, 5321 E. Mockingbird Lane; closing-night film The Cooler will be at the Magnolia Theatre, 3699 McKinney Ave. For a complete list of screenings and parties, and for ticket information, go to www.def2.org.
Alien: The Director's Cut Like Never Mind the Bollocks...Here's the Sex Pistols, Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi-haunted-house pic influenced and transcended all comers in its wake; everything wanted to be this, but nothing ever could. Seen last week, projected digitally with a few moments of restored footage added, Alien still terrifies without grossing out, still disturbs without apologizing by adding cheap laughs, still awes without dazzling us out of the theater. It has a B cast that looks positively A+ in retrospect, an outdoor junkyard aesthetic even in outer space and a monster that would haunt the nightmares of every costumer and makeup artist working in movies for decades to come. The "new" scenes have been long available on DVD and add nothing, only because nothing new is necessary; Scott's Alien is already the perfect weapon. Harry Dean Stanton is scheduled to attend. October 22, 8 p.m., Majestic. (R.W.)
Bubba Ho-Tep This horror-comedy about an aging Elvis in a haunted rest home proves not only is Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell a good actor, but possibly a great one. It seems the real King got tired of fame and switched places with an impersonator by the name of Sebastian Haff (also Campbell). After a few years of impersonating Haff impersonating him, Elvis broke a hip, fell into a coma and now sports a big lump on his genitalia. When the threat of a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy in redneck clothes emerges, however, Elvis finds himself able to once again walk, get an erection and perform some karate moves. With the help of Jack (Ossie Davis), a fellow inmate who believes he's JFK post-lobotomy and skin-darkening, the battle is on. It's possible our heroes may be deluded, but part of the film's point is the power of imagination and fantasy over the tiresome, mundane world of the average adult. October 30, 7 p.m., Angelika. Director Don Coscarelli is scheduled to attend. (Luke Y. Thompson)
The Cooler A sort of companion to the sadly canceled fX series Lucky, about a Vegas gambler swearing off his vice, writer-director Wayne Kramer's The Cooler might have been titled Unlucky. William H. Macy's Bernie Lootz believes himself the walking damned, a man who brings misfortune to anyone who stumbles into his path. He carries with him a constant reminder of his bad luck and unsettled debts, a limp given to him by old "friend" and new boss Shelly (Alec Baldwin, doing a primo De Niro circa Casino), who runs an old-school casino and has brought in Bernie to cool off any gambler on a hot streak. Bernie's trying to leave Las Vegas, but cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) blocks his exit; she's a pro with a heart of fool's gold. Bernie's bad luck has at last run out. Or has it? The Cooler, in which Bernie struggles with his newfound fortune and Shelly struggles with newcomers who want to turn his joint into another Disneyland attraction on the Strip, is almost perfect: funny and heartbreaking and nerve-racking and sexy, a fairy tale full of broken bones and naked bodies and bullet holes and Joey Fatone as "the next Harry Connick Jr." October 30, 7 p.m., Magnolia. Producer Ed Pressman is scheduled to attend. (R.W.)
Die Mommie Die Far from heaven but down with love, or at least possessing an attraction to an enormous schwanz dangling in some 9021-ho's trousers, this hummer-camp offering from writer-actor Charles Busch proves one thing: In a wig and taffeta, Charles Busch looks just like Kathleen Turner. There's something a little arch about dialogue delivered between quotation-mark fingers and ironically cocked eyebrows; Busch, playing washed-up chanteuse Angela Arden, asks her gay son whether he's a "cocksucker," and all the film lacks is a laugh track. We get it: It's Beaver without one, which works for a good while--the cast's game, especially Philip Baker Hall as the patriarch without much patience and Jason Priestley as the TV-star has-been with the huge one--but runs out of steam around the time the rat-poison suppository comes into play. Busch, responsible for the similarly hit-and-miss-that's-a-mister Psycho Beach Party, has a good idea; two in one movie would make him absolutely fabulous. October 24, 7:30 p.m., Angelika. Director Mark Rucker and Jason Priestley are scheduled to attend. (R.W.)
The Family Jewels (Eierdiebe) Martin Schwarz, doctoral student and dutiful son, wants his ball back--his testicle, that is, removed by doctors when it's discovered to be cancerous. Martin (played by Wotan Wilke Möhring) merely wants to give it a proper burial; it's still part of him, he insists, not something to be dissected and discarded by pathologists. But Martin's pursuit of his missing nut is only a small part of this sweetly comic and disarmingly angry movie, written and directed by German filmmaker Robert Schwentke. Set in a cancer ward populated by bald and pale chemo patients who resemble zombiefied Curlys, The Family Jewels is about the death of one family (Martin's mother, father and brother don't react well to their son's illness) and the creation of another. Martin rooms with two men who kill time watching horror movies; nearby is a dying woman (Julia Hummer) who sees in Martin a last chance for love. Schwentke would seem to have no love for doctors and nurses, but doesn't allow them to become villains; they're just doing jobs that cause them to hurt those they're just trying to heal, which creates a sort of guilt masked by bad jokes and bad behavior. Theirs becomes what Martin refers to as a "sense of tumor." October 26, 5:15 p.m., Angelika. Writer-director Robert Schwentke is scheduled to attend. (R.W.)
The Fog of War Errol Morris, maker of The Thin Blue Line, could have released this film at any time, and it would still resonate like a thousand church bells rung in a shoe box. Its lessons are timeless and universal; its regrets, also. When an architect of war comes to regret his creations, which is to say his destructions, it makes for riveting viewing--a look at someone who wishes he could undo his past, with the horrific knowledge there's no going back. But the words spoken by Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson, seem especially relevant today. When the man, 85 years old when interviewed by Morris for this film two years ago, says, "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning," you can't help but wince a little. He's talking about Vietnam, but of course could be referring to Iraq; the film is subtitled "Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara," and you're reminded how tragic the consequences when others fail to learn from the past. McNamara comes close to admitting failure and regret but stops just short; he blames others for their shortsightedness and stubbornness, and condemns himself only by admitting complicity. Though he wants to take back the fire bombing of 100,000 civilians in Tokyo during World War II, he instead damns General Curtis Le May for ordering the use of incendiary weapons. He would prefer to be remembered as a do-gooder--his work as a maker of safety features at Ford is mentioned, as is his insistence that no rifles be loaded during peace mongers' march on the Pentagon in 1967--but knows he will be granted no such pardon. Instead, he will have to pay for decisions made in the fog of war. October 29, 9:45 p.m., Angelika. (R.W.)
In America It's ironic a movie about a man who refuses to cry makes you do nothing but, or perhaps it's merely unwise to see a film in which every scene's haunted by a dead young boy when you've just had your own. Writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Boxer) turns a real-life dead brother, lost at 11 to a brain tumor, into the son of a fictional family moved from Ireland to New York City in the 1980s; they trade tragedy for poverty, moving into funky-junkie squalor sans air conditioning and medical insurance, in order to start over. Johnny (Paddy Considine) hustles for stage work, Sarah (Samantha Morton) gets a gig scooping ice cream, while their two girls, camcording Christy (Sara Bolger) and adorable Ariel (real-life sister Emma), attend school, assimilate our pop culture and befriend an AIDS-afflicted artist (Djimon Hounsou) whose bitterness and fear they initially mistake for madness. Frankie's the dead kid little seen but often talked about, but Johnny's the corpse seen on screen for two hours; unable to cry or even feel anything since Frankie's death, he's the hollow man whose own kids can no longer identify him during one crushing scene. But Sheridan, tossing out fairy dust, isn't out to deprive anyone of a happy ending--Christy and Ariel don't love E.T. for nothing, and Sarah doesn't work at a parlor called Heaven for grins. He just wants to dull the shiny a bit, to make the fantastic more ordinary and remind us that some people die while others barely survive, so say your prayers now. October 24, 7 p.m., Angelika. (R.W.)
Girls Will Be Girls Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp), Varla Jean Merman (Jeffery Roberson) and Evie Harris (Jack Plotnick) are the "girls" in question in this Hollywood satire that doesn't cross any new cross-dressing boundaries, but manages to be fitfully entertaining, especially in light of its minuscule budget. Evie is a faded alcohol-and-controlled-substance-abusive and former game-show star rather half-heartedly plotting a comeback. As her live-in companion, Coco (who's nursing personal heartbreaks of her own) performs household duties in lieu of the rent. Consequently, a boarder (Roberson) has been taken in to make ends meet. Writer-director Richard Day shows considerable talent, particularly in a climactic drug-hallucination pool-party scene. Still one can't help but wish that these "girls" had something more to do than strike up Valley of the Dolls attitude without any juicy Valley of the Dolls scenes to back them up. October 29, 9:30 p.m., Angelika. (David Ehrenstein)
Manhood It's tempting to deem this the fest's most disappointing offering, but seeing as how it's the sequel to writer-director Bobby Roth's singularly awful Jack the Dog, it pretty much lives up, which is to say lives down, to expectations. Nestor Carbonell, brilliant as The Tick's Batmanuel, returns as pussyhound Jack, now a settled-down and newly single dad surrounded by a family of buffoons, lechers, scammers and scumbags, among them Janeane Garofalo as his sister, John Ritter as his brother-in-law and Nick Roth as their tatted-and-pierced son, whom Jack is forced to take in. The whole endeavor feels a bit icky, as it's run amok by porn freaks and prostitute fetishists; Roth didn't cast Traci Lords for her acting ability. October 25, 7:45 p.m., Angelika. (R.W.)
Melvin Goes to Dinner Over dinner and drinks in L.A., old friends and new acquaintances ponder the meaning of life--check, please! But before you scamper too far from the table, consider it was directed by Bob Odenkirk, one-half of Mr. Show, and written by former Daily Show contributor Michael Blieden, based on his play; and rest assured it doesn't sink in the tar pits from the weight of its heavy discussion, which touches upon all things sexual and spiritual (one of the women at the table even confesses to murder, a nice touch). It often feels like a Richard Linklater talktalktalkie wrapped around Mr. Show sketches, when Jack Black and David Cross and Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, among many others, show up in flashback sequences designed to add levity to the gravity of the fat being chewed 'round the dinner table. October 29, 7:30 p.m., Angelika. Michael Blieden and Bob Odenkirk are scheduled to attend. (R.W.)
On the Run (Cavale) This is the second installment of Lucas Belvaux's trilogy of films, which includes A couple épatant (a comedy) and Après la vie (a drama); this one's the "thriller," more or less. Less, actually, as Belvaux's Bruno, a terrorist committing random acts of violence in the service of "liberating" the "people," spends most of the film scampering from hiding place to hiding place in Grenoble after he escapes from prison; rarely is a film's title intended to be taken so literally. Bruno's not a character with which we can sympathize; his actions are brutal and senseless, and even when he dries out a cop's junkie wife his motives are purely those of self-preservation, and he thinks nothing of involving a former lover and comrade (Catherine Frot) or endangering her young son in his violent escapades. Yet the film's gripping nonetheless, perhaps because rare is the occasion when we root for the demise of a main character; Bruno's more than someone you love to hate, he's someone you'd love to see dead. October 28, 9:30 p.m., Angelika. (R.W.)
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Party Monster Macaulay Culkin stars as Michael Alig, the murderous "Club Kid" of New York's Limelight in this emotionally distressing yet compulsively watchable drama by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made a documentary on the same subject in 1988 with the same title. Interesting as that was, it didn't have what this amusingly rancid jape has, which is not only the star of Home Alone, but Seth Green as his aide de camp (or campy, as it were) James St. James. It's one of the most original pieces of acting in years. Chloë Sevigny, Wilmer Valderrama, Wilson Cruz, Marilyn Manson, Diana Scarwid and Dylan McDermott also figure effectively in the cast. October 27, 7:30 p.m., Angelika. (D.E.)
The Triplets of Belleville It's baffling how Sylvain Chomet's animated feature has been tagged as "hilarious" and "delightful" by critics who've seen it at Cannes and during its European run; it's dazzling, yes, but also mordant and dour, the laugh that sticks in your chest. It tells the story of a mother who trains her pudgy son to be a champion cyclist at the expense of all else, including his beloved dog, only to watch him grow up and get kidnapped by gangsters who'd use him and others as caged animals to be wagered on and disposed of. Hysterical. Then again, Chomet's is a dark, occasionally mean sense of humor that imagines the United States as a fat and self-contented country (even the Statue of Liberty, holding aloft a Big Mac, is obese) and renders three singing sisters as grenade-wielding frog-killers. So goofy this ain't. Brilliant, though? Quite possibly. October 28, 7:30 p.m. (R.W.)
Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election Was Florida's confused vote in the 2000 presidential election a farce or a tragedy? Clearly, it was both, according to filmmakers Richard Ray Pérez and Joan Sekler's 50-minute documentary on the bitterly contested recount that saw George W. Bush elected president. Going beyond issues of hanging chads and confused elderly voters mistakenly casting ballots for Patrick Buchanan, Pérez and Sekler carefully chronicle a slew of missteps--some inadvertent, some cynically less so--that saw black, likely Democratic voters removed from the voting rolls by a Republican administration before the election. The story continues post-Election Day, as both Democrats and Republicans struggle to ensure that the right votes--that is, theirs--are counted, while thousands remain disenfranchised. Though the GOP takes the hardest licks in the filmmakers' well-documented report, this is no pro-Al Gore polemic, but instead makes clear that elections are run by those whose interest is in winning at all costs, rather than guaranteeing the promise of one person, one vote. October 26, 7 p.m., Angelika. (Patrick Williams)
Whale Rider Niki Caro's sound, smart, sweet and significant crowd-pleaser (liberally adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera) takes an elegant approach to its feminist salvo. Our focal point is Paikea (wunderkind discovery Keisha Castle-Hughes), a preteen Maori girl named by her bohemian father, Porourangi (Hollywood staple Cliff Curtis), after the male ancestor who originated the Ngati Konohi tribe of Whangara, New Zealand, a thousand years earlier, arriving astride a whale. Pai being a girl doesn't please her sternly traditionalist, unrepentantly sexist grandfather Koro Apirana (terrific Rawiri Paratene), so she strives to earn his acceptance and respect--and claim her tribal destiny--helped along by her whip-smart grandmother Nanny Flowers (energetic Vicky Haughton) and noble uncle Rawiri (charming Grant Roa). Caro's desire to make men look silly wears thin, but otherwise she relates Maori sensibilities and culture with great affection and aplomb, delivering a film as important, yet generally more audience-friendly, than 1997's Once Were Warriors. October 24, 10 p.m., Angelika. (Gregory Weinkauf)