Those of us who plan our annual schedules according to film festival start dates have learned one thing this year: Zooey Deschanel—who's had multiple movies in every fest in 2007, including two here—is the new Parker Posey. Does that sound cranky? Well, you must excuse the weariness; we're still groggy and hung over from the 25-plus movies upon which we gorged ourselves at South by Southwest in Austin only last week, which wasn't even an eighth of what was available to ravenous cinephiles lining up at the buffet table. But never mind us, not when there's a good chance you'll bump into Lauren Bacall or David Lynch or Morgan Freeman or Ron Livingston or Bill Paxton wandering Victory Park or the Magnolia or, like, even a Target this week and next.
Dallas's AFI fest promises 190 screenings (features and shorts) spread across nearly a dozen venues, a charitable amount of shindigs populated by famous faces, some high-profile previews of upcoming openings (Hot Fuzz and Fido among them) and a few inevitable instructional panels intended to educate and entertain the would-bes and wannabes. This is a big festival with big money behind it ($3 mil's the budget, with some 800 thou of that going to the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute in franchising and consulting fees). If the AFI's red-and-white color scheme makes you want to pick up some shampoo and toilet paper at Target, well, the fest's lead sponsor will be more than pleased to hear that.
Dallas has become a film-fest town, between such veterans as the USA Film Festival (which commences in mere days, oy) and the Dallas Video Festival, not to mention the more specialized fests catering to fans of gay and Asian and Jewish movies. (One day, and Christmas Eve seems like as good a time as any, there will be a fest screening movies intended only for gay Asian Jews.) We may get movies a little later than New York or Los Angeles, where David Lynch's Inland Empire and Brad Silberling's 10 Items or Less have already opened and closed, but we now miss nothing. To think, folks worried there wouldn't be enough product to fill the art houses just a few years ago, when the Angelika and Magnolia theaters opened within a few months and a few miles of each other.
There are some exceptional films on the AFI's schedule, no matter their points of origin—like, for instance, director Katherine Dieckmann's Diggers and David Wain's The Ten, both of which were written by and star Ken Marino, formerly of The State comedy troupe. The latter offers a wry, surreal and often just silly take on the Ten Commandments; imagine The Meaning of Life in which Winona Ryder takes up with a ventriloquist's dummy or a doctor refers to intentionally leaving surgical instruments in his patients' bodies as "a goof." Diggers is far more substantive, Breaking Away recast as an homage to Marino's clam-digging dad. Indeed, Diggers is not only set in the 1970s but looks like it could have been shot in the 1970s, and Paul Rudd (who's also in The Ten) fronts an astounding cast that also features Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton, Lauren Ambrose and Marino sporting the grooviest mustache outside of porn.
Diggers is great; director Seth Gordon's video-game doc King of Kong, which bowed at SXSW, is even better. (If it's the best film at AFI, it's only because it's one of the best movies of 2007.) Ostensibly about Billy Mitchell, who held the world's highest Donkey Kong score for almost 25 years beginning in 1982, King of Kong is as much about the perils of hubris and the price of heartbreak. Mitchell's been the champ since he was a kid and piled up nearly 900,000 points on the arcade machine; since then, no one's come within 300,000 points of his record. He has spent the last 25 years growing a chicken-wing sauce business, primping his mullet and pimping his fame as the so-called "Videogame Player of the Century," under the banner of Twin Galaxies—the "official" score-keeping franchise for all arcade world records, for which Mitchell's also a judge.
Only one man emerges in all that time to challenge Mitchell: Steve Wiebe (pronounced "Wee-bee"), a husband and father of two whose life thus far has been defined by his failures and disappointments—his inability to pitch The Big Game in high school, his losing The Big Job his father once held, his failing to live up to his potential and his family's hopes. All he's got going for him: a patient and forgiving wife, a Donkey Kong machine in the basement and the ability to figure out how to beat every flaming barrel Kong throws his way.
In time, the challenger becomes champion: Wiebe unseats Mitchell, for whom losing is unfathomable and unacceptable—to the point where Mitchell and his Twin Galaxies cronies essentially conspire to disallow Wiebe's million-point mark. How they do it and to what level they're willing to stoop are at the core of The King of Kong, which would play like dark comedy were there not such honest-to-God cruelty at its core. (Mitchell is thoroughly unlikable—a small-timer who fulfills the role of big-screen villain with so little effort.)
King of Kong is the prototypical festival film: a documentary about fringe-dwellers obsessing over minutiae in the margins. That's applicable shorthand for David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's work-in-progress, Kamp Katrina, about the efforts of a woman named Ms. Pearl to restore some semblance and dignity to her small corner of New Orleans in the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina. Pearl and her husband—a man named David Cross, who looks like Blues Traveler's John Popper—allow into their backyard 14 folks displaced by the hurricane; they live in tents and are forced to abide by the couple's rules, which include no drinking or drug use. They want folks to "help themselves and help the city"—and they pray to God they're gone after six months, more or less.
But, of course, it doesn't work out that way: Residents of a would-be utopia, desperate strangers (including a pregnant woman who considers naming her unborn child Katrina, till she thinks better of it) clinging to a vestige of civilization, find a way to work and live together for a short while. But soon enough, more than a few of Kamp Katrina's residents start to believe they're living, as one man puts it, at "ground zero of the apocalypse." And when you've set up residency there, well, you need more than a few bucks, a soccer ball and a some musical instruments to keep you occupied—and sane.
There are more conventional docs in the fest as well, among them Rob Stewart's stunning-to-look-at Sharkwater,about the sacrificing of sharks for their fins and the devastation it's wrought upon their once-estimable numbers, andThe Rape of Europa, about how Hitler ordered the theft and even destruction of European masterpieces during World War II. What he adored, including works by Da Vinci and Klimt, he kept for his own; what he abhorred, what Hitler considered degenerate painting, he had destroyed. Based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas and acclaimed during its festival screenings late last year, the film has considerable local money in it: It was co-produced by former St. Mark's and SMU tennis star-turned-philanthropist Robert Edsel, who has spent the last several years honoring the so-called "Monuments Men" who went about rescuing the stolen art that was being horded or sold off at auction.
Another film with substantive local ties is the narrative The Night of the White Pants, which debuted at Tribeca last year and which will forever be known around the office as the movie featuring Jim Schutze's yellow car. Written and directed by Amy Talkington, who shot all over East Dallas last year, the movie stars Tom Wilkinson as a Dallas hot-shit hot-shot with a fucked-up family life: The missus (Janine Turner) shows up to throw him outta the house, forcing Wilkinson's Max to spend a night out on the town—by which we mean at the Double Wide in Expo Park, among other locales—with his daughter (Selma Blair) and her dope-dealing punk-rocker boyfriend (Plano's Nick Stahl). What does he find? Horny hot chicks and the seedy, carefree life every Highland Park millionaire craves sooner or later.
White Pants isn't your average film-fest fodder, your prototypical downer indie filled with single-chord soundtracks and Elliott Smith songs and dying moms and troubled teens and the injured and infirmed. But AFI has plenty of movies for folks craving the archetypal experience, two of which star Zooey Deschanel. In Steve Berra's The Good Life, she plays an angel in a hellhole Nebraska town who woos and inspires a movie-obsessed kid (Mark Webber) who hides his pale, alopecia-ravaged pate beneath a sweat-jacket hoodie. (A Sundance downer, The Good Life was one of three movies at that fest to open with the sound of a gun being fired; we're supposed to figure out by whom and why by film's end.) And in The Go-Getter, Deschanel plays a woman whose car's stolen by a kid (Lou Pucci Taylor) headed cross country to tell his older half-brother their mom's dead. Deschanel spends half the film as a disembodied voice on a cell phone; turns out, grand theft auto's a great way to start a relationship.
Another troubled, movie-loving teen finds his way into The Favor, in which Christopher Plummer plays a forgotten film director who's drowning himself in booze and old movies. Plummer, sporting several shades of accents, winds up mentoring a high-school kid (played by Michael Angarano) trying to win a film contest. You'll never guess what happens...oh, wait, you probably already have.
The opening- and closing-night movies are also medical melodramas: Opener Music Withinstars Ron Livingston as Richard Pimentel, a real-life Vietnam vet who returned from war with a horrific case of tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that left him, more or less, deaf. Pimentel would go on to fight for the rights of the disabled—he was among the central forces behind the Americans with Disabilities Act—and if the tale offered by director Steve Sawalich occasionally rings the Afterschool Special bell, it's also a measured and thoughtful portrait of a man who stopped thinking about himself the moment he could hear no one else.
The fest's closer is an even more wrenching selection: Sarah Polley's Away From Her, about a woman (the extraordinary Julie Christie) who succumbs to Alzheimer's, checks into a nursing home and begins a relationship with another man. Her husband (Gordon Pinsent) is left to grieve the memory of a wonderful marriage that might not have been as he recalled it. In this extraordinary film from the actress-turned-director, which is based on an Alice Munro story, being able to retain a memory can be more painful than losing all of them.
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