Pick of the Litter
Most film festivals--at least ones not in Toronto, Manhattan, Cannes or Park City, Utah--have no rhyme or reason to their schedules, no more than a street-corner proselytizer does to his ramblings. They're subject to the fancies of a small group of programmers and the whims of distributors pushing new product; the schedule is a result of reconciliation and compromise, of promotion and availability, of likes and needs. That isn't a bad thing at all, when the fest in question offers some of the year's best movies wrapped up in a single bow.
Six years into its existence, the Deep Ellum Film Festival is too much a veteran to be labeled an upstart. Where once it honored the easy-to-get or at least easy-to-find--say, local filmmaker L.M. Kit Carson, who helped put the thing together in its infancy--now it brings us Robert Duvall as its guest of honor, after years of begging him to accept its invitation. And joining him are revered vets and beloved comers on the indie scene: Maverick Filmmaker Award recipient Allison Anders, maker of Mi Vida Loca and Grace of My Heart; David Gordon Green, the Richardson-bred writer-director of George Washington and the forthcoming Undertow; Houston newbie Jonathan Caouette, whose lifelong documenting of his and his mother's torturous life has resulted in the difficult to watch, harder not to watch Tarnation; and homeboy Jeremy Coons, who produced the outta-nowhere hit Napoleon Dynamite. The child is all grown up, ready to take its place as this city's most essential film festival out of the many worth attending each year.
"We are able to get more of the films we pursue," says the fest's founder, Michael Cain. "If a festival is growing and succeeding, the schedule and honorees become less 'what can you get' and more what we would like to present. The same can be said of honorees...It is a sign of our growth and perseverance that we finally have brought Duvall in. When we began this process Clinton was in office. Normally his attendance would be all many would need to consider our festival a success. Robert Duvall has created an incredible palette of work, and it is the first time we've had someone to honor that we did not have to read their bio to let people know who we were celebrating."
The festival comes bearing a number of movies shortly due for wide release: Kinsey, Sideways, Eulogy, Undertow, P.S. , Tarnation, Lightning in a Bottle, Imaginary Heroes and End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, some of which are already out in other cities. They're prestigious previews, early showings of Oscar contenders and art-house heroes that are a secret to no one; Kinsey and Sideways, both from Fox Searchlight, rank high among the year's best releases. But for every well-financed, well-publicized, well-received offering, there's often an unknown companion piece. The fest--not unintentionally, as it turns out--has constructed a nifty schedule in which one Big Movie has a low-budget, lo-fi double against which you can play cinematic compare-and-contrast.
Most interesting is the pairing of Eulogy, a domestic comedy in which Ray Romano struggles to find breathing room amidst Debra Winger and Hank Azaria and Kelly Preston and so many other name-brand actors, with the far superior 95 Miles to Go, a hilarious and insightful rinky-dink doc about Romano's stand-up tour of the South. Eulogy, with its wry zingers spouted by cardboard characters, feels like a quirky sitcom--Arrested Development without the development. But 95 Miles to Go, a sort of low-budget Comedian, is so winning because it makes Romano real, affable, human--a honking mass of neurosis who doesn't think he deserves the accolades and attention, which is precisely what makes him so famous after all.
The fest opens Thursday night at the Inwood Theatre with Kinsey, the first film from writer-director Bill Condon since Gods and Monsters, and it's a hell of a kickoff--the slap that wakes you from this season's slumber, that reminds you of what great moviemaking looks like and feels like and acts like. It's darkly comic, quietly moving and full of unforgettable moments--none more so, perhaps, than the scene in which Peter Sarsgaard, as Kinsey's assistant Clyde Martin, seduces the professor (Liam Neeson) by parading around a cheap motel room in the nude, letting his skin do the begging for him; or maybe it's the scene during which the virginal, awkward Kinsey and his new wife, Clara (Laura Linney), consummate their marriage with painful success. Condon's is a biopic at once blandly familiar and strikingly fresh: It tells of the rise and fall of a man adored and then abhorred for studying sexual behavior at a time when such things were not to be spoken about in public, but does so frankly, with humor and warmth and, most of all, great care and respect for its subject. (Linney also shows up in Dylan Kidd's romantic comedy P.S. , in which Topher Grace plays the reincarnation of her dead high school boyfriend...really.)
Later in the fest comes, pardon, Kinsey's hard-core counterpart, The Naked Feminist, in which director Louisa Achille interviews Nina Hartley, Veronica Hart, Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royale and other 1960s and '70s porn stars about their experiences in a biz damned for exploiting the troubled and traumatized. These women would argue they used sexuality as a tool for empowerment; some would even get into the directing and distribution side of the industry. Achille could be faulted for not finding more current actresses to document the decline of "feminism" in porn, a result of the "gonzo" porn's rise to prominence and profitability; in the end, hers is a nostalgic flashback.
Less so is End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, a history about the twin mysteries of how two late, great guys who hated each other (the no-shit Johnny and the no-chin Joey) stayed in a band for more than two decades and how the Ramones managed to influence a million kids to start 250,000 bands without ever having a hit. It has all the usual stuff and all the usual suspects: a dead bassist on junk (Dee Dee), the woman who came between guitarist Johnny and singer Joey, the important drummer callously treated like an afterthought (Tommy), the nobodies who became bigger somebodies than their role models (members of the Clash and Sex Pistols) and the managers and hangers-on and enablers who stayed in orbit awaiting the blast-off that never quite came.
The best film of the fest is also the best of the year: Alexander Payne's Sideways, starring Paul Giamatti as a junior-high teacher and would-be novelist touring Santa Barbara vineyards with his former college roommate, a struggling actor played by Thomas Haden Church. Giamatti's once more the lovable schlep, this time falling for Virginia Madsen's wine-loving waitress; Church, as a groom-to-be who screws around with Sandra Oh's winery worker, is at once boomingly larger-than-life and not much of anything at all. Giamatti and Church are wonderful as good friends who shouldn't even like each other; one learns a little something, the other not much of anything, and the movie's as genuine and sincere as any doc in the fest. Payne loves his little people who can fill the biggest screen.
Its counterpart is lbs. , also a sort of buddy pic about A Fat Guy (Neil, played by Carmine Famiglietti) and His Junkie Friend (Sacco, played by Michael Aronov) trying to give up their respective addictions in the middle of nowhere. Famiglietti even looks a little like Giamatti--thick, haggard and just this far from losing his shit. What could have been preachy and treacly is often heartbreaking, with just enough humor to make it go down easily.
And then there are the movies that are included for the pure fun of it, including Ong-bak, a Thai martial-arts movie that plays like a cross between Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Biker Boyz and every good movie Jackie Chan ever made; the blues concert documentary Lightning in a Bottle; and Overnight, a harrowing big-screen version of Project Greenlight and Entourage about how bartender Troy Duffy sold a script (and his soul?) to Miramax and wound up screwing himself. Really, there is no better way to enjoy a film fest than to see a movie about how screwed up the film business can be and how it will destroy you if you let it. And it's all real--really funny and really scary, which adds up to really perfect.
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