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Well Dunne

John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe take a bite out of cinema in E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire.

This fall, two local film festivals celebrate their second birthdays, and already both have learned to run before they bothered to crawl. The Vistas Film Festival, which had its run last month, proved that no line exists between "great Latin cinema" and "great cinema"; Vistas featured some of the best films we've seen all year, most of which will never receive release outside the incestuous fest circuit. This week, the Deep Ellum Film Festival makes its return, and its schedule contains enough high-quality, high-profile releases to make us wonder if the USA Film Festival hasn't become a moot point 30 years on. Any fest would be proud and delighted to claim one of the following--E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, Griffin Dunne's Famous, and Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me--but the Deep Ellum Film Festival doesn't have to settle. It boasts all four, which astounds writer-director-actor L.M. Kit Carson. "That's kind of impressive, isn't it?" asks the local-born Carson, subject of last year's DEFF retrospective, old friend of Dunne's, and--oh, yeah--co-founder of the USA Film Festival.

The festival has also lined up a rather impressive roster of talent to attend this year's proceedings, which transpire all across town--from the opening-night party on Wednesday at the Gypsy Tea Room to screenings at the Lakewood Theater, Club Clearview, Club Dada, even Expo Lounge and Deep Ellum Live. John Pierson will be around all week to discuss his years of distributing, exhibiting, and producing independent cinema, as well as creating and hosting the Independent Film Channel's Split Screen. On Saturday at the Main Street Internet Café, you can even attend a lunch with the author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema and bust his balls about Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Terry Zwigoff, and Lizzie Borden. He'd love that.

On Wednesday night, legendary photographer-collagist--and onetime fixture on the Studio 54 scene--Peter Beard will attend an opening of an exhibition of his work at the Boyd Gallery. And dozens of the filmmakers showing their movies in the fest will attend; most impressively, Merhige will appear at the Thursday-night screening of Shadow of the Vampire, and Griffin Dunne will show up for screenings of films he's directed (the terribly underrated Addicted to Love) or ones in which he starred (An American Werewolf in London). Indeed, for the screening of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, he will be joined by castmate Rosanna Arquette. About being the recipient of a retrospective, Dunne can only say it's his first such honor and, he hopes, his last for quite some time. "I'm still, ya know, young," he says, sort of laughing. "I'm honored, but I'm also just getting started."

So too is the DEFF, but founder-director Michael Cain's child ranks among the most promising ideas this side of counting ballots by hand. Cain started the fest in 1999 both to raise money for cancer awareness (Cain moved back to Dallas from L.A. in the fall of 1998 to care for his father) and to expose local audiences to independent films being made nationally and in their own back yards. To that end, last year's fest featured about 40 films, among them Chris Smith's extraordinary, hilarious American Movie, Carl Franklin's indie benchmark One False Move, and nearly a dozen locally produced features. This year's roster has expanded exponentially: The DEFF will present nearly 70 films, host a handful of seminars for aspiring filmmakers and concerned filmgoers (among them, "The Future of Arthouse Exhibition" and a writing seminar with Kit Carson), and overwhelm Deep Ellum with parties and premieres throughout the weekend.

"The festival, as much as anything else, teaches local filmmakers what the game is," Cain says. "Here's Griffin Dunne, go talk to him. Here's John Pierson, the guy who discovered Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith and The Blair Witch Project. Those guys can put you ahead, and they're here for five days, so there will be a lot of late-night conversations. And we drink a lot. Last year, we tried to create a filmmaker's film fest, because they're the ones who go out there and say, 'These people treated us well.' We started with that and grew from there. Last year, we had 43 filmmakers show up--43 people saying to their distribution companies or agents or fellow filmmakers, 'This is a good place to go.' That will open the door more than me calling people and begging for their movies."

It is often said that a film festival shouldn't feel too comfortable until its fifth birthday, after it has suffered though the requisite growing pains. But for the Deep Ellum Film Festival, the birthday party starts this week, and it deserves all the presents its has received--and, in kind, bestowed upon local filmmakers and filmgoers. The child has such promise.

 

What follows are a few of the festival's highlights and major screenings. For a complete list and schedule, go to www.def2.org.


American Nightmare It takes only a few minutes of watching The American Nightmare, which premiered last month on IFC, for the viewer to get the point: Real life is far more horrific--more brutal, more bloody, more visceral, more abhorrent--than any fiction ever created. Director Adam Simon, a masterful film-history documentarian, splices footage of fact and fiction together until they blend into a grisly whole: Are we watching scenes from a movie (Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead) or documentary footage from the battlefields of Vietnam and Mississippi and Kent State? Or, in the end, does it matter? As Simon posits, through the voices of John Carpenter and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other filmmakers, their violent films of the late 1960s and early '70s were nothing but reflections of the turmoil surrounding them. They were documentarians, of a sort, posing as artists: The climax of Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead--when the Southern cops kill the film's hero, Ben (Duane Jones), mistaking him for a zombie before tossing him on a pyre--is no less chilling than the black-and-white photographs of lynchings and burned corpses that hang from trees like charred Christmas-tree ornaments. Simon has eradicated the stench of camp that has long lingered around Romero's low-budget, blood-drunk horror film. It is possible once more to watch Night of the Living Dead and be genuinely horrified by it: A black man is gleefully gunned down by white cops who treat his body as something to be defiled and destroyed--as so much trash, to be burned and not buried. When director and makeup artist Tom Savini talks about how he learned the tricks of his trade by traipsing through the corpse-strewn rice paddies of Vietnam, we're at once sickened and amused by his indifference. He talks about stepping over limbs, snapping photographs of blown-to-bits bodies (some of which he has preserved to show us 30 years later), and of shutting out emotion through the distance provided by the camera's lens. The tone of his voice suggests that he's more than a little ashamed, but he's also proud--proud he survived, proud he used horror to create horror. "I was actually able to look at bone and blood and placement and geography," says the man who created the gore for such films as Friday the 13th. A cynic might dismiss The American Nightmare as too highfalutin, giving the lowbrow such highbrow treatment; interviews with directors are intercut with commentary from experts who explain the obvious. But Simon's point is well taken, right through the skull: The most terrifying things in this world take place not on a screen, but right in front of us. November 17, 10:30 p.m., Lakewood. (RW)

Bread and Roses Given its timing, director Ken Loach's Bread and Roses could be mistaken for documentary: Only months ago, Los Angeles' janitors, making far less than minimum wage, went on strike, demanding not only money to pay rent and buy food but enough to afford them life's small pleasures--bread, you see, and roses. The janitors won their struggle, just as they do here, but Loach presents us not only with the battle but with its heroes and martyrs, among them a Mexican immigrant named Maya (Pilar Padilla) who comes to the United States to live with her sister, a janitor in a Los Angeles high-rise, and ends up waging war against her bosses and the system that pays pennies on the dollars to those who clean up the mess. Maya's just happy for the job and for her freedom; she was smuggled into the country by men who were going to rape her when Maya's sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) couldn't come up with the money to pay for her illegal crossing. But when she meets activist Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody, the cast's sole "name" actor), who works for a decades-old, actual organization called Justice for Janitors, Maya becomes suddenly defiant and outraged at the treatment of janitors in her building; soon enough, she's helping Sam organize the workers, who had previously thought of themselves as nameless, faceless, and voiceless immigrants lucky only to find work; that Sam and Rosa fall in love is only to be expected. Loach, directing his first film in this country, has made a rather low-key movie about the price of protest; it sparks only when an enraged Rosa, who has sold out her sister to management in exchange for a promotion and a raise, admits to Maya the awful truth about how she supported her family for so long. But Bread and Roses, with a script by Paul Laverty, is never less than compelling even during its quiet, contemplative moments. November 18, 6 p.m., Lakewood. (RW)

 

Dark Days The notion of homeless people living in abandoned train tunnels has been fodder for all kinds of movies, usually in the horror genre, but this startling new documentary from British youngster Marc Singer (no, not the Beastmaster star) takes the almost revolutionary, yet obvious, approach of actually going into the tunnels below Manhattan and figuring out the truth. Yes, there is a whole community down there, with makeshift plywood dwellings and free electricity siphoned from the railway station outlets, complete with domestic bickering, communal sharing, and the occasional violent feud. There are also some really big rats. It certainly gives a lie to the argument that homeless people are lazy: Not only do they have an elaborately constructed place of residence, but they also make a living finding perfectly good items in the trash and reselling them (gay porn is the biggest moneymaker). The danger of complacency is raised: The community members argue about whether or not they still qualify as homeless, but the decision is ultimately made for them, as Amtrak sends armed guards into the tunnels to evict them. There's an uncharacteristically happy ending, but perhaps it's needed, as relentless darkness (even the beautifully filmed variety) can be a bit much for some people to take. Never preachy and always compelling, Dark Days is well worth 84 minutes of your time. November 19, 5 p.m., Lakewood. (Luke Y. Thompson)

Famous After two big-budget movies (Addicted to Love and Practical Magic) with big-budget casts (Matthew Broderick and Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman), Griffin Dunne's latest is the very definition of lo-fi: unknown cast, unknown writers, and shot entirely on digital video. Bullock, Buck Henry, Spike Lee, Charlie Sheen, L.M. Kit Carson, and a few other known commodities show up in bit parts, but they're supporting players in this mockumentary about a nobody on the verge of fame...or, more likely, well-deserved anonymity. Lisa Picard (Laura Kirk, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nat co-star DeWolf) won a tiny bit of notoriety by starring in the world's porniest Wheat Chex ad, but she's had little luck getting any more work; fact is, all she has going for her is a striking resemblance to Penelope Ann Miller and, she thinks, a bit role as a junkie in a made-for-TV movie starring Melissa Gilbert. Lisa's best friend, Tate Kelley, has written an awful one-man show about homophobia and coming out (he delivers his monologue dressed, hilariously, only in his boxer briefs), but he's somehow more successful: Spike Lee decides to direct the film version, starring Charlie Sheen and Mira Sorvino (Famous' co-producer). His relative success and Lisa's failure rips asunder their friendship; she begs Dunne's character, the intrusive documentarian, to turn off his nosy camera, and, in the end, she's left only with a dim, fawning boyfriend (Daniel London) with a horrible sense of timing. Halfway through, I began wishing Dunne would have dispensed with script and cast and made a real documentary, using struggling wannabes and his famous pals as narrators; their truths would have been far more prescient than Famous' familiar fiction about an actress whose talent is dwarfed by her ego and ambition. But as a satire about indie filmmaking, Famous is dead-on brilliant. When L.M. Kit Carson shows up, reprising his role as documentarian David Holzman, he asks Dunne's character just why in the hell he's making his movie about Lisa and Tate. Dunne is stymied: "I don't know," he responds, and his answer is the answer of thousands of aspiring filmmakers who think desire and DV cameras alone can make up for lack of anything to say. November 19, 7:30 p.m., Lakewood. Dunne will attend. (RW)

Nobody Knows Since this is a work-in-progress, and since writer-director Robert Dyke is around, let me offer a few words of advice before this movie's completed and beyond fixing. First off, the premise is kinda brilliant: What would have happened to this country had John Kennedy not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza? Dyke offers up a pretty funny answer: Bill Clinton would be nothing but a former Rhodes scholar and best-selling author (plugging his book A Kiss is Not a Kiss), the Beatles would have been minor stars in England, and brother Bobby would have lived to become president. But Dyke is too arty and pretentious with his storytelling; there's no fun to his funky tale. When the movie's not reveling in the joke, it feels like a half-assed X-Files, with Waltons pop Ralph Waite as a time traveler who comes back to warn Bobby, John, and Jackie; his scenes with the first family are draggy, a talky history lesson. The movie pops only when the great Bruce Campbell shows up as a B-movie director out to expose the time traveler and the Kennedy's conspiracy to keep quiet the events of this new November 22; he's the alternate future's Oliver Stone, and he gamely camps it up, Army of Darkness-style. So here's my advice: Tell the movie from Campbell's point of view; turn it into the all-out parody it wants to be, a whacked-out J.F.K. You don't cast Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure) as Lyndon Johnson or Larry "Benny from L.A. Law" Drake as J. Edgar Hoover if you don't have a sense of humor. So, where is it? November 19, 3 p.m., Lakewood. (RW)

 

Rave Director Ron Krauss' 2-year-old film about multi-cultis burning down the house music is about what you'd expect: an after-school special about the perils of raving too long, too hard, too fast. Kids do drugs and overdose, own guns and get shot, pick fights and get beat up, all in the name of a little dance-floor fun. In other words, it's Go without the wit, smarts, or charm. Worse, Krauss breaks up his predictable narrative with faux-documentary talking heads, the function of which is indecipherable--save, perhaps, to take us completely out of the movie. Overcoming the film's banalities is Douglas Spain as Daffy, a Latino kid obsessed with becoming a house d.j.; over his computer hangs a Scarface poster, a rather clumsy joke as Steven Bauer plays his pops. Aimee Graham, the acid-washed night-tripper, is also notable, only because you won't be able to get past the fact that she sounds just like her sister, Heather. Rave...off. Actually, a far better rave-related entry in this year's fest is Synergy: Visions of Vibe, director Valerian Bennett's clear-eyed, riveting look at the culture, its creators, and its history (from African bongos to musique concrete to Euro techno to Detroit house parties). Featuring, among others, Jonathon Moore (of Coldcut), Carl Cox, Orbital, and Jason Bentley, Synergy is a film you can dance to. Rave screens November 17, midnight, Lakewood. Synergy screens November 18, 8 p.m., Deep Ellum Live. A "techno afterparty" will take place at 9:30; $20 per person. (RW)

Shadow of the Vampire F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu was "the most realistic vampire film ever made," posits E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, and now we know why: Murnau's vampire was, in fact, not played by an actor named Max Schreck but an actual member of the living dead only posing as an actor named Max Schreck. It's a funny premise, and as Schreck, Willem Dafoe has a monumentally good time; he literally chomps at the scenery (and a few cast members) when he becomes too fidgety and fed up with the trappings of moviemaking. Dafoe, cast at the world's greatest Method actor (Max will work only at night, henh henh), was born to play the graying undead. He clicks his long fingernails like Edward Scissorshands and bemoans his deteriorating state. "I feed the way an old man pees--sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop," he seethes. And as Murnau, John Malkovich preens and pouts like a man who's only too willing to sell his own soul to make his cinematic masterpiece. "Our struggle is to create art," he gushes at one point, "and our weapon is the moving picture," but he asks others to make sacrifices, often the ultimate sacrifice, while he films it all from the shadows. But Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz don't deliver the crucial payoff--that this is, perhaps, a true story (look what it did for the Blair Witch). They let us off the hook in a finale that tells us this is just a joke, and we're left feeling as though we've just watched the world's longest and smartest Saturday Night Live sketch. It may feel like a slight criticism given the excellence of the performances (especially from Dafoe and Eddie Izzard, as one of Murnau's actors who's quite terrified of his co-star) and the ingenuity of the story and its presentation, but this is one of those films that's so good you just want it to be a little better--to leave an impression, rather than strike a glancing blow. November 16, 7:30 p.m., Lakewood. E. Elias Merhige will attend. (RW)

Speedway Junkie This is probably the funniest film in the festival, and unintentionally so: It's just hard to stifle a laugh--a guffaw might be more appropriate--whenever former Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas opens his mouth and starts talking about how he'll fuck man or woman for a little spare scratch. The little tyke's all grown up (sort of) and is cruising the Las Vegas strip, with pals Johnny (Jesse Bradford) and Eric (Jordan Brewer), for pocket change in this movie about the seedy side of the seediest city in America; smells like direct-to-video on this end. Exec-produced by Gus Van Sant, this is what happens when good intentions collide with bad execution; around the time Daryl Hannah shows up as a streetwise hooker, sporting a black eye and solemn war stories, you'll wonder how this movie escaped from Showtime. Also starring Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Patsy Kensit, and Warren G. November 17, 7 p.m., Expo Lounge. (RW)

 

Spring Forward Director-writer Tom Gilroy's film will challenge all but the most stoic of audiences; be warned, children of MTV, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the remote control. Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty, as two men who work for the parks department in a Connecticut town, spend the entirety of the film doing little more than talking and driving and talking and...uh, talking. They talk about prison (Schreiber's character, Paul, has just been released after serving time for robbing a Dunkin' Donuts), about women, about growing old (Beatty's Murph, a 30-year vet, is on the verge of retirement), about anything and everything to while away the hours. They're total opposites--Paul's the crude-on-the-outside-brilliant-on-the-inside type, while Murph's an uptight old man with a son dying of AIDS--united only by their dislike for Campbell Scott (aren't we all) and their shared boredom. Spring Forward looks as though it were filmed on a stage; it's essentially one long scene, save for shots of the changing of seasons as the year progresses (yellow leaves, white snow, green grass). Paul wants only to get by, loosen up Murph (with a little dope), and, just maybe, fall in love; Peri Gilpen's Georgia, a lonely keeper of stray dogs, is willing to accommodate him. Nothing happens, but everything is revealed in Spring Forward; it's a poem read quietly, one that demands you be still, open your ears and your heart, and pay attention. You will rewarded for your patience. November 17, 8:30 p.m., Lakewood. Gilroy will attend. (RW)

You Can Count on Me The moods of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's film are so artfully mingled that it's difficult to get a fix on this highly personal independent feature. Set in a quiet little town in upstate New York's lovely Catskill Mountains, it is at once a drama about the unresolved traumas of childhood and a sly comedy about how sibling conflict tests the limits of family love. Don't worry about defining categories or genres too precisely, though: Lonergan comes at you on his own terms, and that's his strength. Made on a tiny budget, Count is Exhibit A for this year's defense of well-written, richly nuanced movies that value human behavior more than 30-car smashups, gratuitous sex, and all the other Hollywood evils about which presidential candidates like to moralize. If you have an IQ above room temp, you may find this gem irresistible. The pooh-bahs at the Sundance Film Festival certainly did: Lonergan was co-winner of this year's grand jury prize. The principals include The Truman Show's Laura Linney as a wounded single mother, Sammy Prescott, who's trying to build a respectable life for herself and her 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), in sleepy Scottsville; and appealing newcomer Mark Ruffalo as Sammy's wayward brother, Terry, who comes home to visit with a résumé featuring odd jobs in half a dozen states, a fistful of broken romances, and a stint in jail. Superficially, Sammy and Terry are opposites; the tightly wound homebody seems to have nothing in common with the charming drifter. But below the surface lies a far more complex and intriguing relationship, born of tragedy yet buoyed by wit. The family dynamics here are not just complicated, they are touchingly funny. As teenagers, the two were numbed by their parents' deaths in a car accident, and we become present witnesses to the toll of that terrible hurt. Sammy has tried to take refuge in hearth and home, Terry in running away. But now that they are reunited in their dead parents' house, something has to give. Happily, Lonergan knows just what it is--the emotional logjam that has imprisoned Sammy and Terry all these years. To his credit, this canny moviemaker doesn't inflict any easy answers (or happy endings) on his characters. Instead, he explores the constant messiness of life and the little victories it reluctantly yields. November 18, 8:30 p.m., Lakewood. (Bill Gallo)


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