Movies are a sideline of the Austin
Film Festival. After all, they're an end product. The Heart
of Film Screenwriters' Conference honors the folks who make
it all possible and gives novice writers a chance to discuss
the craft with some of their idols.
Steamboy has been in development for more than a decade.
The film is Katsuhiro Otomo’s first anime feature
since he directed the legendary Akira, which was released
in 1988. The film was shown at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX
with the original Japanese language track and English subtitles. If
and when you are lucky enough to watch Steamboy, you might be able
to surmise why a mere cartoon takes a lot of time to complete. Otomo-sama’s
latest work is a grand, epic adventure tale—not unlike a tentpole,
overly expensive summer flick from Disney. However, Steamboy,
with all its beautiful hand-drawn, two-dimensional, steam-punk
glory, possesses something intangible that its Western counterparts
The story is set in Victorian England, when STEAM (!) was the main
source of machine power. Lloyd Steam (Katsuo Nakamura)
and his son Eddy Masatane Tsukayama) have, at great
cost, created a new device called the steamball. The limits of machinery
that the steamball can power equal only those of the human imagination
(good and bad). So naturally, everyone—British military and
the O’Hara Foundation, represented in the movie by the bratty
young girl, Scarlett (Manami Konishi)— wants
the machine. That’s a pretty blatant reference there by Otomo-sama.
Lloyd Steam believes only in scientific progress and creation even
though doing so causes more danger and inevitably leads to his son
joining the enemies. In the middle of the conflict is Ray (Anne
Suzuki), son and grandson to Eddy and Lloyd. Ray is unwittingly
thrust into the confrontation of science vs. the military and his
loyalty is torn between two relatives. That said, Steamboy
suffers a bit from a horrendously long and drawn-out third act that
features exciting sequences but appears overdone. Nevertheless, the
Japanese anime industry continues to uphold the truth that 2-D animation
is still worthwhile and more valid than CG shit like Shark Tale.
“The world will be saved by STEAM!”
—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris
Saw is a new horror film directed by James Wan and
written by Leigh Whannell—two Australians fresh
out of film school. Whannell also plays Adam, one of the film’s
protagonists. Unfortunately, Adam is chained inside a room with a
doctor, Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes, affecting a
lame American accent). They’ve been banished there by an unknown,
unseen assailant who apparently knows them, and demands that one man
has to kill the other within a certain time-frame in order to live.
Told through flashbacks, it is revealed that the abductor is a twisted
serial killer who arranges elaborate, torturous “lessons”
for his victims based on transgressions they have committed. Nostalgia
for John Doe in Se7en anybody? Just wondering…
Saw is nothing special for a horror film, even with some
graphic depictions of violence. The acting by the leads is pretty
bad, and the audience I saw the film with couldn’t help but
heap enormous of amounts of unintentional laughter for the film. I
didn’t really find said footage or acting funny… just
stupid. To my dismay, the directing and editing for the film resorts
to typical MTV-music video style crap. I can condone the over-use
of conventions sometimes if used effectively. In this film, they are
not. Young teenage audiences will still probably see and enjoy Saw,
but they can actually do so much better for what many consider the
bottom-feeding genre of movies.
—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris
The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers
Yet another biopic made for HBO Television, directed by Stephen
Hopkins, about the apparently tortured comic genius, Peter
Sellers. The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers (based
on the Roger Lewis book) implies that Sellers (Geoffrey
Rush) was so adept at creating and depicting other characters,
he never believed there was a real Peter Sellers. Sellers’ true
self was hollow, and he could only live his life through the various
characters he portrayed on radio and the screen. Although Rush is
fantastic and perfectly nails Sellers and all of the characters such
as Clouseau and Doctor Strangelove, seeing Sellers wreck his life
and drive all his loved ones away is pretty depressing.
The movie’s strongest point consists of the acting by Rush
and the supporting roles featuring Emily Watson as
Sellers’ first wife, Anne; John Lithgow as
Blake Edwards; and Stanley Tucci
as the late Stanley Kubrick. Charlize Theron portrays
Sellers’ second wife, Britt Ekland, a fairly
one-dimensional persona and the film’s most boring character.
It was surprising seeing the usually more prominent Theron in essentially
a bit part. The story brings Sellers’ hatred for the Clouseau
character and the Pink Panther series to the surface, and shows how
the Oscar-nominated performance as Chance in Being There provided
Sellers with some peace and salvation before his death in 1980 at
age 54. Thankfully, there is but a brief mention of Sellers’
final effort, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu.
“Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world.”
—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris
After watching Dear Frankie, I got the feeling that I actually
wouldn’t mind seeing other movies like it in my lifetime. In
Dear Frankie, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), her
mother Nell (Mary Riggans), and her deaf son Frankie
(Jack McElhone) constantly move around the country
trying to avoid Lizzie’s dead-beat and abusive husband. In trying
to hide Frankie from that harsh reality, Lizzie created a believable
fable in which Frankie’s dad is constantly away from home and
out at sea in a boat called the Accra. When one of Frankie’s
classmates reveals that the Accra is sailing into town, Frankie is
ecstatic about the chance to finally meet his father. Rather than
telling the boy the harsh truth, Lizzie’s friend sends Frankie
to a nameless man (Gerard Butler) whom Lizzie pays
to be Frankie’s dad for a day. Frankie is such a good kid that
the surrogate father naturally warms up to him and wants to be his
dad… and in hindsight so does Lizzie.
Dear Frankie is a sweet, light-hearted film. It’s
not overly manipulative and all the performances are solid and well
done. I was most impressed with young McElhone, who turns in a great,
convincing performance as the deaf Frankie. At first, I didn’t
understand why the mother is playing this elaborate charade with her
son. One could conclude that Lizzie is wrong in trying to hide the
truth from her son, but in the end it’s really just because
she loves him. She’s not really trying to protect him from the
real world, but trying to protect his childhood and idealism. And
what eight-year-old shouldn’t have that?
—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris
Tobacco Money Feeds My Family
Director Cynthia Hill spent three years filming
tobacco farmers around her hometown of Pink Hill, North Carolina,
three years during which the farmers’ quotas—the acreage
of tobacco they are allowed to grown per season—decreased by
18% each year. Most Americans don’t smoke. Whether you do or
not, for most of us, the face of tobacco is Big Tobacco—RJR
Reynolds or such like—not these small farmers whose income depends
on a crop for which there is less demand every season.
On first consideration, I was irked by Hill’s film. The three
tobacco growers she highlights share a huge ethical blind spot about
their crop. Well, there’s an excellent quote about how you can
convince of man of anything if his livelihood depends upon it. In
fact she includes an excellent anecdote about her uncle, a pastor
who preached that smoking is a sin; she recalls working in his tobacco
fields. The hallmarks of the tobacco-farmer mentality, as presented
here, seem to be ultra-religiosity and the constant conflation of
the legal and the moral, and the amount of blinkered BS her subject
are allowed to get away with is gasp-inducing.
But after reflection I realize that Hill’s film amounts to
a splendid act, the act of listening instead of waiting to speak.
Hill’s object is not to examine the ethics of growing a life-
and health-threatening crop. Her aim instead is to show us some folks
and a way of life that is unfamiliar to most of us. Yeah, there are
annoyances. The farmers have some pretty lame arguments for why they
couldn’t possibly grow other crops. Hill fails to talk to non-farmers
in the area, merchants and such, about their dependence on money spent
by tobacco farmers. Also, the picture would have benefited from subtitles;
the North Carolina accents at times are nigh unto indecipherable.
But Tobacco Money Feeds My Family is not an examination.
It’s a fascinating presentation of who these people are and
why they love their lives.
Georgia native Ray McKinnon won an Academy Award
for best live action short for his hilarious film The Accountant.
McKinnon—one of those character actors you’re always seeing
(“Deadwood,” O Brother Where Art Thou?, Apollo 13)
and going, “Hey! That guy!”—makes his feature-directing
debut with Chrystal. He also wrote it and acts in it, with
his wife, Lisa Blount, in the title role, and Billy
Bob Thornton as her husband, Joe.
As Chrystal opens, Joe returns to her dilapidated shack
after serving 16 years for growing pot. Joe was arrested after he
cracked up his car while fleeing from the law. Unfortunately, Chrystal
and their young son were also in the car; the boy was killed and Chrystal
suffered a neck injury that left her in permanent pain.
Highly atmospheric, Chrystal has several wordless or nearly
wordless scenes. Blount’s acting, while very fine in a very
difficult role, can’t put in what God and Ray McKinnon left
out, leaving us with a lead character whose motivations and emotions
are often ciphers. On the negative side, there are sideplots, sundry
characters, and life choices that mystify; they seem to be there simply
because McKinnon wanted to use that actor or because he had a really
cool, tight scene written about that particular situation. On the
positive side, there’s good acting all around, from Blount and
Thornton, from Grace Zabriskie as Chrystal’s
mom, and from McKinnon, as Snake, a baddie so nasty that his own mama
probably named him Snake. Also positive is one of the most gruesome
fight scenes to be unflinchingly committed to film, intelligent characters
who don’t live down to the caricatures of backwoods folks that
Hollywood routinely serves up, and damn fine music. It’s a swing
and a miss, but it’s still probably miles better than what’s
at your local multiplex right now.
Oh dear me. Dylan Kidd, the writer and director
of 2002’s Roger Dodger, comes a cropper with P.S.
Kidd partnered with Helen Schulman, author of the
novel P.S., to write the screenplay, and he got some excellent
talent (Laura Linney, Topher Grace, Paul Rudd, Gabriel Byrne)
to work with. How did this captivating premise—a woman of 39
has an affair with a 20-something man who appears to be the reincarnation
of the high school lover who was killed in a car wreck—go so
I checked out Schulman’s slim novel and read it in a night.
It’s that kind of book—the sort of highly entertaining
sex-and-romance goulash that is usually called a beach read. But having
read it, I was scratching my head. The novel’s lead, Louise,
tells most of the story: but she tells it in flashbacks, in silent
observations, in running mental conversations with her mother, whose
voice she cannot keep out of her head even at age 39. Um. How do you
put that on the screen?
The answer, for Kidd, was that you don’t. So large chunks
of the already slender storyline fall away and key relationships make
absolutely no sense. This also has the effect of making Louise’s
pursuit of F. Scott (Grace) seem far less compelling and far more
like sleazy sexual predation. A disappointing sophomore effort, and
In Chase Palmer’s extremely effective short,
Shock And Awe, an Iraqi family—mom, dad, daughter,
two sons, and youngest girl—hides under the dinner table during
bombing. No subtitles, but it’s pretty clear what’s being
said. The eldest son keeps trying to get up and eat his dinner, but
when he does, bombs fall nearby. He takes a plate below the table,
and the family all eat some bread together, sharing a tentative laugh
about their disrupted dinner. As the strikes grow closer, the ceiling
fan crashes to the tabletop, while family members shakily smile at
each other. The screen goes black as the loudest hit of all occurs.
Shot entirely in Palmer’s parents' basement, Shock And Awe’s
universal family-at-dinner keeps it real.
For The Church, by Andrew McCarthy, from
a short story by Frank O’Connor, stars Nora-Jane
Noone (The Magdalene Sisters) in a story set in
County Wicklow, Ireland during the 1930s. Noone’s a schoolteacher
on holiday who goes to confession with a sympathetic-seeming priest.
In the side story, we see the war between a gruff baker and the scrawny
urchin who keeps trying to swipe one of the freshly baked loaves in
the baker’s window. Each of these three commits a sin that ultimately
ends up on the priest’s doorstep. The shocking aspect of the
story is the degrees of magnitude that separate the sins, and the
reflection on how they will be dealt with by the priest. Slight, but
well-acted and with a weird enough story to get under your skin and
make you want to hunt out O’Connor’s stuff if you’re
not familiar with it..
Joe Frank’s stop-motion short, Magda,
gives a brief history of a carnival contortionist who gets stuck one
night during her routine, and her romance with the young lad who rescues
her. Using those jointed wooden toys for his characters, Frank’s
hep story, all told in voiceover by Frank, is loads of drollery.
Writer-director Kevin Ackerman owns the rights to
the estate of C.B. Gilford, a writer of pulp-lit
short stories back in the day. Gilford wrote a lot for the Alfred
Hitchcock magazine as well as for "Alfred Hitchcock
Presents...", under his own name as well as under Douglas
Farr and Henry Hathaway. Lonely Place
is very much like an episode of the Hitchcock TV show. It has a real
predictable, gotcha moment, but then, set in Fresno in 1949, when
Gilford wrote it, it might have not been so predictable. At any rate,
this story of a peach farmer, his put-upon wife, and the threatening,
loutish, mysterious stranger who comes by their isolated farm looking
for work has all the ingredients for successful suspense, yet somehow
falls short. It could be the comic opera thuggishness of the mysterious
stranger. It could be the distraction of seeing what a woman's place
was in a marriage in 1949. While Lonely Place misses the
mark by not creating much tension, I was curious as to what was going
to happen next.