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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.

Reviews:

Interviews:


Steamboy

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 lack.

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!”

—Professor Steamhead

—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris


Saw

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.”

—Dreyfus

—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris


Dear Frankie

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.

—Roxanne Bogucka


Chrystal

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.

—Roxanne Bogucka


P.S.

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 wrong?

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 no E.

—Roxanne Bogucka


Selected Shorts

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.

News 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.

—Roxanne Bogucka


Mike Doughty



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