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Jeffrey Harris's Daily Diary


Friday, March 18, 2005

THE SINUS SHOW PRESENTS: XANADU

The Sinus crew showed up at South by Southwest in full force with the absolutely awful roller-skating musical, Xanadu. Now called The Sinus Show (formerly Mr. Sinus Theatre 3000 before some… *ahem*… legal issues), it’s a live comedy show in which three very talented comedians—Owen, Jerm, and John—do a live performance and rip and provide running commentary for a chosen stinker movie, from Top Gun to Crossroads. The program includes hilarious skits which usually involve cross-dressing and side-splitting parody songs. Hmm… sounds similar to another show that was on cable television for a decade with robot puppets.

The first time I ever saw the Sinus crew perform was in June 2003 at the grand opening of Alamo Drafthouse Houston, where they did Terminator, and I nearly choked to death on my delicious Alamo burger. That’s how great and funny these guys are; they will make you choke on your food. So eating while you watch these entertainers is somewhat of a hazard. In my three years of experience attending South by Southwest, Sinus has never performed during the film festival, so the show was a real treat, and the guys never fail to deliver… except the one time that Jerm showed up at BNAT 4 in 2002—but that’s another story. Only the Sinus crew can make a movie as awful as Xanadu (starring Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly, and Michael Beck) worth watching. Hats off boys, and may Tom Servo kiss your collective arses.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Max And Grace is a dark, morbid comedy written, produced, and directed by Michael Parness and starring David Krumholtz as the titular Max, who is institutionalized after his latest suicide attempt. Max, who lives in a “distorted” reality, falls for the schizoid, depressive, and suicidal Grace (Natasha Lyonne) so I guess that makes them more than a good match. Max is determined to get Grace out of the institution and help make her life and state of mind better, but of course that’s not going to be easy. I’d say this movie has a very solid cast save for Lyonne. Lorraine Bracco and David Paymer play Max’s parents, and Tim Blake Nelson is fantastic as usual and plays several different characters including Max and Grace’s doctor. Guillermo Diaz, Rosanna Arquette, and Ralf Moeller all play the rather wacky and interesting characters at the loony bin. While the movie has some funny bits and intriguing characters, it all didn’t come together for me in the end. Maybe it was the rather disturbing subject matter and Lyonne’s lack of ability, but the movie left me feeling somewhat… empty.

Like Layer Cake, this was the second time Kung Fu Hustle was screened in Austin, the first time being last year at the Alamo Drafthouse downtown for BNAT 6. This time they showed it on the big screen at the Paramount Theatre, as per the request of Sony Pictures Classic. Kung Fu Hustle is an absolutely manic, hilarious, and fantastic post-modern, ultimate, martial-arts movie extravaganza. Writer, director, and producer Stephen Chow stars as Sing. Sing is a loser who is tired of being a nice guy and decides to be bad and join the top gang, the Axes. The Axes are a merciless group that likes to chop people up while doing the Hustle and keep the cities and town under siege. They end up in Pig Sty alley which is actually home to retired Kung Fu masters. Humiliated, the Axe gang decides to send in their own masters. Sing, who appears conflicted, eventually has to find his strength and become “The One.” This movie just has great energy and pacing. It’s also probably one of the best comedies you will see all year. Some of the things you see in Kung Fu Hustle are just absolutely ridiculous, but it totally works. The versatile Chow never lets up and totally delivers with just about every scene. In short, the movie makes the also-fantastic Shaolin Soccer look like The Phantom Menace in comparison.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Stagedoor, directed by Alexandra Shiva is a wonderful documentary about the elite Stagedoor Manor theatre camp located in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. For three weeks each year, theatre junkies of all ages attend the camp and perform 12 shows and a traveling cabaret as well. Stagedoor excellenty portrays the perception and attitudes of theatre students. It shows how many of them are considered social outcasts or ostracized by the cool and popular kids. Stagedoor Manor is a camp where the talent and gifts of theatre lovers are respected, where they can all be together in a place that encourages and further develops their craft. Speaking as a life-long theatre student, I was shocked to see how closely many of the experiences filmed and presented in this doc so closely mirrored things I went through in high school AND college theatre—the intensity and seriousness of the instructors; the cliquey nature of the top performers; the politics; and, of course grueling rehearsal schedules. Stagedoor Manor represents a haven for a lot of children in the doc. It gives them a release from their normal lives, that thing inside of them that makes them want to perform, or for hyper-active kids like Taylor Ranbow, the camp provides a strong mental focus to overcome their disabilities. What I appreciated the most about this documentary was that it wasn’t exploitive or incendiary. The film showed theatre life as it truly is.

This new family comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta was written by Paul Reiser, who was live in attendance at the premiere of The Thing About My Folks at the Alamo Drafthouse, South Lamar. Reiser stars as Ben Kleinman, who’s going to upstate New York to check on buying a country home for his family. Recently, Ben’s mother left his father, Sam (my main man Columbo, Peter Falk), so Ben decides to bring Sam along on the trip to the country. After a mishap or two, Ben and Sam seize the opportunity to bond on a road trip. But Ben is still adamant about setting the blame on the state of his parents’ marriage on his father. I will say I’m glad I decided to see this one instead of something more depressing. The film was a relevant, entertaining, and touching comedy about things common to all families or marriages. It seemed to speak to me even more since the Kleinman family doesn’t seem very much different from my own at times. I had to tell Paul Reiser, who was nice enough to stick around and sign autographs and take pictures, that the movie gave me flashbacks. Falk and Reiser are great in this movie, though the material and characters are not really far off from Reiser’s sitcom “Mad About You.”

Sunday, March 13, 2005

I’m not exactly sure I’d call Unleashed (titled Danny The Dog in Europe, from Transporter director, Louis Leterrier, written and produced by Luc Besson), a return to form for Jet Li. However, it is probably Jet Li’s finest recent performance. Li portrays Danny—a near mindless, subservient attack dog for his master or “uncle” Bart (Bob Hoskins). Bart makes Danny wear a collar, and whenever he takes the collar off, Danny becomes a mindless, formidable killing machine. Danny eventually escapes and is taken in by a kind, blind piano player, Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his step-daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). Trouble brews when Bart reappears and wants his “dog” back. Unleashed is a great, yet dramatic action picture. However, the fim emphasizes characters rather than action, such as the focus on Danny and his relationship with others. Li delivers a truly amazing performance, and plays Danny with a sort of innocence and naivete quite beautifully—a grown man who is really still a tortured, young boy at heart. Naturally Danny does not want to hurt people, but that’s what Bart has forced him to do. If there is a return to form in this picture, I’d say it appears with Hoskins’ Bart, who could quite possibly be one of the greatest cinematic antagonists or on-screen villains of the year. This is really the type of role you wanted to see Hoskins do for a long time, and he does not disappoint. The action and fight choreography in the movie by Yuen Woo Ping is brilliant as always, but also different and bit of a departure from his usual work. Almost similar to Hooligans, the violence is a bit uglier and real. You hear the crunches and see the impact. It’s the sort of fighting that will make you cringe and go “ouch,” yet the film does retain the beauty and pacing typical of Ping’s work.

Somersault is the first narrative feature by Australian television and short feature director, Cate Shortland. Abbie Cornish portrays Heidi, a young woman who runs away from home when her mother becomes irate after catching Heidi making out with her mother’s boyfriend. Heidi runs to a remote mountain town where she uses sex to get into a relationship with local farm boy, Joe (Sam Worthington). I’ve been attending film festivals for three years. While a lot of good movies get shown, a lot of crappy, pretentious, excessively artsy films are featured as well. This is definitely one of them. Heidi is an immature girl who thinks she can use sex to find love, and ultimately I just don’t care. None of the subplots, such as Joe’s relationship with a homosexual man, or Heidi’s with a co-worker at a local gas station, came together. The film seemed ultimately pointless, and the best thing about the flick was when the lights finally came on.

Mutual Appreciation is a somewhat humorous, yet dull and monotonous movie about a group of 20-something friends who live in New York City. Writer, director, and actor Andrew Bujalski portrays Lawrence, a TA who dates Ellie (Rachel Clift). The film also features Alan (Justin Rice), an aspiring rock star who has moved out to the big city to make a name for himself. Alan’s father is supportive but wants Alan to make it on his own. It appears that Alan and Ellie are also attracted to each other. The black-and-white movie was shot entirely on film in New York. The film depicts a realistic, naturalistic tone, and while it does allow for some naturally comedic moments, much of the narrative and scenes go on for quite a long time. Conversations and key moments seem to linger forever. While there is a bit of a story about relationships in the narrative, in the end I just didn’t care, nor did I like any of the characters.

Matthew Vaughn gets in the director’s chair for the first time with Layer Cake after producing such gritty, cult British gangster films as Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Swept Away. Wait a minute… that wasn’t a gangster film. Gangsters just use it to torture their victims. Vaughn, who will soon replace Bryan Singer as the director of the next X-Men movie, presents an interesting but rather typical movie about the drug trade. However, the film contains some cool and interesting characters and sharp dialogue. This actually was not the first time Layer Cake has screened in Austin, since the film was previously shown last December for Butt-Numb-A-Thon 6.

Daniel Craig portrays a nameless drug dealer getting ready for retirement, who supplies product to guys such as Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham). After some mishaps, it seems that every drug dealer in London and Amsterdam wants his head. Craig’s character, who wants to quit while he’s ahead and now must outwit opponents who know nearly every move he is about to make, clearly doesn’t understand that retiring as a drug dealer is not as simple as retiring as a stock trader or doctor. While Vaughn doesn’t break any new ground here, the film possesses a cool style, and Sienna Miller (another future Mrs. Vile One, but that’s a little delayed because of a loser named Jude Law) makes anything worth watching. However, if Vaughn screws up X-Men, I will never forgive him… ever.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Lexi Alexander, a world middle weight karate champion and director of the Academy Award-nominated short Johnny Flynton, directs her first feature about soccer… excuse me… football violence. Elijah Wood stars as Matthew Buckner, a Harvard student who takes the fall for his roommate’s drug possession and runs away to England to stay with his sister (Claire Forlani) and her husband Steve (Marc Warren). Through them he meets Pete (Charlie Hunnam), leader of West Ham United’s football firm (or gang), a group of young, adult men who really take their love of football too far. Matt gets caught up in the lifestyle and violence and begins to enjoy the high of the fighting. Steve is displeased since he used to be a part of it and wants Matt to stop before things get out of control.

This movie is dark, brutal, gritty, and violent. The violence is not hyper-stylized but very ugly and realistic. When someone gets hit, they bleed and bruise. The scars always show. Alexander did a great job with the intent to present the violence in a graphic way. She grew up around this lifestyle and wondered about how schizophrenic it appeared. Her friends and family, normal everyday people, transition into different people when they attend the football matches and get into fights. The performances are great, especially Hunham’s Pete. And it’s always a good thing for movies to depict that when you foolishly hit a person, there are consequences.

DUST TO GLORY

Dust To Glory is a new documentary by Step Into Liquid director Dana Brown about the Baja 1000 race. Dana Brown narrates the story following the treacherous off-road 1000-mile race in Baja Mexico in November of 2003. This was a really well done, beautifully shot documentary (DP: Kevin Ward) with some great, original music composed by Nathan Furst. While the race looks and certainly has a big, epic feel, it’s juxtaposed by the people, the racers that the documentary follows. What Brown does a great job of showing is how much these guys love what they do, and how dedicated they are to compete in such a dangerous race. What struck me the most about the show was not just the characters of the racers and how down to earth they seemed, but how the race is really more about just finishing it rather than beating someone else. That’s in essence, the real competition, they are competing with the Baja desert, not with each other.

Friday, March 11, 2005

THE WENDELL BAKER STORY

Co-directors and brothers, Andrew and Luke Wilson (also screenwriter of the film), make their directorial debut in this funny, surprisingly touching and poignant comedy. Luke Wilson stars as Wendell Baker, a nice, sociable, and talkative guy. His girlfriend, Doreen (future Mrs. The Vile One, Eva Mendes) is head over heels for Wendell despite his shortcomings… mainly that Wendell is a criminal who sells fraudulent Texas IDs to illegal immigrants. After Wendell gets caught and put in the slammer, Doreen feels that Wendell no longer cares for her and moves on. Despondent about the loss of Doreen, Wendell finally decides to clean up his act, get paroled, and win back Doreen. He’s sent to work at a retirement home run by slimy and entertaining scumbags in the form of Neil King (Owen Wilson) and MacTeague (Eddie Griffin). King and MacTeague are actually running a ridiculous scam at the retirement home which entails giving the elderly the “Greyhound treatment.” When Wendell gets used to this he finally decides to put his ambition to better use. I really enjoyed this movie. The acting and cast were fantastic.

The story, which involves Wendell trying to find redemption and reunite with the woman he loves, is very well done. Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel are great as Wendell’s retired friends, Summers and Fulbright. Also, the reclusive aviator, played by Kris Kristofferson, with whom Wendell ingratiates himself, does good work. Ferrell has a small but effective role as Doreen’s new boyfriend, and his scenes are among the funniest in the movie, which was beautifully shot in Austin. The Wilson brothers make an impressive debut as a directing duo… even if Andrew is a UT drop-out.

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